Beyond words, beyond meaning
ANJANA RAJAN speaks to John Lane now in New Delhi for the release of his latest book, "Timeless Beauty" this Friday.
ONE OF the most obtuse observations ever made about a philosophical view of beauty would be the irreverent statement of a literature teacher in response to Keats' famous lines, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Said the pedagogue, in what was intended to be a jocular tone, addressing impressionable minds, "I've met a lot of women who were beautiful, but they were certainly not truthful." The crudeness of the speaker's approach to life is jarring in contrast to the sublime feelings expressed by the poet. Still, it all but epitomises the attitude of `modern' societies, which seem somehow antithetic to concepts that deal more with the spirit, less with the flesh.
John Lane, author of "Timeless Beauty in the arts and everyday life", published by the Viveka Foundation, writes in his preface, "The preparation of this book was undertaken with trepidation... .Our civilisation is a materialistic one, and the realm of beauty belongs to the soul." In Delhi for the launch of the book, scheduled this Friday at the India International Centre, the eminent painter, author and educator remarks that he cannot understand contemporary artists whose works are intended, unlike those of traditional artists, whether in the West or the East, primarily to shock or make a statement, and who feel no need for making them aesthetically pleasing. "I can't get inside the minds of the creators of these things," he says simply. "I think a lot - not all - of visual art is repulsive. They seem to have gone into - what is it - Kaliyuga. They seem to have gone into that condition."
With the Indian education system being oriented towards the West, Indians are increasingly moving away from the values of beauty on which the country's civilisation is based. In this model, "art and music and dance are always the first to be sacrificed." This educational approach places Maths and English at the top of the value scale, leading to a "deplorable, terrible, ghastly" system, which is crushingly boring among other ills. His views of the education system in England could be transplanted with ease to India, and he knows it. To imitate the West, whether in its approach to education or anything else, he avers, is "a disaster".
The time for "Timeless Beauty" has come with John Lane in New Delhi. Photos: S. Arneja.
But if India is going the Western way in many of its choices, there are some things that please him. "It's the Indian women who carry the tradition. They are the carriers of beauty. They really are," says the former Chairman of Dartington Hall Trust and founding director of Beaford Arts Centre.
Despite his erudition, John Lane, author of "Timeless Simplicity: Creative Living in a Consumer Society" and "The Living Tree: Art and the Sacred" among other books, protests that he knows very little about specific Indian arts - even about, say, Bharatanatyam, which Geeta Chandran is going to perform on the evening of his book launch.
One is wont to disagree with him when he says in his book that Indian languages contain no word for `art'. He may only be using the word in its elitist connotation as separate from ordinary life, but the venerable art editor of Resurgence magazine replies disarmingly, "You have to understand that I know absolutely nothing. I had to look up these words in books, and I looked it up in the wrong book!"
On a serious note, he explains that the primary aim of the Indian art traditions, like other Eastern cultures, was never aesthetic but devotional. And although the art scriptures like the Natya Shastra and others equate the enjoyment of art (rasaanand) with the bliss of God (Brahmaanand), he points out that this is a comparison; it still does not mean the goal of creating aesthetic beauty was given primacy. This was an idea that gained currency during the Middle Ages in Europe, and that has unfortunately been "taken up, lock, stock and barrel" by modern India.
The conversation with John Lane could continue, as beauty has as many forms as its perceivers. Equally, there are innumerable ways in which contemporary society, whether India or the West, ignores it. In the end though, one has to agree with him when he writes that "beauty is not only beyond words but beyond meaning."
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