Thinking outside the box while in the box

Creativity seems to have a strong correlation with constraints imposed on either the creator or the creative medium, and impacts the resulting creation most often in a positive way.

We often hear people express their anguish like “If only I had more time to do this presentation”, “If I had better materials, I am sure I would have done a great job”, etc. Such expressions expose the maturity of the creator than the perceived injustices meted to him or her by others.

Throughout literature, we find great examples of how poets have used the constraints imposed on them in upping their level of creativity than simply being bogged down by it. Great lessons can be learned from their approach and applying to our own actions.

Constraints on the medium

A simple constraint that is often imposed is in the medium of creation – be it a piece of metal to a jeweler, a slab of rock to a sculptor, or grammatical rules to a poet. The typical first tendency in such cases is try to break free from the constraints – ask a baby and he/she will attest to that!

However, such constraints are often used by a creator as means in making them more judicious in their choice of words and the use of metal or rock, often reaching outside their repertoire or coming up with a different perspective than they normally would’ve, if adequate materials (or no rules) were given.

In the previous post, we see the beauty of the poetry in naLavenBa, which is considered a classic example of the venPa meter in Thamizh literature that defines a set of rules on how a stanza can be constructed.

Here’s a simple breakdown of one of the beautiful verses where the swan describes the beauty and character of Damayanti to naLan:

நாற்குணமும் நாற்படையா ஐம்புலனும் நல்லமைச்சர்
ஆர்க்குஞ் சிலம்பே அணிமுரசா – வேற்படையும்
வாளுமே கண்ணா வதன மதிக்குடைக்கீழ்
ஆளுமே பெண்மை யரசு.

With four feminine qualities (அச்சம், மடம், நாணம், பயிர்ப்பு) as her four armies;
Five senses as her ministers that guide her well,
Tinkling anklets as her war drums,
Her two piercing eyes as spears and swords,
Under her beautiful body as the umbrella,
Damayanti rules femininity (is the epitome of femininity)!

நாற் குண மும்

நாற் படை யா

ஐம் புல னும்

நல் லமைச் சர்

nEr nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

kooviLankAi

kooviLankAi

kooviLankAi

karuviLankAi

moovasai

moovasai

moovasai

moovasai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

ஆர்க் குஞ்

சிலம் பே

அணி முர சா

வேற் படை யும்

nEr nEr

nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

nEr nirai nEr

thEmA

puLimA

karuviLankAi

kooviLankAi

eerasai

eerasai

moovasai

moovasai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

வா ளுமே

கண் ணா

வத

மதிக் குடைக் கீழ்

nEr nirai

nEr nEr

nirai nEr

nirai nirai nEr

kooviLam

thEmA

puLimA

karuviLankAi

eerasai

eerisai

eerisai

moovisai

sIr

sIr

sIr

sIr

adi

ளுமே

பெண் மை

யர சு

nEr nirai

nEr nirai

nirai nEr

kooviLam

kooviLam

pirappu

eerasai

eerasai

sIr

sIr

eetru sIr

eetradi

Hopefully, we can go into details on the grammar in another post, but suffice to say that the verse follows the rules. The words in bold conform to the edhugai (rhythm) rules.

The poet has masterfully composed the poems with delicate and profound meaning while diligently conforming to the rules of grammar.

In modern times, TED Talks or Pecha Kucha talks are good examples of a medium-based constraint. TED Talks by definition do not last for more than 20 minutes, forcing the presenter to stick to one theme to elaborate on within that timeframe. Pecha Kucha talks are even more restrictive, where the presenter can only use 20 images for their presentation (no words) and the slides auto-advance every 20 seconds (hence commonly referred to as 20×20 presentation). These constraints force the presenter to focus on their message than relying on words as well as the pace in which they present their topic.

Constraints on the creator

Poetry (or more broadly, literature), seems to also get heavily influenced by the psyche of the poet. In the several examples we have seen in previous posts, the poet – be it a Siddhar, AzhwAr, or others, feel constrained by materialistic pursuits and are in search of liberation or salvation and express their inability to do so in the form of poetry. Such mental constraints are at times compounded with physical constraints, as we saw in the case of Appar, where he sung his song when trapped in a lime kiln.

