JOQ with Madhu

JOQ with Madhu

We all need a creative outlet.

It brings balance to a life that would otherwise be go, go, go. It allows us a moment to stop, to reach within ourselves and to tap into something personal and true.

For several of us at Mez Mag, the form is dance. Our friend and editorial panelist Madhu, who has a PhD in urban planning and architecture from MIT, and who now teaches at MIT, says:

“Dance provides a sense of peace and a creative and experimental outlet.”

Lorena contributes her sentiments as well:

“Dancing and feeling the energy of the music seems to takes you out of your reality, away from your problems and routine. Like when you are watching a movie or reading a book, it seems that you transport yourself to that space. So it is with dancing – you are part of a play at that moment, where the act and result of an action depends on you.”

For me, dance is therapy, meditation. It allows me to explore a place that is beyond verbal or written expression. It’s cathartic. It’s an exhale, when the world has me gulping too much air.

All of us need that time to connect to something that gives us peace. For some it is kite-flying or woodworking, cooking or hiking. The trouble is, some people never get the opportunity to find their therapeutic activity.

Creativity is undervalued; it is seen as impractical in a world emphasizing wealth and success.

As a former middle school teacher, I was often frustrated by the fact that our schools seem designed to churn out students who can perform well on tests, get into a good college, and earn a degree that secures them a high-paying job. There is little room for success outside this framework, and there is certainly little room for creativity within it. Students get in trouble for doodling, or fidgeting, or making jokes. The ideal student is one who sits quietly, absorbs what we give them, and churns out accurate responses. The ideal student is a robot.

In his TED talk on the importance of imagination, Sir Ken Robinson gives an account of Gillian Lynne–a famous choreographer who was fortunate to have a teacher who recognized her fidgeting in class as a sign of talent, rather than an affliction in need of medication. Instead of sending her to the principal’s office, her teacher called her parents to suggest she take dance classes. Sir Ken agrees that creativity is undervalued in our school system–that we focus too often on the right or wrong answer, without giving a nod to the process itself. This is not to say that there aren’t amazing teachers who go beyond curriculum to endorse creativity in the classroom, and I can personally attest to working among an amazing group of them.

Our school was fortunate to have an arts program that included music and dance, and every year a very dedicated group of teachers and parents had to fight to keep it going. It pains me to think of all the programs that must be getting cut in the current economic climate. There weren’t even many to begin with. These programs often provide a ‘win’ for students who might not find success in the other arenas of academic life. These programs might be the sole motivation for a student to stay in school, and these programs are constantly being threatened. Fewer and fewer kids have the chance to find their creative outlet, let alone the chance to make it a career and become what Malcolm Gladwell calls an ‘outlier’.

Think of all the future YoYo Ma’s and Zoe Keatings sitting in our classrooms today who might not know what a cello is, much less how to play it. They won’t even have the opportunity to put in their 10,000 hours.

The late Steve Jobs understood that when he decided to sit in on calligraphy classes at Reed College because he loved calligraphy. And as is now immortalized in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address:

I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.

It was the first computer with beautiful typography.

There are some unique individuals throughout history – such as Steve Jobs – who can navigate skillfully and creatively between the technical and the aesthetic. Right brain and left brain. Steve Jobs could appreciate the beauty of the calligraphic fonts on the Mac screen, as well as the detailed engineering that goes behind the screen.

What Allan took from his own studies at MIT and elsewhere, is the ability to teach his artisans how to navigate effectively between their mechanical skills and their artistic potential. Mezimbite Magazine asked our editorial panel member Madhu Chhanda Dutta-Koehler about her thoughts on navigating between the technical and the aesthetic.

Just One Question

You are a technically skilled urban planner and architect, and yet you have also studied Indian classical dance for 18 years. Could you tell us more about how you have managed to navigate between the technical and the aesthetic?

Response from Madhu

This “just one question” strikes me as a “meta-cognitive” task, one that causes us to simultaneously step outside our creative and intellectual processes while delving deeply into them.

Ask an architect, artist, or anyone who pursues a creative endeavor about the creative process, and more often than not it would be the hardest question for him or her to answer.

