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Elements of Nature and the Order of Culture

Biadyanath Saraswati

On the origin of human culture there are two incompatible maxims — cultura ex cultura and cultura ex natura.1 Culturalists grant cultural phenomena as autonomous efficient agents of themselves. Naturalists, on the other hand, attribute cultural forms to nature. The object of this paper is to suggest that the order by which both culture and nature are bound is the same.

What are the elements of nature? How are they related to the elements of culture? Do nature and culture follow the same law? Or is the order of culture unique? What, essentially, hold nature and culture together? How does cosmology pattern human culture?

These questions demand explanations from both cultural and cosmological viewpoints. As anthropologist my concern and capability are limited to the cultural explanation, quite understandably, away from scientific cosmology.

To this group of questions different answers would follow, depending on the kind of intellectual tradition we refer to. I am here attempting to characterise the indigenous vision of traditional cultures. Within this category there are two different but related traditions known as the ‘oral’ and ‘textual’. The textual tradition offers a full and systematic analysis of the universe. Reflections of the oral tradition are more concentrated in practice than systematic in explanation. The difference is, essentially, epistemological.

The Transcendent Order of Nature

The Indian textual tradition has produced a unique contribution to thought that characteristically look inward upon the universe. A splendid example of this is the theory of Elements. The basic assumption in this is, that, like the rest of the material world man is made up of Elements which at death disintegrate and dissolve into nature. The Elements have been spiritually identified and metaphysically debated for thousands of years. Traditions differ in respect of both identification and enumeration of Elements.2 At the most general level there are nine tattvas or Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Sky, Time, Directions, Mind and Soul. Of these the first five are called bhuta and the last four dravya. The gross and the subtle aspects of Elements are recognised. Traditional vision, then, leaps over the dichotomy. The reality of the subtler plane is said to be responsible for the grosser plane, and at a higher level of realisation the distinction between the gross and the subtle gets totally obliterated.

In the tribal oral tradition there is no categorical term that may equal tattva or bhuta, but its characteristic attitude towards nature is the same.

If we set out to examine the theory of Elements, as discussed in classical texts and described in the oral tradition, we should soon realise that Elements of nature are subject to a fivefold order: (1) origination, (2) binding, (3) interlocking, (4) overlapping, and (5) transcending.


Tribal cosmogony3 refers to a state of nothingness. But that nothingness was not an absolute vacuity. Everything was Water or Cloud, or nothing, nothing at all but two Eggs shining like gold. As the Eggs broke open, from one came the Earth, from the other the Sky. Metaphorically speaking, when the Sky made love to the Earth every kind of things and beings were born. In another story, the Earth, the Cosmic Mother, died of her own accord and every part of her body became the part of the world. These myths can be parallel in the textual description of Hiranyagarbha, the golden germ, and the sacrifice of Purusa, the Cosmic Person.

Elements originated in phases. Water, Earth and Sky came first; aquatic animals and bird second; land third; Air or Wind fourth; and finally Fire.4 Variations occur in the structured sequence, particularly in respect of the first element.

Another curious feature of tribal cosmogony is that there is no single creator of the universe. There are creators for each specific element.

In the early phase there does not seem to have any real distinction between man, animal and spirit. Things and beings multiplied inter-specieswise.

Thus, three apparent ideas emerge: (a) a break in the radical solidarity gave origins to male-female principle; (b) heterogeneity is a fundamental aspect in the origin and development of species; and (c) the built-in order of cosmic unity is ‘one-to-many’.


