Monday, August 20, 2007

Let them Eat Cake: The case of the Indian consuming class

Walking through the Alte National Gallery in Berlin, one comes across Wilhelm Trübner’s painting “On the Sofa”. There is perhaps no reason that this little painting should attract your attention except maybe for the audio guide that draws your attention to it. But thank goodness for that good machine and the curators who thought it fit that this little work should merit our attention. It dawned on me slowly that this work from 1872 has much to offer us. The painting features a respectably attired if plain looking lady sitting on a sofa. The painting seems to have interrupted the moment when she was moving the piece of cake in her hand toward her mouth. Indeed there is almost an air of obesity in her face. As if to highlight her priorities, a book, print facing down lies cast aside on the same sofa. What marks this painting though is the equal amount of detail that Trübner has put into the setting that this lady occupies. He depicts the carpet that the sofa and the table sit before, the wall-paper, the table cloth. What stands out in the depiction of these is the repeating motif of the bouquet of flowers. A real bouquet sitting on the table, the motif repeated on the wall-paper and a similar motif on the sofa cover.

Standing before this work of art I couldn’t help but get mildly annoyed. There was a vacuity in the gaze of this woman, as she stared stupidly into time and space, the cake forever frozen in her hand. There was no mark in her face or eyes that would interest us even mildly should she come alive. If this was not bad enough, one realizes that the motif of the bouquet that one’s eyes are drawn to is repeated in a most annoying manner. More than a century after its completion, what Trübner intended through this work is perhaps less relevant than what it suggests to us today. Given the strength of the emotions it awakens in us however, one could hazard a guess that what we experience was in fact part of Trübner’s hidden agenda.

Gazing at his work I realized that this art work captured perfectly the condition of India’s exploding middle classes. Like the woman with the vapid and vacuous gaze our middle class is more interested in becoming the undiscerning consumer that the market is encouraging them to become. Intellectual pursuits, as signified by the book, are indeed to be cast aside as irrelevant and pointless. Our sole reason for existence is to consume and indulge our senses to the maximum. “Eat cake” a French queen remarked many centuries ago, creating the background for a revolution. Contrarily today “eat cake” serves to delay the revolution as the games provided by the establishment serve to divert our attention from more serious issues. There is a concerted effort by the media and other forces of the market at dumbing us down. Take for example the requirement among radio stations that the Jockey speak only 4 times an hour for a max of 90 seconds each. While we are possibly better served by limiting the junk dished out by these intellectual innocents in the first place, what is concerning is that issues that matter are deemed to be boring and not appealing to the masses it serves. What this results in is the active cultivation of the idea that to be “smart” and intellectually engaged is uncool. Not the best condition for an active civil society.

But this intellectual lack is not the only thing that jumps out at you. The bouquet motif allows us another insight into the middle class condition. Trübner is clearly trying to evoke the luxury of the setting in the scene he paints and yet the repetition amply demonstrates a lack of imagination, rendering the effort wholly kitschy. The cultivation of kitsch per se, or the creation of a style that I personally find lacking in taste is really not the issue. What is the issue is the attempt to imitate a high style, and then the ignorant reveling in the tawdry image one has managed to create. Look all around our cities and the horrifying attempts to capture Euro hi-styles, or the uneducated attempts at capturing the Goan home in concrete. I rest my case.

A common middle class reaction is to cringe from admitting to being middle-class. And yet one should celebrate the achievement of this status. It indicates the achievement of a model that we have been striving toward for generations. At the same time however, we must recognize that the model we were striving toward, was not merely an economic state, but in fact also an intellectual state. One rooted in the appreciation of the intellectual achievements of the greats and the cultivation of the same in ourselves. As India hurtles towards developed country status, this is clearly not being achieved as we get caught in the market’s plan for us and instead of becoming bourgeois turn merely into non-discriminating consumers. There is much more that could be said, but space limits us alas!
(published on the 15th of August 2007, Gomantak Times)