Chiaroscuro is the artistic usage of contrasts between the dark and light, with its main principle being that of the solidity of a form, which is best achieved by the effect of light falling on it, allowing the shading within the form to give a two-dimensional figure a sense of volume.
On a metaphorical level, it shows the interplay of illumination and darkness, of dualities that complement and yet strike a strong contrast. The festivals of Dussehra and Diwali come each year, a few weeks apart, with the theme of good vs. evil coming to the fore in India. Along with this, the festivals bring a sort of chiaroscuro of ideas, of realities, in relative conflict, of half-forgotten memories, of subtleties in the epic Ramayana. They also resonate with personal experiences, and of lives in, and beyond the saga, so unfortunately manoeuvred by forces, seemingly beyond the self, that the proverbial tragic hero emerges from the depths of human consciousness.
Recently, I watched the Joaquin Phoenix-starrer Joker, which was a hard-hitting and yet deeply moving cinematic adaptation of the life of the arch-nemesis of “Batman”, the DC superhero. Some, like Martin Scorsese, may believe that fantasy cannot be given depth, and a sense of true purpose, in its reflection of reality, but this movie proved them wrong.
Not going into a long-winded detour into the wonders of magic realism, I would like to highlight the intense psychological journey that Arthur Fleck undertook before turning into the Joker. Being a cantankerous man, whose connections to love and familiarity are successively and cruelly snapped, the movie has a heady cocktail of rage, self-pity and self-gratification, with the last indulged with an utter disregard for consequences. The metaphorical significance of a medical condition that turns Arthur’s screams into cackling laughter is catastrophic: one of unprocessed, unbridled negativity that is allowed to seep through, in sepsis that comes of trying to battle the vagaries of life in a brutal environment. He is abused, bullied and increasingly enraged, to the point where his dehumanisation leads him to reach a hysterical, unhinged state that uses violence to make a statement on points that are profound. Points that relate to the struggle of every man’s life.
Points that some would say relate to the idea of original sin and how God’s near-perfect reflection in man is condemned to live in a world full of imperfections. Points that have seen masses rise together, from the days of the English Civil War to the French Revolution, and more recently, to the suffragette and anti-racism movements. It is a cry, nay a shriek, against the violence meted out to the individual by a world beset with inequalities, deprivation, and poverty. A lament against the imposition and harsh influence of identities on day-to-day lives, made more acute by economic disparities. But then the question arises: should this be the way to tackle this?
Where and when does one draw the line and rise (or not) to quell violence with violence, unrighteousness with unrighteousness, pain with pain and anger with anger?
Before answering this question, I would like to bring to you another memorable popular reference: the image of Darth Vader battling Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
However, for me, this painting encapsulates much more than either the proverbial good vs. evil battle or some weird analogy to the Ram-Ravana war made just for the sake of making one. It has in it the one true battle we all must face, at various points in life. The battle within.
You can see Darth Vader, (previously Anakin Skywalker), fight his own son Luke Skywalker, even as the evil Emperor (Darth Sidious) looks on. The story arcs of both these characters are similar: Anakin comes from an isolated planet called Tatooine, having been conceived by the ‘Force’ and not a biological father, while Luke trains on a remote planet (Dagobah) with the ancient, slightly-eccentric Jedi master Yoda, early in his days as a Jedi (basically, the good ones); Anakin goes on to become a starfighter of the Jedi order while Luke becomes a leader of the resistance against the Emperor.
Anakin and Luke both have C3PO and R2D2 around for help and some lighter moments. But that is where the similarities end. Anakin allows the fear of the death of his pregnant wife Padme turn him to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader, while Luke resists the temptations and rage he feels on seeing the destruction wrought on his friends and allies to never turn rogue.
This subtle interplay of motives, emotions, tendencies and realities is what makes the good vs. evil battle play out within both of them, besides the larger ones being carried out without.
