This post will be a little less philosophical, strictly speaking at least, than is usual here. Readers have found my autobiographical explorations interesting in the past, and I hope this will be similarly so.
I recently returned from India, to have a traditional Indian wedding ceremony. (I’ve been married for two and a half years, but my Indian friends and relatives could not attend that ceremony, nor did it have Indian gods presiding over it.) It’s an unfortunate irony that I have been able to get to India much less frequently ever since I started studying it. My previous trip was at the beginning of 2005; it had been eight years between that trip and the one I just returned from, whereas in my childhood the years between trips were no more than three. And I’m very glad to have had this trip, for it made quite a different impression on me from the previous ones.
I may as well admit: for most of my life, I just didn’t like modern India very much. My interest in exploring Indian traditions was not triggered by any desire to reconnect with my ancestors or heritage. I discovered Buddhism not in India but in Thailand – a land which I love, but which is as exotic to me as it would be to a purebred Scandinavian-American.
India, by contrast, has always been a part of life for me – and, frankly, one I was not all that fond of. As a child, I never wanted to go; I went because my parents were going and I had no choice. I was fond of many of my family members there, but that wasn’t enough to make me want to be in the place. I wanted to be back home in Canada, not only with my friends but with access to the computers and Transformers and role-playing games and North American pop music and fast food that delighted my young mind. Had I been born thirty years later, I might have found India far more congenial, now that its import-substitution economic policy has ended and there’s a ubiquitous presence of Angry Birds merchandise and Pizza Huts. But such things were not there at the time.
Some of this attitude softened in my last visit, in 2005. The week before I left, my first wife and I had just decided to get divorced. It was under the best possible circumstances – there was no anger or fighting, we simply no longer felt for each other the way we once did, and without any children or property involved, there was little reason to remain together. Even so, it was a wrenching event – the future I had long imagined for myself was no longer to be. Amid that uncertainty, it was wonderful to see my family again – not just the continuity of seeing again the people I loved, but seeing a new generation of their children and grandchildren grow up into mature human beings. Life – as they showed me without having to say a word – went on.
Still, what blossomed on that trip was not yet a love for modern India as a place, but for my family within it – enough to make me want to go back in spite of the place itself. Modern India as a place remained hard to love – with daily three-hour power cuts as I tried to get my scholarship, and a trip to the holy city of Varanasi which failed to impress me. (Between the conniving touts of Varanasi’s tourist industry and the ubiquitous byproducts of the cows that walked its streets, I couldn’t help giving Varanasi the unkind nickname “City of Bullshit”.)
Something different happened this time. A key highlight of this year’s trip for me was seeing modern India through my wife’s eyes, which meant seeing it anew. She saw India for the first time, as my jaded eyes did not. And together we got excited by the modern Indian aesthetic.
One of the features that strikes most Western visitors to India is the ubiquitous presence of bright colours, from the pots of kunku powder to the orange freight trucks. The English-speaking world has what appears to me as an unfortunate aesthetic of drabness, where dull, bland colours are revered in the name of “restraint” and “subtlety” and “good taste”. Aesthetics has not been a major field of mine to date, and perhaps there are good reasons why one might advocate such a neutral look. But I sure don’t like it.
I’m perhaps most annoyed in the West by the drabness of men’s clothing. Bright colours are associated with gay men, if they are even worn at all; and even when it comes to shapes and styles, there is little variation from the standard shirt-pants-jacket-tie model. Now to be sure, most Indian men wear Western wear themselves (at least in the city), and traditional Indian wear is often dully coloured as well. But not always – and especially not at a wedding! It was a delight for both my wife and me to get me into the kind of glitzy outfit that is considered quite appropriate for an Indian groom.
I had seen the bright Indian colours all my life, but when I was younger they never managed to make an impression on me. I recall in graduate school attending one Intro to Hinduism class as a potential TA. The professor began the opening session by asking “What comes to mind when you think of India?” The students began to answer negative things like noise, dirt, crowds, pollution, with one positive reference to “ancient culture”. Then one student chimed in “bright colours”, and the professor nodded knowingly: “ah, she’s been there!” I felt annoyed with this response – for I had of course been there many times myself, but India brought to my mind the things it did for the other students: an ancient culture that was magnificent, and a modern reality that was… not. The bright colours were just something I had taken for granted. But now, with the wedding and my wife’s fresh eyes, I saw them again for the first time – now they could be new to me, as the Buddhist temples of Thailand had been.
There are, as ever, plenty of nuances and subtleties here. In architecture, one of the forms of art that interests me most, I was struck much more this time than before by the sheer awfulness of the sooty and grimy concrete blocks that make up Erandawana – the part of Pune where my parents live. I understand the necessity of this kind of building in a place still characterized by vast poverty: every family living in a concrete cinder-block is a family not living in a tin shack with open sewers. But that doesn’t make it enjoyable to be there, for those of us who have other choices.
But then even my parents are not so fond of Erandawana anymore; they go there so they can visit friends and family in Pune. Even though most of those friends and family have themselves moved out of Erandawana, my parents know that because Pune is growing so fast, if they were to move to a nicer neighbourhood, it would shortly go the way Erandawana has too. Erandawana and places like it are not places that Indians themselves take as aesthetic examples; there are plenty of others that are far more beautiful. After our wedding we drove through the countryside in Goa, where the buildings remain gorgeous, with their mix of Portuguese and Indian styles in lively pastels.
It’s not just the colours that appeal to me in modern Indian aesthetics, either. One of the first things that strikes a visitor is how much strongly India smells than the West. Certainly there is a far greater number of unpleasant smells around, but so also pleasant ones: not just the delicious food, but the incense and perfumes. And then there is the aesthetic of ritual itself, so visible at the wedding ceremony. As with our own rituals in North America – say, the Christmas tree or the jack o’lantern – it’s often unclear what the rituals “mean”. But that really doesn’t matter: they’re beautiful activities in and of themselves.
This is not a philosophical post because I’m really not writing here about philosophical aesthetics, about what constitutes good art or the like. I’m merely writing about what I happen to like – which is more or less to say what gives me pleasure. There’s surely a lot that could be be written about the proper role of pleasure in aesthetics, but this post will not say any of it. It is merely to celebrate the pleasure that I have newly come to take in modern India. I hope that I can make it back soon.