Sraboni Bhaduri examines the current national aesthetic and what it tells us about ourselves
Kolkata’s skyline has always reflected its Raj past and the gentility of the Bengali bhadralok. Roughly translated, bhadra means civilised, with connotations of being understated and restrained. Writers’ Building with its Greco-Roman architecture, green shutters on a bagan bari-inspired edifice is perhaps a shade too pretentious, but certainly civilised, definitely bhadra. What else would you expect of a community which is willing to embrace genteel poverty but unwilling to let go of claims to every form of high culture? The bush fire of vile consumerism and “flash” can engulf the more vulnerable communities, but this seat of art and culture will always hold its own. Naturally, the first among the vulnerable communities would be the Punjabis, for they serve as the antonym of the great Bengali culture. They are what a Bengali with a disdainful tilt of his head would call “non-Bengali”—the ultimate “other”.
The irony is that today, Punjab, or more accurately Punjabisation, has won the culture game. Food, architecture, music, fashion have all been taken over by loud colours, shiny embellishments and a baroque busyness. Of course, it isn’t as if the state of Punjab is solely responsible for this genocide of aesthetics. The native culture and the folk traditions of Punjab are as much victims of this wave as any other. Just as the tiger needs a government-initiated sanctuary, these folk traditions make their appearance at bazaars and fairs organised by NGOs and government bodies. Thinking individuals— university teachers and other such ambassadors of ideology and culture—pick up traditional weaves in muted vegetable dyes, while the markets of Lajpat Nagar do brisk business with sequined salwar kameez, mass-produced shiny maroon sofa material and imitation kundan jewellery.
What are we really objecting to? It is the bright purple and yellow house in the suburbs of Kolkata with a water tank in the form of a Rubik’s cube, with all its colours. It is the three-seater sofa in Chennai where two maroon velvet seats flank a gorgeous yellow one. It is about destination weddings, where fettuccine sits unselfconsciously next to a butter chicken. It is the declaration of love which says “tera husn dhueydaar jaise jalta cigar”, and goes on to compare it to a hookah bar. Is the collective imagination completely unbound? Is it about “cosmopolitanism”? Or is it just sheer happiness that the country is finally opening up and letting prosperity in? Whatever else it may be, it is certainly psychedelia embellished with tinsel. And it is effervescent.
More the Merrier
Americans have long been accused of loud flamboyance. They set the benchmark with the longest cars and the tallest skyscrapers. We associate that country with super sizing: it is all about “big”. Our cultural response is “more”. Monochromatic fidelity to themes is considered lacklustre in the context of this sensibility. The villas of the rich and famous will have Corinthian pillars on the façade and a chrome and glass deck to watch the sunset. Middle class homes are packed with appliances and the cartons they came in. There is an unwillingness to throw away or exclude, and a concomitant need to encircle everything and contain it within the self.
“Give me space”, literally or metaphorically, is not an indigenous need. Busyness and intricacy lend themselves to a sense of fullness and fertility, while negative space is a waste. It may be understood at some level as “modern” or “premium”, but there is no emotional resonance there. It is somehow not “our thing”. There is no negative space left on the Malayali bride; every inch is covered in gold. Even public spaces that are not overrun with people are regarded with suspicion. As for patterns, décor or personal styling, empty spaces are akin to the widow’s mourning whites. Clean lines are experienced as depleted and hollow. “Soona, soona” captures the melancholic emotional tone. A Ganpati procession with its jostling crowds, blaring music and overflowing energy connotes happiness and festivity.
In a hierarchical society, there is only one direction in which influence flows. It simply percolates downwards. Upward mobility and confidence has forced a two-way street. The suave Greek god shares screen space with the sweaty, swearing and low-on-social-niceties hero, who isn’t found wanting in his ability to charm. Many elements are allowed to speak up at once in today’s aesthetic landscape. Some may consider the result a cacophony, but it can be argued that it reflects the change in the social power structure. Everyone has a voice, hence the influence of a single ruling elite has diffused. Aesthetic influences now travel up from the street as well. There is a sense of liberation from rules, a permission to follow an instinct unmediated by societal codes. The multi-coloured house with its table top fountain and richly upholstered sofa is, in fact, a visceral enjoyment of life. The festival of colour just married the festival of lights.
In this context, the pan-India “Punjabisation” that we see is a tribute to the Punjabi spirit, to a race that has survived everything and thrived everywhere across the globe. “Punjabi”, perhaps the mood of the nation today, is upbeat, expressive and unselfconscious. Any gaze that is imagined is only an admiring one. Salwar kameez is worn by women across the country and now across life stages. Movie titles are high adrenalin, inspiring calls to action in that language. Even the “crass” bhangra pop connects enough to get your feet tapping, involuntary though the response may be.
There is a certain amount of societal truth here. We are a country that has seen quantum unshackling recently. If the response is basic, gut level and gleeful, it is only to be expected at this point in the trajectory of change. Of course, those who are a little ahead of this curve sense a hierarchy once again. The gaze is western and the sensibility needs to be global, hence their wardrobes are losing colour and rapidly turning black and all the bling is being tweezed out. Understated is back. Brand labels shouldn’t be flaunted and clean lines are classy. There is once again a need to measure up.
The politics of taste just carries on. It only changes currency. Adopting the aesthetics of the ruling elite has been the longest lasting principle. The currency however is not always about form, about how things look. The new politics includes the width of exposure, experiences gathered and curated bucket lists. Cultivating taste is again becoming imperative.
Taste of the Times
The politics of taste covers the terrain between the body and mind, between the physical and the metaphysical. It always hovers around power structures and conversation pieces. It is self-conscious and always responding to a gaze. Most of all, it is sensitive to judgment. Thus there will always be an industry of short courses, workshops and other ways to protect you from those pesky taste landmines.
As of now where we are as a society on the trajectory of taste is fairly unique. The power structures have been disrupted, but they have not rearranged themselves firmly into another kind of hierarchy. In this scenario of flux, it is pretty difficult to say who is looking at whom. Whose gaze counts is naturally up for debate. We are in that moment in the life of a society where it is perfectly all right to be completely unselfconscious, express oneself unabashedly and live every day in a blaze of colour and bling.
Sraboni bhaduri began her career as a counsellor and therapist. She has followed her interest in people and contemporary culture through her work in advertising, research and now as a brand and consumer insight specialist. Her doctoral work is in the area or organisational culture and learning, She continues to nurture her interest in psychology and has trained in psychoanalysis.