Such reflection is particularly difficult because part, perhaps most, of any creative accomplishment takes place in an intuitive realm; the work is fabricated only semi-consciously and thus cannot be easily codified, let alone coherently explained.

However, in my experience as an architect and a performing artist, I can say without hesitation that perhaps the most satisfying projects, whether professional or personal, come together when the right brain and left brain work in concert.

Mediating between the aesthetic and the technical has been a constant personal challenge in my work, especially since I was educated in a rigorously scientific tradition while my inclinations are rooted in a more creative, design-oriented realm.

I think that the reason why artisans at Mezimbite Forest Centre are able to produce something so appealing and “beautiful” is because they successfully navigate such a balance in the technical and aesthetic spaces of their work.

One would think that these distinct sensitivities might contradict each other, in the eternal, axiomatic battle between form and function. However, I have come to realize that to be truly satisfied with the process as well as the product, one cannot privilege either one; the technical aspects must be managed in conjunction with an aesthetically centered framework.

When aesthetics is understood as a branch of philosophy (derived from the Greek word “aisthetikos“, meaning “sense of perception”), rather than merely an appreciation of beauty or appearance, the concept can immediately embrace a broader notion of beauty.

For example, when a “technical solution” is fitting, elegant, and simple yet powerful, it can also satisfy our aesthetic desires. Conversely, for something to be truly “aesthetic”, one cannot ignore the “technical”.

A dance performance, for example, involves the mechanics of the body, the ability of the dancer to navigate spatially, and the power to communicate emotion silently, and while doing all these things to be able to do so beautifully!!!

I guess what I am trying to say is that for anything, be it a policy instrument, a creative performance, a mathematical equation, hand-crafted furniture, or a piece of exquisite jewelry, the aesthetic and the technical need to work in unison. Yes, at different moments in the process each aspect necessarily has to take precedence, but in the end the work will lack universal appeal or effectiveness if the product is not a “mediated one”.

I think that the reason why artists at Mezimbite are able to produce something so appealing and “beautiful” is because they successfully navigate such a balance in the technical and aesthetic spaces of their work.

Steve Jobs expressed this sentiment best:

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

To me good design is really the successful union of the technical and the aesthetic.


Madhu is a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT

  1. Karim03-27-2012

    Madhu, I am intrigued by the fact that both you and Allan Schwarz studied architecture – that you both studied at MIT and that you both subsequently taught/teach at MIT.

    I am sure you have worked with a lot of people in common over the years.

    Recently, when I met with your fellow panelist Keith Recker, the hotel he was staying at was next door to the SFMOMA where there was an exhibition of Dieter Rams. The exhibit included installation pieces with recordings of his voice explaining his ideas about bringing the aesthetic and technical together in synergistic, holistic union.

    And as you know, Dieter Rams was a role model for Steve Jobs. Jobs was often referred to as “the Rams of the Internet Era”. Rams said of the Apple product mania:

    I am always fascinated when I see the latest Apple products. Apple has managed to achieve what I never achieved: using the power of their products to persuade people to queue to buy them. For me, I had to queue to receive food at the end of World War II. That’s quite a change.

    Cameras designed by Dieter Rams

    Typewriters designed by Dieter Rams


    A couple of years ago Madhu, I read an article in The Times of India (which used to be my dad’s favorite newspaper) by Mallika Mulherkar about this remarkable movement amongst the medical profession all around India who informally prescribe to patients Indian Classical Dance as a form of healing therapy. An excerpt of Mulherkar’s article:

    Indian Classical Dancer

    “The Indian classical dance forms are also known to help attain balance and right posture. It’s a good way of therapy.

    We do recommend it to our patients, if we think it’s what they need,” says Dr Satyasheel Naik, a well known orthopedic.

    Agrees Dr Sunil Kore, an orthopedic too, “Any kind of continuous movement is good for the body. Usually patients have it all in their head about being ill. Dance therapy helps boost their spirit as well.”

    “The way one taps their feet, is also a kind of acupressure therapy,” informs Chaudhary, and adds, “It gives one great stamina. If you’ve noticed, dancers always look younger than their age.”