Elements of nature have a binding-ability. Each Element has a form, a location, and a dependent-relation with another Element. Living Forms of nature are self-originating, self-organizing, and self-sustaining. Form is predetermined; it is filled by perishable matter. Life is formless, self-existent and, essentially, indestructible. As form and life come together, the process of origination begins. Life activates matter that constitutes form, but in itself is not a material substance.5

Elements of nature constitute human and other forms, both individually and collectively. Each major organ is said to have its own builder. Head and ears are associated with the Sky; neck and chest with Air; stomach with Fire; and body with Earth.6 Five fingers, from the little finger to the thumb, are associated, respectively, with Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Sky.7

Elements are also known to have caused the origin of bio-social types. The ironsmiths relate themselves with Earth, carpenters with Water, coppersmiths with Fire, sculptors with Wind, and goldsmiths with Sky.8

Elements’ binding-ability is expressed in life-processes. As the Garbha Upanisad describes,9

One night after the union in a fertile period, arises a nodule (kalila); after seven nights it changes into bubble (budbud); in half a month arises the embryo (pinda); after one month it becomes solid; when two months have passed the head appears; after three months the formation of the feet is completed; at four months happily originates the sex, the abdomen and the hips; at five months the back forms; after six months form the mouth, nose, eyes and ears, and after seven months the individual soul concludes the unification. At eight months all the parts are complete.

If tribal description of Elements is transposed on the Upanisadic theory, it would be clear how Elements are associated with intra-uterine formation of major organs. The liquid stage from which the embryo arises is Water; when the embryo becomes solid it is Earth; the appearance of hollow head is Sky; the formation of the moving feet is Wind; the origination of sex and abdomen is associated with heat or Fire.

This sequence of embryonic development roughly corresponds with the origin of the universe: from primeval Water to Earth and Sky, and from these two Wind and Fire. It also supports the general theory of man as microcosm.


Form and life are cross-linked. By entering into a form, the formless life acquires qualitative distinctions. It gives different expressions to different forms or species. Accordingly, it is called by different names. As a transcendent substance, life gets involved in the threefold cosmic process of formation (origination), affirmation (preservation) and negation (dissolution) of Elements. Interlocking of life and form help realise the existential changes; it makes cosmic order visible.

Interlocking of Elements10 is described metaphorically. Earth and Sky are universal parents; Fire and Wind are brothers just as Water and Mist are brothers. Earth and Wind, Water and Fire are negatively linked; they have always been enemies. Wind is the friend of Fire against Water and he fights the rain to drive it before him.

The more complex interlocking is perceived in the textual tradition (Figs. 10.1-10.4)


Fig. 10.1 Interlocking Elements (Ayurvedic Tradition)

5 Elements, 3 Gunas, 3 Dosas, 3 Rasas

====> Interlocking Path   ----- Composition of Rasas




Fig. 10.3 Overlapping Elements

Eternal (Parmanu) Forms

(a). Dwyanuka  (b). trayanuka  (c). caturnuka

Fig. 10.4 Overlapping Elements

Gross Earth containing 50% earth and in the residue portion all the remaining four elements


In the Indian classical text, the five primal Elements are linked with other Elements or aspects of nature such as colour, form, sense-organ, physical character, property, functions, etc.

Table A: The Five Elements as Perceived in Indian Tradition

Five Elements Sky Air Fire Water Earth

1. Property sound touch form taste smell
2. Physical character absence of resistance movement heat liquidity roughness
3. Sensory organ ears skin eyes tongue nose
4. Function porousness, distinction lightness activity colour digestion, braveness, brightness, intolerance heaviness, coldness, oleaginous, semen solidity, heaviness
5. Psychological propety (Guna) sattva rajas sattva tamas tamas
6. Dosa vata vata pitta kapha kapha
7. Colour crystal white dark red white yellow
8. Form circle hexagon triangle half-moon square
9. Mark bindu sakti (point of power) six points svastika lotus vajra
10. Bija-mantra haum hyaim hrum hvim hlam
11. Kala Santya- samto vidya pratistha nivrtti
12. Presiding deity isana tatpurusa aghora vamadeva sadyojata
13. Karnesvara sadasiva isvara rudra visnu brahma

Nos. 1 to 6, as perceived in the Ayurveda (Sharma, 1976); Nos. 7 to 13, as recongnized in the Saivite system in South India (Janaki, 1988).

These Elements are also linked with psychological attributes called gunas. Each Element is tied with a divinity and its related aspects such as mantra, etc.

The Five Elements referred in the classical Chinese11 are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each of these is linked with colour, taste, season, climate, also with the human body — yin-yang — organs, body tissues, sensory-organs and emotions.

