The monumental failure of modern Indian architecture

All great civilizations boast architectural wonders that are not only expanses for the soul, but temples of the mind. I gaze upon temples and stupas and get a glimpse into the heart of ancient India. In the medieval forts and palaces, I am transported into my country’s heritage. I look at the Taj Mahal and see both the extremes of love and the cruelty of a Mughal emperor. These are all icons of our glorious past. But when I wish to see a vision for our nation’s future, I am left bewildered. As someone born in in free India, I humbly ask my fellow citizens, why is it that we have failed to create architectural icons representative of the nation in over sixty years?

Kalighat: The simple grace of Bengal.

The post-colonial establishments of free India – Parliament, Raj Bhawan, India Gate were designed by our British rulers. Even the Supreme Court of India, which was designed by Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar shortly thereafter, bore the hallmark of the same Indo-British style. Our rulers changed with Independence, and they changed the names of our cities, streets, and buildings. Yet ironically, the physical reminders of a foreign regime became the most visible icons of modern India.

I find it disconcerting that we cheerfully embrace all our colonial icons in post-Independence India, especially since there has never been a dearth of architects in this country.

The first years after Independence, Nehruvian thinking and Five-Year Plans guided our development. Massive dams and bridges were built. Roads, schools, and hospitals were constructed. These were very noble ideals that were required then, as much as they are now. However, the resulting architecture neither represented the cultural aspirations of the local communities, nor were the buildings entirely utilitarian. Nehruvian Chandigarh is neither an example of simple living, nor of high thinking. Frenchman Le Corbusier’s Modernist structures for Chandigarh are massive, stately buildings, yet they are vapid and sterile. Where is the link to the rich living heritage of the people of Punjab and Haryana?

Clearly, Modernist architecture did not mesh with local culture and identity. Even in urban conglomerates such as Mumbai, the Indo-British style epitomized in colonial-era buildings such as Gateway of India and Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus was more appealing than the vague Modernist style found in monstrosities such as the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Perhaps, the concept of pan-Indian architecture is a foolish notion. In a pluralistic country such as India, the concept of nation might be best defined as the sum of the myriad disparate, and often chaotic subcultures. Perhaps, we should look locally for inspiration.

After Independence, the chief minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, spearheaded efforts towards the development of the state. Durgapur became an industrial complex; Digha became the popular beach town; and Bidhannagar was planned as a a major suburb of Calcutta. The first Indian Institute of Technology was established at Hijli near Kharagpur. For economic progress, we required bold, utilitarian buildings. Unfortunately, that is all we ever got from successive governments.

As a result, today, the icons of  Kolkata are the icons of imperial Calcutta. Victoria Memorial, Raj Bhavan, Writer’s Building, Shaheed Minar, and Howrah Bridge are lasting legacies. Religious monuments in Kolkata and surrounding areas such as Kalighat, Dakhineswar Kali Temple, St Paul’s Cathedral, Belur Math, Nakhoda Masjid, and the Jain Temple also predate Independence. Major projects since Independence such as Vidyasagar Setu and Salt Lake Stadium are useful, but nondescript, and forcefully linked to the city only in  physical presence. Other buildings such as Chatterjee International are downright offensive. The only sense of architectural belonging I feel in the city is in the Metro rail system with its beautiful murals.

Elsewhere, buildings pop up like mushrooms during the monsoons. Shopping malls, cinema mutiplexes, steel technology “parks”, and high-rise housing complexes jostle for attention in the bustling metropolis. I know that the problems for architects and urban planners are daunting. But where is the sense of identity? Where is the link to Bengal’s cultural past and vision for the future? Every day, old buildings are torn down and replaced by ugly ones made from shoddy materials. Memory is fleeting and mediocrity substitutes for creativity.

Urban architecture stands in stark contrasts to the vernacular buildings dotting the countryside. The temples of Bishnupur are always inspirational, but we need only to look to the nearest thatched kachha-houses complete with courtyards and intricate alpona designs for elegance and economy. In fact, I find the small tulsi-mancha in front of nearly every home in rural Bengal to be more aesthetically appealing than any of the thousands of hideous buildings coming up these days.

