Shakti Maira: The antidote to discontent

Shakti Maira’s wide-ranging investigation into the ways in which we experience beauty offers an unusual key to our civilization’s problems


Shakti Maira with a wood sculpture in his studio. Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.
Shakti Maira with a wood sculpture in his studio. Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

“You know, 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 is reclining in an armchair at his family home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Delhi’s Greater Kailash-I. “And the experience of beauty is such a vital part of the human sense of well-being. Sadly, we have become 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.”

Maira looks around the room, which is lined with beautiful objects, including many made with his own hands, such as his distinctive long human figurines in wood and metal. It is not difficult to see the beauty in him. In profile, his head and broad shoulders radiate the nobility of a Greek bust from antiquity—an effect only accentuated when his serene gaze trains itself back on to you. Although his smile can be mischievous, underneath it there is something inscrutable that reminds one of the face of the Buddha. His use of a meditation metaphor to describe our falling away from beauty reveals the basic ground of his thought: His widely admired art is focused resolutely on ideas of inner harmony and balance.

A bronze figure from the Sangha series.
A bronze figure from the Sangha series.

Beauty, clearly, has never been far from Maira’s thoughts. At 70, he has lived many lives—including two decades of a corporate life in the US before returning to Delhi at the turn of the century—and has won accolades for his painting and sculpture, as also a book about aesthetic experience and spirituality called Towards Ananda: Rethinking Indian Art And Aesthetics (2006). His new book, The Promise Of Beauty & Why It Matters—published by HarperCollins and launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January—is both, an emphatic act of assertion and a graceful gesture of self-effacement. Although it contains magisterial writing by Maira on the meaning, experience and history of beauty—Maira belongs to that line of protean Indian artists who are as comfortable with words as with paint and wood—the bulk of the book is devoted to a set of 18 conversations with a world-spanning cast of scientists and philosophers, poets and painters, monks and ecologists, architects and politicians.

"In architecture, what we see is beauty in competition with itself. The division of the city into plots, where everyone takes on the task of defining their own sense of beauty, ultimately, only leads to a collective ugliness. "- Gautam Bhatia, architect

This must be one of the most subtle and wide-ranging investigations into the nature of beauty ever conducted by a single person, tramping far out into the fields of economics, public policy and neuroscience. If our instinct for beauty is innate, Maira asks, to what extent can it be further trained and developed? Are ideas of beauty cultural constructs, or are some things universally beautiful? Do the poor live distant from questions of beauty, or are they more deeply invested in their fewer resources of beauty than the better-off? When we experience something beautiful, what exactly is going on in the brain? Can there be an economics rooted in respect for beauty? Are beauty, truth and goodness inextricably linked, as in the Sanskrit phrase “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram”, or can each of these exist without the other?

The cover of his latest book.
The cover of his latest book.

Maira’s interlocutors are clearly provoked and delighted by these questions. Biologist Pushpa Mittra Bhargava wonders if we find forms in nature beautiful because we ourselves are part of the world of such forms (something we often forget in our sense of separateness produced by the alienating sophistication of our consciousness, itself an object of beauty in its own right). Scientist Rupert Sheldrake dwells on the beauty of flowers and fruits from an 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 poet Ruth Padel in this book, when she speaks of humans as “membraneous beings” who are constantly navigating between what is inside and outside them. 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.” Architect Gautam Bhatia ruminates on why modern Indian cities are so ugly when the older facades amid them are so much more harmonious, and what a new imagination of the beautiful Indian city might need.

"Beauty...seems to require time to contemplate it. The whole modern world is designed to take time away from people. "- Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and parapsychologist

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, however. Padel rejects his attempt to give beauty a transcendental, even salvific, status in human affairs, insisting on the most pragmatic of definitions: “Beauty is a working okayness.” Painter Anjolie Ela Menon finds Maira’s benign 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. There is much in his book about the beauty produced by meditation, “entirely within ourselves without any external stimulus”, but nothing about the analogous beauty conjured up by memory, with its leaps of association and time-jumps.

"The new approach to art often precludes beauty and it seems that beauty has no place any more in the definitions of great art."- Anjolie Ela Menon, artist

The Promise Of Beauty is idiosyncratically written: After every two-three chapters, Maira pauses 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.” To this end, he asks each of his respondents to describe a profound “beauty experience” of their own. Bhatia memorably describes the experience of descending into a step well in Ahmedabad, dancer Geeta Chandran relates the bliss of darshan at a temple in Vrindavan, and Japanese anthropologist Keibo Oiwa chooses to speak about the experience of watching his mother deal with her impending death. Maira himself vividly describes the state of centredness that comes with the casting of a bowl in a pottery studio.

"Beauty, especially in Sufism, is a continuous battle between the visible and the invisible. "- Muzaffar Ali, film-maker

Maira’s overall diagnosis—his sense that there is something profoundly out of joint in our world and world view today—is, I think, correct. For all the freedoms and aspirations released by post-liberalization India, there is also a new crisis of beauty in our civilization. We are harrowed by the chaos, violence and pollution of the city while feeling helpless to change anything about it, out of touch with the challenges and consolation of traditional Indian forms in art, music and architecture, and diminished by our inability to pay close attention to things by the white noise of our smartphone lives.

Even an accurate diagnosis of our discontents is a step forward. If we were then to pause mindfully and “allow our instinct for beauty to become more manifest in our lives”, Maira believes we might be able to make a new compact with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. “To live in beauty might be a good working definition of a happy and healthy life at all levels of existence.”

Shakti Maira’s exhibition, Formed Resonance: Sculpture And Drawings, will be on show from 4-12 March, 10am-5pm (Sundays closed), at the Art Gallery, Kamladevi Complex, India International Centre, New Delhi.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novels Arzee The Dwarf (2009) and Clouds (forthcoming).

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