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Battling with beauty

'Saundarya raises difficult questions which invite reasonably intense discussions. For the taking are 31 essays by scholars, historians, artists, curators, critics, and self-professed aesthetes.'

THIS is a book you'll want to dive into. It promises so much, you can't wait for intellectual osmosis to kick in through the fingers and funnel through to the brain. It is heavy-duty cerebral stuff: abstract and ephemeral. One minute you capture it, understand it, know it, and the next minute it's gone; lost in the dizzying orbits of theoretical overload.

Writing and reading about saundarya is an uphill task which one hopes will eventually lead to an elevation of consciousness, or at very least, a raised plateau of understanding. The particular quality of beauty has long been imagined and revered as the mystical bridge with which humans can traverse the worlds and access the divine. And it is precisely the pinning down of these elements of ananda, preeti, shringar; bliss, wonderment, delight; "soaking", "wetting", and "melting the heart maximally"; these wonderful side-effects one experiences after an encounter with beauty, which make this collection a Sisyphean endeavour.

Consider the obstacles: defining a concept as intangible as beauty and placing it in the parameters of tradition and modernity in the Indian context; finding voices which don't repeat or reverberate, which can sufficiently flesh out important questions. For instance ? how does and how will saundarya figure in our daily lives, the sphere of our living spaces, the performing arts, love, erotica? Is it something innate or created, to be understood only by the trained aesthete, the rasika? Where does it figure with the rise of the city, modernity, fragmentation, unrestrained ugliness? How has it forced us to re-evaluate the body, and how do men and women reclaim themselves against the disconcerting whirlwind that is India's multi-crore beauty industry?

Difficult questions which invite reasonably intense discussions. For the taking are 31 essays by scholars, historians, artists, curators, critics, and self-professed aesthetes. They cover an impressive girth of knowledge, touching on everything from Bharatha's rasa theory, Abhinavagupta's anandashakti, Shankara's genius of transmuting shringar to shanta, Jagannatha's notion of chamathkaara; the whole gamut of yantras, mantras, mandalas; triple-barrelled formulas ? satyam shivam sundaram, sat-chit-ananda; the melée of the most potent symbols of totality ? the ghata, the shrichakra, Gandhi's charka, Tagore's veena, the cave paintings at Bhimbedka. Utilitarianism, cultural memes, the Vedic primordial mound and surasundaris. They are all in here, somewhere.

The problem with this book is that it rolls, rolls, rolls us up the hill to show us some stunning panoramas of Indian art and aesthetic sensibility, only to disappoint us with its concluding essay, which instead of offering the vantage-point of rarefied air, shoves us back into darkness again. Makarand Paranjape suggests that the way forward is neither tradition nor modernity; he offers the nebulous alternative of a third category ? the "non-modern". Unfortunately, this comes into conflict with an earlier, brilliant essay by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, who condemns the non-modern tag as a diminished state of those that hold only franchises to modernity, not the ability to generate it. This stems from our own misguided associations with modernity and the "West". It is a crucial point because it implies that we are then stuck with our old, enchanting ideas of beauty with no tools for innovation other than imitation. Non-modern then becomes a vapid intermediary, a state of being incapable.

There's a danger in putting beauty out of our reach. As a thing our ancestors had a genetic in-built propensity for, which we, because our villages have turned into dung heaps and our cities into sewers, because we live in a world blighted by fairness creams and fat farms and mass commodification of everything from Ganeshas to Gap tee-shirts, are apparently unable to grasp at. Modernity has come bearing some wonderful gifts: microscopic images of the surface of Mars, the lyrical architecture of bridges, a deluge of literature born from despair. Sudipta Kaviraj writes that "what modern art achieves is not a sense of beauty, but an intelligence." He evokes Jibanananda Das's poem which begins with a leper licking water from a hydrant in Kolkata at night. An iconic figure with several layers of degradation. Our symbols have perhaps become more complex, cluttered and asymmetric, but they continue to remain powerful.

Ranjit Hoskote reminds us that "the modern art-work is often elegiac in nature: it mourns the loss of beauty through scission and absence; it carries within its very structure a lament for the loss of beauty." We have moved away from the ancient past, from Gandhi's idea that a seeker of beauty must also be a seeker of truth, from Tagore's "beauty creates beauty". The home may no longer be a museum and the tree no longer a shrine. But have we become what Abhinavagupta called ahridaya ? without heart, who cannot perceive beauty? Because we still come to a work of art with our individual selves, with the totality of our accumulated experiences, the burden of our life's encounters. We are still capable of reacting by intuition, by the stimulation of the five senses. We still find beauty alongside adhbuta, and because of this we can still be transformed from one level to another; be it to the gods, primordial chaos or the Hubble Space Telescope.

Paranjape, in his conclusion, quotes from Raja Rao's Meaning of India. "Harmony is always transcendence," he writes, and India, in this context, is "not a country (desa), it is a perspective (darshana)." In battling with modernity and the aesthetics of duality, Paranjape foresees a bracketing of beauty; the creation of spaces and enclosures for beautiful things. Harsha V. Dehejia espouses a movement to aestheticise our lives by surrounding ourselves with beautiful objects, and for those who cannot afford this, he espouses the practice of bhakti. Whether beauty is to be claimed by the elitists or if it has indeed moved into the "interstices of the ordinary", as Nair claims, we must pick it up wherever we can find it, and however we see it.

This book has some marvellous, crystallised nuggets of saundarya. Haku Shah writes of the women of Kutch who embroider their clothes with cardamom. Narendra Bokhare tells of the inclusion of guns, clocks and buses as new icons in adivasi art. Reba Som expresses Tagore's fascination for the self-contained life of a glow-worm ? a creature capable of internalising the light of the universe to emit a glow, not borrowed, but created from within, with which it can transcend the universe. One must promptly gather up these gems as one trundles up the hill.

Saundarya: The Perception and Practice of Beauty in India, edited by Harsha V. Dehejia and Makarand Paranjape, Samvad India Foundation, 2003.

Tishani Doshi is a writer and a dancer. She can be reached at


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