Image (circa 1945) courtesy University of Pennsylvania Library Online Archive.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Why are Indians so good at test-taking? India’s first competitive exam

Post-mortem: A recent article in the New York Times on pressures facing school-leaving teenagers in India brought back my own personal memories of the Higher Secondary and various competitive examinations. Some things never change.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right? I mean, those of us that survived live fairly normal lives as long as we don’t miss therapy and take the green pill in the morning, the blue one in the afternoon, and the red one at night. Oh that, and we have to avoid bright light. Did I mention the back-aches and the arthritis?

Not a big price to pay in order to enjoying the wonderful view from a cubicle.

Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain. Copyright of original works resides with the original creators.

Robin Ghosh and cross-border “infiltration” in South Asia

If you are from India you may have heard of Robin Chattopadhyay and Robin Majumdar, both exceptionally talented contributors to the Golden Age of Bangla Cinema in Kolkata. I’ll wager that very few people in India have heard of a versatile music director by the name of Robin Ghosh.  I was intrigued to find out more about him because I could guess at his Bengali ethnicity from his last name.

Robin Ghosh is the music director who composed the songs for Aina, a 1977 Urdu movie which shattered all records to become the biggest box-office hit in Pakistan. Ghosh also composed the songs in Harano Din which was released in 1961 and was one of the earliest Bangla films made in Pakistan. His style of composition in Harano Din reminded me a lot of music directors across the border who were composing songs for Bangla films in Calcutta. For example, “Ae je nijhum raat” sung by Firdausi Begum in Harano Din reminded me of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s compositions, especially “Ae purnima raat” in Nayika Sangbad (1967) even though both tunes are distinct.

However, I am told that Robin Ghosh is best known in Pakistan for the lilting songs in Aina. The story revolves around the trite  misunderstandings in love that unnecessarily permeate South Asian cinema, but the music is brilliant. Take for example the song Mujhe dil se na bhulana featuring Mehnaaz and Alamgir:

Does it sound familiar? Think twice if it doesn’t, because if you’ve watched Bollywood movies it should.

Exactly! It is the centerpiece of Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s soundtrack for the Bollywood hit Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985) featuring Mithun Chakraborty and Padmini Kohlapure.

Maybe, like me, you were already familiar with Robin Ghosh’s compositions, but you just didn’t know it?

My point is a simple one. Even before My Name is Khan took Pakistan by storm, this sort of cultural “inflitration” had been going on from both sides. Before the age of Himesh and Pritam, before Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam, there were the likes of Nadeem-Shravan who ruled the roost and were particularly fond of Pakistani music.

I take your leave with one of my favorite songs from my childhood and the original which not only has a similar tune, but similar lyrics too! The song Tu meri zindagi hai was a bit hit in Aashiqui, a Bollywood movie featuring the expressionless visages of Rahul Roy and Anu Agarwal. That a romantic movie with a couple from matchmaking hell could do well at the box-office attests to the popularity of  the Nadeem-Shravan soundtrack. Arguably, the movie also launched the careers of singer Kumar Sanu and lyricist Sameer.

Now listen to the Pakistani counterpart by Tasavvur Khanum also called Tu meri zindagi hai.

To be completely fair to Sameer, he didn’t lift the entire lyrics. I actually prefer his version even though bandagi rhymes better with zindagi than aashiqui does. Now Kumar Sanu’s nasal twang… that I could do without.

Let us keep the discussion civil folks.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to write your own biography in Wikipedia. From the renowned author of “Deconstructing Quantum Sufi-Yoga”

Last night, the benevolent god mahi-mahi came to me in a vision and instructed me in a mix of Urdu-sounding Hindi, Hindi-sounding Urdu, Klingon, and C++ to form the Khudbakhud Uttarvedantic Wikipedia Society, a charitable organization exempt from US federal income tax under section 501(c)(3). As you know, articles in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia are among the top hits in internet search engines. The goal of our tax-exempt Society is to create our own biographies in Wikipedia and pass off to family members, jealous colleagues, prospective employers, and random, uninterested Facebook friends as evidence of our great standing in science and letters. In this guide, I will lead you in the art of creating your very own personalized Wikipedia autobiography.

