Why the balcony is a socio-political tool for human communication — in isolation, celebration, rebellion
The significance of the balcony in the time of the coronavirus are manifold, besides being our only means to connect with the now empty world outside. Tracing the socio-political history of the structure reveals much about human behaviour, by studying how the space has been used not just in isolation, but also in celebration and congregation.
At a time when social media has become our virtual window to the world, the intimacy offered by the tactile existence of a balcony attains a poignant significance. As the world grapples with a pandemic, our balconies become our only hope of 'going out.'
There comes a time during the nth day of self-isolation when one feels the dire need to turn away from the laptop, put aside the smartphone, remove the headphones, and step outside into the limited open space attached to one's place (unless you are living in a modest housing society in Mumbai).
At present, it's more than just one's 'window to the world,' — the balcony doubles up as a dose of assurance, lending us a glimpse into the world outside, promising us a semblance of normalcy akin to pre-lockdown days, instead of showing us scenes of smoke and desolation, like in post-apocalypse films. It also allows us to exchange a friendly smile with a neighbour, as we remind each other that we indeed are in this together.
On 22 March, these structures gained socio-political significance nationally, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged every citizen of India to take to their balconies at 5 pm. He asked people to celebrate and applaud healthcare professionals and everyone else rendering essential services to combat the pandemic by clapping and clanging utensils, as a part of the 'Janata Curfew'.
People did come out in large numbers to make some noise together. While some gave it a miss, choosing not to participate in a 'marketing gimmick', others went overboard, descending on the streets in groups to celebrate, thereby completely defeating the purpose of the exercise. Now, Modi on Friday has urged people to congregate in their respective balconies yet again, this time asking them to light candles or switch on flashlights of their mobile phones as yet another gesture of gratitude and unity on Sunday night.
Keeping both extremes aside, let us focus on those who used their balconies as platforms to express themselves. The term had become a buzzword days before the prevailing crisis ensued, tracing back to Spain, where they used the space as a stage to pay a musical tribute to doctors. Indians replicated the act in their unique style, adding cornets, thaals, chaos, and even crackers(!).
Days before this, balconies across the world, irrespective of their designs, served either as a stage for displaying gratitude, or a medium to mingle with the local community.
We witnessed everything: from a gay man playing Celine Dion's Titanic ballad 'My Heart Will Go On' in Spain, to an Irish locality playing balcony bingo, to a French man sprinting over 40 kilometres in his balcony in order to rehearse for a marathon.
At least the first two acts could have been performed with the aid of social media apps like Instagram and Facebook. But the fact that said people chose the balcony as their stage, rather than breaking the fourth wall to face their smartphone screens while performing, added a thrill to their actions. One could have conveniently played bingo online, but the sense of adventure involved in mobilising your entire neighbourhood to participate in a community game garners its fair share of interest.
To top it all, a Spanish couple even decided to get married in their balcony! "Who else can say they spent their honeymoon by spending 15 days with their husband at their house?" The bride's argument was certainly compelling.
The balcony has historically been a site of immense socio-political significance. But what is interesting in the recent spate of events is that the different recreational and communal activities being performed on the balconies are not directed at those on the streets, considering they are empty. As the world outside becomes vacant, those in the balconies are not addressing those 'below' them — in more ways than one — anymore.
Palak Gupta, a Jaipur-based architect, explains the original use of a balcony. "(It) dates back to ancient Greek architecture, when the stone walls used to be very thick. The balcony was very useful then since it increased air circulation and allowed more natural light to seep in. But over the years, the balcony came in all shapes and sizes depending on the functionality. One may have lack of space, which is why a terrace garden may make way for a green gallery in the balcony, or one might have chairs as permanent fixtures in the balcony, depending on the direction it faces."
The balcony may just be designed as a purely functional space, or one for solitary enjoyment while gardening, or simply for staring into nothingness while sipping on a cuppa. But historian Bela Ahuja from Bengaluru claims that the space, which "bridges the world outside and the inner confines of the dweller," inherently holds immense social significance.
