The overpowering stench of tradition blends with the pungent waft of cow piss. Thin, young women wrapped tightly in saris disappear into the alleyways. Black burqa-clad figures drift through the dusty twilight. Powerfully built matriarchs chatter in doorways, and grizzly bare-chested old men in lunghis sit on steps, counting down the days.
Shiva, Ganesh, Vishnu, Nandi, Krishna and a dozen other Hindu icons peer out from the various temples and shrines that watch over the neighbourhood. It’s hot on the street and almost furnace-like in the tiny, concrete hutments with vegetation rooftops in the next lane.
Streets give way to a maze of narrow alleyways. Around each corner, a new story, a new scene; neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods, glued together by extended families and perhaps a kind of obliged neighbourliness. Living this close together, you are forced to get along. Boys play cricket in the street, stray dogs sleep in the cooling dirt and women with fresh jasmine flowers in their hair bend over and sweep dust into the air.
Street after narrow street of three to five storey small buildings, each with their own architectural style. Distinctive buildings, brightly painted with small balconies, intricate alcoves and verandas. A number of families residing in one building, or just a single family, depending how well-off you are. Some old and crumbling, others more modern. Lean over one balcony and you could almost touch the one opposite, so narrow are some of the lanes.
The most fascinating aspect of these Chennai neighbourhoods is the businesses operating at street level. Men repair mopeds and motorcycles. Others operate lathes, mill or bake. Printing presses run, wood is cut, garments are ironed. Photocopying and desktop publishing, metal pipes and plastic tubing or family shops selling food. A dhaba here, a rice trader, jeweller and a tailor there, every street a hive of business activity. The buildings and some of the trades may now be modern, but artisans and vendors have worked in these streets for decades.
Some of these neighbourhoods may not be too gentle on the eye at times, with their village-India dustiness, tethered goats and cockerels, but they play host to India’s genuine ‘creative industries’ and spirit of endeavour. Those terms have, however, been hijacked by the ‘new’ India of steel and glass, where ad agencies, tech-savvy college graduates, architects, marketers and designers ply their trades. What do these people actually ‘create’ though – mobile ‘apps’, social media technology, slick propaganda to promote goods and gadgets of dubious worth and fashions and trends for the better-off. This is corporate India, usually added on to the outskirts of cities as soulless ‘new build’ developments, an India that is big on self-promoting itself as the innovative engine.
I recently met a medical doctor from the Netherlands who was on vacation in India and who spent much of his time in shopping malls located in the new satellite town developments that have sprung up around India’s metros. It was his first brief visit to the country. He seemed fascinated by this ‘corporate India’ and the open attitudes of the 20-somethings he encountered and found them a refreshing change from the more traditional India. Not only was he fascinated by what he was finding, but he was also under the impression that such types represented India’s future. For him, they were India’s entrepreneurs and innovators.
It’s easy to be sucked in by the world of the English speaking, fashion-conscious ‘switched on’ people who you tend to encounter in the AC, steel and glass worlds of Gurgaon near Delhi or Salt Lake near Kolkata, for instance. For many foreign visitors, this world is a mirror image of ‘home,’ a showcase of how India should be; a world of transnational corporations, service sector jobs, international fast food outlets and concentrated affluence based on a distorted notion of ‘development.’
One sector that has witnessed huge growth over the last 20 years has been the advertising industry. Its end-products are slick, glossy and highly persuasive. But I don’t see much ‘innovation’ or ‘creativity’ here – just a cut-and-borrow industry that uses the same techniques its Western counterpart has been using for years, adapted to the needs of an Indian audience.
But let’s not be too harsh on the ad industry. Whether its an outsourced call centre, a Western agribusiness or a social media development concern, any innovation or creativity, if that’s what it can be called, is usually ‘borrowed’ from the West, or at least is merely used to make predatory capitalism more slick and more appealing to the masses and more controlling. The more sophisticated and powerful technology becomes, the greater is the danger that it can be used to enslave people. Look no further than the lakhs of farmers who have been thrown into poverty or who have taken their own lives as a result of the desire of Western agribusiness to control the food supply in India with its bogus PR campaigns of how their brand of ‘innovative’ biotechnology can save the country from itself.
Yet, so many people have bought into the notion of India’s ‘creative industries’ being the saviour of the nation. While it cannot be denied that they have a role, especially if their products are put to genuine social use, there tends to be more purposeful and socially useful entrepreneurialism in a back lane in Bangalore than what goes on in a gleaming Mumbai skyscraper.
There is more true creativity in the fields of India, where rural workers are the genuine wealth creators. What greater wealth can there be than the creation of locally sourced, un-tampered and nutritious food? Food and food sovereignty marks the real wealth of a nation, not social media ‘apps’, the ability to sell ‘use-and-throw goods’ via slick advertising agencies or to mount PR campaigns to con the public into believing ‘West knows best.’
Unfortunately, you don’t have to dig too deep to ascertain where ‘modern’ India’s priorities lie. While the creamy layer of the service sector/’creative industries’ is paid well, it is the actual wealth creators, the farm labourers and many of the back street entrepreneurs who live in poverty or hover above it.
As the self-congratulatory beneficiaries of modern capitalism across the world lie back and wallow in their stolen wealth, they seem to be saying about everyone else, “Let them eat cake” – or in India’s case, poor quality government provided rice.Tags: Asia
Categorised in: Article
This post was written by Colin Todhunter