Table B. The Five Elements as Perceived in Chinese Tradition

Source : Butt and Bloomfield (1985)

(i) The five elements as they affect nature

Five Elments Wood Fire Earth Metal Water



birth growth transformation collection storage
Colour green red yellow white black
Taste sour bitter sweet metallic salty
Season spring summer late summer autumn winter
Climate windy hot humid dry cold

(ii) The five elements as they affect man

Yin organs liver heart spleen lungs kidneys
Yang organs gall bladder small intestine stomach large intestine bladder
Body tissues tendon blood vessels muscle skin-hair bone
Sensory organs eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Emotions anger joy, excitement anxiety grief fear

In the Chinese astrology the Five Elements form a circle of one containing the other.


Elements have both personal (material) and universal (spiritual) attributes. Water and Egg, which appeared in the beginning, have a fundamental feature of sacredness. The other primal Elements such as the Earth, Air, Fire, and Sky (with the sun, moon and stars) have also a similar indwelling sacred attributes. However, not all Elements are spiritually vibrant all the time and at all places; but they can be made so in a ritual way. The Elements exist in two spheres — material and spiritual — simultaneously with different ranges of time and space.

In tribal perception, the world is divided into two halves — the Sky and the Earth. There is a world beyond the Sky and another below the Earth. The Earth is a round-shaped flat surface; the Sky a hollow concave overarching the Earth. The structure of the universe is thus somewhat like a cone, similar to the structure of a tribal leaf-hut.12

The five Elements overlap in their formation and so also the world of the matter with the other worlds.13 Life in this world is repeated in the other world in a similar order. Worlds are communicable in dreams and in trance.


Cosmogonic myths describe how the limits of the natural state are transcended. The state of primordial solidarity was transcended as the Eggs broke open and the universe revealed. The natural order of self-origination was transcended by the origin of the male-female principle. The order of self-organisation was transcended by the interlocking of various Elements. The spatial order of the pluriverse was transcended by the overlapping of spheres in dreams and trance.

Life transcends the limits of the form. Death transcends all attributes of Elements, including the limits of the terrestrial time.

There is no intrinsic disorder in nature — dissolution is an integral aspect of the transcendent order of nature. Transcendence is the order of all orders. It is inviolable.

The Natural Order of Culture


Tribal myths deny the uniqueness of man14 insofar as his origin is concerned. Man is not unique even in the possession of knowledge. Primordial knowledge came to him from birds and animals. The priests of all creatures were born, ahead of human beings. Man is not the creator of knowledge. Cosmic Intelligence15 is the self-existent source of all knowledge.

Man lives on the Earth in the company of animals and spirits. Natural Elements are under the control of spirits. The spirits are everywhere and in all things and beings. They are the invisible controller of human behaviour. They can be influenced only by the priest.

Not a single event takes place without any cause. As there is cause so there is an effect or vice-versa. Cause can be found, but not under ordinary condition. Following the ritual way one may return to the primordial conditions of life. Of the ritual objects, the Egg recalls the unmanifest state, the cowrie-shell symbolizes the primeval Water, the sacrificial bird typifies the Sky, and the rice represents the Earth. Rituals are performed in ecological space — the sacred grove, the source of water, hill tops and mountain caves — in ecological time determined by the Sky, seasons, lunar changes, day-and-night, moments of natural calamity, etc.

Ritual helps man experience the ecological rhythm of his life. The performer returns to a primordial state to reunite with the primal elements and to rejoice his earthly existence. There are rituals involving group pantomimes of rolling in dust, acrobating in water, walking on burning embers, and swinging upside down on burning ashes.16 Such ritual acts affirm people’s belief in the supernatural order.

As ecological being, man is fully conscious of his physical limitations. He is also aware of his innate quipment for safeguarding against the adversaries.


Elements of nature have a veritable role in the making of persons.

Biologically man is made up of the Earth, Water, Fire, etc. Pigmentation, formation and function of the body tissues, sense-organs, etc. are associated with the Five Elements. Psychologically also man is conditioned by the attributes (guna) of Elements.

