Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Figuring out the Economics of Design with Obelix and Co

Obelix and Co, the 23rd in the series by Rene Goscinny and Alberto Uderzo, first published in French in 1976, deals with the transformation in the ‘one small village of indomitable Gauls’, caused by the introduction of a market for menhirs– and how it affects the design sense as well as the values in the only part of Gaul not occupied by the Romans in 50 BC.

As part of a strategy to conquer the tiny Gaulish village that still holds out against the might of Caesar, his deputy, Caius Preposterous trained in the Latin School of Economics, proposes to use ‘the profit motive’ to enfeeble and corrupt the Gauls. He homes in on Obelix, ‘the big fat brute’ who is the terror of the Romans, convinces him that ‘having money is a good thing’ and buys the only thing he can from him–menhirs–in great numbers and for increasingly large sums of money.

To cope with this sudden demand for menhirs, Obelix sets up a company, employs fellow-villagers to turn menhirs, to stitch clothes for him, and even to hunt boars! This sets of a flurry of menhir-turning amongst practically everyone in the village, regardless of aptitude or training. So, Fulliautomatix abandons iron-smithy and Unhygenix stops selling fish, because the only market is for menhirs and boars. Tempted by the lure of money, the villagers lose their ability to think rationally and the leisure to do things properly – even to have fun. As Chief Vitalstatisx remarks to Asterix and the Druid Getafix, the only two to remain unaffected by the new economy, they are ‘the last sane people in the village’.

The Gauls no longer have either the time or energy, or even an interest in beating up the Romans, who are after all business partners. In the bid to sell more and more menhirs to the Roman camp, they forget what is sensible and logical in their habitual way of life and lose all sense of balance and proportion. And Caius Preposterous’s strategy is successful. Meanwhile, the mounds of menhirs are rendered unto Caesar, who is not unnaturally, unhappy at the drain on his treasury for something that is ‘no good for anything’. So, Caius conceives of the strategy to sell them to the Roman public.

Since they are not ostensibly useful, comfortable or fun, he decides to milk the envy factor – “You own a villa, a chariot, slaves but…do you own a menhir?’. The menhirs are marketed in Rome with an all-out publicity campaign that endows them with values of ‘status’ and ‘exoticness’. The Roman public falls for the marketing strategy and laps up the menhirs that have neither any functional or cultural value in their context (which presumably, the menhirs do have for the Gauls – even though they do not quite know how).[1]

Everyone cashes in, with rival sellers promoting Roman vs. Gaulish menhirs. The artificially created symbolic value of the menhir plumbs absurd depths with superficial twists in appearance, and advertisements claiming the merits of Egyptian menhirs, or offering free slaves for every menhir! Finally, the market crashes, the Gauls are told that their menhirs are no longer required, and after trading insults and fighting with each other, good sense finally prevails. They go back to beating up the Romans and end with a grand feast to celebrate the restoration of their own ‘indigenous’ ways.

And how does their brief foray into ‘the market economy’ affect design? In various ways. Since they lose all sense of proportion in aspects of daily living, they are inevitably unable to apply a sense of proportion and balance in any design decisions, with respect to the attributes of the product as well as what sort of product they should be making. The only gauge of the necessity of making a product is whether there is a market for it, and how much money does it get them.

So, the overriding preoccupation is with numbers - “How many menhirs can you deliver?” This obsession with quantity, rather than quality, nor even with necessity, is akin to the influences in the industrialized large-scale markets of today, where the only emphasis is on ‘more’. Design offices today, are rated on their size, not on their ability - how many people do you employ in your office? Loans are given by governments or by investors based on ‘how much can you produce’? Contracts are given on the basis of ‘what is your annual turnover?’ Rarely are there any discussions about creativity, congeniality or craft.

Not only does this flood the market with superfluous non-essential designed items, it also creates a situation where standards of design are lowered all across the spectrum - in the producers’ world as well as the consumers’ world – to demonstrate notions of economic superiority. So Obelix dresses up in ridiculously ill-suited clothes to show that he is ‘the most influential man in the village’. Soon practically the entire village follows suit and dresses in loud clothes and absurdly ornamented accessories. This is similar to what is happening and has already happened in the Indian context, where the qualities of balance, proportion and appropriateness in design are giving way to kitsch. So an economy of money seems to lead to a dumbing down of design ethics and values.

Along with a devaluation of and deviation in design sense, this introduces standardization and reduces diversity. For a global market, everything has to confirm to a uniform standard. The only relief is in superficial changes. Thus, there is no great difference in mixer or refrigerator specifications, or automobile engineering. Instead, product designers are hired to introduce ‘styling’, cosmetic changes, features in the ‘dashboard’; colours of finishes. While all the emphasis is on profits, a lot of money is invested in publicity campaigns. This explains why innovative designs such as the ‘Mitticool’ refrigerator arise not out of the minds and hands of trained product designers, but a potter from a local context who designed this to fulfil the need of his fellow-Gujaratis after the earthquake.

