Monday, February 19, 2018

The Exclusionary Aesthetics of Our Cities

When Aesthetics Are Meant to Exclude (courtesy, Economic Times)
India is obsessed with cities in extreme forms - one part is in awe of it, while the other is completely aghast by what is happening. Smart city, heritage city, sustainable city, green city - so many terms are flying around these days without an inkling of the significance of these terms, their implications and any modicum of an execution plan being put into place. Even the rationale of why we want city a certain way seems to be missing from the discourse - we want something, but are unable to explain what it is, and even more hopeless at understanding what we want. What constitutes a city is clearly a matter of conjecture to quite an extent; in any case, any city cannot have an exact bullet by bullet powerpoint presentation of what its smartness, its resilience and its adaptation will mean. However, with all of this raging discussion, we seemed to have forgotten to discuss important points about the make up of such a city that will probably come in and replace pre-existing ideas of what cities comprise.

James Howard Kunstler often talks about how a city should feel and look like to its residents. This aspect of aesthetics and its ability to include people of all walks of life in a democratic manner, where elements can be shared between people of different backgrounds and categories, has been often discussed. Aesthetics of course can also be exclusive in nature. While in the Cold War era, much was made of the brutalism in architecture that we had witnessed en masse across the world, including in new cities of the time such as Chandigarh, there was a lot of discussion how the architecture made people felt disconnected, left out by the architectural world, trying to make sense of their presence in an unknown world. Somehow, despite having very little in common with the Soviet Union, not once could the global travellers make much difference out between democracies and Communist nations - after all, everyone seemed to be aping the boxes and container like confinements that buildings, institutions and law and order officials cooped up in modern penhouses. However, with the new urbanism wave, where we are witnessing a rash of glass facade dotting our landscapes, dotting tall skyscrapers are turning out to be another variant of the brutalism wave. Calling it neo-brutalism, we can see how this new wave, inspired by architecture of land space optimization, we seem to be creating urban towers that no one feels they belong to either.

Neo brutalism is creating havoc on our idea of what constitutes our society, and is toying with our conception of who we are. In a country that has such wonderful perfection in resilience, adaptation and inclusion that appeals to our culturally rooted mindsets, we are creating a new wave of cities and urban landscapes in the name of modernization that seems to have nothing in relation to our identity or sub-identities. Looking at Lavasa, an attempt to create a modern day Turin that no one sees any better than a weekend Europe like getaway, the imprint of Maharashtra, especially the glory of Pune region is totally missed out. Amaravati is a new city named after the old city that glorified the rich Telugu cultures of the Satavahana era; however, a summary glance of the assembly designs that came up for a public voting contest left one puzzled - what is it that makes the city a new city? Will it be jazzy glass facade buildings; tilted cuboidal designs; or will it be the ethos of the people and the city aesthetic ability to exclude people, making them feel left out?

The power of aesthetics is not democratic in its exclusion - vulnerable sections easily find themselves left out, wondering where they belong. Urban centres where old people and small children remained confined and cooped up like cattle in their barns, moaning the loss of their connections with the middle generations, who are nowhere to be seen or heard, caught up and bound in mental fetters in fancy towers jutting out of the ground in unusual shapes. These towers are not necessarily public transport friendly but for a few bus stations that are thrown far away from sight, seen as an inconvenience much like acne that comes up stubbornly on the face of a teenager. The poor just walk past these buildings, wondering whether they belong in that area - in India, we do not have any New Yorks, where they poor can loiter around these buildings or its backyards, and rummaging through the waste and refuse runs the risk of repercussions unlike those cities, which at least tolerates their poor.

An aesthetic sense of being tends to not be reflected in our buildings today. This in turn is shaping who we are as humans and as a collective, a society, and it is turning more and more dysfunctional. Isolation, depression, mental diseases, physical ailments, disease are common in these settings. Their proliferation is even worse - just look at how avian flus of the world seem to congregate in such towers so easily. Sunlight becomes a pain or a luxury, but never seen as a necessary friend, which can keep you healthy. Ventilation systems are artificial - the feel of the afternoon breeze from the open window of the house will probably be not felt ever again by scores of generations, struggling without air conditioning or heating of any kind. Instead of building in resilience in to our society, this neo-brutal urbanization of today is making us ever more vulnerable - to earthquakes, to floods. Stuck in a building for days because water ensured you could not go anywhere, and pavements and drains cannot support these levels of rainfalls. A sense of security always remains under threat, knowing not when the new 9/11 will strike you, or when vertigo may lead you to collapse and fall.

Modern urbanism has to break from this mould of brutal craziness that seems to impress, and get a sense of relatable aesthetics back into their fold. Unless that happens, the decay of societal set ups cannot be arrested in India. We admire cities across the world that seem to have excellent infrastructure, but only because those cities have also managed to cultivate a sense of aesthetics. A Jardin des Tuileries in Paris still helps people to relate to their sense of belonging, reminding them of their past, their heritage. Even in new cities like Tel Aviv, the ability to create structures and modernity that people can own and feel they belong to is strong. We want to be a Singapore or a Taiwan, but our civic sense cannot come in like them, for they are driven by fear, and not a sense of responsibility. In contrast, despite modernization, Japanese cities tend to retain a strong sense of their place in the world, where citizens share the burden of ownership and responsibility, as they realize sub-consciously how they are responsible and have a role to play in ensuring the pleasantry of aesthetics of their landscape and its interlinked civilization. It is these that we need to be connecting ourselves to, not some random broken European or American ideas that have been cast aside by their own proponents with time. Unless the city’s organic nature is not captured in its aesthetics and the feel of it, a city remains nothing more than a forced agglomeration of fancy structures that hold little more than utility. Gurgaon is not seen as a city; rather it seems like a strange wonderland with a dark side to it that none should be ever exposed to. With this model coming up in other experiments, we can only hope for the worst.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Of Discourse and Language in 'Right Wing' India