  2. Suzanne Joyal03-27-2012

    You all have said everything, and said it so well.

    I think the power of dance to unite us across cultures, and as Madhu says, “… for anything, be it a policy instrument, a creative performance, a mathematical equation, hand-crafted furniture, or a piece of exquisite jewelry, the aesthetic and the technical need to work in unison.”, will build a world of thoughtful, engaged thinkers.

    I think Jess would agree, that dance is one more tool we have to encourage a wider world view for our young people.

    Yesterday I heard a seventh-grade Social Studies teacher blame his student’s low test scores on the arts classes they were “subjected” to.

    I want to offer this concrete example of the long battle still ahead for anyone striving to keep dance (and all of the arts) alive in our schools.

    Yesterday I heard a seventh-grade Social Studies teacher blame his student’s low test scores on the arts classes they were “subjected” to. The interactive workshop/demos were chosen by the teachers themselves to provide a living example of the art forms from the cultures they were studying around the world:

    Ghanian Dancer

    Bhangra Dance for India, Ghanaian Dance for West Africa, Medieval Music for medieval European history, and Meso American folklore and music for early meso-american history, all taught by professional artists who have devoted their lives to those art forms. Apparently, practicing filling in those bubbles with a #2 pencil is more important in American education.

    Pencil poised to fill in bubble scantron

    This is a true story from an urban school serving the most at-risk population, in an unnamed American city.

    This was the one opportunity for many of those students to actually see and experiment with cultures worlds away from their own, or in many cases, parts of their own personal (and forgotten) histories.

    This school serves students from around the world, and many live in homes where English is not spoken (this is a real hindrance to excelling in many U.S. public schools).

    I wonder, Madhu, were you encouraged to dance while you were obviously working so hard on your studies?

    What would you say to this teacher to help him understand that those times with professional artists should have been opportunities to strengthen a real connection to the subject matter?

    How do teachers (who work so hard every day by the way), find a way to justify teaching their students to “navigate the balance of aesthetic with technical”?

    • Karim03-27-2012

      Suzanne – thank you for this most thoughtfully structured and crafted comment. I embedded YouTube links to your references – even # 2 pencil on bubble scantron – to make it feel included. My daughters’ favorite European music was Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève (Bells of Sainte-Geneviève). I included that too.

    • Joe Spurgeon03-30-2012

      Dear Suzanne

      My name is Joe Spurgeon and I am with The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School here in the UK. We have had some marvelously talented artists train here over the years including Greta Scacchi, Jeremy Irons and Daniel Day-Lewis.

      I have seem artists blossom in so many compelling and beautiful ways because of the opportunities they have had to explore and train with us.

      When I read examples of art programs being cut, or some of the struggles you undergo with making art a priority, it distresses me no end I can tell you. I leave you with this one thought – not a consolation but perhaps a call to keep striving:

      The world needs art like oxygen, and any attempt to squash it will be as unwelcome as it is futile.

      Joe Spurgeon

  3. Elissa03-27-2012

    Madhu and Karim,

    I agree wholeheartedly with the concept of the aesthetic and the technical existing together.

    Jobs and Rams (and countless others) understood this and used it to change the world.

    In Dan Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind” he puts forth the idea that the age of the Technology Worker is over and is being replaced by Conceptual Age, where the people who make a difference are those who can empathize and conceptualize.

    Creativity is now as just as important than technical know-how.

    Where the generations before us valued correct answers to tests and a very linear fashion of living and thinking (go to college, get a good job, buy a house, retire from the same company after 40 years of service), the future generations place value on the conceptual, the meaningful and going beyond logic to engage the emotions..

    .. and a sense of play.

    No longer will people live and work in the same way. I expect the concept of the “office” to completely change and become mobile as energy and transportation costs continue to rise (but that is for another discussion).

    The entertainment industry is a prime example of the combination of the left and right brain processes. While it takes a team of highly-technical individuals to execute the ideas, it also takes a team of innovative creatives to give heart to the ideas.

    One cannot exist without the other…Jobs and Rams knew this well.

