The phrase ‘style over substance’ is hardly ever used as a compliment. Take a look at Vikas Minar, the Delhi Development Authority headquarters that’s arguably the world’s ugliest building, and you’ll realise how substance can be truly overrated when style is left to the dogs.
The new rupee symbol, on the other hand, is a lovely example of style over substance. Yes, IIT Bombay Industrial Design Centre post-grad D. Udaya Kumar who came up with the symbol, said he wanted to capture the ‘Indian roots’ of the rupee in his design. Yes, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni did mention the new symbol “denotes the robustness of the Indian economy”. Frankly, even if Kumar was inspired by a plough and Soni had said the new rupee symbol denoted the youthful exuberance of members of the Nehru-Gandhi family whose names started with a ‘ra’, I would have still liked the .
All those qualities being talked about were injected in the sign to put much- valued substance into undervalued style, like polo-necked, jazz-listening art critics talking about how the art works of Subodh Gupta, especially his stainless steel buckets’n’thalis installations, are “ironic symbols of a septicised aesthetics moored in the nostalgic trails of a joint family kitchen”.
The truth of the matter is that the new rupee symbol is stylish, potent by itself with its firmness and hint of movement that the unstable $ (waiting to be pushed and turned into a skewered and broken infinity sign), the scrunched-up paw-like €, the ludicrously geriatric £, and the unoriginal ¥ don’t have. If there is any substance in the , it’s in the first letter of ‘rupiya/rupiye’ in the Devnagari script and the Wolverine-like strokes across its head that signify money.
Naturally for a man having way too much cash in his wallet, the new rupee design was an invitation for me to take a look at rupee currency notes. If you flip them over, their ‘substance’ is actually quite minimal. The 10 note, with its etchings of a rhino, tiger and elephant accompanied by a flame of Art Nouveau eruptions from the centre is worthy of Dürer. They may tell us, ‘National animals’, but the substance of that message is overwhelmed by its sheer artistic style. The 20 has windswept palm trees (in Kerala?), the
50 shows the imperious Parliament building, and the 100 has a blue-ribbed Himalayan range that reminds us how abstract Nature really is.
It’s not until we reach the 500 note that substance gobbles up style — the back of the 500 note showing the iconic Gandhi-led Dandi march sculpture ‘Gyara Murti’ and the 1000 displaying a Soviet-style depiction of the nation’s progress in science and technology through the images of an oil rig, a bunch of wheat stalks, a girl at a computer, molten steel being poured in a factory and a boxy satellite. Even the picture of Parliament building on the 50 is more a stylish depiction of a grand architecture than a ‘substantial’ symbol of Indian democracy.
Substance, however, reigns supreme on the front of every Indian currency note, with the sole image of a smiling Bapu greeting us with every transaction. (Yes, Bapu’s there each time a cash-filled suitcase is passed under the table.) This is a bit odd. The Americans, for instance, have George Washington ($ 1), Abraham Lincoln ($ 5), Andrew Jackson ($ 20) and Benjamin Franklin ($ 100) on their various dollar notes.
But then, Gandhi, I realise, performs the role of a cork-stopper. Imagine what would happen if the slot on the front of rupee notes opened up for non-Gandhi national icons. Have Ambedkar on a note and there’ll be someone clamouring for Subhas Bose. Ask for Shivaji on a 200 note and as the RBI Governor is my witness we’ll have worthies demanding Jyotiba Phule, Lokmanya Tilak, Veer Savarkar and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on our notes — that last demand would have come overwhelmingly from those who were in their teens between 2002 and 2007 and from all those IIT students, including Udaya Kumar. So much for substance over style.
So next time someone ticks off anything for having ‘style over substance’, tell the jaded philistine that style’s not a thing to scoff at. This page you’re looking at now, teeming with the finest columnists of the known universe, looks like someone’s poured its contents from a cement-mixer onto the page. Maybe Udaya Kumar should take a crack at a new design. As for the substance on this page, I’m sure you’ll keep dipping into it anyway even if I tell you it’s way overrated.