Friday, June 21, 2013

National and Regional Identity in Design:- Part IV

Part IV – At Home in The World

Ghore Bhaire (translated as At Home and Outside/ The Home and The World) is the title of a novel written in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore almost a century ago Considered a classic in world literature, the English translation of this novel is widely available, and is part of the recommended list of readings in the curriculum of Delhi University.[1] A recently published critical edition of this novel has the benefit of being annotated and edited by Professor Dilip Basu who taught English at Delhi University for many years, and who is passionate about the written, and the spoken and performed word, not just in English but also in Hindi and particularly in his own language, Bengali. When Dilip Kaka, a close family friend, asked Snehanshu to design the cover of this book, Snehanshu chose a photograph of a portico – a space both part of the house and the outside. The house was a large mansion in Birnagar in Nadia district, one of the ancestral homes of Snehanshu’s zamindar family in the days of the British Raj. The detail of the Corinthian columns in the classical colonial mould favoured by many of the richer families of Bengal, was used by Snehanshu in his cover-design of Ghore Bhaire. I found it interesting how a colonial form of building had enmeshed itself so deeply in the landed families of Bengal, that it forms the definitive image to portray a certain time and ethos of this region.

Snehanshu’s grandmother, whose beautiful Banarasi sari I wrote about in the first part of this four-part essay, forms another link in the journey of understanding the role of home and the world in shaping and re-shaping us. She persuaded her husband to move out of the quieter zamindar life in Birnagar to the bustling city of Kolkata, capital of the British Empire, where she ensured that her children received a different view of the world, equipped with higher education in medicine and engineering. The choice of the columns framing the interior of their house – one of the many such mansions the family had in Birnagar – is thus particularly relevant to the theme of Ghore Bhaire. The novel relates the differing perceptions of national and individual identity and independence within and across the boundaries of home, in the days before freedom from British rule came to India. I had seen the film adaptation of the novel by Satyajit Ray, but never read the novel in detail, either in the original or in translation. It was only when I set this as a reading for my post-graduate students in Industrial Design, that I read it and the critical essays that accompanied the book, with concentrated attention.

 The contrast in the ‘atmokatha’, literally ‘own stories’ of its three main characters, all extraordinary in their own way – Bimala, Nikhil and Sandeep – tellingly portrays how fundamentally our decisions in life are shaped by our awareness of and our search for our identities. The novel, which is recorded to have evoked varied responses and provoked more ‘vituperative criticism’[2] than any of Tagore’s other works when it was first published, also evokes varying responses on repeated readings. On re-reading the text, I felt that the novel is essentially the story of Bimala, and through her the story of the tempestuous journey that her land and her country make, in negotiating the differences between the codified confines of the past, and the imagined freedom of the future. Bimala, uneducated in the western system, brought up in the seclusion of the inner apartments, is patiently drawn out by her husband, Nikhil, from the physical and mental view circumscribed by, and within, these apartments. He exposes her to non-traditional music, books and company. He is eager that Bimala may be more aware of the world outside the compass of the space that she is traditionally restricted to, and in doing so also discover her own latent qualities, and accompany her husband as an equal partner in life.

This ‘drawing out’ of Bimala, brought up on traditional notions of space, form and propriety in her maternal home, results in events which both she and Nikhil are unprepared for. Bimala is honest enough in assessing her own actions as well as her liberal husband’s notions and actions, while yet according to him the elevated status of Hindu husbands. Yet, despite her decided individuality and intelligence, and her husband’s staunch support and love, she is inherently perhaps, insecure about her own identity. She sees herself through the eyes of others. Though, like the other women of her family, Bimala too is protected from the gaze of the outside world, she is self-conscious about how her house and her furniture, and therefore how she by association, appears to those who are deemed important and influential. In the India of that time, this denoted particularly the Europeans. She observes:
My husband still sharpens his Indian-made pencils with his Indian-made knife, does his writing with reed pens, drinks his water out of a bell-metal vessel, and works at night by the light of an old-fashioned castor lamp. But this dull, milk-and-water Swadeshi never appealed to me. Rather, we had always felt ashamed of the inelegant, unfashionable furniture of his reception rooms, especially when he had the magistrate, or some other European, as his guest.[3]

