On Beauty (Chapter-1)

Abdullah Motaleb
Art & Literature, Story
On Beauty (Chapter-1)

when i arrived in Europe, i arrived in the UK (now i know, that this island is not really Europe). i was 15. i had landed in the working class world of the immigrants. My friends from those days were mostly indians coming from kenya and uganda. for some reason, they were listening to elvis presley, i was listening to presley with them. in london, manchester, the punk was rising. i had no idea. i had not even heard of the flower power yet. presley’s music, the movies were happy images in a harsh immigrant world. every one wanted to get out of that world. “paki-bashing” was on the agenda. hanif khureishi wrote about the time.

one and a half years later i stranded in a small town in germany. i was stuck in a socially deprived world. unlike the immigrants in the uk, here the immigrants were scattered, they did not have a neighbourhood to call their own. on tv and radio, the germans had their own happy music. this music was full of kitsch. too happy, bare all rebellion. the songs would have german lyrics. now and again there would be a rock ‘n’ roll version. the lyrics in german would sound odd in these rock ‘n’ roll songs. at some point i hit upon uriah heep, jethro tull and few others. a part of the younger generation of the time was listening to american music. this group thought modern songs could not be sung in german. a friend, now my brother-in-law, played me the music. this was better. only when an american friend, in fact my friend’s father, introduced me to the world of bowie, and a teacher played us pink floyd did the doors open. in one of the classes, the teacher played a beatles’ song and then one by pink floyd. we were to discuss music. what is music. this teacher had many such ideas. she would give us strange assignments. i had been to florence with this teacher. for me she was a teacher of a different kind. she did not teach, she made us wonder, made us think and come up with ideas of our own. she never forced. one could sit in her class and do literally nothing. usually when one came into the class room, there would be some words chalked on the black board, that would be the assignment of the day. she would sit behind her desk and say nothing, explain nothing. though i was still doing the conventional, thinking in the way my old world had taught me to think, this teacher sent on a journey that is still ongoing.

my realization , my awakening on the matter of art came upon me in florence. a kind of enlightenment, without my knowing, without my pressing. my education, my bringing up had not prepared me for this. art did not matter. this awakening did not happen suddenly, it was not an eureka moment. it was more a realization taking many years of growing. this awakening came to me when i was in a museum, looking at a rather small unpretentious figure. i was taken away by one other figure in the same museum. the first, a bronze figure of unseen beauty, at least for me. i had approached the figure from the back. i had taken it to be the figure of a woman, the most erotic beauty without  any touch of shame i was allowed to admire on my own. its nakedness had aroused me. when i came around, it was the figure of a youth of impertinent beauty, androgynous beauty. i had never seen this kind of beauty ever in my life before. maybe i had but did not know. here, in this museum, no one really being around me, i could give into the arousal without shame.  the face, the body, the smoothness of the figure had burnt into my memory for ever. the other figure was made of wood, of a woman, the ugliest  woman my eyes had ever set  on. the ragged woman was the most unerotic woman. her breasts were hanging low, just skin. these two figures, burnt in my mind for ever, i had carried them without knowing who their makers had been. I did not know whether these figures were meant to be someone particular, if they meant anything, whether they were supposed to mean anything. i was young in those days, not really concerned. it would take many, many years, when a book on art would fall into my hand and i would discover that these two figures were the work of the same artist. the artist may not have been called an artist in those days, rather an artisan.

i found out that the bronze figure was meant to be david, the woman, maria magdalena. there had been stories behind david and magdalena. the artisan, a man named donatello. later I had seen other sculptures of david made by other artists. the book had informed me of the placing of donatello in the history of art, the western art. i had to grow a relationship to the figure of david, to magdalena, to donatello. the background of these figures were foreign to me, while every child in europe knew about them. they knew about the time when these works were made, about the time when the artist had lived. the children were also given the the idea of david, who he was, his history. they were also informed about magdalena, maria. these two figures were part of their life, their own story. these children, growing up in europe, may not know a thing about donatello. may be that is not quite true.

out of all the davids I had seen since then, and there had been many, i had made this distinct sculpture of david my point of departure on my journey. no other david had ever moved me more. david and magdalena would also become my points of reference when i needed to understand what other artists had done, what others were doing, what others are doing, which art work can stand against these two figures, do the others move me in a similar way. do some work move me more. out of these grew my sense of aesthetic. this word, aesthetic, did not exist in my mind in those early days. it took me long even to understand the meaning of this word, let alone know that there had been men and women writing about this word.

this awakening of my mind could have happened in some other place, at a different time. it did not. i have to take it as it is. i had begun to collect information of the time and life of donatello first and then spread further. it had been easier to collect information of this time. this had effects. finding information on other civilizations, of any other time, of other beauties had been a more difficult task. i admit, there had been no chronology in this collecting first. it was done randomly. there seemed to be no need for the chronology. this came later, i had to sort out the time line, a very tenuous work. i am not done with it yet. now  i realize well, there are masterly works i could find anywhere i travelled. some of these works I had seen on my travel had stirred me in the very same way.  some works had stirred me more. so, the choice of my point of reference had happened by chance, a simple coincidence,, by just being in a particular spot, at a particular time, by chance. nothing more, nothing less. the figures in the hoysala temples i had seen much later, some of these figures coming from even an earlier time than donatello’s, are just as good, some even better. i had tried to find more information on the making of these south indian hoysala figures, but i failed. i shall have to stick to my frame of reference as it stands now.

[ to be continued… ]

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