Here's my third and concluding essay on the awesome concept of Symmetry. I thought I had said the last word on the subject, but I was wrong. Just read on!
Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text)
Nataraja -- Alternate name of Lord Siva. the Hindu God, depicted as a vigorous cosmic dancer striking a standard pose in all statues and pictures.
Raaga/Taala -- In Indian classical music, established patterns of melody/rhythm.
Aarohana/Avarohana - Established order of ascent/descent of notes in a raaga.
Ballet -- Classical dance of Europe.
Bharatha-naatyam/Odissi/Kathak -- Classical dance systems of South/South-East/North India.
Scotch reel -- A traditional dance of Scotland, set to bagpipes music.
Flamenco -- Dance tradition of Spain, with a bullfight orientation and gypsy colors.
Waltz -- A graceful, swirling type of Western music, ideal for ballroom dancing.
(Look for above dance forms in YouTube, for a rich experience)
29 December 1991
The panorama of symmetry
Turning our view from the visual arts to the performing arts, we find that symmetry still figures as a fundamental criterion, which can be given up only at the cost of excellence. This truth is most clearly visible in the case of dance, where the impact is mainly visual. There is a strong resemblance between a well-performed dance and the steady flame of an oil-lamp (especially one exposed to a gentle breeze) or the lively flames of a fuel-wood fire.
Naturally, in a good dance we observe the same quality of symmetry which we find in flames. Good choreography obviously calls for a symmetrical vision. The ancient temple sculpture of India was, among other things, a celebration of the symmetry of dance : perhaps the most magnificent example of this is the classic pose of Nataraja.
Music & symmetry
Symmetry in music concerns the logical flow of its sound. One may look for it separately in melody, harmony or tempo (incorporating rhythm), or in the balance achieved when integrating these elements. In Indian classical music there is remarkable symmetry in the 'aarohana' and 'avarohana' of the ragas, and in the meticulous tempo set up by the various taalas. Given these established patterns of melody and rhythm, the symmetry of Indian classical music is to a large extent pre-determined. In the West, where no such compulsory patterns restrain the process of composition except in the case of certain forms of dance music, the structure of any arrangement for instrumental or vocal music is normally governed by a far more flexible regime of symmetry.
A vital source of symmetry in Indian classical music is the 'sruthi' -- a continuous shimmering backdrop which not only anchors the basic tonic at the proper level but also provides a reassuring sound which is part of the music in its own right. Western music does not normally adopt such an organic device for regulating the pitch or reinforcing the sound ; but the persistent anchoring efforts in pop music and in instrumental jazz do give rise to a kind of sruthi, whether this is based on any theoretical requirement or not. There is, by the way, a constant drone similar to sruthi in certain types of Swedish music.
Dancing to music
Except perhaps in very unorthodox displays of virtuosity, dance cannot be performed without appropriate parallel music (usually with an accent on rhythm). We can easily recognize the symmetry between a system of dance and the music which is meant for it -- whether we are thinking of ballet or Bharatha-naatyam, Scotch reel or Odissi, Kathak or Flamenco. The steady pulse of a beautiful waltz contributes to the graceful swirl of ballroom dancing, and also reflects it. Folk music and dance everywhere are more closely bound together than art music and dance, therefore this consonance between sound and vision is more prominent in their case.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. For instance, the showy gyrations and gymnastics of disco dancers or pop musicians (especially in video productions) often degenerate into wildly discordant movements and images, while the parallel music usually maintains a stable sonority.
Drama and cinema
Is there symmetry in drama? We do not have to search hard for an answer : it would be enough merely to consider the composite nature of the dramatic art, which incorporates the elements of literature and the visual arts,, and often the other performing arts too. In all shades of drama, ranging from simple rustic drama to sophisticated urban theater, there has to be a fine balance between artistic disciplines of different kinds. It all boils down to a question of symmetry, of course. In this regard, what is true of drama is also true of motion pictures, with appropriate modifications.
