“Because beauty isn’t enough, there must be something more.” ~ Eva Herzigova
Beauty is a word that has oft been misused and abused. Attractive, different, colourful, new, alluring, magical, glamorous… Somewhere we ourselves aren’t sure of what we mean when we say “It’s beautiful.” An earring can be beautiful, so can a car, so can a knife! What meets the eye is the fact that we wish to possess beautiful things. Beauty has long been held guilty for luring people, deceiving them and driving them to a possessive lust. At other times, it has been seen as a weak, superficial and frivolous layer of mankind, incapable of growing beyond vanity into anything substantial. How then do we find the smile of a little child beautiful? If beauty begets vices, why does it make us smile with joy. What we choose to do after we perceive beauty is a matter of choice. Whether we choose to stand and stare or run and grab is about ‘us’. But the perception of beauty, the peaceful happiness it induces, is beyond us.
A long standing view has been that we associate thoughts and emotions to various sights and perceiving them as beautiful depends on what we associate them with. We find birds beautiful because we may associate with them flight, open skies, freedom, exploration. Or at other times, when they are sitting on their nests, we may associate security, cosiness, love, warmth. The same goes for colours. A lot has been said about how greens are sensed differently from reds and blues, why certain colour combinations appeal to us while others seem jarring.
Ratios are important too. Ratio of nose to face, of handle to door, in designs natural and man-made. These ratios are important not just for visual pleasantness but also for the utility of the design. And that is something that we do subconsciously – associate a function with an object and thereby decide its beauty. The pen is too thin for a good grasp or the keys are too big to type quickly. And that’s why people are often unable to judge the beauty of an object unless they know what it is. And this is also why beauty is interwoven with utility and efficiency of a design, not to speak of its appeal.
But is beauty such a selfish thought indeed? Is it all about us? Our gratification, our profit, our liking? Could it, in some remote possibility, be about others? Could beauty be our way of recognising their happiness?
A thin line between beauty and painlessness – the knowledge of what went right.
When something is in the prime of its ability and efficiency, it gladdens us subconsciously. We feel like the object in question is living to the maximum growth and progress of its generation of entities. It can make us proud, attracted to or envious of the object. I am reminded of the times my father and I would watch the Olympics on the television, specifically events like parallel bars, rhythmic gymnastics etc. My father would be awed by the appearance of the male and female athletes and I would be enraged. “Be awed by their skill, that’s ok with me. But appearance? Beauty is such a trivial thing to admire in a person,” I would argue. He would smile and explain that the good health, the fitness, the flexibility of the human body radiated a certain happiness to him. Sitting on couches and desks all day, surrounded by people taking tablets for hypertension, the beauty of the athletes revived in him, the sense of satisfaction on seeing humans being as healthy as they can be, suffering as little as they needed to. Efficiency has a selfish hue to it. The more efficient a process, the more we gain. But humans aren’t that selfish a species. It is not always about us and our profits. In fact those are after thoughts. Efficiency is about empathy. The more efficient an object, the less it suffers. An object that’s brand new looks beautiful because it is fresh and fit. Old objects have wear and tear in them which tell us what they have gone through and how they are struggling to function in spite of the weariness.
The effect of perceived pain on beauty is also evident in the aspect of symmetry. Let me go beyond geometrical shapes and take up the example of dance. The grace of a dance pose is primarily viewed as a visual treat. When a dancer lacks grace, it hurts the eye, makes for an unpleasant sight. But, the backbone of what we call grace is balance. Below are two Kathak poses. You dont need to know Kathak to answer which one you find more beautiful.
If you take the entire pose into consideration, the second looks more beautiful. The stretch of the leg to the left, the bend of the waist to the right and the bend of the arm to the left are supposed to counter each other. The pose is elegant because it succeeds in doing that. She is in a state of complete balance and comfort in this pose. In the first picture the left hand is lower than required and the right hand is straighter than required to balance the bend. I don’t find it less beautiful because it hurts my eye. I find it less beautiful because this pose would have caused her pain. In the pose, she is straining her lower back and left shoulder. In Bharatnatyam, the concept of bending your knees (called aramandi) is crucial to the balance. The modern dances where they mimic Bharatnatyam steps in a Bollywood or Western dance sequence, mock the half-knees. The dancers don’t feel comfortable doing the steps and lack the stability. The aesthetic is not about ‘styles’ of doing a step, it is about not harming the body while doing it.
Humans are inherently empathising. As much as we may like to talk about ourselves as self-centred, profit obsessed, mean souls, the first thoughts on seeing something is indeed about ‘it’. Probably our way of understanding something is by emulating its experience, its pain and comfort. How we emulate vision, music, literature, colours is a marvel. It is for this reason that I highly encourage people to learn different arts. These are not just different forms of expression but also different ways of appreciating beauty. The more you learn to recognise beauty, the more you feel their peace, the more you develop hope and the more happiness you spread.
A few years back, when I was in the hospital and advised indefinite bed rest, a well wisher came to see me – an old lady, walking with the aid of a stick. She sympathetically asked me “Of what use is all the dance you learnt?”. I answered to myself, “Dance makes me feel your pain when you limp. Dance makes me feel my legs when I cant move them. The sight of a beautiful dancer beckons me, motivating me with the comfort of the sheer existence of such a beauty.”