Dismissive about her husband’s long-expressed preference for home-made and regional objects and artefacts, when Bimala encounters the more emotional and militant form of the Swadeshi movement to reclaim Swa - one’s own - desh, it strikes a chord in her own fiery nature. Not only does she now countenance the rejection of all English people, including her kind music-teacher, Miss Gilby, but she also energetically espouses the cult of the home-grown, the swadeshi. Her perception of her own self and the world around her, is transformed even more dramatically by Nikhil’s charismatic friend and political leader, Sandip. His exhortation to protect the nation portrayed as a Mother-goddess, is different from her husband’s ‘dull, milk-and-water swadeshi’. She now clamours even more insistently to burn all her foreign-made clothes, and is convinced that everyone must do the same, even if that means starvation for the peasantry.
Openly pitted against her husband, she feels ashamed that ‘from his estates alone foreign sugar and salt and cloths had not been banished’. Like the others in her village, ‘old and young alike’ who had hitherto thought the use of country-made articles was a folly, she admits: ‘When Swadeshi had not yet become a boast, we had despised it with all our hearts.’ [4]

Sandip, on the other hand, moulds his identity for entirely selfish reasons. So, while he publicly deifies the nation, he corners all its resources and is happy to sacrifice other people’s comfort and even their lives, for it - justifying this predatory attitude as ‘the rule of nature’. Bimala realises his hollowness despite her fascination, but only after she has compromised her marriage, her happiness and even her identity. The reason for this is that Bimala, though certainly not a meekly acquiescent person, is yet still susceptible to the image that Nikhil or Sandip would like to mould her into. She is unprepared to unstintingly question or understand - which is the true purpose of education, and of freedom. Looking back at that time in Bengal and in India, where women for the most part, had come to be confined both mentally and physically into restricted domesticity, it is perhaps only natural that Bimala falls short.

While the novel is an exploration of many pertinent issues – about nationhood, the role of women in the domestic and the larger arena, the relationship between caste, community, region and religion – one can also find in and through its main characters, interesting parallels between the roles of design and identity. Though the novel demonstrates that you cannot categorise people into standard, unchanging black-and-white images, yet it does this through highlighting some definite ‘types’ of different individuals. A great many of us are like Bimala, conscientious and dynamic in our motivations but insecure about our own value. Swayed by the power of rhetoric and superficial qualities of design, we are confused about our identities as well as what national and individual freedom mean. Instead of developing our own personalities and skills based on our needs and abilities, we cast ourselves in ready-made moulds of others’ making, ‘ashamed’ to be ‘inelegant or unfashionable’. This is, of course, something that assails us not merely as designers or consumers, but in every aspect of our lives, particularly our persons. The most telling evidence of this, are the print, television and radio advertisements that have been incessantly promoting fairness creams for years. This has, since the past decade, been accompanied by more and more Indians streaking and bleaching their hair blonde in a desperate imitation of the predominant notion of beauty and fashion imported from primarily European and American cultures.

The fact that today, more and more Indians want to look like the West, is not a phenomenon confined to the present form of our cities, habitats, or political boundaries; nor a whimsy limited to some individuals. The reason for our deep discomfort with our appearance, an intrinsic aspect of our perceived self-identities, to a large extent has its roots in our colonial experience. In the very beginning of Ghore Bhaire, Bimala recollects her resentment about her dark features. She believes she is not beautiful, and that others do not consider her so because of this reason. Contrast this with the assurance that we earlier had of ourselves. Thus, in the Mahabharata, Drupad’s daughter, the princess Draupadi, famed as the most beautiful of all women, has eyes like the petals of the lotus, long and lustrous hair, and dark-skin – one of her names is Krishnaa, the dark one.[5] And to Amir Khusro Dehlawi the colour of the Indian skin is ‘like nectar’.[6]

The book Talking India, records a series of conversations between the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo and the multifaceted Indian Ashis Nandy, trained as a clinical psychologist and sociologist. In the book, Nandy, whose work has been described as an exploration of ‘human potentialities and destructiveness’, speaks about the reinterpretation of the Orient by the West, where: ‘Not only has the West forged this construct of the Orient, they have sold the Orient this construct. So that a sizeable section of the Orient itself has begun to look at its own past through the eyes of the West. Because that, they think, is the more modern, progressive, scientific, and universal outlook.’[7]