Sometimes, the poets feel that they are ahead of their times and are constrained by the mindset of those around them. BharathiAr has expressed this anguish beautifully in this poem:

நல்லதோர் வீணைசெய்தே அதை நலங்கெடப் புழுதியில் எறிவதுண்டோ?
சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி! எனைச் சுடர்மிகும் அறிவுடன் படைத்தது விட்டாய்.
வல்லமை தாராயோ இந்த மாநிலம் பயனுற வாழ்வதற்கே
சொல்லடி சிவசக்தி! நிலச் சுமையென வாழ்ந்திடப் புரிகுவையோ
விசை உறு பந்தினைப் போல்  – உள்ளம் வேண்டிய படி செல்லும் உடல் கேட்டேன்
நசையறு மனங்கேட்டேன்; நித்தம் நவமெனச் சுடர்தரும் உயிர்கேட்டேன்
தசையினை தீ சுடினும் சிவசக்தியை  பாடும்நல் அகம் கேட்டேன்
அசைவறு மதிகேட்டேன்; இவை அருள்வதில் உனக்கெதும் தடையுளதோ?

nallathOr veenai seithE adhai nalam keda puzhudhiyil erivadundO?
solladi sivasakthi! enai sudarmigum aRivudan padaithuvittAi
vallamai thArAyO, indha maanilam payanuRa vaazhvadharkE
solladi sivasakthi! nila sumai ena vaazhndhida puriguvayO
visai uru pandhinai pOl – uLLam vEndiya padi sellum udal kEttEn
nasai aRu manam kEttEn; nitham navam ena sudar tharum uyir kEttEn
thasayinai thee sudinum sivasakthiyai paadum nal agam kEttEn
asaivaRu madhi kEttEn; ivan aruLvadhil unakkedhum thadai uLadho?

Goddess of Life and Energy:
Tell me – does anyone take the effort to make a beautiful and well-tuned veena only to throw it in the dust?
You have created me with sharp and unbridled intellect.
Won’t you give me the strength to live a life that is of use to this world?
Or will you just let me live a life that is just a burden to this world (and is of no use)?
Like a mechanical ball that speeds away when keyed up, I asked for a body that will support my mind’s wishes
I asked for a mind that is not poisoned by bad thoughts
And for energy that renews me everyday
Even if this body gets consumed in flames, I asked for a soul that sings your praise
I asked for an unwavering intellect
Do you have any issues in granting these to me?

The song is also aptly pictured in the ending sequence of the film Bharathi – the poet’s biopic.

The song is a rallying cry for every genius feeling constrained in one way or the other – be it the society, poverty, physical impediments, or materialism. Their minds are traveling at speeds where the rest of the environment, including their bodies, cannot catch up.

However, the constraints didn’t stop BharathiAr from composing poems – it just made the resulting creation more expressive.

Constraints on perception

Sometimes, there may not be a physical or mental constraint but imposed indirectly through expectations. These constraints can often be more deadly than the ones above, much like an internal wound to an external one. If the constraint is ‘out in the open’ – be it physical or mental, it is easier to handle it, much like a scrape in the knee. We know it’s there and can take steps to cure it. But if a constraint is hidden from our view, it can be much harder to detect it and fix it – much like a wood being eaten up from the inside by a termite or even an internal disease like Diabetes or Cancer.

In case of creativity, this often comes in the form of expectation – the expectation from the environment that the creator will produce something magical and the resultant pressure perceived by the creator to perform. We are often guilty of this in our everyday lives, when we expect our children to get the first rank in studies or sports all the time. While we may argue that we say it for their own good, we often ignore or miss understanding how it may be perceived by the child and whether it is putting undue pressure on them.

We looked into the story of Pugazhendhi in our last post, which also contains a great example on such a constraint.

Even though Pugazhendhi was a key poet in the Chozha kingdom, he recused himself to a smaller princely state due to an artistic rivalry with the chief poet, Ottakkoothar. He then went on to create his masterpiece when he was there.

Think about this:

We all want to get into the best schools and universities because we are told it will foster creativity, challenge us to thinking broad and big, and give us the best resources to excel (awesome lab equipment, etc.). With this logic, Pugazhendhi should’ve stayed at the Chozha kingdom – it was the best, resource rich, and had great poets with whom he could have intellectual challenges.

But he went ahead to a smaller place that had lesser resources but went on to create his masterpiece. In the smaller kingdom, Pugazhendhi had the freedom to think, full support from the king, and less peer pressure. The freedom from his perceived constraints, namely the pressure to perform, enabled him to spread his wings and be more creative than probably what he would have been.

So, at times even when it would be common sense to be in the best place with best resources, creativity may be constrained by the culture of the organization. While it may be true that creativity may be fostered in great institutions, greatness can be achieved even otherwise, as long as it is nurtured appropriately.

Parting Thoughts

It is often said that history is the best teacher and that if we do not learn from history, we are condemned to repeat them. As we ponder over the poets, their lives, and the situations in which they created their masterpieces, we see that there are many lessons we can learn, adapt, and apply to our lives, even if they happened thousands of years ago.

So, the next time you are staring at a deadline to create a client deliverable, it would be wise to think back on how a Pugazhendhi or BharathiAr would’ve handled the situation than to crib about your manager who set unreasonable expectations for you to perform and maybe even step away from the environment, even if for a few minutes, to refresh your mind.

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