The right wing narrative in India is full of contradictions, and struggles to have a united thought. It is mostly an umbrella of 'anything but the left', yet remains imbibed with scores of liberal leftist, Abrahmica rooted themes, ideas and memes, creating an environment where a huge population relies on borrowed terminology to express itself. The stark contrast with the contemporaries here, where the vocabulary is entirely self created and exclusive of any alternative ideas, cannot be missed by anyone. And yet, there is no attempt to address this question. Wherever attempts have been made, we tend to see a rash of silly terms being used, or transliterations being adopted in some format or the other to attempt being different. Truth is that the intellectual arguments needed to fight intellectual battles starts with the creation of the intellectual space. Further, the lack of any new ideas being penned down or written, while borrowing specific frameworks that come from outside, is a troublesome phenomenon - it renders any claim to exclusivity, of primacy and uniqueness redundant in a single stroke.

Barring the old minds, of which few have actually been read by most supporters, there is hardly any new discursive analysis being penned and/or published that charts independent territory. One must remember that any breakthrough work in any discipline need not come from academia or government support - it never did, and probably never will. Instead, quotes, strands of speeches and stray thoughts and sentences from books are all that seem to get shared and liked by a generation that seems to have a fast food approach to right wing ideas. Hindutva seems to get mixed up with socialistic economic principles - truth cannot be any further. States are expected to do everything for you, and yet you do not want it in your 'personal space'. You want 'true secularism' without realizing that it is garbage of a premise created just so that Christian sects could tolerate each other in daily lives. Tilak's ideas of swarajya seem buried under a mountain of archives, only to be worshiped on a pedestal every few months. And yet, the attempts at creating new thought, be it in Hindi, English, Kannada, Marathi, Tamizh or any other language (and being translated) are scattered, isolated to the point of remoteness, without any probable attempts to get transmitted. Whole bunches want to talk the same socialistic nonsense that tied Hindus in fetters, whereas it is economic strength that guaranteed whatever freedom people have today. Instead of noting how economic strength allowed for bargaining power, mercantilism is treated with disdain by those who believe that Hindu thought should be some kind of neo- Khmer ideology. Petty egos also seem to get into the game easily, without learning to co-exist, something that each one claims to be the 'key message' of Hindu philosophy

A lot of effort is being spent in correcting history. Which is good, but what is being done to correct narratives in other disciplines, or control how our own people view ourselves? The discomfort with the varna-jati question is one typical example that gets us all tied up in knots. Inability to understand, accept and reconcile with this aspect of culture and civilization with due dignity and respect by a majority of people has been a major failing. Centuries, if not millennium, of hard work has been done within the Hindu fold to fight this problem - yet, there was no effort, or is there any effort now, to document, to record these traditions, and to bring them to academic standards. Instead, leftist ideas dominate caste discourse in India, which only serves fissiparous tendencies in societal set ups. This alternative work however has to develop its own language all over again, and not rely on language of the past or language of the contemporary. We want a Hindu state but want the government to employ us.

The discourse also needs to change significantly. Often times, Hindutva vadis just look like a bunch of eternal whiners. Our essays and pieces instead of discussing next steps tend to dwell on certain themes of eternal complaints. 'We are being discriminated', 'We are being reduced to a minority', Our temples are subject to state', 'Our glorious past was ruined by invaders' - the list is endless. However much justified, this wallowing in the pool of litany only breeds pessimism and despair, and makes us lose focus on understanding what needs to be done next. Look, this is not to demean anyone's efforts, but what is it that we are doing right now to justify our claim to our glorious heritage? Look at our language - we speak our own languages worse than we speak our pidgin English across the country in most urban centers. How can one then not be cynical of efforts to restore pride in ourselves, when the abyss in which our present tendencies, discourse and behavior tends to remain in? Not everything has to be fought with humour, mocking and derision, however much effective those tools are. We need to learn to exchange ideas truly - how can we thrive without government support; how we can educate our children to counter the effects of 'secular' education; what can we do within the present Constitutional framework to free our temples. Celebrating odd victories and putting them on pedestals instead of taking them into our arsenal to fight battles continuously is the worst tendency that Hindus have developed over time. Mediocrity is celebrated as jugaad, and in that moment we tend to forget the great temples like Kandhariya or Chennakeshava that our ancestors built - is this how we can claim our own heritage?

It is time to redefine the discourse and language altogether for Right Wing India. Some people have given thought to it, but frankly, those thoughts are incomplete without addressing these inconsistencies that we see on a daily basis amongst this evolving community. Unless checked in time, this will become another cesspool that will stink no better than the decay that the leftist Abrahamica pool has rendered civilizations into.

The Economic Slowdown Needs Immediate Address

The Buck Stops With the Duo (Courtesy: Bloombergquint) The fracas in Maharashtra notwithstanding, things are at a critical juncture ...