A thought-provoking tome

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A thought-provoking tome

Sunday, 05 March 2017 | AVANTIKA BOSE

A thought-provoking tome

The Promise of Beauty and Why it Matters

Author : Shakti Maira

Publisher : HarperCollins,  Rs 550

Engaging eminent writers in this book, artist and author Shakti Maira explains how a problem lies with the confused understanding of beauty and with beauty becoming superficially located: Quite literally, on the skin, writes AVANTIKA BOSE

Actress Sophia loren once said, “Beauty is how you feel inside, and it reflects in your eyes. It is not something physical”. The basic idea behind The Promise of Beauty and Why It Matters written by Shakti Maira was to answer two crucial questions which form the basis of this book: A) what is beauty and why it matters, and B) to start new conversations on this subject. The author presents his readers with thoughts like does beauty have to do only with how things lookIJ Or is it merely prettinessIJ Or is it entirely subjective, does it serve a functionIJ Or is it something more than just being skin-deep.

Maira is an artist, sculptor and printmaker. He has had 26 one-person shows, the first of which was in 1973 in Mumbai. Since then, his work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in Boston, Paris, New York, Washington, DC, Manchester, Concord, Henniker, Hollis, Acton, Portland, Newport, Portsmouth, Santa Fe, Cambridge, Rotterdam, Colombo, Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi. His work is in the National Gallery of Modern Art in India, and in private collections around the world. Maira recently completed a set of 12 six-foot-high bronze sculpture — The Sangha. He has been engaged in children’s education and development through art and has conducted numerous workshops in schools in the US and India. In 2005, he helped organise the learning through the Arts in Asia symposium in New Delhi and was invited by UNESCO to formulate the Asian Vision of Arts in Education: learning through the Arts. In 2006 he was appointed as a consultant by The India Foundation of the Arts (IFA). He has written extensively on art, aesthetics, education and culture.

Besides all of this, he is also a public speaker on contemporary issues in aesthetics, beauty, art and culture in India and abroad and has also been engaging in a series of dialogues on beauty with scientists, philosophers and environmentalists, and was co-organiser of an international conference, The End of Art, and The Promise of Beauty, in February 2012. He trained as an economist and business manager from prestigious colleges in India. From 1968 to 1990 he balanced careers as a professional artist with managerial and consulting assignments with multinational banks and corporations around the world, including the World Bank. Since 1990, he has devoted his time fully to art and writing.

Historically, beauty has been held in high esteem: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” poet John Keats wrote. Why then do the high priests of the arts and the arguably progressive socio-political thinkers of the day shun itIJ Maira explains how the problem lies with the confused understanding of beauty and with beauty becoming superficially located: Quite literally, on the skin. What would happen, he asks, if beauty were to become central to every aspect of our lives — environment, education, economies and governanceIJ

He engages 18 eminent thinkers in a series of conversations around the difficult, enthralling notion of beauty. Scientists explore whether there is an evolutionary purpose to it. Philosophers examine its relationship to truth and goodness. Artists speak of beauty and its rejection. Brain-mind experts consider whether the experience of it strengthen certain neural pathways connected with qualities of balance, harmony, rhythm and proportion. Activists probe how beauty works in the context of social systems. What emerges is a deeper understanding of beauty and how it is a key to our world: A radical new way of evaluating problems and finding solutions, from the personal to the political, the individual to the universal. The author engages in a dialogue on beauty with 18 different individuals to get a conversation going on the importance of beauty. It is an attempt to look at what beauty is and why is it important through several intellectual prisms.

The book has been written in a unique way: After every three chapters the author pauses to draw together some of the strands of what has been said with his own thinking on beauty. The central point of this book is the dialogues on beauty with Fritjof Capra, Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, Rupert Sheldrake, Karan Singh, Roger Scruton, Satish Kumar, Anjolie Ela Menon, Ruth Padel, Ashok Vajpeyi, Geeta Chandran, Muzaffar Ali, Gautam Bhatia, Semir Zeki, Clifford Saron, Tai Situ Rinpoche, Vandana Shiva, Oliver letwin, Keibo Oiwa. What gives the Promise of Beauty a distinctive quality is the many voices it contains, as these dialogues are the heart of this effort. The book has been divided into five broad categories — scientists, philosophers, art practitioners, brain-minded scientists, and social activists. The last question that the author asked each individual was to share a personal experience of beauty that holds a special place in their lives, and the answers that he got were both surprising and moving.

My favourite part in this book is when Maira writes, “As beauty and ugliness are positive and negative signals of well-being and since we have an innate ability to perceive and experience both, paying attention to beauty can help make our lives better. A skilful use of saundarya drishti will help us to make individual and social choices that will enable wellness and collective flourishing. To do this, we must move beyond the ambiguity of postmodern attitudes towards beauty. Of course, the perception of beauty is always a personal act and it is subject to context and human individuality. But this does not mean that beauty doesn’t have a basis or that it is entirely random and individual. A development of our innate sense of beauty, our saundarya drishti, suggests an open-minded sensitivity and acuity, rather than a dependence on narrow beliefs or cultural and personal habits. Rather than dismiss the importance of beauty, as postmodernism has done, it behoves us to pay more attention to it. The ability to perceive and cognise beauty and base our actions on it is really another kind of human intelligence”. This paragraph explains to us in simple terms the importance of beauty and how it is so much more than a visual/seen experience.

In the end, Maira states that there’s a need for qualitative growth and a shift away from quantitative economic growth. He concludes the book by asking his readers to honour, protect and create beauty in their own world’s and also to take more responsibility for the awakening and blossoming of their own sense of beauty and also perhaps enable it in others.


This book by Shakti Maira is a wonderful attempt to change the general perception of the term ‘beauty’. Maira through his dialogues with eighteen eminent individuals tries to show how beauty is not just a superficial term. He hopes that this book will get the reader to rethink their idea of beauty and how we all can play a part in creating a more beautiful world.

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