Few amongst the various implements of daily convenience set greater demands on personal status than the car. Colour, size, make, upholstery, gadgets, and extras are the outward manifestation of that status; but the true status seeker will also convey to you that the car is a EXL 5 Luxury model with 3.2 L Overhead Cam and a 4x4 Front Wheel Drive with Power Disc Sonic Vibrator and a 260 RP Automatic Flash Cruise Control. The simple fact of the car’s ability to get you from one place to the next is forgotten in a maze of useless figures.
However literate and proud the person is about the statistics of his car, it is unlikely he will give you the same details of say, his fridge, or his air conditioner. ‘You know, ours is a 300 BTU with a 2.8 CFG of Freon and a separate vegetable compartment.’ The car moves on the road, visible to neighbours, and people in a hotel lobby; the fridge sits in the dining room, exposing its 300 BTU status to the servants.
With the Indian GDP rising to above 9 per cent, the visible path of progress is now measured by the objects that intrude into middle-class life. Day-to-day things acquire special status. At the fruit seller, apples are individually packed in a synthetic mesh; the vegetable vendor sells broccoli, stems packet in cellophane; pears from China sit snugly in plastic moulds, each individually labeled; the vendor himself arrives at the stall, packaged in Wranglers and a new Maruti. Everything and everyone is moving up in the world.
Unfortunately, in a traditional society, this seduction by newer forms and marketing techniques also produces unfortunate dilemmas. In my neighbourhood, a 30-year-old executive of a successful electronics firm rides a sports model BMW to work. Known for its superb handling at speeds of 150 kmph, the car is often stuck in slow moving traffic. Entitled to a driver, and acutely conscious of his status, the executive sits in the back reading the Wall Street Journal, the joys of superior handling left to the driver. A house designed recently, with extensive public areas and dining rooms, finds the traditional family too uncomfortable in its palatial space. They prefer to spend their day in the kitchen.
Excessive expenditure on the development of expensive status objects has been the hallmark of every successful industry. When the Ford Motor Company decided to promote the Mustang model in the 60s, it spent 50 million dollars merely on the specific machinery for its production. Not including the six years of research and three years of preparation for its launch. With so much time and money and jobs at stake, the company had to insure the car’s success. The right image consultant ensured the car would make a clean sweep of America.
In India too, with the proliferation of new products — Tag Heuer watches, Gucci bags, Nike shoes and Ray Bans — each company banks on peoples desire for social conformity to ensure that its large investment in untested waters is safe. Instead of reflecting each person’s unique personality, new objects are given a mass produced image of individuality at the factory itself. Ironically, because of its individual appeal, everyone in the Indian middle class will want the Tag Heuer watch and the Gucci bag. Even people in the villages.
Such institutionalisation of middle class dreams guarantees the success of the luxury product. To have what you don’t need, to buy that which you can’t afford, to display that which everyone has, is after all the ultimate test of successful marketing. By that time everyone in remote Indian villages is wearing a designer watch they feel is custom designed just for them, hefty profits will already have accrued in the foreign bank, and the company will have moved to a higher level of sophistication.
There are enough psychological studies damning the supposed inventiveness of new objects. A watch that provides prevailing wind speeds, heart rate, blood pressure, humidity and temperature levels can no longer be called a watch (should it be available at the watch shop or the chemist?). Just the way a mobile phone with a camera, a calculator, and a microwave oven — the day isn’t far — is no longer a phone. When attachments overtake the original function, the implement loses its purpose. Too much convenience becomes an inconvenience.
However, in a country like India, where aesthetic values have for years been considered a sentimental and unnecessary luxury, a different measure also applies. The true determinants of form and function have always been economics and politics. If a concrete box can be built cheaply, it will be built to house a family that lost its home in a cyclone, regardless of its suitability. If a government building is acceptable as a district office in Barmer, Rajasthan, there is no reason to change its design for the district office in Nainital. For many years the only car on the Indian roads was the cream-coloured Ambassador. Luxury meant owning an Ambassador with a sun visor. For decades, HMT produced the only watch for India. It not only told time, it could also be strapped to the wrist for ease of transportation. Luxury meant getting one with a seconds hand, and a washable strap. You asked for a watch, you didn’t get a camera.
The dissociation between function and appearance is a new phenomenon. Look at the suburban farmhouse in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Outwardly, the architecture makes all the right references to the ideal village home: mud walls, rustic wooden doors, local terracotta, sometimes even a thatch roof. But the inner space is of vast proportions, built with the firmness of concrete, air conditioned, and lighting straight out of an Italian catalogue. The lifestyle of Rio clothed in the weary hues of poor India.
As Mahatma Gandhi, commenting about rural life, didn’t say, “The real India is not here, it’s in California.”
(The writer is a Delhi-based architect).