Like Bimala and Sandip, not only do we aspire to garb our individual femininity and masculinity in notions and garments that have little to do with the realities of our climate and contexts, but also we transpose these borrowed and ill-understood notions on others. We get enamoured of the idea of a great, powerful nation, but are impatient with the small, vulnerable people who actually make up this nation. Invariably, we are also impatient with the creations of such people and their histories. This is why Indian society for the past many decades has marginalised craftspeople and their worlds. We would instead like to link ourselves with dominant, powerful nations or cultures. The designs or products of such cultures are linked with attributes deemed progressive and fashionable by most of us. This is also why we unquestioningly cough up lakhs of rupees to buy industrially produced ‘branded’ products, but find crafts ‘too expensive’. To us, this realisation was brought home through a master-craftsman from Tamil Nadu, a weaver of reed chattais, so delicate and strong that they could be rolled up into tiny cylinders and literally wrung without spoiling their weave. As we encountered these at a crafts fair eleven years ago and debated whether to buy one at 1100 Rupees, he asked us a question that brought the debate to a close. Did we, he questioned simply, think so much too before buying branded shirts at the same or higher cost, produced in a factory, and identical with many others?

Some of us can, of course, be likened to Sandip – willing to don or discard a regional or national garb at will in order to exploit an assumed identity for personal gain. The important thing for many designers is to sell enough and get a name. ‘Sustainable’, ‘liberal’, or ‘Indian’ become mere labels grafted on as passing trends, to grab the market for another season. Contrasted with Bimala-like people who have been denied choices, but are unprepared to reasonably understand the link between their local, regional, national and therefore their individual identities, when they do have the choice; or Sandips, who deliberately use their regional or national affiliations for personal profit, there is another very important category of people. This is personified in Ghore Bhaire by Panchu, an impoverished peasant, at the mercy of regional or political lords, and unaware of, or unable to access any choice in his life.

Nikhil actively cares about the plight of Panchu and his like. He understands that a nation is not a deified abstract image. A nation is its people. This feeling was also a very important part of Rabindranath Tagore’s concerns, in his life and in his work. But for most of us today, the Panchus of the world do not form part of our imagination or our efforts. So, for instance, in the summary of Ghore Bhaire that the students of Industrial Design were asked to submit, only one out of twenty mentioned Panchu at all. This is perhaps a manifestation of the attitude of the ‘modern’ Indian designer and also of the fact that most designers, similar to most people, rarely exhibit the empathy akin to Nikhil, neither at home nor outside.

Even when we do have positive reasons catalysing our actions, we resemble Amulya, a pivotal character in the story, rather than Nikhil. Amulya is so moved by his idea of the nation, that he sacrifices his life, as well as the ideals of good behaviour and honesty that he otherwise holds, for what he believes is the good of the nation. He swears unquestioning loyalty to Sandip, as we often do to our leaders, whether of design or otherwise – without considering whether what they profess to further as a quest for good design or good practice, is actually so. Idealistic, brave and impressionable, Amulya represents in a way, a younger and therefore more headstrong version of Nikhil, without Nikhil’s qualities of critical thinking, or forbearance.
These qualities are equally manifest in Nikhil’s understanding of Bimala’s misery at the disastrous effects of her alignment and entanglement with Sandip, despite his own pain at her open defection. Amulya dies with a bullet through his heart, like so many scores of young men and women in British India. We do not know if Nikhil will recover from the serious wound in his head, as he is brought back from his efforts to stop the raging violence that has erupted between and around his people.

Freedom can mean different things to different people, is what we understand through the characters in Ghore Bhaire. But the unbridled individual quest for happiness, at the cost of the happiness of others, cannot ever be freedom. As Bimala realises: ‘But he, whose kin are there, yet no longer near, who has dropped out of all the varied companionship of a full home-the starry universe itself seems to bristle to look on him in his darkness’. [8]

Ghore Bhaire, like many of Tagore’s works, which have outlasted his life by many years, shows that great creative work is the output of talent applied in the quest for self-knowledge bolstered by an understanding of our immediate world, and activated by concern and compassion for our homes as well as the larger world. That regional and national and even universal concerns affect design, as they do any other activity in life, is evident.