Artists and audience
In the case of the visual arts, architecture, audio and video recordings and cinema, the interaction of the viewers is not with the creators of art, but with their creations. But in the case of live music, dance and drama, there is a direct communication between the artists and the audience. The success of a performance depends to a large extent on the symmetry which exists in this sensitive relationship.
Language & literature
Let us now take a look at language and literature. In an earlier essay we had noted that there is considerable logic in the grammar and composition of language. It is a fact that wherever there is logic there is symmetry. We had also seen that there are certain illogical elements in language, especially in the case of script and spelling in relation to sound ; to that extent, symmetry is missing in language. Of course, it is visibly present in the maintenance of alphabetical order, the compilation of dictionaries, and in the techniques of short-hand transcription.
There is obvious symmetry in the rhythm of poetry in any language, and in its rhyming and alliteration. John Ruskin, the English art critic of the 19th century, talked of the "symmetrical clause of Pope's logical metre." While poetry can express profound and beautiful thoughts, it may also be majestic and lovely in its mere form, like music.
Elegant prose too has a distinct rhythm, but this depends more on meaning. Herbert Reed, the distinguished literary critic, says in his book 'English Prose Style' : "Rhythm is born not with the words but with the thought . . . The paragraph is a plastic mass. and it takes shape from the thought it has to express. The words are like clay on a potter's wheel . . . " But obviously thought is the seminal source of all literature, not merely of prose. The ultimate symmetry of literature, whether it takes the form of a poem, essay, novel, short story or play, lies in the delicate equilibrium between thought and articulation -- in other words, in the balance achieved between perception and language. It is equally true that elegance and beauty of style basically depend on the symmetrical arrangement of words, not only as they look on paper, but also as they sound when spoken.
Universal law of symmetry
This survey will not be complete unless we take stock of certain other manifestations of symmetry -- which are illustrative and not exhaustive, and reinforce the impression that there seems to be a universal law of symmetry.
Let us consider sports, for instance. There is symmetry in the whole ambiance of a hockey or football ground, tennis or badminton court, billiards able or carom board, ski slope or skating rink, athletic track or velodrome -- not only in the visual impact of the events, but in the competition between the sportspersons and (where relevant) the cohesion of team-work. A high degree of symmetry exists in the infinite permutations of chess and in the intricate equations of bridge.
There are many aspects of management where symmetry is a major factor. Institutional success depends a great deal on the kind of balance which exists in the relationship between employers and employees, between management and ownership, and between the organization and its clients, customers and associates. There must be order in the maintenance of accounts and the contents of balance sheets. There must be compatibility in the planning of projects, and consistency in their implementation.
Symmetry is of paramount importance in the context of rational argument, whether it concerns legal issues. audit scrutiny, political and social commentary, scientific inquiry or the pursuit of pure wisdom. The force of impartial argument is derived from the balance implicit in objectivity. One naturally looks for perfect logic in judicial pronouncements, the Auditor-General's reports to the legislature, editorials of responsible newspapers, scientific papers and philosophic treatises.
As mentioned earlier, wherever there is logic, there is symmetry. This is true whether we relate rationality to thought processes or to the scheme of things which exist in nature or in a man-made environment. But symmetry and logic are not synonymous terms, and we must carefully note the distinction between them. An important fact that needs to be underlined is that while there may be logic in something which is not symmetrical, there csn be no symmetry in anything which is not logical.
When I started exploring the concept of symmetry in my monthly column 'Articulations' in THE HINDU, I knew it would call for several essays of the usual length permitted by the Editor. But just when I had finished writing the third one -- which I imagined would successfully conclude the extremely intricate exercise -- the first two attracted a strong rejoinder from an eminent Indian scientist.
It took me some time to respond, but after a few weeks I turned the argument into a question of science vs. language, proving my point. That, of course, will be the topic of the next post!