What draws us to all things bright and beautiful?
Perhaps it is a deep primordial response to the alive, animate and beautiful Earth. Perhaps it is the natural tuning in with beauty inherent in every cell, every shrub, every tree, every creature, river, mountain or desert. Perhaps it is the spell of the sensuous. Or perhaps it is purely a biological response to our multi-colored vision. Whatever the reason, beauty exerts a huge influence on our species. The questions that now need to be asked are:
• In our eternal quest for beauty, where have we reached?
• Who is paying the ‘real price’?
• Are there any alternative paths that can be taken?
It is clear that today, we have more stuff than we have ever had before. We have a wide range to choose from. We have the best bargains and discounts. We have a new reigning style being dictated to us every few weeks. Yet it is also very evident that in the mass produced plenty the focus is on apparent gloss/finish. Too much is being produced, too little is being shared with too much cost to the earth. The gloss and sheen conceals a three-fold crisis as stated by Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence Magazine who is often described as the sage of the Deep Ecology Movement. The first is the environmental crisis of over-exploitation of resources and pollution.The second is the social crisis – the human cost, borne by many to fulfill the wants of a few. The third is the spiritual crisis of total disconnect and alienation. We are a society that has lost its way….
So, who is paying the price?
The planet is paying a huge price and has been thrown totally out of balance. Shakti Maira, artist and writer, talks of beauty as an experience with relational values of balance, harmony, rhythm and proportion. If one looks at beauty like this, the following stories illustrate sharply how out of sync we are:
• The Mexican city of Tehuacan is facing serious water and land pollution due to heavy use of bleaching agent to distress denim.
• Most of the fast-fashion mass produced textiles end up in landfills. UK alone throws away a million tonnes of textiles every year. These then cause toxic seepage into groundwater and also build up of methane in the air as they decompose.
• China has destroyed 80% of its rivers with toxic chemicals and dyes to make cheap clothing for export to the west.
• The stories of appalling treatment of workers in fast-fashion houses like Marks and Spencer, Gap and Primark, highlight the fact that the real cost of the bargain that the consumer gets is borne by the worker. To meet the pressure of increasing demand, they toil away long hours without simple human rights such as rest times, food breaks or toilet breaks.
The consumer too is paying the price of being tyrannized by trends, allured by the illusion of glamour and subjected to bland homogeny. A heavy price is also being paid in terms of ignorance of what lies beneath the superficial gloss of the pretty things we buy.
As a society that is at crossroads, we need to ask tough questions to ourselves: How to pay attention to essence rather than appearance? What is the point of owning beautiful things if it is at the cost of over exploitation of our resources / pollution of our
land, air and water bodies? What is of enduring value – clean drinking water or a hand finished calf leather bag? All the products that don’t get sold out, where do they end
up? Can we redefine our notions / perception about beauty?
Stories of Hope
There are stories of hope from around the world. Organisations such as Environment Justice Foundation, No Sweat and Ethical Fashion Forum are working to enable consumers be discerning and make ethical choices. Slow-fashion is emerging as a new paradigm as many fashion houses are focusing on producing beautiful hand-crafted products with a cradle-to-cradle life span. Aditi, an Internet retailer, sells products that are trans-seasonal, intended to be worn long term and made with materials that are organic, recycled and fairly traded. Many NGOs have been working alongside women’s co-operatives and craftspeople in Africa and India, supporting local communities and ancient crafts while producing reasonably priced, beautifully handcrafted products. Initiatives like Craft Melas and Bazaars organised in different parts of the country also help in bringing together craftspeople and consumers and re-establishing lost connections.
As I write this piece, I can’t stop asking myself this question, where am I in all this?
I must confess to being charmed by beautiful things myself. I am drawn by the apparent beauty of an object; be it a striking or unusual colour or texture or just the perfection or finish of a product. I must admit that for a long time I was trapped in ‘object perception’. I was just looking at beauty as the property of the object and directing my energies towards owning that. I was failing to make the underlying process connections. I wasn’t able to see ‘the cloud in a sheet of paper’. It is only recently that I have begun to train myself to focus on ‘process perception’. So now when something catches my attention I stop to ask myself about the story behind the beautiful object- what went into the making of it? Where will it end up?
Very recently I was also introduced to the Wabi Sabi concept of finding beauty in the ordinary, in the mundane and rough hewn, and in imperfections. I was fascinated by the idea and the story behind it. Legend has it that the Zen priest Shuko changed the popular tea ceremony by discarding the fancy gold, jade and porcelain utensils and introducing simple, rough, wooden and clay ones. We have the opportunity like Shuko, to seize this moment to declare our independence from the tyranny of trends and pave way for authentic and unique self expression.
The time is right for redefining notions and ideas of beauty. We can continue to celebrate our uniqueness and style but we need to find simple and elegant ways to do it. We need to look at beauty as an experience with inherent values of balance and harmony and not as a property of an object or a thing. We need to commit to a more eternal, all encompassing idea of beauty. This can be done quite simply by tuning in with beauty that abounds all around us; in the fragrance of freshly bloomed flowers, in the sunlight that shimmers in a droplet of dew, in the feel and texture of fresh compost, in the taste and richness of a garden fresh vegetable. The way ahead for authentic experience of beauty is beautifully portrayed in a Navajo Indian prayer –
“In beauty I may walk
Through the returning seasons may I walk
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk
With dew about my feet may I walk
With beauty may I walk
With beauty all around me may I walk.”
We need to add just another line to this prayer ….
‘With beauty all around, may many beings walk, for eternity!’