Much like in Star Wars, there are times and circumstances that lead a man down a certain way, or at least try to, using temptations or falls, which goes against a certain harmony in the individual, the society and in nature. Greed, anger, contempt and envy are some of the avenues that open up as one moves along this path. However, there is always a choice, a fork in the road, so to say, between this path and path that is more liberating; a fork which is often a point of no return or a point, (and choice), that one can again, only come to, after strenuous efforts and willpower, once someone has gone down a certain path. It is these moments of decisions, (or indecision and confusions, rather), that create the battles that matter most. The battles of the mind, one’s consciousness and one’s will.
If Anakin had not allowed the fear of his wife’s death and his attachment to her overpower him and turn him to the dark side, (and then betray his comrades in the Jedi order), most of the Jedi may not have fallen to the evil Emperor, who probably would not have even survived! Some would argue that Anakin had to fall to the dark side for him to have a redemption arc. Fair enough, but I am more interested in the moment of choice, which Luke faced too. Luke could easily have let his rage get the better of him and become Darth Vader’s replacement as the Emperor’s right-hand man (sans a right hand). But he did not. What was so different in Anakin’s choice from Luke’s? Some would argue that love is the most important thing in the world and all that, and Anakin had to save his love, whereas Luke was just morose about some friends dying. Maybe. Maybe not.
Love, (for his son), did bring Anakin back from the Dark Side to the Light but it surely was not just pure love, (that transcends), for his but rather an attachment that needs fulfilment (at any and every cost) that made him turn into Darth Vader. It is as limiting and selfish a thing as the rage that makes a man sacrifice his ideals. It just so happened that Anakin and Luke chose differently. And that is what made Luke the hero of the franchise and Anakin the enigmatic character who could have achieved so much more (and was, in some ways, ‘The Chosen One‘, since he finally betrayed the Emperor and brought balance to the Force) had he not gone rogue and lost so much physically and Force-wise after his debilitating battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Similarly, the battle that Arthur Fleck loses is the battle within. He gives in to the mad rage that comes from years of deception, deprivation and dishonour. He gives in to the belief that pulling the trigger can silence the abuses he faces – when in the process, he suffers a much higher abuse in the path he chooses; an abuse of his moral standards and humanity. In the process of avenging his dehumanisation, he culls humanity in dramatic, drastic measures and steps involving violence.
In this backdrop, let us look at the story that Dussehra brings to us. Let us look at what Rama, the hero of Ramayana, vanquished before returning to Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile. Some would say he vanquished Ravana, the demon king. Of course, he did, but he vanquished something much greater. He vanquished the idea that Ravana stood for. He vanquished a fallen hero, who had lost the battle within to certain vices. Ravana was a great scholar, musician and ruler, loved by his subjects and glorified as having won over many kingdoms in battle. He was virtuous, kind and an able administrator. His only errors in judgement came at critical points when he had to make a choice, be it when envy and hatred drove him to exile his own brother Kubera from Lanka or when vengefulness drove him to abduct Sita, Rama’s wife, to avenge the mutilation of Surpanakha at Rama’s hand. He lost those battles to these vices. Even though he was a great devotee of Shiva, (a third of the Hindu Trinity), he lived a life (of opulence and full of indulgences) that went against what Shiva (literally ‘that which is not’) stood for; austerity and righteousness.
On the other hand, Rama made choices that were hard and went against what was convenient, but they contributed to the greater harmony around, be it his acceptance of exile without malice or hatred, or his steadfast loyalty to his wife against the lustful advances of Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister. The Ramayana is a story of the translation of the victory of battles within to victory in battles without. Ramayana may be a figment of imagination, a tale based on some historical events or even just a bard’s epic-poem created under a king’s directive, but it holds great truth, much like most epics.
The truth of existence and dualities within. The truth of conflicts within. The truth of God and the demonic, heaven and hell, good and bad, within. The Truth, within.