One way to get on Wikipedia is to to actually do something worthy of recognition. You could write a bestseller or come up with a major scientific discovery and the world would most certainly notice. Someone would write a Wikipedia entry for you. But let’s be frank. I’m writing a blog and you’re sitting here reading it. Frankly, it ain’t gonna happen for either of us. Fortunately, Wikipedia is written by people like you and me, and so there are tons of mediocre people (just like you and me) who are writing their own over-hyped articles on Wikipedia as we speak. And even if you did have the talent to do something worthwhile in life, why would you take the trouble anyways? It is much easier to become notable through Wikipedia than to become notable and then get on Wikipedia.

Here are the steps to creating your own autobiography on Wikipedia:

Step 1. Start websites with legitimate-sounding domain names. In the mafia, you need a shop to act as a front. In the web popularity game, you need to get your name out on Google by posting comments with your name on as many websites and blogs as possible and starting a few fake websites of your own. If you’re a scientist, write about how great you are on your fake website New Sceintist, which sounds a lot like New Scientist. Steal html templates if you can. If it looks similar, it is just as good. Most people can’t read, so who will notice?

By getting your name out in cyberspace, you’re increasing your hits on Google, a primary index used to determine if you’ve done anything worthy of Wikipedia.

Step 2. Make a list of important-sounding fake publications. This is the most important step. If you’ve ever written anything in life, you need to put it on Wikipedia. For example the essay you wrote on the cow in primary school should be written up as A post-modern analysis of the sociological and economic importance of Bos indicus var. dudhwali in the South Asian subcontinent. Anything will do, but you will need to use words such as “deconstruction,” “post-modern”, “quantum”, “paradigm”, as well as a smattering of South Asian keywords (preferably with religious connotations). That way later if your article is tagged for deletion, you can always challenge the Wikipedia editors. If they dispute the South Asian part, tell them they are perpetrating colonialist stereotypes. If they attack the science, appeal to the art. No one on the planet understands both Derrida and Bose-Einstein statistics.

It is as easy as 1-2-3. Follow my example. By putting some very esoteric words in the title of this article, I am enhancing my own reputation as a pundit. Web aggregators will pick it up and soon enough I will be known as an expert in Deconstruction, quantum mechanics, Sufism, and yoga. Repeat after me: “I am as smart as I fake myself out to be”.

If you haven’t done anything creative in your life, then use the approach of making up something extremely important. For example, say that your magnum opus is A Long History of the World (Vol I-XX). Always use Roman numerals for volumes and throw in some French or Latin if possible. If challenged to produce your work, say that it was originally written in a now-extinct Andamanese dialect and that the editor is being a racist, Eurocentric pig. If you’re a woman, claim to be the poor victim of a male-dominated society. You can’t lose!

Step 3. Create an account on Wikipedia. You’ll need an account to look legit. Without one, editors will flag your IP address. Choose something distinguished such as Rabindranath_Tagore or S_Radhakrishnan and put an embellished resume up on your page. For example, if you know that Achtung is not the sound of a German sneezing, mention on your page that you have native-level comprehension of the German language.

Step 4. Find a list of editors you can win over. For the most part Wikipedia is edited not by professional experts, but by hobbyists who know all the levels in Tekken, but not which side of the bread is buttered. Win them over by commenting on their personal pages. They don’t have money, power, or social lives. I mean, why else would they write for no recognition or money?

Step 5. Make some very basic edits on other Wikipedia articles. If the first thing you do is to write your own article, people will get suspicious. Do some very basic copyediting on one of the thousands of incomprehensible articles on the site first.