As a nation and a people, we seem to have lost those qualities of compassion, choosing brutality for the fulfilment of perceived individual, regional or national reasons. Land, which evokes such complex emotional and philosophical attachments, is now being often forcibly acquired, from the very people who are most deeply linked to it – farmers, villagers, adivasis. This dispossession of the country’s most vulnerable people is happening at, as Amit Bhaduri explains at length, a huge scale by our governments for three major purposes: mining, industry and special economic zones – all large-scale industrial activities that concentrate power and money in the hands of a very few at the expense of very many.[9] Zealously enforced by government agencies,[10] it is explained away, Sandip-like, as a necessary sacrifice in the name of development, by often the country’s most powerful minds.

In an open letter to Dr. K. Kasturirangan recently published in The Hindu, Madhav Gadgil, Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, notes his surprise and dismay at Dr Kasturirangan’s being party to the report of the High Level Working Group on Western Ghats. This report, Gadgil writes, partitions the ecologically sensitive ghats into ‘natural landscapes’, one-third of which are to be ‘safeguarded by guns and guards’, and ‘two-thirds of so-called cultural landscapes’ to be thrown open to large-scale and exploitative development, while ‘remarking that local communities can have no role in economic decisions’. Such development, Gadgil writes, as shown clearly in the case study by the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel of Lote Chemical Industry Complex in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, has caused pollution beyond all legal limits so that 20,000 people have been rendered jobless while only 11,0000 have obtained industrial employment. In this context, Gadgil observes that it ‘would appear that we are now more British than the British’, reminding us of Francis Buchanan, ‘an avowed agent of British imperialism, who wrote in 1801 that India’s sacred groves were merely a contrivance to prevent the East India Company from claiming its rightful property’.[11]

The disturbing scale of land grabbing in the name of national development can be observed today all across free India. It is explained away as ‘inevitable’. So, the forcible takeover of agricultural, forest and common lands by governments and real-estate agencies for SEZs and industrial uses, despite sustained people’s protests, continues to be a rising phenomenon.[12] Statistics analysed by P. Sainath (described as ‘the only rural affairs editor in India’) show that ‘at least 270,940 Indian farmers have taken their lives since 1995, which translates into around 46 farmers’ suicides each day, on average. Or nearly one every half-hour since 2001.’[13] This means that by the time you have read this essay, at least one more farmer has taken his own life. Yet, despite the rise in suicide rates of Indian framers, this chilling phenomenon rarely gets any mention in our media or provision in our political planning.

As Ashis Nandy notes, ‘Ultimately, modern oppression, as opposed to the traditional oppression, is not an encounter between the self and the enemy, the rulers and the ruled, or the gods and the demons. It is a battle between dehumanized self and the objectified enemy, the technologized bureaucrat and his reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome other selves projected on to their 'subjects'.[14] We are all party to this oppression and will indeed continue to be so, till we are secure with our own individual and regional identities, and share a concern beyond ourselves.

One cannot become a global citizen by renouncing local resources or by renouncing one’s local links and responsibilities. The journey has to be individual and from within. As the example of Ghore Bhaire shows, true freedom and identity stem from having and realising the choice to inhabit both your inner and outer worlds – not an either/or situation. It is only then that we can question conventional dominant notions, even when we are suddenly confronted with choices, and can explore and adapt – instead of abandoning – our own inherited values or designs in the light of increased awareness of the values or knowledge-systems of other cultures. It is not one or the other, or the individual pitted against a region or a nation, but all these together which will create confident, creative individuals and nations. Just as, to Nikhil, and to Tagore, political freedom is nothing if it results from coercion of individuals, especially those who are poor or deprived, similarly independence means nothing if we cannot exercise it to achieve not just channels for our own creative self-expression with dignity, but also for that of others who are destitute of such opportunities.