[1] The depths that public gullibility can plunge to - and the frenzied commercial activity that this can lead to – are clearly evident from a reading of A Short History of Financial Euphoria, J.K. Galbraith’s excellent analysis of speculative economic debacles down the ages. In particular, the classic case of Tulipomania in Holland in the mid-1630s, where ‘people of all grades converted their property into cash and invested it into flowers’ - namely in the tulip, which first came to Europe from the Mediterranean in the 16th century - shows that such hysteria not confined to the realm of fiction.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the pitfalls, the possibilities, and the potential of language(s)

“Mamma, your knees are looking”:
(Treya, age 4 years and some months)

The Incomprehensible Indian

Ours is a multi-lingual family.
Which means that when I speak to Treya in English, she will probably reply in Hindi. When Snehanshu asks her something in Bangla, she will often respond in English. And when Snehanshu talks in Hindi, I take the opportunity to practice my Bangla.

Of course, there are times when we all converse in the same language, but rarely do we achieve perfect synchronisation. Or do I mean coordination?

Anyhow, most Indian households will relate to this situation. Our daughter at 8 years, reads English extensively, Hindi a little less fluently - and the Bangla alphabets. Schools today give strict injunctions to read story-books in English (not any other language, please note), but conversations between students are generally conducted in a sort of Hindi. Back home, grandparents will almost certainly ensure that the family still speaks together in Marathi, Oriya, Malayalam, Telegu, Kashmiri or any of the other languages they have grown up with. That sounds pretty impressive. Except that, since there is no time or incentive to read in regional languages, and since despite several decades of trying hard, we have not been able to make ourselves English (or American) - we end up using a ‘cross-over’ of words and grammar from many different languages. Very amusing and exciting, and as analysts will tell us, it shows the vibrancy of Hindi/English/Bangla/Gujarati etc. in India. Even better, it reveals how cosmopolitan, pan-Indian and ‘global’ we are.

To me, it seems this is basically poor justification for bad language, and I don’t mean cuss words. Of course, I cannot be held up as a shining example of what the good Indian should sound like. Having more or less forgotten the smattering of Tamil, Punjabi, Sanskrit, and Hindi studied as Second and Third languages in different parts of the country –I unfortunately seem to be most fluent in English. That may be a result of the vast collection of books in that language (presumably left over from the days of the Raj) in the army libraries, which I must confess, I devoured eagerly. Or the fact that this was the only language common to the different parts of the country that we found we could converse in - whether in the markets of Mettupalyam or Mhow. Or maybe this is the outcome of the training given to us by the Irish nuns in the cantonment schools. I remember the soft-spoken receptionist at one of the architecture offices I worked at, observing with a smile that even when I began any of my sentences in Hindi, I invariably ended up finishing them in English. Since then, I have consciously tried to be consistent about speaking in one language at a time.

It is not a wholly successful attempt. But I try. So, we have designated exclusive ‘Hindi Time’, ‘English time’, and ‘Bangla Time’ at home. Of course, it is not possible to discuss profound truths about architectural and spatial relationships in Bangla or Hindi, as we explain to Treya. And I cannot really express myself coherently in Bangla when I am displeased with the performance of my cook. So, often the rule gets amended to, ‘Reply in the language that you are addressed in’. Which probably explains why we all race to start a conversation. Not surprisingly, this can get a little exhausting. So, the rule at meal-times, is ‘no conversation please’.

It is difficult for most of us to think in more than one language. Snehanshu’s father, when he came to New Delhi from Kolkata to help in setting up the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, couldn’t understand at first why his head used to ache all the time – till he realised that instead of thinking and speaking in Bangla, he was sub-consciously constantly translating in his mind from Bangla before speaking in Hindi or English. All of us invariably think in our ‘native tongue’ and translate into the languages we have learnt later. The reason that Treya still confuses ‘yesterday’ with ‘tomorrow’ may be because, in Hindi the word for both is the same! And only those who have grown up speaking Hindi will realise (perhaps after a brief moment of blankness) what she meant when she once asked me with perfect seriousness in English: “Has your throat got up?” With repeated practice, we eventually grow out of such hazards of literal translations and the nuances between ‘Dikh rahein hain’ and ‘Dekh Rahein hain’. As when Treya, noting that I was going to answer the door in shorts instead of the long skirts I normally wear, primly pointed out to me, “Mama, your knees are looking”!

