30 October 2013

Post Facto - Blind Spot: distilling the essence of middle class aesthetics

My Sunday Guardian column for 27th October:

he label "middle class" is frequently deemed sufficient as a descriptor for many things in India – neighbourhoods, morality, home decor. An ongoing exhibition called Blind Spot seeks to simultaneously challenge and concretise that descriptor as far as the home decor goes. Not only is there a middle class home decor, the show argues, but there are seven subsets of it. Based on a research project conducted between 2011 and 2012, the exhibition organised by Outset India and Weiden & Kennedy describes itself as using "photographs, cultural references and interactive data to bring to life seven contemporary sensibilities, each complete with their visual and verbal vocabularies." Researchers apparently drew on conversations with designers and design bloggers as well as visits to private residences in 13 Indian cities including Madurai, Lucknow, Bhopal, Kolkata and Ahmedabad to come up with these seven sensibilities: 'Natural', 'Cute', 'Decent', 'Traditional', 'Royal', 'Jazzy' and 'Executive'. Each of these characterises a room (sometimes two rooms) in the independent New Delhi bungalow where Blind Spot is on show: House No. 24, Jor Bagh.
"The study concentrates on the universal threads that run through the home decor choices of middle class families with household income between 3 and 8 lakhs across India," says the Blind Spot website. Even in its current dilapidated state, though, House No. 24, Jor Bagh is grander than all the houses that the exhibition draws on. Its size, its garden, its very location on leafy Lodhi Road, in the heart of Lutyens' Delhi and practically across the road from Lodhi Garden, makes it anything but middle class. This fact gives the whole exhibition an oddly displaced quality, so that the objects, whether they've been placed in the 'Cute', 'Royal', 'Executive' or any other bracket, begin to seem less like embodiments of those sensibilities and more like a large and diverse gathering of 'Slightly Pitiable'.
Perhaps I am being too hasty. There are things here to be noticed. Especially if you have grown up middle class in India, the show is full of deeply familiar things, many of them stylistic tics that only emerge noticeably as such when someone – the outsider — draws attention to them. 'Natural', for instance, contains both a real potted cactus and several kinds of artificial flowers, both real cane moodas and a fake plastic-woven durrie. There are even flowers painted on little ceramic achaar pots and a clock with a landscape as the background to the dial. Is this a scathing comment on Indian middle class ideas of the natural, a suggestion that its members are so distant from the natural world that they cannot even distinguish any more between that and manmade approximations of it?
djoining the 'Natural' room is the 'Cute' room, and clearly this is a deliberate decision, because there is much that makes the two categories hard to separate from each other. Between the two rooms hangs a plastic toy eagle flapping its wings. Other exhibits that are 'Cute' but seem on the border of 'Natural' are a coffee mug with an anthropomorphic zebra on it and a mini-dustbin with 'Smiley Flowers' printed on it. Each category also has a wall inscribed with words that have emered from conversations about that central idea and what it signifies to informants. Worryingly, "being in love" and "romantic" are descriptors that appear in the list of words under 'Cute'. The association of teddy bears (of which there are several in this room) with romance is clearly not exclusive to the Indian middle classes, but there is something faintly eerie about an aesthetic dominated by teddies and babies being the only one of the seven categories here that contains the word "romantic".
'Royal' is perhaps the most easy to classify – heavy sofas almost always upholstered in rich reds and deep maroons, gilt carved furniture, ornate mirrors. "This is about being ostentatious. It aims to demonstrate prosperity to the world at large. It is articulated through pieces that are grand, heavy and delicately detailed," reads the exhibition handout. 'Jazzy' is possibly the most fictitious category here. Though it is described as an "individualistic expression that is a loud and proud proclamation of status", the stuff placed under 'jazzy' seems to me to be united only by its multicoloured-ness. Having a multicoloured rubber bathroom wiper does not seem to me to erase the profound unjazziness of owning a rubber bathroom wiper at all.
An interesting category is 'Decent'. The white and blue rubber chappals, the Nataraj pencils, the black plastic-covered diary and the clipboard on which so many of us wrote exams work perfectly to evoke this category, as does the Godrej almirah and the tube of Colgate in the bathroom. I've almost always thought of the Indian obsession with brands as a post-liberalisation thing, so I was struck by the fact that so many of these objects were actually branded. But these brands express a lack of choice. 'Decent' is described as "sober, respectable, yet welcoming" — but what the rooms feels like is the opposite of 'Royal' and 'Jazzy'. In contemporary India, it seems, to be merely 'Decent' expresses a lack of prosperity, and certainly a lack of status.

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