I spent Sunday morning at the Barbican, a curious London cultural institution that dates from the 1970s. Its heavy and brutalist architecture could have been featured in A Clockwork Orange. The Barbican was hosting a widely acclaimed exhibition on the Bauhaus. I went in there with my friend Sarah not expecting much — what was there about the Bauhaus, I wondered, that I had left to learn?
But the exhibition was a comprehensive curation, not only of the themes and preoccupations of the Bauhaus at various stages of its development and peripatetic movement around Germany to increasingly large urban centers, but also of its historical development and shifting, evolving priorities: now arts and crafts, now total-art-work, now industrial support, now architecture. There was even a brief section of the future legacy of the Bauhaus, which documented the movement of different students and teachers from the school to centers in other parts of Germany and the United States. I was surprised to learn that the Ulm School of Design, of which we have heard so much from M. P. Ranjan in the last couple of Design Public events, was set up by a Bauhaus student after the war, in 1953.
I had spent my entire college years in thrall to the lost but resilient legacy of the Bauhaus, studying its personalities from the point of view of painting, sculpture, theater — and even design pedagogy. Like all architects and designers, my foundational education also included a kind of recreation of the Bauhaus, and I too was therefore steeped in their lore. When I looked up, from the art books, posters, and gelatin prints through which Bauhaus culture continues to be transmitted, I found the rest of the world odd and strange. The image below captures some of that doubled strangeness: wearing masks and inhabiting a world of new clothes, new furniture and new styles of holding the body, one invites the world to change as well.
Right after that re-immersion into the Bauhaus, I travelled back to India for meetings in Bombay. I’m staying in Juhu near the beach, where many Bollywood film stars live, and where every single billboard is a cultural testament to Bollywood products and projects. It’s a tremendous shock, and I can only recreate the enormous gulf between the culture of the Bauhaus and the prevailing popular culture of India by offering this comparative image:
Now here’s what we might call a teachable moment in art history, visual culture, and value systems: it allows us to compare and contrast, to understand what is Bauhaus and what is Bollywood, and understand why the twain shall never meet…
First and most obvious, the image above is desexualized to some extent by the mask, and by the comportment of the woman’s body, which is at rest, neither uncomfortable nor yearning, nor displaying itself. This body is interacting not with you, the observer, but rather with the chair in which it sits. Aishwarya Rai, however, wears a mask of Maybelline by L’Oreal. Her clothing is highly feminized and her abhinaya, mudra and asana communicate only a frustrated and unlikely form of sringara. It is the posture of teasing, of making visible the unattainable. In other words, it is the idiom of luxury: something everyone knows of, but which only a few can experience.
The values of the Bauhaus are the exact opposite of this: they thought in terms of making experiences and objects that were hitherto restricted to a privileged social elite available to society-at-large. Perhaps they were optimistic or overly idealistic, but theirs was an aesthetic-intellectual response to the massification of German society through industrialization. Perhaps, in the same way, Bollywood visual culture is a response to the increasing asymmetries of Indian society, exacerbated by the urbanization a large pool of unskilled labor that has only few factories to work in. For the rest of India’s urban migrants there is menial and domestic work, and street entrepreneurship.
Another way to describe Bollywood values, perhaps is in terms of the mass circulation of images of abundance, as distinct from the mass circulation of the actual commodities and material resources which might comprise that abundance. This also involves the mass circulation of images of sexualized and hyper-feminized women’s bodies, the valorization of standards of beauty that increasingly have no relationship to actual men or women from this society, and in many ways the reproduction and perpetuation of hierarchy, rather than inclusion. These then are the values of Bollywood.
One might argue that the circulation of images will eventually lead to the circulation of products and services. Perhaps we all live in that hope. For the moment, however, these dreams of plenitude, distributed across a hierarchical society ultimately creates a shared sense of scarcity and false competition, a standpoint from which it is very difficult to think in innovative, inclusive terms.
So, is Bollywood really standing in the way of India’s innovation future? Is it, in fact, a barrier to creating new principles of value and meaning, ones which will make it possible to create a new kind of socially and ecologically responsible middle class, which can build the foundation of India’s future society? This is a strange and surprising conclusion to arrive at, but I’m not sure I completely disagree with it. Your thoughts welcome…