There is an Akbar-Birbal story about a visitor who arrives at the Emperor Akbar’s court and challenges anyone present to correctly guess which is his actual ‘mother-tongue’, and which part of the country he originally hails from. The entire court tests him, but he speaks all languages with the diction and fluency of a native. Akbar then turns to Birbal as his only hope. What does Birbal do? At night, when the tired visitor is in deep slumber, Birbal gets a servant to rudely rouse him from sleep (in one version of the story, by throwing water; and in another one by repeatedly making a din outside the window). The exasperated visitor responds by cursing aloud involuntarily in his mother-tongue. And Birbal triumphantly announces his discovery in court the next day. The story is as much about the ability of certain people to ‘pick up’ languages with ease, as about Birbal’s cleverness, as about the fact that in moments of great emotion – anger, joy or grief – we revert to the language we are most familiar with: invariably the language we have first learnt, traditionally at our mother’s knee – hence our mother-tongue.

Birbal’s plan may not have worked today. Certainly not in my case. I often wonder what language I would have shouted out in. Probably Hindi? Though it is primarily a combination of Hindi and English that I have grown up with. So, I may have yelled out in English and finished the phrase in Hindi or vice versa. But my mother-tongue is Garhwali. And originally my family – if I trace it by its patriarchal connection, which is usual in my part of the country – is from Kumaon. My father, apart from Hindi and English, is however most fluent in Gorkhali, because after leaving home at the age of fifteen to join the National Defence Academy, it was the Gorkha Rifles that he was commissioned in four years later. And till he was in his battalion, the language for communication amongst officers and soldiers was almost exclusively Gorkhali. Which makes me think how much more exciting – and confused – domestic conversations would be if I knew Kumaoni, Garhwali and Gorkhali.

That marriages in India are no longer confined to the same caste or region, should mean that we are enriched by a greater understanding of different cultures. But it seems to be working the other way these days. Instead of children knowing the customs, literature, languages or traditions of the regions of both their parents, they end up knowing neither - only Hindi and English. And so we have the great urban Indian, dressed up in clothes advertised on television or elsewhere (so what if they are designed for completely different climates and cultures?) speaking a combination of ‘Americanese’ and Hindi slang, getting larger and larger on a diet of Coke and McDonald’s. Their children mouth identical dialogues, believing only in the possibilities of Barbies and Ben-Ten like toys, unaware of the fast-disappearing plural and diverse traditions of the country they inhabit. As Ashis Nandy points out: ‘So, it is not only globally that the diasporas are producing one-dimensional national cultures, such national cultures also have clear links with pockets of national culture that are crystallizing within the countries’. [1]

Languages play a vital role in ensuring the continuation of local cultures. Each language ensures that personal, familial, local, regional memories and traditions pass on. It preserves memories and conjures up entire visual scenes, and retains the memory of local responses to climate, architecture, space. The word ‘roak’ cannot simply be translated as a plinth or a platform or a stoop. It is not just an architectural element in the town-houses of North Kolkata. It contains the entire experience of the habitual gathering of neighbourhood-men lounging there interminably, playing chess and cards; their animated arguments; their indolently watchful gaze guarding the neighbourhood from strangers.
This is why, when we do not understand or speak in the languages of our grandparents, we not only lose out on a different universe of sound and text, we also lose out on their connection with a unique and distinct landscape. This is why, while I insist that my students in the post-graduate course of design and architecture, have to work harder at expressing themselves coherently and correctly in spoken and written English, I also urge them to explore the ideas in their own literature, mythology, and folk-songs.

All languages have different personalities – they open up doors to newer worlds. The single Garhwali children’s rhyme and the Kumaoni folk-song I know, transmit a lilt and cadence, at once peculiar to the Central Himalayas and common to all mountains. In one, the conversation between a child and a dove, evokes equally the speech and the pace of mountain-folk, and the soft sight and sound of their birds. The other celebrates the image of the beloved Mountain-Goddess, Nanda Devi even as the song flits in and out of a recollection of the particular berries that fruit in different seasons in a part of Kumaon, including the tiny ‘kaphal’.

So, sooner or later I will learn Garhwali and Kumaoni, dialects thought they may be conventionally understood as, and read the Ballad of Malushah in the original and not in an English translation. Meanwhile, these days our afternoons are punctuated by my halting Bangla renditions of UpendraKishore Roy Choudury’s stories for children written a hundred years ago. I look forward to the day when it will not merely be silver-fish who will investigate Treya’s grandfather’s extensive collection of Bengali literature. Then she will read aloud to me and I will lie back.

[1] p. 138, Talking India, Ashis Nandy in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo, OUP New Delhi, 2006