Incorporating Heritage

Neel has a blogpost which talks about IIT-D designed board games that incorporate elements from traditional Indian stories into their design. He also laments that most Indian design and architecture does very little to showcase heritage, and picks on malls, airports and railways stations as being the worst offenders. I had some scattered thoughts about this which were too long for a comment, so here they are:

  1. One of the big problems with incorporating heritage into any venture these days is that you put yourself at grave risk of Rajan Zed issuing press releases that you are offending Hindu sentiments. In fact going by past experience it could be not just Rajan Zed but Rajput associations, Jain associations, Sikh associations, ad nauseum.
  2. Railway stations – depends on what you’re defining as heritage. When the British were building stations, they they built gorgeous facades which mixed up Mughal design elements (arches and domes), continental European decoration (the gargoyles at the station formerly known as Victoria Terminus), pre-Mughal construction (red sandstone), and some stuff which was entirely fresh from the architects’ perspective. I think that railway stations in princely states may also incorporate local architecture. It’s probably construction in post-independence India that gave us the horrible concrete blocks with no aesthetic appeal – the same applies to most of the airports.
  3. Airports – we seem to have moved from a situation where there was one single design of ugly concrete blocks being used for every airport to a situation where one single design of curved beams and glass walls is being used. Personally, I find the new one more attractive; but Neel’s point about it not having many Indian elements is valid. Delhi’s airport has made an effort with interior decoration for Terminal 1D, but this The Delhi Walla blogpost seems to suggest that it’s half-hearted.
  4. Malls – yes, these are the most egregrious offenders when it comes to cookie-cutter design and absolute lack of architectural imagination. I think that this is because somewhere there is a design handbook for malls which lays down points on laying out a mall to maximise retail sales which is being followed religiously without either any attempt to run local experiments to see what works better or imagination by architects on how to make it look cooler. [rant done] But even if architects did want to come up with cooler designs, would builders and tenants pay for them? Hm.

Another thing about heritage is that it’s desirable, but so are many other things (whether on pure functionality or for the wow-it’s-so-cool factor). So some of these are:

  1. Is it functional, innovative, valuable? Neel cribs about airports, but the fact that Delhi’s new airport has inline baggage scanning delights me so much that I hardly notice the lack of heritage design elements.
  2. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Everyone’s taste on what looks good will be different, so this is difficult to measure. But as an example, look at Jet Airways’ long-haul business and first class. Not much in the way of Indian design, but incredibly innovative and good-looking.
  3. Is it unique? This ties in with the crib about all malls and airports looking like each other. On the one hand, using a standard design brings down costs and I think China has built dozens of new airports just by reusing the same design over and over. Delhi’s new airport terminal might be standard curved beams and glass, but that standard design allows it to function on natural light throughout the day and not turn on electric lights until night – which has its own functional and aesthetic appeal. Of course, poor construction of that design is probably what led to the same terminal being flooded during the rains.
  4. Is it designed by Indians or an Indian company or even for Indian consumers? Even if it doesn’t reference existing heritage, if it’s iconic enough it could eventually become Indian heritage – like the Bombay Gothic buildings (good) or the Ambassador (bad). I know that Jagadguru has said that nationalism is the superset of religious fundamentalism which is itself the superset of terrorism, but I still think it is awesome if my national heritage is added to.

Another thing is that heritage doesn’t automatically provide quality. Air India paints Rajsthani chabutras on its aircraft windows but sucks as an airline. There have been so many animated movies about Krishna (Cartoon Network is running five this Janamashtami), but the dialogue and storytelling is usually terrible. 

So heritage is awesome, but only when the companies using it already have the capability to create great products; and also when designers and developers have the space to use their imagination.

The Rich Are Not Like Each Other

There are three kinds of rich people in India. Lalas, yuppies and hippies. If you’re a rich person in India you pretty much fall into one of these three stereotypes unless you’re a rich hermit or something. By the way, this division is based on behaviour rather than actual net worth or occupation. So even poor or middle class people who feel rich and act that way fall into these categories. With that settled lets define them.

So lalas are basically the people who run family business or their family members. Their source of income is pretty much selling whatever the family business makes or doing real estate deals. To handle their finances they employ an accountant. To handle their homes they have domestic servants who are trained by the women of the house and who generally stay with the family in a lifetime employment situation. And the homes themselves have been in the family for years or purchased with a heavy black money component.

Then you have yuppies. These are basically the people whose income is salary from third party organisations and capital gains (though the capital gains are only for advanced yuppies). For housing they either pay rent or housing loan EMIs. They also do their household chores themselves or in the best case have a very unreliable kaamwali bai who they don’t have the time to train. The mark of a yuppie is that she or he does his or her own finances including personally paying the credit card bills, going over bank statements and marking their investment portfolio to market. And typically their job involves any one of the following either as input or output:

  1. MS office files
  2. code
  3. statistical models

So that leaves us with the hippies. The hippies are basically people who have neither family business nor salaried employment. They do stuff like fashion design or star in TV serials or movie direction or guided tours of Chandni Chowk or write books. This is stuff which doesn’t give a regular salary and which rarely involves Microsoft Office. The unsuccessful hippies are the ones who live with their lala families and whose day to day lives are handled by the lala family’s accountant and domestic servant. But the successful hippies like Arundhati Roy and Rakhi Sawant move out. Then they buy houses on EMI, employ a higher class of kaamwali bais, and have their personal finances looked after by private bankers.

Now of course there are boundary conditions. People who work in marketing and advertising draw salaries but basically have hippie occupations. So they are borderline hippie-yuppies. Then there are borderline lala-yuppies who handle new divisions of the family business. And all yuppies dream of being hippies and spending their days playing in a rock band instead of working the 9 to 7 grind. So these are not mutually exclusive categories but have some overlap and you can make a Venn Diagram of lala-yuppie-hippie.

But why am I talking about all this? Well mostly because I started watching TV back in July. That inspired me to come up with a blogpost, but before I can write that blogpost, I have to write this one with all the definitions. The main blogpost will come up soon. Till then, pip pip.