I don't know about you all, but I did a double take as the Jammu & Kashmir tableau passed by on the screen of my laptop during the live broadcast of the Republic Day parade this morning. But before I say another word, check it out for yourself.
A giant dude in a phiran warming his hands in coal fire representing the state of J&K belongs to that class of cliches you want to smack people for invoking. Any Bengali who's been greeted by a non-Bengali person with the word "roshogolla" will know what I'm talking about. Not that the float from West Bengal offered a reprieve either. The sight of men and women in fancy dress dancing to celebrate Durga Puja has began to recede even from low-budget Bengali movies these days.
So here's the rub, really. Some of us, with good reason, swell our chests with pride at the spectacle of the Republic Day parade. The government of the day may be unmindful to the fundamental tenets of the Indian Constitution, which is what is celebrated on this day, but the marches by the security forces are a sight to behold. After the harmonious rows of turbans, weapons and shiny boots, the elegant symmetry of the columns gives way to the tableaux. And that's when it all begins to unravel at the seams. The contrast between the military's presentation and the civilian efforts couldn't get starker.
Consider that J&K float for a moment. Back in the day, before Bollywood could afford to shoot in the snow-covered dales of Switzerland, talented set designers could induce a chill in us even with cotton wool. But decades later, in spite of several months being spent on planning the spectacle of R-Day, all we get to see is amateurish papier mâché simulations of snow, with a couple of men pretending to ride a bike as a nod to the spirit of the winter games in Gulmarg. Forget aesthetics, Kashmiris are perhaps wondering why the said man has turned into an ice sculpture despite wearing a phiran and warming his hands.
The standard format of the tableaux seems to have been set in stone for years now. Real men and women sing, dance, talk alongside larger-than-life mannequins. The former have probably been directed to overcompensate the mannequins, who, more often than not, look sullenly quiet, even disgruntled. Here's Bal Gangadhar Tilak on the Maharashtra float this year. He seems to wish this parade was over so that he could get back to where he had been brought from.
While we are on facial expressions, I must say, as the camera panned on Arun Jaitley's face when the GST float was merrily sailing by, I didn't notice any sign of joy on the finance minister's visage. But it could be the bitter Delhi cold, who knows?
The children of the 80s may have fond memories of watching the Republic Day parade on the screens of burly television sets, not on sleek handheld devices, with the DD icon affixed to the top left corner. Even so, nostalgia can get you only thus far. Are we really going to be okay with men strumming banjos and giant crabs napping on floats from Goa?
Or is it too much to expect that our world views have widened — due to travel, mass communication, globalisation — moved beyond these cliches, and are more complex now?
Poor aesthetics and imagination aside, what kind of point about representation are the state governments making as they set out to showcase their prized traditions? If it's about diversity, apart from the fleeting reference to Buddhism in the Arunachal Pradesh float, featuring the Yak Dance associated with the Mahayana School, I could mostly spot were Hindu dances, festivals, rituals and religious practices.
At the end of the day, there must be a better way of representing the achievements of India's scientific community than by having a few men in lab coats pour blue liquids out of test tubes. Or by putting a bunch guys in roller-skates and helmets with giant cardboard pliers to extol the virtues of Skill India.
Even school kids, with much limited budgets, can put up a better show these days.
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