It is easier said than done though, as I have recently felt myself, given some troubling developments in my immediate environs and beyond. There is always an urge to take the more easy, convenient path which is often the more dangerous path to take. One can get carried away by the aforementioned vices since they give us a quick avenue to vent the emotions and thoughts that often relate to primal instincts like greed and lust.
However, looking at where we have come as a species and the fact that self-realisation and organisation are what have made man reach the commanding position in the food chain today, these battles need to fought and won. You may say that good/bad may be subjective, as would whether a certain victor’s victory is the right thing to happen. Well, yes there is subjectivity in these aspects but what if one were to identify that these are just dualities.
Dharma does not describe this good/bad duel and dual as constituting a fundamental truth at all.
Instead, it sees the void, the absence of any dualities and multiplicities as the fundamental truth, recognising that these dualities and multiplicities are subjective constructs and not objective realities. It goes one step further in associating the superset of these dualities and multiplicities to what it sees as the inherent oneness, the inherent unity and Truth of the Universe.
Since, in our day-to-day lives, void (or a higher wholeness of Truth), cannot always be an answer to circumstantial problems and questions, existence is presumed to occur in the absence of emptiness. Humans, or for that matter any physical entity, have a natural proclivity to react when faced with such stimuli. Therefore the best replacement for that void is ‘balance’. You may ask what balance? Balance of local objects and bodies? If so, with respect to which ‘pivot’? Or is it a more universal balance? It cannot be the latter since we all seem to be limited in our current physical existence and cannot even ‘see’ the universal balance, forget balancing it out. It is a much more localised and immediate balance.
It usually is a more local idea, in our day-to-day lives. By local, I do not mean in our neighbourhood or our homes alone. Sustainable development is a global boon and yet local in the sense that we gather the nuances and significance of it at a fairly individual level by the powers of our cognition and understanding. How do the vices destroy that balance? Mindless hatred leads to ten innocent lives being taken in the quest to kill one terrorist, envy can lead to destruction of a person’s career by a vicious and malicious act by another since they seem to be doing so well, greed can lead to more cars on the roads than the roads can possibly accommodate in a way that truly helps in realising the objective of driving a vehicle: saving time, and vengefulness can initiate an endless cycle of vengefulness. These all constitute a very simple and circumstantial understanding of this ‘balance’.
Education is a good way to understand the various levels at which this balance is needed. When one knows that dogma cannot be a part of any healthy educational system and that conserving our natural resources is as important as striving for personal success, among other things, one knows how to move towards a personal equilibrium that somewhat contributes to that universal ‘balance’. On this Diwali, I hope education is promoted and developed, in a balanced way, all around the world. An informed, educated mind has a launchpad, by the virtue of its awareness of things around and in the cosmos, to a certain enlightenment, so to say, with regard to the idea of the balance.
While having a discussion on a somewhat similar topic, one friend once told me that such an absolute sense of balance and lack of destructive elements goes against the laws of nature. Very true, in a way. Without destruction and a certain imbalance in a decaying system one cannot create a new, rejuvenated order. However, that urge to initiate disturbances, (say in a revolution against a regime in a country), comes from a moment of silence, a moment of awareness, of realisation, of the void, (and in its natural manifestation, of balance).
The moment when one realises that there is a certain imbalance that preexists, let us say in the tyranny of a political regime. You may ask: what about man’s natural desire to be the toughest of the lot to be prepared for the survival of the fittest? To that I would say, one often confuses survival of the fittest with the survival of the strongest. Fittest does not mean strongest or the most clever. It could also mean the most adaptable, the most agile or even the best at camouflaging. However, the one strategy that has helped the human species the most actually has been cooperation. It is cooperation and organisation that has made man the most powerful species on the planet today. Cooperation and organisation point to another what? Balance.
With these thoughts, I would like to wish everyone a happy Dussehra and Diwali. May these occasions help you move to the fundamental truth that these festivals stand for, or the best manifestation that we could provide for, in our day to day lives: to fight our battles within and to strive for a sense of balance.
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