Human personality type is determined by biological time, beginning from the birth. The twelve signs of the zodiac that form the body of Kalapurusa (Time Person) affect man’s future, the rhythm of life.17 The Chinese doctors classify people first by the body type and then by yin and yang.18 According to Jyotisa, man’s activities are guided by the position of the planets. The planets have distinctive spheres — some are benefic, others melefic. Their disposition and relational values affect human life. Rituals, ceremonies, daily life, economic activities, etc. are observed in due consideration of the propitious time.

The Man of matter (Elements) moves upward through a ritual process of socialization at different stages in life. Though sacerdotal in form and theme, ritual establishes the importance of this earthly life and help organize a distinctive and coherent cultural pattern.

In Indian astrology there is a belief that impurity (mala) clings to birth and the removal of it is the primary concern of man. The ritual process by which the body is cleansed is called samskara.19 From securing the conception to the last rite of cremation a number of samskara rites are required to be observed. Only then one becomes a full member of the society and a cultural being. Purification of body is obligatory for all kinds of worship and ceremonies. One such ritual is called bhutasuddhi,20 the purification of the different layers of elements in the body (bhutasarira) of the worshipper.

To make the physical man capable of transforming into a cultural person correlations are established between the natural and the supernatural orders at all levels of human existence. A bio-spiritual principle operates.21 Cultural activities are determined by the body, mind and spirit. Satisfaction of the body needs is a critical factor in the survival of man. The mind responds to the physical needs — it creates the urge to satisfy these needs. The spirit, which transcends both the body and the mind, mediates between and allows the satisfaction of the needs to such an extent that the world order is not disturbed.

All traditional societies are structured on a fourfold control system that orders human life, his subsistence, distinctions and desires. Life is ordered into four successive stages (asrama) from learning and performing to gradual indifference and final withdrawal. The ordering of subsistence ensures harmony, peace and purity in economic and social life. The ordering of distinctions on the basis of time, place, ethnic groups and aesthetic considerations allows the formation of distinctive lifestyles. The ordering of desires completes the cosmic rhythm of life. Human desires are fourfold: the desire to uphold the natural moral order (dharma), desire connected with wealth and power (artha), the desire for pleasure or procreation (kama), the desire for freedom from all desires (moksa). Although seemingly opposed in character, these primal desires stand in an organic and interactive relationship to one another. This fourfold ordering of life is called purusartha, that is, the making of a cultural person (samskritika purusa). At a higher level of consciousness, the cultural person is transformed into a cosmic person (Purusa).

From another angle, man is not the measure of all that exists. He can neither create nor destroy nature. He is a creator of culture only in a limited sense, because cultural forms are prone to the fivefold order of transcendence. Human culture is unique only in that it allows humans to satisfy their impulses in a far more complex manner than do animals. Another peculiarity which distinguishes man from animals is his innate capacity and will to transcend even the physical needs. This he often does for spiritual gains and emotional satisfaction. The urge for transcendence is attributed to the complex structuring of the sense-organs, and all that is known as tattva.

The Integral Vision

We see now how the polaristic position in the anthropological theory of nature and culture is nullified by the traditional vision.

Nature in its essence is not a machine. Living matter exists only by the order of the transcendent life, the one which is formless, invisible, but knowable through its effect. Nature constitutes a set of self-originating, self-organizing and self-sustaining forms. Life renders matter the binding abilities, interlocking powers, overlapping characters, and a transcendent state. The transcendent order of nature is that (Prakrti) which natures nature.

Elements of nature, in their living state, may appropriately be described as process. They are set into a technical order that causes bio-social types. Like natural forms, the forms of culture are also subject to the fivefold order: origination, binding, interlocking, overlapping and transcending.

