Gorgeous or grotesque?

It happens every time the aircraft approaches my ‘home-city’ and the captain says, “Cabin crew prepare for landing”, I look out of the window and visually trace the contours of my city, Chennai, until the plane touches down on terra firma.

 Structures of various shapes, sizes and colours lie scattered around the city. As I spot landmark buildings and bridges, I also silently bemoan the growing lack of aesthetics in my city. Where has all the beauty of the past gone? Why have ancient art and architecture been erased from our memory? The city has become ugly, I say to myself. I am repulsed and my mind desperately seeks aesthetic comfort. And voila! In my mind’s eye, the city of my childhood appears in all its grandeur or my inbuilt neural projector re-plays reels from an old Films Division documentary. In that warmth of nostalgia, I retrieve my precious old city.

  But, of late, I have tried questioning this feeling. What is this ugliness? What exactly am I rejecting? Is my sense of the visually distasteful an unconscious expression of my rejection of someone else’s way of living? Is it because ‘they’ belong to a lower class? Is my feeling of ‘the beautiful’, a vulgar sense of superiority or purity? Is the newly emerging upper-middle class a challenge to ‘me’, the hereditary stakeholder? What is in ‘my past’ that I treasure? What is this aesthetic that I seek and cling on to?

 Before I move ahead with this discussion, I must describe what I perceive as ‘ugly’. I am instinctively responding to shape, size and colour. This response is generated purely on my own habituation and conditioning.

 A truly aesthetic response to a visual comes from observing the object as a continuum of the past that lives in the present and moves into the future. The sensitive observer is responsive to the object, its environment, purpose and, crucially, the people who inhabit the space.  Here, that observer goes beyond his own contextual limitations.

But often this is not how we respond to visual stimuli. Our reactions are not insightful observations on the aesthetics of design and architecture. Examples of the unaesthetic exist in many places — be it the home of Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai or the utter filth in the gully near my home — display scant respect to context, space and people. But when I demand ‘a’ beauty in the world around that is personally acceptable to my class and me, it becomes problematic.

 Let us look at ‘our world of the beautiful’. We, of the upper-middle class, are more or less of the ‘same’ kind? aren’t we? Old or quaint furniture adorning the home, hand-crafted objets d’art, stonework and brassware in appropriate places, some eco-friendly elements and, if you are wealthy enough, a few antiques. Along with all this will also exist the modern abstract painting, a framed contemporary cartoon or a retrospective photograph. There is another style-template — minimalistic, clean and ultra-modern— in which Scandinavia seems to have descended into the living room! The exteriors here are usually off-white, with geometric lines or reflecting village-style roofs or throwbacks to colonial India. Our own physical appearance too is often only an extension of what I have just described. This idea itself is not a shut container. It changes according to what the upper middle class absorbs and appropriates into its socio-cultural framework. New entrants need to fit into this image if they want the ‘classy’ tag; otherwise they will remain members of the ‘Janata club’. As the saying goes “money doesn’t buy everything!”

 There is really nothing wrong with every community fashioning its own styles. The problem arises when one model becomes the controlling creative narrative of society as a whole. Do we want all of society to look and live like us? Do we want our home designs to be prescribed like they are in the U.S.? In fact some of us do; ‘standardisation is elegance’!

 Let us not misconstrue this argument as being against the revival of handlooms or indigenous techniques of design and construction. A revival of traditional views of space, design and utility is necessary not because they look pretty but because that makes aesthetic sense.

 Now, realising who I am, if I look at the outside will I see the beauty in what seemed to me to be distasteful? Along with the colours and shapes will I feel the needs, aspirations and dreams of the people occupying those spaces?  Will I realise that so many factors determine choices regarding appearance? Can I be less insensitive? Will I stop strangling the beautiful with my notions of it?

 Though I have discussed the attractive, graceful and the alluring, this discussion is as much about what we have pre-supposed as being development, success, or culture. In every one of these elements of socio-political life what we first absorb is that which our senses receive and slot as the gorgeous or the grotesque. If we can cross this first hurdle, we just might move closer towards becoming less judgmental, more reflective human beings.

Originally written for The Hindu

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