That human beings have made rapid and unalterable progress in how we live and work is uncontestable. Yet as our lives get easier and better, we have even less time to “stop and stare”, and appreciate the beauty in our midst, or regret the rapid loss of an aesthetic life in pursuit of material growth. Nor are animals, birds or insects singularly appreciative of beauty. Bees settle on a flower for a fleeting moment; birds nest on trees for shelter or to grow a family. Yet nature is relentless in its creation of unimaginable beauty in all forms and vistas.
Worse, the concept of beauty is increasingly getting diffused. We don’t find an increasingly environment-polluting growth ugly. The dirty squatters around our urban boundaries make us as uncomfortable as the shiny, electricity-guzzling shopping malls do us proud, but we shrug off this disquiet as the inevitable price of growth. We find beauty in the largest bomb ever made, or in the mushrooming cloud of a nuclear explosion. We feel black dresses to be of classic beauty, yet turn away from a dark skin tone!
Increasingly disturbed by the growing neglect of beauty in our modern, growth-oriented lifestyle, especially in the context of rapid strides made by science and technology in recent times, renowned artist Shakti Maira decided to explore how the concept of beauty has evolved over time and across disciplines. As nations prosper, why is there a neglect of beauty and aesthetics in the public sphere? Why is increasingly beauty only in the eyes of the beholder—a physical expression or a visual delight, however momentary? Does beauty matter any more?
Happily, Maira finds the answer to be an overwhelming yes. Maira’s exploration of beauty and why it matters is primarily based on conversations with 18 experts in various disciplines from across the world—scientists, philosophers, artists of all kinds, brain-mind scientists and political activists. From Karan Singh and Vandana Shiva to Ruth Padel and Anjolie Ela Menon, this is as wide-ranging as it can get. The book is divided into six sections of three interviews each, with each section preceded by the author’s introduction and concluded by his reflections.
Is beauty more than a concept? Is appreciation of beauty a learned skill? Is it in our genes? Does the Indian concept of “satyam, shivam, sundaram” (truth, goodness, beauty)—or what Zhuang Zhi, the fourth-century BCE Chinese philosopher, called, “beauty is truth, truth beauty”—endure? What constitutes beauty is dynamic, fluid and even ephemeral. As filmmaker Muzaffar Ali says, “Beauty, especially in Sufism, is a continuous battle between the visible and the invisible.”
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Also, how important are the ideas of balance and aesthetics to understand beauty? Maira says beauty is best taught or learned through lived experiences of the mind and body. As such, it’s tempting to reformulate this classical aphorism to authenticity, well-being and harmony. To quote Susan Sontag, “Beauty is deep, not superficial; hidden sometimes rather than obvious; consoling, not troubling; indestructible, as in art, not ephemeral, as in nature. Beauty, the stipulatively uplifting kind, perdures.”
If all art is an exploration of the human condition, and beauty is one of those conditions, then beauty, like art, helps us understand ourselves, others and the world around us, especially how we relate to each other. Art, to paraphrase poet Seamus Heaney, may not change the world, but it does help change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.
Japanese cultural anthropologist Keibo Oiwa is of the opinion that to live in beauty is part of human nature and our inalienable right. “Beauty,” he says, “is inseparable from moral and ethical values. A beautiful society is a peaceful, compassionate and fair society.” Is it any wonder then that the countries that are traditionally low in corruption and also try to live in harmony with nature and its people—think the Scandinavian countries—are also ranked far higher than countries such as India in achieving higher gross national income, as well as happiness?
“The ability to perceive and cognize beauty,” Maira concludes, “and base our actions on it is really another kind of human intelligence.” More than happiness, a beautiful experience is often equated to a feeling of peace, of bliss, of being one with nature or God. In this book, Maira asks each interviewee one common question at the end: to recount his or her significant beautiful experience. The stories told range from a mother’s death and a marriage proposal to the birth of a child and viewing a celebrated painting for the first time. Beauty is clearly individualistic; it’s also deeply philosophical. Being mindful of beauty can, therefore, help make our lives better and turn us into both creators, as well as caretakers of beauty. It can be a celebration of life.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist