From kaali-peeli taxis to 'Indian Chinese' food, how Mumbai's kitsch commodifies the city's peculiarities
In a panel discussion titled ‘Multipolis Mumbai: Kitsch and the City,’ organised by Avid Learning and the National Gallery of Modern Art last month, the aesthetic was unanimously accepted as an authentic language of the street. Examples of kitsch in Mumbai that emerged were ‘Indian Chinese’ and other seemingly absurd food combinations that evoke emotional responses. A panelist described the Saifee Hospital as a 'giant cupcake,’ along side the flashy, colourful lights splayed atop the elegant Victoria Terminus station’s art deco architecture.
The kitsch aesthetic has generally negative overtones, considered tacky, garish, vulgar, or in poor taste, with judgment inherent in the word.
What one labels kitsch has always changed, since the aesthetic is understood primarily through context.
Mumbai’s black-and-yellow taxi then, through space and size, might travel through contexts, be a symbol of authenticity or appropriation, and be aesthetically pleasing or kitschy all at the same time.
Among the most iconic symbols of Mumbai are its black-and-yellow, or 'kaali-peeli' taxis, each bearing unique interiors with lights, perhaps a photograph, sticker or quote, a shrine or flag on the dashboard, and printed, velvety or coloured fabric. Embodied within these elements are the love, longing, desires, loneliness, and feelings of the person driving it, having left behind one's family, food, language, and a life. Through a unique sensory aesthetic, the taxi is akin to a pulsating emotion, each housing an intimate portrayal of its owner. This honest expression of the self is often considered tacky or garish, and the elitism bringing about this conflict of thought is at the heart of the discussion around the kitsch aesthetic.
The aesthetic has generally negative overtones, looked at as vulgar or in poor taste, with judgment inherent in the word. It applies to any object, gesture, belief, situation, or work of art that makes a statement reaffirming, instead of challenging existing systems. Therefore, it qualifies as a veritable symbol of mass-culture, and deceptively imitates that reality by holding up a mirror offering a comfortable familiarity. In fact, many attach a political identity to kitsch, like Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he talks about it as a symbol of forced conformity. What one labels as kitsch has changed with time, since the aesthetic is understood primarily through context. Even “a real Rembrandt hung in a millionaire’s home elevator,” would be termed kitschy.
This aesthetic, then, bears a meaning that remains unchanged, but with ever-changing subjects, which at once contains an authentic identity and an outsider's view that condemns, commercialises, or exoticises it. And in a bustling, energetic, multicultural city like Mumbai, which contains several-layered identities, nothing and everything can at once be considered 'kitsch'.
The relation of the aesthetic with the city was the topic of the panel discussion titled ‘Multipolis Mumbai: Kitsch and the City,’ organised by Avid Learning and the National Gallery of Modern Art last month. Pavitra Rajaram, Creative Director at Pavitra Rajaram Design and Former Lead Designer at Good Earth, along with co-founder of Bombay Vintage Pankil Shah and Founder of Tappu Ki Dukaan Sneha Raisoni were in conversation with the founder of Colours India and Freedom Tree Design, Latika Khosla.
At the panel, 'kitsch' was unanimously accepted as an authentic language of the street. Examples of kitsch in Mumbai that emerged were ‘Indian Chinese’ and other seemingly absurd food combinations that evoke emotional responses. A panelist described the Saifee Hospital as a 'giant cupcake,’ along side the flashy, colourful lights splayed atop the elegant Victoria Terminus station’s art deco architecture.
Mumbai was understood as a moving canvas, with all agreeing that the quality of owning and being proud of ones’ sensibility is what made the city’s kitsch unique.
However, “I’m quite concerned about appropriation,” Rajaram tells Firstpost in an interview. “Kitsch, to me, is stunning and beautiful in its authentic form, because it’s unstudied. I try not to appropriate that which is not authentic to me,” she adds, saying that she does not labelling her own design as kitsch. Rajaram understands kitsch as an “expression of vulnerability”, and a reflection of the things that come most authentically to an individual.
And while denouncing the word kitsch as elitist, when asked how concepts like bricolage and pastiche might arguably align with it, Rajaram explained that she also has strong objections to the very concept of labels. “It’s an over-intellectualised, western approach to these things. In our country, we’ve lived for thousands of years without needing to label everything. We just experience it. We’re an oral culture,” she says, adding: “In our homes, we don’t question why our mother wears a sari a particular way or why our grandmother cooks a certain kind of food. We just naturally accept is as the way we live our life.”
While room for open-mindedness in a culture that doesn’t raise questions is debatable, Rajaram’s essential objection to labelling something kitsch stems from concerns of elitism, since it's a concept born of another’s expression. And while she allows an argument for nostalgia, what stands out as more problematic for her than the concept itself is “when it’s commercialised”, leading to one's authentic experience being decontextualised, robbed of everything it stands for, and sold as quirky entertainment for another.
The commercialisation of kitsch, however, much like the concept itself, contains an intense juxtaposition, as exemplified by Raisoni.
Soon after she opened Tappu Ki Dukaan in Fort, it flourished, leaving her surprised at the realisation that "there was such a big need for a fun store,” Raisoni tells Firstpost. It was a place where “people could come explore fun, quirky, kitsch art. The idea of having silly, stupid, nostalgic elements of your city” appealed to urban buyers. She explains about her former business, stating that “quirk has its life, and you have to adapt to that. The way to do it is to constantly innovate.” So a miniature taxi, for instance, is how another’s authentic expression is commodified and mass produced, and turned into a trend that will soon fade.
This mini taxi, however, then sits in a buyer’s home, amassing new meaning and a different dialogue of expression, authentic to their experiences. “It has meaning for you then. Where there is meaning, there is beauty,” says Rajaram. And through this lens, the commodification of kitsch can also have useful connotations. “It’s a very positive thing,” says Raisoni about kitsch’s commercialisation, since “not everyone can afford the experiences or have access to all these experiences.” And kitsch, as Raisoni sees it, was born out of this need of the masses to find something relatable, through the memories and nostalgia it evokes. It’s all about making something “that the masses can relate to. It’s a revolution.”
Mumbai’s black-and-yellow taxi then, through space and size, might travel through contexts, be a symbol of authenticity or appropriation, and be aesthetically pleasing or kitschy all at the same time; but it seems to always retain the most important element: a strong emotional attachment.
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