What Sri Aurobindo said so many years ago is even more relevant today:
A reshaping of the forms of our spirit will have to take place; but it is the spirit itself behind past forms that we have to disengage and preserve and to give to it new and powerful thought-significances, culture-values, a new instrumentation, greater figure. And so long as we recognize these essential things and are faithful to their spirit, it will not hurt us to make even the most drastic mental or physical adaptations and the most extreme cultural and social changes. But these changes themselves must be cast in the spirit and mould of India and not in any other, not in the spirit of America or Europe, not in the mould of Japan or Russia…Our means must be as great as our ends and the strength to discover and use the means so as to attain the end can only be found by seeking the eternal source of strength in ourselves.[15]

And so we come back to the image and function of the sari, and the qualities it embodies – where the functional and the decorative may be part of the same whole; where resources can be used optimally but frugally; where an artefact can be simultaneously functional and decorative; where infinite variety and complexity are possible within an idea of striking simplicity; where work, despite being a necessary means of survival can also be part of a daily decentralised, individual quest for creative expression; where a rigorous knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics can enable the creation of distinctive design within a shared language and structure.

As individuals and as groups, as designers and as consumers, we can consciously decide to eschew materials, processes, and designs that depend on their production or existence on centralised, dehumanising and exploitative practices. In the choice of what we wear and use in our daily lives; what and how we design; and who we design for; we can seek to further the possibilities of human freedom and creativity, while seeing how we can improve living and working conditions for everyone – especially those who actually create things for us, using their hands. And for those who still crave novelty and endless variety, they can still patronize the sari, which can be draped in 108 recorded ways. So I would like to end, as I began, with the image of a sari. Not one woven a hundred years ago, but a beautiful Kerala cotton sari woven in today’s time. At Rs. 650, it is less expensive and far more valuable than the industrially produced plastic watches that are now the trend, and that Snehanshu had originally intended to buy for me. We are fortunate that we still have such a choice. But we may not for long.

Images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1]  The Home and The World (At Home and Outside), Rabindranath Tagore, English translation by Surendranath Tagore; ‘Bimala’s Story’, Critical Edition edited by Dilip Kumar Basu and Debjani Sengupta, WorldView Publications, Delhi 2011
[2] Tanika Sarkar, ‘Many Faces of Love: Country, Woman and God in the Home and The World’, p.265, as reproduced in The Home and the World, At Home and Outside, Critical Essays p.265.-84.
[3] The Home and the World, At Home and Outside, Critical Edition; ‘Bimala’s Story’, p.99. It is interesting in this context to recollect the furniture that Tagore chose to use in the colonial spaces of his family home at Jorasanko. Not only is furniture sparely used, low in scale and well-crafted in the Indian tradition, but also internal objects such as the evocative light fittings made of sea shells, apparently by Tagore himself, combine the traditional Indian features of practical and decorative use, utilising local materials.
[4] Ibid.
[5]  Mahabharata, Kamla Subramaniam, p. 98, Bharthi Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, 1st Edition, 1965, 16th Edition, 2011
[6] Amir Khusro, Dr Parmanand Panchal, p. 14, Hindi Book Centre, New Delhi,
[7] Talking India, Ashis Nandy in Conversation with Ramin Jahnabegloo, ‘Looking in the Mirror of the East’, p. 27, OUP 2006
[8] The Home and the World, At Home and Outside, Critical Edition; ‘Bimala’s Story’, p. 205
[9] The Face You Were Afraid to See, Essays on the Indian Economy, ‘A Failed World View’, p.36-7, Penguin Books, 2009
[10] The documentary film, Earth Witness, Reflections on the Times and the Timeless, directed by Akanksha Joshi, 2011, shows how farmers, shepherds, adivasis in different parts of India are being mercilessly pushed off their land by decisions taken by national agencies
[11] ‘Shocking Betrayal on Western Ghats’, Madhav Gadgil, p. 13, Op-Ed, The Hindu, May 18 2013
[12] See, a forum for readings and discussions on such issues.
[13]  P. Sainath, The Hindu, May 18, 2013, ‘Farmers’ Suicide rates soar above the rest’; for more writings by Sainath, see also
[14] Ashis Nandy, ‘The Psychology of Colonialism, Sex, Age and Ideology in British India’, p. 16, The Intimate Enemy, Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Delhi, Oxford University Press 1983
[15] The Right Object of Education – And India’s National Education, Words of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother,

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