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Vada Pav On Steel Plates And Peacock Handbags: Kitsch Or Culture?

22/05/2016 9:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Indian woman in traditional clothing

Brand Design Series #1: Polishing the lens for sharper observations!

A recent event, hosted by Avid Learning on the eve of the closure of the special exhibition of Raja Ravi Varma at Piramal Gallery, discussed the influence of the 19th-century artist on kitsch in design, art, cinema and even architecture. Artist Atul Dodiya remarked -- quite tongue in cheek -- that what is kitsch in Mumbai is culture in Banaras.

After all, rani pink is curious and splashy at a luncheon party overlooking the Back Bay at a sea-view pad in Malabar Hill, and an everyday colour while setting sail a leaf bowl filled with flowers and candles from the steps of Assi Ghat.

What a revelatory comment!

Marketers, brand managers and business leaders sitting in urban metropolises often make assumptions and decisions on behalf of traditional consumers. True, every good-enough executive will claim that visiting a small town or rural location to meet 20 people has given him sufficient insights to understand the minds and hearts of small town India.

Urban-primitive is a mind-space that conjures tradition for those who lack its grounding or have forgotten it.

But is that really true?

Urban-primitive is a mind-space that conjures tradition for those who lack its grounding or have forgotten it.

Sitting in our urban centres, looking westward ho, it is easier to transpose ourselves into the halls of Harrods or boulevards of Saint Germaine! We certainly have come to understand global brands and what they speak to us as emerging market consumers. Satellite television beams streets and street foods from Montepulciano to Malaysia into our homes, and we explore those tastes -- sometimes authentic, sometimes desified -- in small eateries that purport to transport us to foreign shores. The proliferation of media and, in recent times, global travel, has enabled us to make this leap. So we think.

From this urban-primitive mindset, we find it easier to adopt or understand sophisticated kitsch. But wait, what is that?

Artists and designers often use kitsch as a lens to give a modern look to nostalgic traditions. Krsna Mehta juxtaposes Mughal imagery against neutral geometric backgrounds. Subodh Gupta uses the humble steel utensils used by millions in small towns into installations that hark back to memories of his childhood and become a commentary on a country on the move.

Kitsch... sometimes travels up the fashion consciousness ladder and across cultures. When used as a tiny motif, leached of colour it acquires sophistication.

Raja Ravi Varma was indeed a pioneer, first giving realistic imagery to gods and goddesses, freeing them from the confines of temple statues, and then through his printing press, bringing them to the masses as oleographs, reproduced into calendar art and even made brand ambassadors in advertisements for soaps and oils.

Kitsch, usually defined as crass or loud or gaudy, sometimes travels up the fashion consciousness ladder and across cultures. When used as a tiny motif, leached of colour it acquires sophistication. Such as the humble peacock motif, often woven in golden threads in the saris of India or found in henna patterns, block prints, and embroidered designs. It has been adapted to haute couture, stripped of colour and detailing, on a new range of Louis Vuitton bags. Just simple strips of leather and rivet, suggesting the fan of a peacock's tail, or a bird ornament fashioned out of monogrammed leather on a geometric printed bag makes it transition from the gullies of Paithan to the ramps and salons of Champs-Élysées. Sometimes just the colour can be an inspiration, taken in its brightness to a regular neutral pattern. For the experimental consumer are a little over-the-top handbags lavishly adorned with an assortment of real feathers and beads through which peek the large brass clasps. Paisley has been adopted both by bohemian and sophisticated designers around the world.

When kitsch is not a subculture, but the dominant culture... it takes conscious effort to make the journey back in time to understand it.

In this simpler form, kitsch appeals to newer segments of people.

But when kitsch is not a subculture, but the dominant culture --even one that we grew up with or saw our parents embrace -- it takes conscious effort to make the journey back in time to understand it.

Deconstructing the humble vada pav and serving it in a steel thali in a faux rustic ambience makes it trendy kitsch, taking the ratings of an urban eatery up by a few notches. But the traditional food served on traditional steel plates is everyday experience in our culture. Good Earth designs appeal to the ethic-chic in urban homes, but may not be ornamental enough for traditional homes.

Before drought hit the nation, rural consumption was on the rise. If today, certain sectors such as motorcycles or farm equipment are struggling, it is due to a decline in rural purchasing power. Brands, therefore, have to repurpose to appeal to traditional consumers or create new variants or new products for these consumers.

First and foremost, marketers and brand managers need to understand and romance these consumers. This is not about making unpolished dal upmarket or reviving traditional handicrafts for urban or global markets. This needs a deeper appreciation for what is truly the culture that drives traditional behaviour and consumption for a mindset perhaps different from our own, but representative of a larger swathe of the country's population.

The blue and pink and purple painted houses are the reality of rural Bengal, and not a cultural artifice created for the pop lens.

What does the profusion of pop colours mixed with tinsel and trinkets mean in traditional household decor? What is the space occupied by ghee-laden multicoloured mithai in rituals and everyday consumption? What is the role of large patterns in hiding dust or overpowering unpainted walls? Why are vibrant printed fabrics overlaid with embroidery and lace preferred in harsh sunshine? Why is simultaneous abundance of motifs preferred?

What are not just the lighting conditions in tiny general-purpose stores, but who is allowed to frequent them and at what times? How are things even consumed, beyond superficially knowing about the spread of the sachet? Who makes which decisions and why? What are hopes, dreams, aspirations and taboos for the youth in traditional markets?

Where is the space for the traditional product itself -- the hibiscus-scented hair oil, the red toothpaste powder, the rose attar, the checkered lungi, the hand rolled agarbatti, the gulkand-laced paan masala, the woven chatai, the sugar syrup-soaked chamcham?

The bright floral art adorning trucks and tempos are part of the popular culture of the towns of Punjab and UP, and not kitsch adaptations of the sublime. The blue and pink and purple painted houses are the reality of rural Bengal, and not a cultural artifice created for the pop lens. This is not the tradition that is weighed and anointed by the heft of history and the passing down of high ceremony. This is the tradition that includes and curates the expressions of everyday life of the everyman.

Where is the space for the traditional product itself -- the hibiscus-scented hair oil, the red toothpaste powder, the rose attar, the checkered lungi...?

There are questions the brand marketer needs to ask, to rise above viewing culture purely as kitsch. Just a nod to tradition may not be authentic enough. Not being authentic enough may actually turn off these consumers. Despite the influence of media, we cannot colour every consumer segment with the same broad-brush "aspirational" stroke.

Crafting products and designs -- and communications messaging -- for the mass culture needs willingness to understand truly pervasive realities and cultural contexts.

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