Do we need a celestial architect to make 21st century Brand India truly Global?

I recently read this and it got me thinking: ‘The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city’, said a report released by Foreign Policy magazine in collaboration with global management consulting firm AT Kearney and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

It went on to say, that even as five of the world’s 10 most global cities are in Asia and the Pacific — Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, and Seoul — not a single Indian city figures among the top 40 cities of the world. Among India’s metros, New Delhi is ranked at 45, Mumbai at 46 and Kolkata at 63, out of the 65 cities surveyed. India’s IT capital Bengaluru is ranked 58. In terms of GDP, Mumbai ranks 25th & Delhi 32nd. And just for the record Beijing (China) is ranked 15th. Now this is what the influential across the world saw too.

I of course wondered where it all began. Was it the economic or cultural corrosion? Was it the hegemony of many external forces for several centuries? Was it the decay of civic sense? Was it the loss of identity? I found it difficult to identify the genesis of India’s down slide from its days of glory. Days that date back millennia, to a glory that reverberated even in the 19th Century when American author, Mark Twain exclaimed,

There were more odes, some of which gave me cues on where to possibly start the soul searching. Here goes:

Hu Shih, former Ambassador of China to USA (1938-42): “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.”

Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Traveler: “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds… I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”

All of the above chose to see India & its various constituencies as poetry. Whether as diplomats or travelers or scientists they saw or chose to see the glory of a past long gone. But for how long?

Fast forward to 2010 and the reality of what creates wealth in nations. Indian cities lag behind considerably.

Here is a campaign by the tourism board. Undoubtedly rich in experiences, India will overwhelm. But what about it’s stunning beauty that could transform a travelers’ spiritual & emotional journey to India and make it not just a MUST-EXPERIENCE, but a MUST-SEE destination too.

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As a fervent admirer of BRAND INDIA I decided to look at the flaws that were easiest to correct. I realized that well before GDP takes over as a success measurement tool, the culture codes had to change. I also realized that possibly as a start, we needed to look at the aura, ambiance & aesthetics that define our cities.

Conquer visually & one can dismiss the most obvious flaws
I did not have be a photographer when I was in Paris or in Cotswold or then Florence or Bali. The land was so picture perfect that good photographs were waiting to happen. I got a similar effect when I visited ancient India. Actually, remnants of ancient India. Architecturally the Vijaynagar Empire or even palaces in Udaipur, Konark, Kutub Minar, ancestral homes in TN/Kerala…all had a character that evoked nostalgia & left one mesmerized. They were art directed & how. Cities showcased talent & created an image of an artistically inclined populi. They were not just pieces of art, but put together in layouts that’s hard to believe for those times. Shilpa shastra (principles of sculpture/structures) was indeed our export & students from world over paid in barter: Arabian horses, gold coins, grain… to study this fine art.

So where is our aesthetic sense today?
This excellence is on a hiatus in so many cities of contemporary India. Have we lost our touch? Do we understand it? Or are we better off replicating? Isn’t is reflected in the monotony of every construction in real estate? Homes, offices, entertainment destinations etc. Our design expressions too lag far behind. Of course, there are a few concept restaurants, showrooms, brand stores & today some airports that can show off their authentic design sense. But it’s a rarity.

So is it any surprise that we hardly invest in tasteful & tantalizing aesthetics to create beautiful cities! What does our ancient design culture say? Should we start by teasing the most potent of all senses: THE EYE.

To enchant once again we must as the wise ones say, create not for oneself, but for the eyes of the beholder. In all aspects; be it structural, graphic design, retail design, cityscape, wall graphics, in maintenance techniques used….we must be lovers of the visual form. We must be curators.

Whoever said a thing of beauty is a joy forever, damn well said right. Would that help us create many global cities? For starters it would possibly make them the most desirable, vibrant & livable lands.

Would that make our song with Incredible India that much more credible? Could that naturally help create better civic sense, hence clean & unpolluted cities. Clean, beautiful cities ~ Fresh, beautiful thoughts? Will it force us to alleviate the living conditions of the less fortunate too? I am keen to follow the Delhi cityscape post the Commonwealth Games (CWG 2010) closure today.

Franz Kafka said, “Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who has the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

So can we as India’s children, ensure that she stays 5000 years young? It’s time.

But till the codes change, India’s celestial architect will stay Maya (meaning: illusion / also the name for heaven’s architect in Sanskrit). From times of yore.

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12 Comments

  1. Sandhya,

    We create what we are from inside. In ancient India, aesthetics was ingrained in a person beginning with the self. Grooming, gathering & presenting the self, was almost an art. The `me’ had first appeal to the eye, and it went beyond the visual senses into taste, touch, smell & audience. People smelt good, felt good & sounded nice.

    This is evident from India’s heritage comprising music, architecture, ayurveda and what have you. This we translated into tangible creations that, like you said, were poetry to those who perceived them.

    But look at us now – the core personality of an average Indian today is geared towards profitability, social acceptability, materialism and gratification of self. We fail to analyze what is good for us or how much can work for us. So, what we create today is a reflection of what we are; and I’m not surprised that it’s not poetry anymore.

    As for cities, I’m not sure to what extent the damage can be rectified. There is not an inch of space left for any creative input to enter & take root. Taking a page from Singapore, redevelopment of cities maybe the only future alternative to redeem ourselves.

    Rapid depletion of environment has been the first victim of rapid corrosion of cultural values. There is nothing more beautiful than raw nature; it doesn’t have to be sculpted; and it inspires.

    Town planning existed in Mohenjodaro & Harappa, but show me one city today that has a town development plan blueprinted into 20 years hence. Another worrisome feature in India is that the onus & cost of city planning gets thrust on the common man. The common man is poor; hence the city stays dirty & unplanned.

    You spoke about China – poorer than India, more populated than India, no democracy; yet it works for them. Beijing is no.15. What works for China seems to be development-under-compulsion; they have no choice.

    China has a spiritual side too, reflected in their mind & body sciences except that in China, practicing arts of self-discipline is more of compulsion than choice. It is this discipline of the inner self that reflects into what they create & how they project themselves. Neat, compact & visually-appealing.

    In India, are we really forced to do anything? Perhaps it is the laissez-faire that has caused our decline.

    About the other places you mentioned – Paris, Florence, Bali – there is ownership for what doesn’t belong to you. Every person on the street is city-proud; an unlisted tourist guide whose sole aim is make you carry back proud memories of the place he belong to.

    Do you know why I think the CWG opening ceremony was a success? Because we showcased India undiluted, and people couldn’t have enough of it.

    If we can turn a few pages back in time and re-learn the art & science of sculpting our soul; we can re-sculpt India back to its old glory.

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