Song of Surrender

Thursday, 18 April 2013

A gentle colossus

SK Saxena (1921-2013)

By V Ramnarayan

When Sruti congratulated Professor Sushil Kumar Saxena on his being conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Ratna award in 2007, his reply was characteristically modest and self-effacing. By that time his health no longer allowed him to contribute articles to us, and he was unable to travel to Chennai during our silver jubilee celebration in October 2008, when we planned to honour him as one of our seniormost associates. We continued to hold him in the highest respect, as did musicians, dancers, musicologists, philosophers, aestheticians, and critics everywhere for his original insights into the arts.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi citation of 2007 is a fine tribute to the many-splendoured accomplishments of Prof. Saxena, who passed away recently.

Born in 1921 in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, Sushil Kumar Saxena is a noted philosopher of arts who has distinguished himself as a writer on Hindustani music and Kathak dance. From 1948 to 1986, when he retired as Professor, Saxena taught philosophy at the Delhi University, focusing on the study of aesthetics for most of his academic career. Once a music critic with the Hindustan Times, he is known also as an expert interlocutor who has engaged performing artists in extended conversations on their art, recorded in archives of music and dance. An illuminating speaker on the arts, he has made a mark as a creator of new compositions for Kathak dance.

After his retirement, Dr. Saxena has worked ceaselessly on research projects on Hindustani music and Kathak dance. He has published his work in philosophical journals such as Diogene, the British Journal of Aesthetics, Kant Studien, Il Veltro, and Philosophy East and West. In India his articles have appeared in Marg, the Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research, the Indian Philosophical Quarterly, Sruti magazine, and Sangeet Natak — to which his contributions have been the most copious.

His pioneering books on the aesthetics of Indian music and dance include The Winged Form: Aesthetical Essays on Hindustani Rhythm (1979), Swinging Syllables, Aesthetics of Kathak Dance (1991, reprint 2006), Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians (1994), and Hindustani Sangeet and a Philosopher of Art (2001). Saxena’s latest aesthetical work Hindustani Music and Aesthetics Today, is currently under publication by Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Saxena has been honoured by various institutions for his scholarly contributions in the performing arts. The Sahitya Kala Parishad of Delhi conferred on him its Samman for 1995-96, and Sangeet Natak Akademi bestowed on him its SNA Award for scholarship in the performing arts in 2004. He recently received the state honour of Padma Bhushan (2008) for his contribution to the arts.

Dr. Saxena was variously described as the best known philosopher of modern India after Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the only professional philosopher to publish books and articles on Hindustani music, rhythm and Kathak dance over a period of five decades, all of them in a contemporary aesthetics perspective, and a prolific recipient of awards and honours for his scholarly contributions as a philosopher/ aesthetician in the fields of music, rhythm and dance. From “Studies in the Metaphysics of Bradley” and “Art and Philosophy: Seven Aestheticians” to “Gandhi and the Commitment to truth” and “Suffering, the Good Life and Gandhi”, his books, articles and research papers covered a wide range of subjects across disciplines.

The world-renowned aesthetician Suzanne K. Langer once wrote to him: “I feel that you have understood what I have actually said. Perhaps your Indian background is more conducive to understanding than our Western habits of thought. I am sorry that we have never met each other.”  It will be my lasting regret that I  never met Dr. Saxena either. He was a towering figure in his field, but by all accounts a gentle colossus.  A great loss to  the worlds of art and philosophy.

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