Man of matter is culturally processed (purusartha). He is transformed into a moral person (naitika purusa). The gross body undergoes through a transcendental superpsychic process of cultivation (samskara) and purification (bhutasuddhi). Man discovers major points of power in his subtle body that functions as an instrument (yantra) for the inner meditative experience.22 He invokes the spirit or deity to possess his body. In that state of possession, or meditation, the cultural man is transformed into a cosmic person, an archetype of Purusa, the source of everything, the supreme principle and all that we call divine. Man enshrines Cosmic Form (Visvarupa) in his body; God contains it in his mouth.23

The concept of purusa is central to the Indian thought and culture. Its echoes are obvious both in cosmology and in sociology. Ordinarily, the term purusa means male person. Originally it meant Cosmic Person, the unique one, as described in the Rgvedic hymns Purusa-sukta. Its divine connotation has been constantly sustained in the sacred texts referring to Kalapurusa in astrology, Vastupurusa in architecture, Sangeetapurusa in music, Vriksapurusa in botany, Pitrapurusa in genetics, and so on. There are other related terms of cosmic significance used in human context such as purusartha, the fourfold cultural process (dharma, artha, kama, moksa); purusottama, best among men; Prajapati, creator of heaven and earth, epithetically used for potter; Visvakarma, the celestial architect of the universe, used for the smith.

This vision of culture and cosmology is a challenge to anthropology. Anthropologists have discussed the Indian concept of person in terms of the level of the genealogical construction of the universe of kin and caste, ordered along a continuum of purity-impurity.24 The emphasis is given on the form of the transmission of blood purity from parent to child in a purely clinical sense of biology and psychology. Obviously, the Western anthropological view of person is wholly incompatible with the Indian concept of purusa that combines caste, culture and cosmology in assimilable portions. The theory of purusartha presents an integral vision of the nature-man-culture continuum.

To understand and deepen the traditional vision of man, nature and culture, it is important to clear up the distinctions between the oral and the textual perceptions.

As indicated before, in the oral tradition the ecological man looks upon nature as the self-existing reality of which he is an inseparable part at all levels. This view of nature differs from the philosophers’, or physicists’ cosmology in which man takes a characteristic attitude towards nature. Here man is the knower and nature is the object known, or to be known. In all reflective thinking there is an implicit assumption that the forms of thought are different from the things to be lived with and that the existing reality is different from the conceptual reality. In the tribal oral tradition experience and expressions are kept together. In other words, there is no gap between knowledge and existence. Generalization in the tribal world-view is primarily cosmocentric. The textual tradition, on the other hand, is homocentric in the sense that all its paradigms come, essentially, from within man, crystallised in such concepts as pancabhuta, pancakosa, purusa and so on. Nevertheless, both these traditions are grounded in the same cosmology and shared faith in man’s ontological communion with nature. Their ‘ecocentric’ view of culture is, of course, totally opposed to the ‘modern’, ‘technocentric’ view of man and the universe.

Indeed, the current generation of ecologists have begun to realize that ‘ecocentric’ culture has an innate (natural) equipment for prolonged survival, while ‘technocentric’ culture is doomed to extinction.

To sum up in the words of one of our greatest interpreters of the Indian vision.25

Man is related to nature, the elements and animal and plant life. The environment in which he lives is not an alien environment. He always considers it his own, where he is like all other breathing, but endowed with the special faculty of self-reflection and speech, thus of vak. Indeed, man is constantly seen as an embodiment of the elements and forces of nature and in relationship to animal and plant life. This gives the world a different character from what is implied in the modern idea of progressive evolution. Man is not the best because he overpowers and conquers nature and is thus the fittest to survive, but he is one amongst the many with the capacity for ‘consciousness’ and self-reflection and transcendence from his pure physicality, through psychical discipline.


1. Culturalists take the same position on this point as the biologists with respect to the origin of life. The dictum in the biological issue is that "all life comes from the living". The problem is similar to the biological issue of biogenesis versus abiogenesis. Modern biology now comes to consider that such factors as enzymes may serve as a bridge between the quick and the dead.

2. Indian philosophical traditions such as Buddhist, Jain, Nyaya-Vaisesika, and Samkhya Schools differ on the enumeration of tattvas but they generally agree with respect to the Five Elements or matter (skandha, pudgala, bhuta, or dravya, tanmatra): Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Sky. In classical Chinese the Five Elements referred to are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.

