Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Shakti Maira and the Promise of Beauty

"Saundarya drishti – an eye, a sense, an instinct for beauty – is a quality naturally available to every human being.”

The painter and sculptor Shakti Maira reclines in an armchair, and in a patch of morning sunlight, in his family home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Delhi’s Greater Kailash I. “And further, the experience of beauty is such a vital part of the human sense of well-being. Sadly, we have become so acculturated today to the idea that well-being is basically economic. And the idea of beauty has become mainly about looking good, or at the most about visual experience. Today we are constantly taking in-breaths in our lives…and I’m not sure that the experience of beauty is possible without the capacity to take out-breaths.” 

As Maira looks around the room, it is not difficult to see the beauty in him. In profile, his head and broad shoulders radiate the nobility and classical proportions of a Greek bust from antiquity – an effect only accentuated when his serene gaze trains itself back onto you. During our conversation he frequently takes my name, as if to emphasize that, even if he is doing most of the speaking, this is a dialogue. His use of a meditation metaphor reveals the basic ground of his thought; his widely admired art is intensely focussed on ideas of inner harmony and balance. His smile is mischievous, but underneath it there is something enigmatic that reminds one of the face of the Buddha. This is only his temporary residence – his mother, who lives on the ground floor, is 95 and he wants to be near her – but it is lined with beautiful objects, including many made with his own hands, such as his distinctive long human figurines in wood and metal. (“When I think of human beings I see them as feeling, perceiving, imagining creatures, but deeply rooted in the earth. That may be why their bodies look like the trunks of trees.”).

Beauty, clearly, has never been far from Maira’s thoughts. At 70, he has lived many lives – including two decades in corporate life in America before returning to Delhi at the turn of the century – and has won accolades for both his painting and his sculpture, not to mention a book about aesthetic experience and spirituality called Ananda.

His new book, The Promise of Beauty, is notable for being both an emphatic act of assertion and a graceful gesture of self-effacement. Although there are in it dozens of pages of vivid, magisterial writing on the meaning and experience and history of beauty – Maira belongs to that line of protean Indian fine artists who are as comfortable with words as with paint and wood – the bulk of the book is devoted to a set of eighteen long conversations. A cast of eminent scientists and philosophers, poets and painters, dancers and ecologists, architects and politicians are engaged by Maira on the subject of beauty: how and why we experience it, and what it can and should mean to us. 

Most Indian readers will know some of the names in the book – Muzaffar Ali, perhaps, or Vandana Shiva – but the range of the cast and the continuum of science, art, economics and ecology along which the subject is explored will surely be a surprise. If our instinct for beauty is innate, Maira asks, to what extent can it be further trained? Are ideas of beauty cultural constructs, or are some things universally beautiful? Is beauty a static or a dynamic state, a state of balance or of sublime disruption? Are there many dimensions and planes to beauty – sensual, intellectual, spiritual – and how might we climb this ladder of beauty? Is the experience of beauty confined to human beings, or might animals, too, have a sense of aesthetic delight? When we experience something beautiful, what exactly is going on in the brain and what can modern neuroscience tell us about it? What are the aesthetic theories of India and how do they compare to those of the West? Is the world of economics and the active enemy of a beauty-centred existence, or can there be an economics rooted in respect for beauty? Must beauty have any place in policy-making? Why are the modern fine arts so suspicious of beauty? If our experience of beauty is closely tied to the quality of attention we bring to songs, paintings, or people, doesn’t beauty lead out naturally to ideas of responsibility and care? Are beauty, truth and goodness inextricably linked, or can each of these exist without the other?

Maira’s interlocutors are clearly provoked and delighted by these questions, for they throw themselves wholeheartedly into the dance he proposes. The biologist Pushpa Mitta Bhargava wonders if we find some forms in nature especially beautiful because we ourselves are part of the world of such forms (something we often forget in our sense of separateness from the world produced by the alienating sophistication of our consciousness, itself an object of beauty in its own right). The scientist Rupert Sheldrake dwells on the beauty of flowers and fruits from a evolutionary perspective – they are beautiful in order to attract pollinators – and riffs on the idea of beauty as a web of interconnected relationships, an idea echoed by the poet Ruth Padel when she speaks of humans as “membraneous beings” who are constantly navigating between what is inside and outside them. 

These are magnificent, memorable encounters: the more that people say on the subject, the more, it seems, there is left to say. The philosopher Roger Scruton compares the bliss of beauty to the experience of love – “It wells within us but is directed outwards and involves a self-giving of the person who feels it.” The architect Gautam Bhatia ruminates on why modern Indian cities are so ugly when the older facades amidst them are so much more harmonious, and what contours a new imagination of the beautiful Indian city might have. The filmmaker Muzaffar Ali describes the vision of beauty at the core of Sufism (“Beauty, especially in Sufism, is a continuous battle between the visible and the invisible”). It’s like a one-book literary festival on one of the richest and deepest of human themes, with Maira playing the role of a shrewd and sagacious Master of Ceremonies.

The conversation is not all amiable: Maira’s interlocutors resist or elude him, too, which friction generates productive channels of its own. Padel rejects his attempt to give beauty a very transcendent, even salvific, status in human affairs, allowing for nothing more ambitious than “Beauty is a working okayness.” The painter Anjolie Ela Menon finds Maira’s vision of beauty as gladness, well-being and balance somewhat underwhelming, pointing out that at the pinnacle of beauty, “there is ecstasy” – the ecstasy, for instance, of love-making, which has no connection with making the world a better place or the lovers more truthful people. 

The Promise of Beauty is idiosyncratically written: after every two or three chapters, Maira pauses to take stock on the advances that have been made, and to draw together some of the strands of what has been said with his own thinking on beauty. “Beauty is more than a concept,” he writes, “and is best taught through lived experiences of mind and body.” Some of the best moments in the book are when takes us into such experiences of his own. There is the state of alertness, wonder and centeredness that comes with the casting of a bowl in a pottery studio. And the devastating and yet cleansing experience of releasing the ashes of his 26-year-old son into the waters of the Ganga, and then, a year later, of taking up some clay from the banks of the same river, further downstream, to use on a canvas – an experience that leads organically to “a renewed wholeness” as life, time, and art form ever-new patterns and combinations.

“I would say that my life has been and continues to be blessed by beauty,” Maira writes in the book’s concluding pages. But while there is much beauty to be found in the world, “my most profound experiences of beauty have come in meditative quietening, when I have found access to the mind’s inherent spaciousness, its light, peace and well-being.”

Maira’s overall diagnosis, his sense that there is something profoundly out of joint in our world today, is, I think, correct. For all the freedoms and energies and aspirations released by post-liberalization India, there is today in our civilization also a crisis of beauty.  We are harrowed by the chaos and violence and pollution of the city without being able to change anything about it, bemused by our own unending gush of material needs that thrill to the invitations everywhere to indulge them, out of touch with the continuity and consolation of traditional Indian forms, and diminished by our inability to pay close and sustained attention to anything by the white noise of our smartphone lives. 

If we were to pause and “allow our instinct for beauty to become more manifest in our lives,” he believes, we would be able to make a new compact with ourselves and each other. “To live in beauty might be a good working definition of a happy and healthy life at all levels of existence.”