Vth  National Seminar, “The Enigma of Beauty”

St. Berchmans College, Changanassery, Kerala

2-4 January 2014  

Akeel and David

The Centre organized its fifth National Seminar on “The Enigma of Beauty” in collaboration with St. Berchmans College, Changanassery, Kerala, during 2-4 January 2014. The program was part of series of seminars in which enigmas such as health, happiness and pain have already been deliberated upon. Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999) was used as the key text for the seminar.

In the welcome address during the inaugural, Dr. Mathew Jose K, Head, Dept of English, and Professor Prafulla C. Kar, Director of Balvant Parekh Center spoke eruditely about the theme of the seminar with references to the representational and philosophical aspects of beauty and its associations with virtue, nature, emotions and being. Rev. Dr. Tomy Joseph Padingareveetil, the Principal of S. B. College inaugurated the seminar. Professor P. J. Thomas, Convener of the seminar proposed the vote of thanks. Sweetha Saji and Elizabeth George, students of English Department, anchored all sessions of the seminar.  

In the keynote address, David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale University and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences problematized the idea of beauty by pointing out the fallacy of associating it with objects. Hierarchies and divisions, such as sublimity and beauty, make this categorization more complex instead of explaining it. Referring to Scarry’s book, Professor Bromwich explored the connections and rupture between beauty and justice. His thesis was enriched by examples from poetry which he discussed in great detail. He illustrated the potential of the notions, pure and impure beauty with reference to two poems that he analyzed during the seminar, inviting responses from the participants. Professor Bromwich explained how Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” exhibits the idea of conceit while Eliot's “Preludes” accepts sordid reality and offers a new vision that impure beauty brings out. This view triggered a lively discussion. Professor Akeel Bilgrami, Sidney Morgenbesser Professsor of Philosophy at Columbia University and a faculty member of the committee on Global Thought chaired the session.  

The next session was based on presentations and discussions on “Philosophical and Cultural Implications of Beauty.” P.J. Thomas gave an overview of Scarry's book, exploring the connections between beauty and justice. The paper “A Repairable /Perfectible Body-Self-Image: Cancer and its Cosmetic Concerns” by Bini B.S. analyzed representations ofdisfigurement” resulting from surgical and therapy procedures in treating female cancers. It highlighted altered body-self-images and established notions about the “beauty” of women’s body. The paper “Enigma of Aesthetic Experience” by Falguni Bharateeya was based on George Santayana's work, The Sense of Beauty. It read into aesthetic experiences and expressions with a special reference to language as a medium of representation and communication.

The session on “Health, Beauty and Biopolitics” had papers exploring beauty and control over the corporeal aspects of existence. Milan Khangamcha critiqued the commodification and eroticization of human bodies projected as beautiful in entertainment and media industries. R. K. Raghavi in her paper “‘I Am All Things Marvelous’: The Concepts of Beauty in Marvelyn Brown’s The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and HIV (Positive) visited the interfaces of body, illness, beauty and death.

The plenary talk on “The Nature of Value, Properties, Moral and Aesthetic: A Philosophical Analysis” by Prof. Akeel Bilgrami, chaired by Prof. David Bromwich, opened up vistas of new complexities in the conceptualization of beauty vis-a-vis justice and virtue. Prof Bilgrami highlighted the reversal of Scarry's thinking about beauty and ruminated on what happens to the beholder of beauty. Mapping out the 17th century views on matter-nature, beauty-goodness and surveying the theses of Kant and Hume, Prof Bilgrami emphasized the notion of aesthetic value. He stated, “What we project upon the world is philosopher's proposition” and added, “'Desire is your way of seeing.” Dealing with the notion of agency and the nature of value, Prof. Bilgrami posited a question about the language of art.

The plenary talk was followed by the Sheppard Memorial lecture organized by S. B. College onThe Romantic Sublime” by Prof. David Bromwich in which he explained the idea and experience of sublimity with reference to the works of Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.

The following session on “'Enigma of Beauty in Literary Texts” shed light on different nuances of beauty and aesthetics through a close reading of texts and contexts.   Hari M G and H S Komalesha’s joint paper on “Positing Beauty against Injustice and Violence: Arun Kolatkar’s Sarpa Satra,” Neetu Tessa Baby’s presentation on “Of Tattoos and Tantalizings: Beauty and Morality Discourses in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy,” The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Critique on the Aesthetics of Beauty” by Rashmi Attiri and Sapna Balakrishnan’s The Aesthetics of the Ugly: Representation of the Sacred in Hindu Mythology” studied the intercessions of beauty, ethics, youth, desire and death. The engagement with literary texts continued in the following session also. Reena Salil’s presentation on Steppenwolf and Siddhartha in which she explored the socio-aesthetic and spiritual quests for beauty by the characters in Hermann Hesse’s texts, Shahla Ghauri’s reading into the anatomies of beauty, excellence and gore in the depiction of bull-fighting in the novels of Hemingway and Harsha Viswanath’s analysis of Subhashitavali brought out varied aspects of beauty and its representations in texts. Sami Rafiq did a comparative analysis John Keats and Asraul Haq Majaz by illustrating their principles of aesthetics and responses to beauty. Shintu Dennis conceptualized the representations of beauty in Tagore, Frankl and O. V. Vijayan.

The last day of seminar had a plenary talk on “Good is Relative in Ways that Beauty is Not” by Professor Carol Rovane and chaired by Prof. Bromwich. Professor Rovane, professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, ruminated on the philosophical understanding of goodness and beauty through the ideas of several thinkers and explained how these concepts differ.

The valedictory session was chaired by Prof. Jacob Thomas, Vice Principal of the host institution who reflected on the complexities of the seminar theme. Prof. Kar referred to the term Teleopoesis - and spoke on the possibilities of searching for beauty by finding the ruptures and connections existing simultaneously and intrinsically in and between things. The session ended with Prof. P. J. Thomas's concluding remarks.

The facilities provided by the host institution for accommodation and food were remarkable. Participants enthusiastically explored the nearby places, especially the beautiful backwaters of Kerala. Another highlight was a Kathakali demonstration and a musical concert arranged at S. B. College.


Falguni Bharateeya

Nalini Arvind College of Arts & Commerce, Anand