Mahalakshmi Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor, Ancient History (specialities, ancient societies and art), JNU has invited the Aadhaar Mahila.. to display their wares at Aurobindo Place, Hauz Khas for Diwali. The Aadhar is an initiative by one Ms Reshma, an alumnus of Vishwabharati Kala Bhavan who lives and works in Jharkhand among the tribals. She has among her stocks, masks, lamps and jewellery. The masks are exhausted because I bought most of them off due to my fascination for them. The jewellery is there in all their resplendent terracotta. Reshma’s efforts remind me of a story I read in Amita Sen’s autobiography, Ashramkanya, the first book that I ever reviewed. For those who are interested in name dropping, Amita Sen is the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s late mother. Amita Sen writes that Tagore would often invite the glitterati of Calcutta to his Poush Mela in Shantiniketan. Tagore invented the event to promote the Adivasi way of life and showcase their arts and crafts for the fashionable world; the Poush Mela constituted his efforts at promoting the tribal way of life and tribal fashions. Poush is the month of intense winter in India and given the warm climate for most of the plains in the land, poush brings the salubrious cool and along with it the plenty of the harvested crops. Shantiniketan is at its finest in the middle of Poush, the time of the winter fair.
However, for the girls at Tagore’s school, the fete had its problems. The girls from Calcutta were bedecked up in fine clothes and jewellery while the girls at Shantiniketan would wear coarse cloth and had no ornaments whatsoever. Amita Sen writes that they would be anxious that compared to the gold jewellery of the girls from Calcutta, they would look sallow and ugly. Tagore, sensing this rueful envy instructed Nandalal Bose’s wife to design jewellery for the Ashram girls. Mrs Bose used dried straw, wood, terracotta and flowers to create the most alluring adornments for the girls. Amita Sen writes with pride how jealous the girls from Kolkata were; they took off their enrichments and instead pined for these simple but aesthetic embellishments. Reshma’s jewellery made out of dried earth makes me recall the origin of such jewellery designing in Vishwa Bharati, her Alma Mater.
But the sale of jewellery on the first day at Aurobindo Place was poor. It seems that women from North India did not find them inspiring; as they would be deaf to Tagorean Music, they were blind to an essentially Tagorean idea of beauty. Northern India is glitter and gloss; not for it is asceticism, not for it is the pursuit of pure beauty. North Indians pursue beauty also as ostentation; their clothes are competition, homes are displays, bodies are public. The respect for the private and personal is scant; the glory of what can be showed off is substantial. They buy fashion stuff only because it has a tag which can be converted into money and hence has value for the bystander; the idea of self as a meditative unity is as foreign to North India as aloo parathas are for the Eskimoes. North India has no ability to recognize; its cognition is only through the eyes of the other and if the other values what one has, then one values oneself. Money and not beauty, power and not peace is what North India pursues. This is why, pure beauty as terracotta jewellery has little appeal for the polyester, polythene, paraffin visitors of Hauz Khas.
In Bengal there is an idea of “Alakshmi”, an entity which appears like Lakshmi but is essentially evil. Both signify wealth but the wealth that Lakshmi provides is rather intangible; it is a wealth of good health, good mind, pure spirit, domestic peace, goodwill among friends, kindness to all, neatness, tidiness, in other words, a typically Kantian unity of transcendental perfection. Lakshmi promises such nirvanic wealth. This is why Bengalis worship Lakshmi in the soft but bright glow of the autumn moon when the sky is the clearest and the night is the calmest. The deity is worshipped in the utter quiet of the house, no crackers, no string light, no loud laughter, no quarrel, no sharp tasting food and no display of excess wealth. The Alakshmi, on the other hand is worshipped just as she is in the North Indian Diwali with excess of everything, glitter and glow of dazzling light, gluttony of food, and ear splitting sound as she oversees the worship of wealth in gambling; her day is the darkest hour of the last leg of autumn; the wintery smog envelops her moments. The Alakshmi is wealth pursued for the sake of wealth, for power and ostentation. Lakshmi, on the other hand is the wealth of beauty, of aesthetics.
When we worship beauty for the sake of beauty and not for the auction value of art, we truly find our centres. A well centred person seeks harmony among the wider community; appreciates and revives the core of truth in cultures and helps in a genuine communion among cultures. In this way, cultures retain their uniqueness and at the same time find a resonance in the universality of humanity. Aesthetic philosophy unites humankind, resists marginalization and makes everything worthy and valuable. Beauty for the sake of beauty is perhaps the way out for a world torn asunder not so much by great wars, or ravaged by great famines and sweeping epidemics as it is by a sense of competition and consumerism among people. In a world where each is racing against everyone else in a bid to grab the next consumer good for the sake of “one up man” ship, the pursuit of beauty, which returns the person to her inner soul, can genuinely help the human to recover her lost self.