Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sand-dunes, Monserrate and You: The story of an aesthetic hijack of our sensibilities

The decision by the CCP to ‘clean’ the sand dunes on the Miramar beach has thankfully been objected to. And it is not as if these objections are merely for the sake of objecting. More than one individual, who clearly know what they are saying, have pointed out that removing the vegetation from the sand dunes will result in their destabilisation, allowing for the sand to be blown away, as has already happened in other parts of Miramar beach.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, Atanasio Monserrate has once more been linked with the controversy, resurrecting the possibility of our looking at the issue through the lens of ‘the embodiment of evil’. The ‘embodiment of evil’ however is not a particularly useful lens, since it obscures the larger societal processes at work through the individual who is marked out as evil. What this lens does, is only to create a scapegoat so as to absolve society of the guilt and responsibility of its error. While the sand dune issue may be the result of Mr. Monserrate’s larger urban design project in the Miramar-Caranzalem-Dona Paula stretch, we need to excavate the larger aesthetic reasons for which the CCP and Mr. Monserrate thought of going about the ‘cleaning’ project in the first place. I stress this, because even though Mr. Monserrate is a largely reviled figure, many of his actions, find support and aesthetic approval, not just among the Taleigao under-class, but among the middle classes as well. Understanding the source from which Mr. Monserrate draws his plans, will allow us to understand how much as we may revile Mr. Monserrate, his plans are but the logical result of our collective desires.

The whole idea of the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes is possible only when we look at the natural environment as a garden that can be scaped by human activity. Such a view is not new; people have looked at the natural environment as a garden that they can mould for as long as humankind have been able to use tools. Indeed, scholars tell us that there is in fact nothing ‘natural’ about most of our ‘natural’ environment. Large parts of ‘nature’ are the result of human intervention and their interaction with nature. Not all of this has been necessarily intentional however, a good amount of these impacts being unwitting and unplanned. The problems begin to emerge in the event of two factors being realised. Humankind’s increasing ability to radically change the face of the environment, and secondly when the models for this landscaping are at radical odds with the existing environment.

Making a quick detour let us have a quick look at the urban design Monserrate is systematically laying out on the Miramar beach-face. The whole project is designed to face the ‘natural’ theatre of the mouth of the Mandovi river framed by the Cabo Raj Nivas and the Aguada Fort and the Miramar beach. This ‘picture’ is to be viewed in different ways. From the windows of four-wheeler vehicles zipping along what is effectively a highway; from the pedestrian paths and benches that have been placed on the side of this road; and from the exclusive villas and apartments that have been given permission to rise alongside the road. There can be no doubt that this whole project attempts to articulate an urban design that is appealing to most ‘cultured’ people. No matter how idealistic this project maybe however, there is a problem with it. The problem is that it is entirely the product of an imagination fed by the images from Hollywood, American TV dramas and notions of the West.

These televisual worlds are not ‘real’ worlds, in the sense that they exist nowhere. They are the product of careful editing, so that any object that would disrupt the lyrical beauty of the image is clipped out. Thus in these televisual worlds, we have gardens with lush green lawns, carefully trimmed hedges, white picket fences, sandy dunes, interspersed with a few dry wisps of grass leading to the sea, people who work in immaculate clothes, and people who never really sweat. The impact of continuous viewing is that we assume them to be real, and then try to scape the world around us accordingly.

To emphasise my point that it is not only Monserrate who is the victim of this imagination, let us look at most of the traffic islands and attempts at road beautification in the State or across the country. In a climate where we need shade, and ought to plant trees, we systematically plant either lawns or other water-guzzling flowering plants. We only have to look at cases where governments have tried to beautify a location, and we see evidence of how the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden has colonised our consciousness. It is because the televisual notion of the Western domestic garden is inside our heads, that we constantly see Panchayat and Muncipality workers constantly engaged in ‘weeding’ large expanses of public property. Around my home, every year after the monsoon, the Panchayat systematically cuts down a ‘boram’ tree that has struggled to grow the previous year. Obsessed with ‘weeding’, the Panchayat does not seem to realise that ‘boram’ trees are nature’s way to revive degraded lands. In this case the barren terrain of the Taleigão plateau, destroyed by two decades of real estate development. What is clear from the reasons that CCP has provided about the ‘cleaning’ of the dunes, is that what they are attempting is a weeding of the dunes; replacing bad vegetation, with ‘good’ vegetation. Whether they originally intended this replacement or not is immaterial. What is important is that they were able to provide this reason for their action, indicating the popular legitimacy that the ‘Western garden’ model has for public landscaping.

While there are definitely problems with Monserrate’s vision therefore, we have to give him full marks for trying, and recognise also that what he is attempting to do is within a popular notion of what a civilised and cultured location ought to be. The problem then is not Monserrate’s alone; the problem is a social one, almost universally shared by all of us.

If there is to be a more sustainable saving of Miramar’s sand dunes, or of our landscape, then what we need to engage in is a weeding-out of the notion of the televisual environment, and with it the primacy as a model that the Western domestic garden has achieved. We have to realise that nothing actually lives on TV, the televisual life is a mirage, aspired for but never attained. As for the Western domestic garden, it was the product of a definite class, in a definite time and a definite environment. Riding on the tails of Western imperialism, it has now been transplanted across locations, with great success but often at great cost to the local environment. What we need is to educate ourselves in being able to see (beauty) differently.

As the lyrics of that popular track go, ‘Free your mind, and the rest will follow!’

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 30 Sept 2009)

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