3. See Saraswati (1991). According to Chinese tradition, Water was created in the eleventh month, Fire in the sixth month, Wood in the first, Metal in the eighth and, Earth in the third month (Chung 1992).

4. See Prasad (1992).

5. See Saraswati (1992b).

6. See Mital (1992).

7. See Janaki (1988).

8. See Brouwer (1992).

9. Cf. Filippi (1992).

10. See Saraswati (1992a). In tribal cosmogony, Air, colour, and directions are linked up: From all the four quarters, the Wind brought colours — the east Wind blew white, the west Wind yellow, the south Wind red, and the north Wind black. In Chinese cosmology (see Chung 1992) west is associated with white, south with red, north with black and east with green. For the Chinese theory of the Five Elements and their chain of reaction, see Butt and Bloomfield (1985) and also Chung (1992).

11. See Table B, also Chung (1992).

12. See Adhikary (1992).

13. See Saraswati (1992b).

14. See Saraswati (1992a).

15. Ibid.

16. See Citaristi (1992).

17. See Saraswati (1990).

18. See Butt and Bloomfield (1985).

19. See Saraswati (1977).

20. See Janaki (1988).

21. See Saraswati (1989).

22. See Khanna (1979).

23. As in the Mahabharata war, Lord Krsna opened his mouth to demonstrate Visvarupa before Arjuna.

24. See Ostor, et. al. (1982).

25. With reference to the Taittiriya Upanisadic discussion on pancakosa, Vatsyayan (1983: 10-11) dwells on how man’s nature is delineated from the most physical to the psychical and finally the spiritual. In the pancakosa, (fivefold constitution of man) each order is called a kosa, sheath or envelope: Anandamaya (beatific), Vigyanmaya (intellectual), Manomaya (mental), Pranamaya (vital) and Annamaya (vegetative) kosa. These are hierarchically organized. The Indian vision of man can be understood by reading the theories of both pancabhuta and pancakosa together.


Adhikary, A.K., 1992. "The Birhors and their universe". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Butt, Gary and Frena Bloomfield, 1985. Harmony rules. London: Arrow Books.

Chung, Tan, 1992. "Man-nature syntheses in Chinese tradition". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Citaristi, Ileana 1992. "The Five Elements in the ‘Danda’ Rituals". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Filippi, Gian Giuseppe, 1992. "The Secret of the Embryo according to the Garbha Upanisad", In Annali Di Ca’ Foscari, Estratto XXXI, 3.

Janaki, S.S., 1988. Dhvaja-stambha (critical account of its structural and ritualistic details). Madras: The Kuppuswami Shastri Research Institute.

Khanna, Madhu, 1979. Yantra: the tantric symbol of cosmic unity. London.

Mital, Kanak, 1992. "Lifestyle Study of the Santhals: a Thesaurus perception through Water". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Ostor, Akos, Lina Fruzzetti and Steve Barnett (eds.), 1982. Concept Person-kinship, caste and marriage in India. Cambridge: Harvard University of Press.

Prasad, Onkar, 1992. "Perceptions of Bhutas (Elements) in Oral Tradition: a Case of Santhal Musical Texts". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Saraswati, Baidyanath, 1977. Brahmanic Ritual Traditions: in the crucible of time. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

———, 1989. "Lifestyles in traditional cultures: a conceptual framework". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

———, 1990. "Ritual time: an exegesis of time and great time". Seminar Paper: New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

———, 1991. "Tribal Cosmogony: Primal Vision of Man and Cosmos", In Baidyanath Saraswati (ed.), Tribal thought and culture: essays in honour of Shri Surajit Chandra Sinha. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

———, 1992a. "Cosmogonic Myths and the Forces of Nature". Seminar Paper. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

———, 1992b. "Forms of Life in the World of Matter — Reflections on Tribal Cosmology". Seminar Paper. Pune: Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Sharma, P.V., 1976. Introduction to Dravyaguna (Indian Pharmacology). Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia.

Vatsyayan, Kapila, 1983. The Square and the Circle of the Indian Arts. New Delhi: Roli Books International.


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