Panchatantra and the Compassionate Coldness

Han Mengyun, Story of Language, part of The Pavilion of Three Mirrors, 2021, Diriyah Biennale, SA © Han Mengyun

I was reading Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth and was quite haunted by the tales selected from the Panchatantra about the war between crows and owls. These tales are often extremely succinct. A few lines can draw out a cold picture most pregnant with violence. The Panchatantra is an ancient Indian collation of animal fables from about 200BCE and was later translated across the world, yielding various versions such as the arabic Kalila wa Dimna, the manuscript of which inspired my painting practice as I was fascinated by how the depiction of animals, a device of distancing, can lead to one’s realization of the various human conditions forged by the typified human virtues and vices. But unlike the fables of Aesop, the Panchatantra tales do not preach. They simply show you the suchness of reality, of human violence and ignorance, of situations that will only repeat. And in knowing this suchness of things, one feels the urge to change, not others, but oneself, so as to avoid being the crow or the owl. These are much like Roland Barthes' idea of the writerly text which invites the readers to make up their own interpretation and decide for themselves what to do in these similar situations of conflict in our human society.