"It's interesting how the balcony added to the gender discourse. For example, in places like Rajasthan, you had the jharokha-style balcony, which protected the women of the household from the sun. They were also ornate, a trait again identified as being associated with the female gender. Since they observed purdah and couldn't step out of their havelis and palaces, their interaction with the outer world was confined to the balconies," she says.
"On the other hand, in the West, the balcony wasn't always used for ostracisation. Men occupied the balcony in theatres as a mark of holding higher status in society. From above, they would look at the women seated downstairs. Consequently, a specially-designed bra was introduced to protect women from the 'male gaze', so as to keep men from seeing their breasts from above when they wore that bra. This is exactly why this bra came to be known as the 'balconette bra'," Ahuja adds.
Now the ostracised women in Rajasthan could well have been checking out men on the streets from up above. But the way history has been written, the symbol of the balcony was used to substantiate one's position in the social hierarchy.
Consequently, the balcony was used by the monarchy to deliver the 'state of the address' to the masses. "You must've seen umpteen pictures of kings from different countries take to the balcony, the design depending on the architecture of that time and space, to address their subjects. It was the only time when the janta got a glimpse of the king, who would otherwise remain inaccessible to them. Whenever a king felt he needed to assert his authority over a strenuous demand ( like payment of taxes), they would go to the balcony, 'look down upon' the subjects, and assert their authority. Again, the balcony, like any elevated platform, was used to project a hierarchy, between the king and the subjects. Just that unlike the stage in an assembly ground or the court, the king wouldn't even bother to step out of his house here, technically," Ahuja points out.
She refers to how the Pope still addresses his followers from his balcony at the St Peter's Basilica of Rome, to confer blessings in the form of urbi et orbi after the conclave. "You saw that in The Two Popes, right?"
But she agrees that the role of the balcony has not been limited to just pro-establishment acts, particularly in recent times. Three years ago, absconding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange came out to the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London to celebrate his victory after rape charges against him were dropped by Sweden. On the run, after exposing several high-profile scams by the US government in 2010, Assange was holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012. After charges of rape against him were dropped, he came out to the balcony of the embassy to claim he would still not step out of its premises. He said he would avoid the risk of getting arrested by the British authorities, and be extradited to the US.
A voice of rebellion got amplified through the balcony. It lent the movement more momentum, since the balcony served as the perfect place for Assange to voice his thoughts from, that too without running the risk of getting arrested for stepping out of the building. His was the balcony version of a 'hit-and-run.'
Ritu Chatterjee, a professor of English literature in Kolkata, claims that the balcony has been a 'protest site' in Shakespeare's works as well. "We all remember from literature textbooks and plays that Juliet wooed Romeo from the balcony. Now, it wasn't originally a balcony as we know today, as it wasn't protruded from the building. It was just a minor protrusion covered by a window, more like a French balcony."
But she is glad that the narrative around the balcony is not being reduced to romance. "We're tired of watching this balcony-to-street romance, or the number of times the heroine has eloped with the hero by climbing down from her balcony using a rope made of bed sheets. Sigh! At least now, even if it's because of this house arrest, we're enjoying more innovative uses of the balcony, and how they reflect the times of today."
Chatterjee does have a point here. The most refreshing trait of the balcony's renaissance is its lateral stance. Any form of hierarchy ceases to exist during a pandemic like the one being experienced due to the coronavirus . People interact with each other from their respective balconies, rather than from balconies to the streets, or vice-versa. Sure, the difference in the heights of people's balconies may be attributed to their economic backgrounds, but the free flow of a two-way communication bridges that diagonal gap.
Now, as we slowly and surely move towards sunnier days, we must not forget to look each other in the eye and indulge in some balcony creativity, instead of simply banging plates and lighting up candles.
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