    • Karim03-27-2012

      Elissa – have you read As Little Design as Possible: The Work of Dieter Rams by Sophie Lovell ? I’m getting a copy for our panel. Do you know Sophie’s work?

      • Elissa03-29-2012

        I have not, Karim, but I will be sure to pick it up. I’m in need of a new book to read. One good turn deserves another…thanks for the share.

  4. Allan03-28-2012

    Editor’s Note:

    Allan’s thoughts on the word “mediated”. Comment #6 explores this in detail:

    “Mediated” implies compromise:

    I had the privilege of watching Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev on stage as a boy, and Burton and Taylor on a game drive as a young man, no compromise there. It was all about the dynamic. We have learned about other dynamics in previous articles about partnering economics and ecology, and ecology design and history of landscape.

    Margot Fonteyn dancing with Rudolph Nureyev
  5. Jai Flicker03-28-2012


    Thank you for this beautiful piece!

    I am struck by the point you make that it is essential to strike a balance between “the technical and the aesthetic” elements of any meaningful endeavor.

    As an educator, I see an important parallel in striking a balance between the doing and the being of life. Parents often call me wanting me to teach their children organizational techniques. However, this is only the doing side of the equation. I realized early on that the basics of staying organized in high school (i.e. writing down one’s homework on a consistent basis, filing handouts in the proper binders, etc.) are not difficult to learn or understand from a technical standpoint.

    Rather, they are hard for some students to implement. This latter issue relates more to the underlying roots of motivation, or the lack thereof, than the technical understanding of how to stay organized. I point out that if a deeper underlying issue did not exist, all I would have to do is tell the student to write down his or her homework from now on and the problem would be solved.

    Rarely, though, is this the case.

    In my life, the aesthetic quality has more to do with the being side of life than the doing. It has more to do with something external reflecting an inner vision. This resonance between the inner and outer is what beauty is to me.

    I know that it takes good technique to manifest one’s inner vision in a satisfying way, so at the very least in this sense the two are intimately connected. But the technique is part of the doing phase. Those who only learn technique, but are not in touch with an inner vision or a genuine sense of beauty can be impressive in their technical prowess, but rarely inspired or inspiring.

    So much of western culture seems to have an unhealthy bias toward technique alone and is blind to the being side of the equation. We can tell people how to do things, but we cannot tell others what is beautiful and so it gets dismissed. What is lost, in many institutions and professions, is the simple understanding that a sense of beauty can be cultivated. It cannot be instilled in someone.

    The unique beauty that already exists within each of us must instead be drawn out.

    Part of what makes the Mezembite project so powerful is that it provides individuals with space to become the artisans they already are.

    What a gift!

  6. Allan03-29-2012

    I must argue with Madhu about a couple of things;

    The first is the idea of being “satisfied” with the process as well as the product. This is very dangerous thinking, satisfaction, leads to smugness and laziness, I remember reading Hans Richter (Dada) as a student, describe how he was “armed with doubt”. Doubt and questioning even for old veteran designers is the most powerful creative weapon, always making us rethink often returning us to first principles.

    The second is the concept of a “mediated” solution:

    The magical dance between technical and aesthetic and capacity at hand and many more component issues is a constant dynamic.

    Plato, whom Allan often quotes

    Mediation implies final solution, the last pose of a dying swan. Just go back to basic Platonic philosophy, there is the ideal and there is the ideal-ness that approaches that perfect state, but it is never reached. We get closer and closer as we dance (SJ’s company has moved from I Pad to 2, now to 3 ….).

    “Mediated” also implies compromise:

    I had the privilege of watching Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev on stage as a boy, and Burton and Taylor on a game drive as a young man, no compromise there. It was all about the dynamic. We have learned about other dynamics in previous articles about partnering economics and ecology, and ecology design and history of landscape.

    Of culture being reflected in a toast rack.

    The designed object is just a physical record of that moment, frozen in time, because we need to use it right then. But the dynamic continues.

    At Mezimbite we have been crafting and designing fine objects for you for close to 18 years, our only resolution is to keep doing so.

