Sunday, August 2, 2009

What makes beautiful women beautiful?

It was a typically American marketing trick when Vogue magazine described Leela Naidu as one of the world’s ten most beautiful women. As if there is an endoscope that will measure the specific gravity of beauty. It’s like Time magazine, another gimmickry specialist, publishing lists of “tomorrow’s Asian leaders”. Some of them end up in prison for misdemeanour, but Time gets its mileage from the thousands of Indians who lap up the lists with colonial loyalty.

Leela Naidu was of course an extraordinarily beautiful woman. It was not the Aishwarya Rai kind of beauty. Its brilliance was not wholly, or even mainly, physical. It emanated from, and was embellished by the beauty of an active, comprehending mind. That was what made Maharani Gayatri Devi beautiful even at 90. That’s what makes Nandita Das, or Arundati Roy, or Mallika Sarabhai stand out in a crowd. That – and not Mallika Sharawat – is the reason for the poetic proclamation that “beauty is truth, and truth beauty”. The best of them know that what they are born with must make them grateful, not boastful.

How ironic that Gayatri Devi was also in that fateful Vogue list. She passed away within 24 hours of Leela’s passing. Gayatri Devi’s grace and class put her in the classic realm, perhaps with Cleopatra and Anarkali. The strength of her character laminated the nobility of her bearing, leading to massive electoral majorities. Which was unacceptable to Indira Gandhi. She sought not only the imprisonment but also the humiliation of the woman who dared to challenge her. The Maharani was lodged in a Tihar cell along with street women and leprosy patients. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned.

Like Gayatri Devi, Leela Naidu was aware, but not vain, about her beauty. Her intellectual sensibilities were well enough honed for her to distinguish between the ephemeral and the abiding. She was very much a thinking beauty. She imbibed the nuances of European aesthetics from her mother and, from her father, the resolve to stand up for her values.

Her personal life was a continuous tragedy – two failed marriages, twin daughters gone astray, grievous illnesses, loneliness. She longed for love and didn’t get it. She developed angularities, shifting moods. There was no family to turn to. Her only solace was the memory of her father whom she revered.

It’s a pity that India knows little about Ramaiya Naidu, a pioneering scientist and a staunch nationalist. He opposed colonialism so strongly that he refused to study in the premier colleges of the day because they were all British-founded. He preferred Shantiniketan and Banares Hindu University, and actively supported Krishnamurthy’s Rishi Valley school. He declined scholarships offered by famous British universities and went instead to Paris for his PhDs. Specialising in ionization under Madame Curie, he became a founding father of the Tata cancer hospital in Bombay. At one point, radiation incapacitated him and he was forced to give up cancer-related work.

It was routine for Leela to go teary-eyed and lump-throated whenever a reference to her father came up. Leela was enormously talented, but her creativity was never funnelled into works of her own. It was utilised in movies others made or books others wrote; as Dom Moraes’ travel partner, she used to conduct research and even interviews for his books. Leela spread a lot of light around, though her own life was mostly spent in darkness. Suffering sometimes cleanses life, but why should people who do no harm to others suffer at all?