Friday, 22 April 2011

Minimal, Minimalist, Minimalism Defined

Key Words: Minimal, Minimalist, Minimalism, Environmentally Sustainable, Art, Science

Minimalism started as a trend in art and design in the west. However, minimalist way of living, objects or artefacts have been existing from unknown times. Customarily it refers to art and design, which puts it in a box of a fashion, where a person may not 'walk the talk'.

Minimal is not minimum, but is to go beyond or achieve the best within minimum in living, thought and action. Minimal implies essential; it is not merely simple. It is neither junk or trash nor extravaganza.

Definitions, however, limit the scope of the defined. We, therefore, start with examples, and arrive at our definitions according to our perceptions. There is no formula! However, it may not be out of place here to add Universal Definition of Design by Nature written by Martin Jones, bio-archaeologist.

Let us start with primary and most familiar examples: Water (by Mother Nature) and Food: Roti – 'bread' (home made – by Mom).

Water is one of the minimalist creations by Mother Nature

WATER is fascinating Element: It soft, malleable, takes the shape of a container, always goes down the soil or to meet the sea, in heat vaporizes, moves meekly around obstacles on the way, cuts through rocks, mixes salts-minerals of soils… 70% of our body is water.

But there comes a time, when this taken-for-granted and often ignored element dances Shiva's Tandav of tsunami!

Water in Science
Water (defined as: 'H2O') is one of all the expressions, creations of Mother Nature! As a matter of fact, all her creations – from microbes to mammals, from algae to giant banyan – are minimal events. This sets an example and also a definition of 'minimal'. Mother Nature is our first and the last Guru!

Such tsunamis also happen in civilized societies. Whenever the arrogant and powerful classes / castes exploit and push the lowly – the sea of people – to the brink of subsistence, the waves of tsunami arise. This is the power within 'minimal'!

Roti as food is minimalist act

FOOD: vegetables, roots, tubers, grains, fruits... each of these have their unique taste, flavour and nutrition. They are also revealed by minimal process and in eating them fresh.

But having four meals a day, on full stomach, we can't fancy their tastes and nourishment; we find it ordinary. We become imaginative and add embellishments, decorations, ornaments... new experiments, processes in preparations of food.

There begins a market competition and struggle to make tasty exotic foods. It is just as we try to beautify our body as if... in this extraordinary creation by Mother Nature was incomplete!

Most elementary food is Roti – flat round Indian bread, and its regional variations. It is by now known in many parts of the world. Roti is made of flour of different grains: maize, rice, millet, finger millet, bulrush millet, barley or wheat. Rich Indian biodiversity also offers variety in various grains.

To make Roti all that you need are: Tava - a concave plate of clay or iron to bake, a wooden or metal plate to knead flour, salt, Chulah – hearth – of clay or just three stones, brush wood for fire  and, of course, water. I believed Roti is indeed a 'minimal' food, until I tasted baked maize loaf made by Bhill aborigines.

Henry D. Thoreau in 'Walden' (pp 99-101) writes about bread by Red Indians, which may not be different from maize Roti made by Bhill and other aborigines and peasants in India. Thoreau writes by experiments and experience of Indian bread, not by impressions.

Minimalist maize loaf by Bhill aborigines

Bhill Festival at Mahi River, Kadana, Gujarat

It was three day annual fair during spring on Chaitri Poonam (full moon day: this year on 18-04-2011). Bhills from Gujarat, MP and Rajasthan states had gathered on the white sands on bank of Mahi River among hills near village Kadana.

I camped there for three days and nights in the open (no bed, no sleeping bag) among Bhill families. At night all would sleep around campfires. They get up at an early hour. First the women take bath in the river, and then men follow. As I come out of warm water I felt thousand pin pricks. No sooner the Sun appears the water becomes very cold. After bathing it is time for breakfast.

Adivasi women started to prepare breakfast, before daybreak. They made balls of kneaded maize flour, wrapped each in the leaves of a specific plant and put them in the campfire. By the time bathing is over the freshly baked maize loaves are ready for breakfast.

The taste, flavour and nutrition of the maize loaf were extraordinary. It remained in my memory as unique and only experience of lifetime. And also the memory of their warm hospitality, though I was a total stranger.

Ingredients of maize loaf are flour, salt, river water, wooden bowl, leaves and brushwood fire; that's all. This could truly be called ‘minimal’ and 'environmentally sustainable' food and way of living, both.

'It is Walking, not the Way' — Vatsyayana      

Hunger is basic to body and mind. Food nourishes both, body and mind. Yet we are only custodians of our body and mind. In transplant operations heart is kept alive outside of body by supplying energy. Why boast it is my heart?

Minimal object is possible when one follows minimal 'way of living', which can't be called 'life-style': No compromises.
Ancient flute of bone 30000 ybp (Credits: NYTimes)

Note: There are number of "minimal" artefacts people use. Bamboo flute is has ancient origine. Archaeologists have discovered 30,000 years old bone flute some time back. I took my lesson on slate. People still take lessons on slate; Rangoli is another ancient example of "minimal" (land) art.Traditional nine yard Sari in India is single piece dress for women, which is a minimal artefact; many do not even wear a blouse. However a bikini, which is displayed on a fashion ramp, is only a minimum object, and must not be mistaken as minimal. In his paintings Raja Ravi Varma uses Sari for his female subjects. Haiku in poetry is indeed minimalist.

Rangoli inscribed on Mumbai's roadside pavement
Swastika in the centre of this image is repeated for ages
  a million times by women in India.
It is believed this action draws Cosmic Energies.
Remigius de Souza | Mumbai

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©Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.


  1. Had never given much thought to the word 'MINIMAL'. Your post was thought provoking. Would like to read more about your 'camp' experience.

  2. Thanks Savitaji! Minimal is new word. However, Sukta, Haiku, Rangoli etc are ‘minimal’ objects or events and for that matter < all objects – biotic or abiotic – are indeed minimal> but not necessarily ‘simple’ as is usually understood.
    I have written about Bhills’ Holi Festival, and Warli House and Habitat. It is all scattered among many articles.

  3. @Tejashree : Please let your thought flow for all of us!
    Thanks for your visit...