From Bauhaus to Bollywood

 

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…

 

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4 Responses to From Bauhaus to Bollywood

  1. Mayank Mansingh Kaul says:

    Aditya,

    This is both a remarkable insight and question!

    I have a few things to say to respond, but before that I just want you to know how absolutely delighted I am to know that you have started this blog to reflect on design, and how much of a stimulus it already seems to me it will become, to provoke more enquiries on the subject.

    Your question immediately evokes two further questions to me: First, how we understand what ‘innovation’ means in the Indian context, and two, whether Bollywood is really as important as it seems today to us in metro cities like Delhi and Mumbai, when cinema and television in regional languages seems to be flourishing. I take these two threads in the next two paras.

    INNOVATION IN INDIA: While I think it is important that Indian wakes up to the enormous importance of investing in inventions/innovations the way it is understood internationally (can we consider creating wealth through innovation, otherwise?), I think it is important – more now, than ever – to enquire what the historicity of such innovation has been here. India, through millenia/centuries, has largely been a land of traders. Even at the height of trade in textiles (which supplied 3/4th of the world’s requirements until the Industrial Revolution), there has been a tremendously dynamic relationship between manufactures-makers-creators-consumers. Through this give and take, Indian cultural artefacts reflect one of the most cosmopolitan manifestations of human creativity, and adaptability. I wonder, therefore, if our form of ‘innovation’ is not similar, due to a deeper, innate, way in which we consider making? I am not suggesting here, what has been referred to as jugaad rather fashionably in recent times, but an enquiry into whether India has the instrinsic ability to think of innovation as is often suggested in visible discussions today (at the government, corporate, even the google-face book variety way).

    India’s reality has been the negotiation of the hand-made and machine made modes of production, and this makes me think of its future as belonging somewhere in the middle. Here, I do not know if innovation is required, or even desirable seen in the context of – on the one hand, the need to provide employment to possibly the largest number of unorganised ‘hands’ in the world, and on the other to match international qualities of ‘efficiency’ and standardisations.

    Here, of course (and am sorry of this seems like too long a post by way of a digression), I am just wondering whether we in India need to think deeper, and more, about what innovation itself means? What are its ingredients? Its impacts, and most importantly, its protagonists. Impediments to innovation then, perhaps can be seen differently?

    ON BOLLYWOOD: Over the last few months, three small shops have come up around my workshop in Delhi (Saidalajab, the large dump next to Neb sarai!): All of these sell locally produced, often home-videos. Films like ‘Pappu Pass Ho Gaya’, ‘Gaon Ki Yaadein’ lead the pack, and Bollywood – although it screams through the FM in my car – does not seem to fit into the world here as much as I would imagine it does. It is the same story, in many places I have visited recently, from Pilakhua (Ghaziabad, just outside Delhi) to Ranchi (Jharkhand).

    We are also, only too quick to make fun of the home-made videos in abudance on youtube – ‘Iskool ke time pe dam pe aana gori’, ‘Spiderman Spiderman – tune churaya mera dil ka chain’ (Indian spiderman). I think there is a large part of India that manufactures, even today, for local consumption where processes of negotiating personal locations, and therefore of culture, are more important than the market-viability of products, and therefore of mass-outreach, as is suggested by this picture of Aishwariya, and the kind of innovation implied within such modes of production.

    It is an India that we are not familiar with, nor perhaps, ever can be.

    Further, a discussion that perhaps to me furthers your question, really, is whether Bollywood itself is becoming more like Hollywood? And whom is it not addressing in the process? In this sense, again, whether Bollywood is only one example of imagining and manufacturing cultural content in India?

    Finally, it must be asked what constitutes the Indian middle class today? Whether it is transforming due to Bollywood is a question that must be seen in the context of the sheer increase in inequality of opportunities (my view that we are more upper-middle class, more poor, and more rich today). Today’s middle class is aspiring, working terribly hard, to be more upwardly mobile to send their children to private schools because quality of education comes at a very high price. Today’s middle class is working harder to earn more to afford flats in gated communities in suburbia, because middle class areas like Malviya Nagar in delhi etc in the heart of the city have no water in summer months. I think the change in India is little to do with Bollywood, really, than to the lack of working democratic institutions in society, which, even until a decade back provided dignity and a voice to those who lad little money, but civic sensibilities and secular education.

    Since you have raised a subject related to the beauty business too, here is something rather interesting: In several districts of Himachal, women have lost out earning from traditional hand-crafts in recent years, as they used to. Many of them have started beauty parlours, refusing to become house-help/manual labourers as has happened in other parts of the country to skilled-handcrafts women. Here, the images that wrap the beauty parlours are of Aishwariya – plenty – usually, as a bride! As are of Shilpa, Kareena and (B)idya!

    Anyhow, this discussion, I am sure will continue.

    Cheers!

  2. ayesha says:

    interesting post, aditya. i find the point you raise about bollywood being a barrier to innovation to be partially true, but then again, there are some scattered examples of the opposite phenomenon. there are movies like delhi belly, for example, in recent times, that have reflected a more honest portrayal of a certain kind of change in indian youth culture. It might not be something that millions of rural indians can identify with, but there seems less of that masking, and more acceptance and comfort with the changes that be. in terms of the kind of sexuality portrayed as well, it is less plastic, more visceral and more honest.

    i guess that, like hollywood or any other mainstream pop culture institution, bollywood promotes a whole bunch of uninspiring, run-of-the-mill kind of stuff, but once in a while, some real gems slip through. after all, it is a creative industry, and some amount of dissident, honest stuff has to come out of it. and some of it has the potential to be seriously disruptive, thought provoking and paradigm-shifting even, as it were.

    of course, you’re talking about a different kind of effect as well – the alienating effect that this massification of a certain kind of image has on indian culture. it reinforces a certain hierarchy and the fact that, for most people, this lifestyle and this perfect beauty, luxury, and even this sense of calm is unattainable. but is this a specifically indian phenomenon? it might be more apparent and jarring here, but is it not something we can observe everywhere, on all the magazines and billboards?

  3. Ekta Ohri says:

    Ever since you wrote this blog post, I have been mesmerized by the evocative imagery you have shared and interesting parallels and differences between the visual style of both.
    I am not sure whether Bollywood stands in the way of inclusive innovation, considering Bollywood icons like Aamir Khan propagate building a more inclusive nation. Film makers, like Anurag Kashyap, who foster real cinema instead of reel cinema, also demystify the alienating effect of Bollywood imagery. However, despite the shift Bollywood has taken over the last decade to illuminate real issues of Indian society, we still popular imagery (like of Aishwarya) being mass circulated and appreciated. Would that stand in the way of building a more inclusive nation and culture of innovation? Not sure…

  4. Deepika Sorabjee says:

    I couldn’t agree more. And from Bauhaus at the Barbican, double austerity, to Bollywood excess must have been a shock – glad it provoked this post. I have always wondered on my visits to Sri Lanka, a neighbouring country,why their aesthetic was so different, and for me, more evolved than ours in modern times – was it Bawa’s influence? or as a friend put it “they escaped the influence of Bollywood.”

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