  7. kim abelman03-29-2012

    While I am so enjoying the erudite discourse on design and creativity, and while I have to admit that my one creative outlet right now is reading with utter glee all the JOQ’s in this magazine, and their comments, I have to also say that Madhu’s JOQ made me step out way beyond the realm of academic and intellectual discussion.

    What I mean is that the discourses of the technical versus aesthetic, the process versus product, living and thinking, design and creation, and the myriad of navigation between these doublets, became for me, a beautiful verbalization on LIFE itself, and how mysterious or preordained or predestined life can be in our own individual lives: whether it be Jobs’ learning calligraphy which led him to his biggest design ever, or Allan’s early experience of Fonteyn and Nureyev which has contributed to his present approach to the aesthetic and technical..

    Madhu’s writing for me depicts life, and our lives, as a “meta-cognitive” task.

    Our goal in this life, on this earth is to see the creativity in everything we do, and everything we experience, as down the road, these cognitive experiences will indeed lead to meta-cognitive experiences.

    Perhaps I am being simplistic, but Madhu’s concepts had me reaching past my academic, ‘smart’ self, and into the dance hall of living life. Actually I have to admit that in my university days, I was a huge architectural groupie, and vicariously lived my life through those of my architect friends (one indeed named his sausage dog LeDoux!!!).

    What Karim said about “some unique individuals throughout history – such as Steve Jobs – who can navigate” effectively between right and left brain hemispheres, is fully applicable to The Architect.

    It always amazed me, as an Italian lecturer, spending free time as the architectural groupie, that indeed one of the few disciplines that required you to master and pass both Math/physics AND drawing/design, was architecture! It was precisely this right/left brain interchange that had me always in utter awe of the architect.

    So back to my point — of life — and the need to see creativity in everything we do, and to dance with it, savor it, as down the road, these experiences may indeed be predetermined in very significant ways, like calligraphy aiding the creation of the Mac, or architectural studies giving birth to new life in the forests of Mezimbite.

    So Madhu, thank you again to the brilliance of the architect, for always reminding us to DANCE IN THE RAIN…

  8. Nigel C-T03-29-2012

    There is something very special about this post by Madhu.

    I have read and enjoyed so many of the JOQ’s and for many different and diverse reasons. There was the lively banter and escapist silliness of the Thomas and Jeremy JOQ which has some very profound insights as well about the role of artist in society and the ethic of the artisan and the artist.

    With Sir Partha’s it was the sheer intellectual breath and scope that is stimulating. There is an admiration for the underlying sense of urgency that his lessons should be applied to an economy that has been wounded and needs to recover and prosper.

    Here though, with Madhu’s piece is something unusual:

    Although I have never met her I can feel the calm, strong serenity beneath her words which inspire a comfort level whereby we can stop. Pause. Meditate. Contemplate. Be.

    We talk a lot about “creativity” and “innovation” in our society as if they were “things” – objects, commodities, desirable attributes. But first, we need to arrive to receive them.

    We need to stop and pause and dig deeper within ourselves and then arrive. Arrive at that place that is the wellspring from which trickle up the sense of creativity. It requires that we enter a deconstructive process in order to arrive at creativity and innovation.

    It asks only that we check the baggage at the door and enter a clean, unpolluted zone where we are free to find our inner being and then build back from there. To just be.

    That is what I love about this article. It has helped me center myself since I read it yesterday. I am enriched, renewed and refreshed. Like going to yoga class. That may not be Madhu’s intention but it is the outcome – for me. And perhaps for others too.

    Thank you, Madhu, for your true words.

  9. Concita03-29-2012

    Madhu, girl, you have written a “health and happiness” post.

    That is what this is honey! You are bringing joy into people’s hearts – can you believe these comments? Damn! Oh, sorry Editor I forgot – we gotta keep it cleeeeeeeean. Okay, I will watch the lingo now…

    Okay now guys I am gonna teach you how to use this article cos you guys have no clue. So Ed – can you put in like headins an links an stuff?.. Okay first is “health”..


