By Amulya Gopalakrishnan
As middle class concerns go, one thing I’ve never had to deal with is home décor. I’ve accepted my parents’ aesthetic choices, and later lived in dorm rooms and rented apartments, leaving no traces, never trying to make them over. I have simply had no thoughts on interiors.
But now, in the suburban householder phase of my life, I am confronted with a stark choice — striped cotton or nubbled matka silk for that sofa? Exactly how does one arrange disparate photographs on a wall? Are my sensibilities modernist, eclectic or artsy-craftsy? From nothing, I am trying to evolve a taste that isn’t entirely received, arrange rooms in a way that says good things about my imagination and refinement. And it’s kind of fun. I spend tons of time on Pinterest and Houzz, looking at textured walls and staircases that look like perfect pencil shavings, sunny living rooms and pastel kitchens.
I know my friends will jeer at this, but frankly, I’m in the majority here. Look at hoardings and spammy text messages, people invest so much of themselves in their “dream homes”. This is, of course, a vestige from another time when the domestic realm was the limit of a woman’s world, and the home was a stage where status and character could be displayed. In a book I once flipped though, literary scholar Marjorie Garber wrote of the cultural roles of the house — “mother, lover, body or self, fantasy, trophy, history and escape”.
And while I’m dropping heavy names here to make this interest more respectable, may I point you to Terry Castle’s confessions about her interiors fixation? She furtively thumbs through “shelter magazines” even as she analyses the psychological roots of this absorption and the billion-dollar home improvement industry. One of the things it offers, she says, is “escape from the parental”. So if you have primal traumas of your childhood’s cottage industries bedspreads or cold dank bathrooms, you can now do it your way.
Speaking of cottage industries, the odd thing about growing up in a middle-class sarkari home in pre-reforms Delhi is how remarkably similar all our homes were, possibly because of the few choices available in the shops. One of my friends visited the Indira Gandhi museum, and came away struck by how the late prime minister’s home was so unexpectedly ordinary and familiar. It had the same Bastar metalware and Tanjore paintings and all the other staples of a certain kind of Delhi home. Maybe she set the aesthetic, he thought. More likely, she was an early adopter from Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others, and these preferences then trickled into our everyday lives.
My grandparent’s generation, of the ’50s and ’60s, certainly had a different style of doing up their homes — stolid settees, polished wood and rattan, chests of drawers and planters’ chairs. As the first generation to leave semi-urban lives in Kerala, their homes must have looked pointedly different from their ancestral homesteads.
In other words, significant social shifts are expressed through these ruptures in material culture. I went to a talk recently by Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, design professor at Ambedkar University, where she spoke of how planners and dreamers tried to heave India into modernity, talking up the virtues of functional kitchens over traditional smoke-filled caverns. Even earlier, in the late ’30s in Bombay, the Indian Institute of Architects arranged an Ideal Home Exhibition, bringing new building materials and methods, furniture, products of interior decoration, and appliances like radios and refrigerators. A more well-ordered, rational future awaited, the exhibition promised. In fact, remember the Cold War kitchen race, where Nixon showed Khrushchev a model American home, and showed off the amenities that capitalism made available to ordinary people. Khrushchev sounded bitter about built-in washing machines, while Pravda declared the home a “Taj Mahal”, out of the reach of most Americans. When Nixon spoke of how Americans tended to remodel their homes, often as their technologies became obsolete, a sceptical Khrushchev suggested the president was not being “strictly accurate”.
Choices like furniture, clothing or cooking aren’t taught at school, there are no explicit prescriptions, which makes for a lot of appearance anxiety. How you arrange your home is always an attempt to signal a disposition — you’re saying, look at me, my social origin, my educational capital, my quirks and randomness. So whether you tend to favour antique carpets, which can only be inherited or acquired in the course of time, or Bollywood posters or whisky memorabilia, or artifacts from your Malayali or Bengali roots, you’re asking to be understood in a certain way.
Meanwhile, I shall continue exploring the possibilities of my own living room. And once we’re done doing up this house, one more trivial facet of the world will have been illuminated.
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