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Things of beauty

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musings Is my perspective of the world entirely utilitarian? Am I one of those people who don’t care what something looks like so long as it does what it is supposed to?

When my eternally spring-cleaning friend Sa tells me she’s giving away beautiful objects she’d collected over the years, the question arises in me: What objet de art have I bought myself recently? Nothing. Five years ago? Ten, twenty, thirty, ever? Staggered by the answer, I begin to systematically take stock of my possessions.

First, I do a 360 degrees to view the knickknacks around me, the clay sheep, wooden horse, ditto owl, inlaid cats, zebra close-up, framed watercolours, brass figurines of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza... so many more, none of which I’ve bought and all of which I’ve retained only because I am fond of those who gifted them to me. There is no grand design behind the display; I’ve placed or hung or propped them up at random. Which leads me to a disconcerting thought: Do I have a poorly developed sense of aesthetics?

Taste is cultivated. Maybe I’ve been a negligent farmer on the fields of culture. Taste is also relative. You might turn up your nose at the fluffy parakeet dangling on the rear view mirror but the driver is doubtless charmed by it. The woman in the leaf-green kameez with large magenta prints must have carefully picked what you would perhaps shudder at the sight of. Leave aside the differences between highbrow and lowbrow for the moment, even people with little or no money to spare would like to embellish the space they live and/or work in. The question is why don’t I? I am bad news for the traditional artisan — if the rest of the country was like me, crafts melas would cease to exist. (And if the rest of the country was like my friends Su and C, every Indian weaver would be saved from penury.) I’m not in the market for Tanjore paintings or Patachitra, and as for contemporary art, what I don’t know about it could fill volumes. I am not and have never been house-proud. No curtains matching the furniture, no scalloped, embroidered cloths to protect the backs of sofas. You won’t find satin throw-cushions, tasteful lampshades or ornate vases in my home. My dining table has no place-mats and I run a Spartan kitchen.

This brings me to another disturbing idea: Is my perspective of the world entirely utilitarian? Am I one of those unimaginative people who don’t care what something looks like so long as it does what it is supposed to? It is true that I might serve my guests food straight from the kadai instead of transferring it into a ‘presentable’ container. It is true that I believe a watch is a functional and not a decorative object, and therefore I don’t buy watches to match my clothes. But I do care what my clothes look like (although my style tends toward the austere), for if I didn’t, you would find me forever garbed in uniform like a swami or a Maoist. Niggling notion number three: am I not ‘feminine’ enough? But to say that men don’t have an eye for ornamental objects is as stereotypical a statement as “All women love shopping for clothes and jewellery” — which I don’t, by the way; if you wanted a window-shopping companion I’m the worst you could pick, for I don’t ooh and aah over stuff on display.

The more I think about it, the more determined I am to get to the bottom of it: there must be something wrong with me, right? Reflecting on the few curios I’ve bought myself, I’m struck by how childish my tastes are — a ship in a bottle, a kaleidoscope that shows infinite images, tubular wind chimes precisely tuned to musical notes. You can’t call them things of beauty, but they do please me. Oh, let me not forget to mention the wooden whistle from Rishikesh; it emits a warbling wolf-whistle when you blow into it and simultaneously yank a string. Hmm. Not exactly a connoisseur’s choice, eh? But I’m up front about my shortcomings. Some people, on the other hand, assuming that anything expensive must necessarily be beautiful, buy works of art they have no clue about just so the world will consider them aesthetes. These are probably the people who buy ridiculously priced consumer goods that their manufacturers claim are works of art. Well at least I have enough sense to make out that a damn bathroom tap is not the Mona Lisa.

P has an answer for why I don’t lust after pretty things. She says it’s because I’m not acquisitive. Upon reviewing my shopping habits I think she may be right. For example, I went to the Bengaluru Santhe next to the S.V. Road metro station in search of a cloth bag with a zipper. I found two in a pattern that I liked, but I felt constrained to choose between them when I could easily have bought both and used them alternately. It is the same impulse that makes me go to a clothing store and select just one top at a time.

We can agree that I am not a complete Philistine, then. I react viscerally to primary colours (more evidence of my childishness?), particularly those found in nature. But it is not so much the visual as the literary arts that stir my aesthetic sensibilities. Words, words — the sight and the sound of them.

(Send your feedback to ckmeena@gmail.com)

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