    How comes nobody has mentioned the first comment up there (part two) of how doctors in India are recommending that people dance for their health and like:

    “The way one taps their feet, is also a kind of acupressure therapy,” informs Chaudhary, and adds, “It gives one great stamina. If you’ve noticed, dancers always look younger than their age.”

    I am tellin you guys this is so true – dancers always look younger and healthier because they go out and shake their.. uh.. body and rid the toxins and all you know…?

    Also, I just learned to Bhangra Dance!

    You know why ? – cos Suzanne posted a Bhangra instructional video where Good Indian Girl breaks moves down into 6 steps so it is SO easy anyone can learn it the way she teaches – so do the Bhangra! Get healthy and happy! Do the Bhangra!

    Bhangra Dancer doing the Bhangra


    Okay now finals thing I wanna say is of meditation.

    I have found the perfect meditation video – this thing just put me in a whole other space it made me so proud to be part of Latin culture… Okay now this video is also chosen by Suzanne in her comment and it is the one of where Suzanne says Meso American folklore and music for early meso-american history.

    Pre-Hispanic Musical Instruments

    Okay now you are thinkin – very nice I will see it later.

    NO!! You look at it NOW!!

    NOW! This is gonna relax you, make you feel good, teach ya a little bito history and a bito geography and a bito music with musical instruments you never would knew are musical… Afterward you gonna be extra calm and cool with your kids or your wife or your husband and maybe husband and wife make..uh .. make clean laundry – right Ed?… or make clean the dishes or “clean the car” in the garage – Clean soap bubbles..

    The garage – that’s the place to clean the car, honey..While you do it watch this video

    Ayyaiyyaiyyaiyai… This is beauuuuuutiful man! Suzanne where did you find this girl?

    So soothin and meditative… I just did watch it over and over.

    Now guys you gotta watch this video NOW! Okay? Here it is again –

    Watch it guys. Just watch it.

  10. Karim03-29-2012

    Concita – I am never going to envision “cleaning the car in the garage” the same way.

    Allan – regarding our Diva Discussions on Catalini’s opera La Wally – I have found the near perfect recording of the Ebben Ne andrò lontana aria – it is by Angela Gheorghiu in Prague in 1994 with the Czech Symphony Orchestra. Do let me know what you think…

  11. Katerina Novikova03-30-2012

    Katerina Novikova
    Большой театр балета
    The Bolshoi Ballet
    Moscow, Russia

    Hello everybody!

    My name is Katerina Novikova and I am the Chief Spokesperson for the Bolshoi Ballet

    I have had fascinating conversation with your Editor and we talked of many things – of Nureyev and Baryshnikov – of cave paintings and about how dance can build also character. First I thank you for opportunity to say some words in this comment area. Also thanks be to Sarah and Madhu – fellow dancers! – for your article. My thoughts…


    What is this thing, dance?

    Well, if we go to the earliest cave paintings in Africa, in France in many countries, we see that quite often the painters painted characters who were dancing, whose feet were in flight with sense of joy. Now why this is? This is because from very earliest man we have a natural inclination to do the dance. Dance is something very natural and very powerful as a raw energy and impulse in our being. Dance is state of being, a power.

    Whether a person is going to make progress as professional dance or not depends on many things. But one thing is always for sure and that is discipline and character is cultivated through the classical dance training. Dance is also a metaphor for having a lens through which to perceive the world around you. To develop your sense of observation, musicality and composition of shape and form and movement.


    More than this also is the joy. Joy is everything in dance. The practice and the discipline serves the sense of joy and wonder. That is the correct order of priority.

    I can always spot a person who has classical dance training.

    They are different.

    They have excellent posture, they have a presence, they may be just not be talking or standing in line at supermarket but you can to look at them and – yes, yes that is dancer. Posture is correct, there is courage in their expression and intense focus and discipline in their eyes – they are observing, understanding, learning about life they are artists. You can always notice a dancer. They have a way.

    So of course I want finally say that I recommend dance to all ages. I was talking with Karim and we discussed that Martha Graham was doing bar also when she was almost 90 years old. So dance it is more than just the body – it is about musicality and shape and form and artistic expression. So two words now-

    Keep dancing!

    Katerina Novikova