Step 6. Steal the template for an existing high-quality Wikipedia article on someone you admire. Wiki-markup is easy, but stealing is easier. Take an article written about a famous person in your discipline and use it as a template. It will have all the category tags built it and it is as easy as “plug and play”.

Step 7. You are who you want to be, so write creatively. Journalists are very good at this, but everyone should be instinctively good at using weasel-words. Use “many”, “most”. and other non-specific words to blast across how awesome you are. As you write, think carefully. If you ever sent your flop book to someone, say it was “well received” (omitting the fact that the postal service is efficient). If your mother really liked your painting, say “many experts found it breathtaking in scope and originality.” If you know multiple languages, then use non-Roman script for your works. Again, you are working on the vanishingly small odds that there is someone who is both a polymath and a Wikipedia junkie.

A final word of advice  for those lucky few in positions of power. Get your employees or students to do the work for you. Say that you are just about to work on their annual performance review or grade their test papers. You’ll be surprised at how common people who don’t deserve to be on Wikipedia grovel just to keep us celebrities happy!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to talk with an Indian accent

Having spent many years in the US, I have often been told that I speak “without an accent.” Of course it is impossible to speak without any accent.  For example, broadly we can say that some people have American, British, or Indian accents which can be further divided into regional accents like Bostonian, Cockney, or received Benglish. If you talk like an Oxford hack, an editor at the Economist might say that you have no accent, because it wouldn’t be noticeable to him or her.

Sacha Baron Cohen. His name-a-Borat. Naaat

What does it mean to be told that you don’t have an accent? It is a polite way of saying that you weren’t wearing the tee-shirt with “I am proud to be an Indian” in huge block letters printed over an elephant that day. And your new acquaintance made an honest mistake of not being able to figure out both your ethnicity and nationality in under 10 milliseconds.

But there is also a bit of suspicion that you notice in his or her eyes. Is that really the way you talk or do you have an amorphous call-center accent that changes with each client? In other words, are you sincere or are you faking it?

There is nothing worse than having an insincere accent. You turn into a caricature if you try to ape Paul Hogan’s Australian “G’day mate” from Crocodile Dundee or Leonardo DiCaprio’s South African Archer spelled “ay ah- see-aich-e-ah” from Blood Diamond. Foster’s may be Oztrayl-yun for beyah, but you’ll be in the middle of a diplomatic crisis if you try to say it with a straight face  in Melbourne these days.

Some can actually make fake accents cool. I don’t blame you if wish you had Prince Julian’s suave Indian accent as he crooned “I like to move it, move it” in Madagascar. But that was Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen can be anyone he wants to be. You are not Cohen.

You don’t even sound like Hank Azaria or Tom Kenny with their genuwine desi accents for Apu on The Simpsons and Asok on Dilbert.

Sip on your water (“normal” please, no ice). At least you are Indian. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have the added burden of explaining that they only look Indian.

Breathe. Relax.  “I watched a lot of Hollywood movies,” or “English is like a native language for me,” you say apologetically. For the next few seconds there is  cold silence as your acquaintance tries to figure out if you are lying. Then, the waiter arrives with the tuna tartare and the silence is broken. You’re not in the spotlight anymore and balance is restored to the setting.

Keep your chin up. If you’ve ever felt left out because of having an accent (or not having a particular one), you’ll like the story I am about to tell you. This happened to a friend, who I know did not make it up because he is a gentleman beyond reproach, and the story is too ridiculous for fiction. Dave, I have to share the story, but if you write a memoir, I’m sure many readers of this piece will buy it.

Many years ago, this friend of mine arrived in the middle of Iowa straight out of the UK. One day he is at a bar making conversation with some new friends. There is a lively conversation going on. In the middle of the conversation, a girl blurts out that my friend “has an accent.”

“So where are you from?” she asks in a clueless drone.
“I’m from England,” he replies, a bit taken aback.
“Oh, okay… What do they speak over in England… (pause) German?”



Creative Commons license for image of SBC: / CC BY 2.0

© 2010-2012, Anirban

A review of a pre-globalization society as determined from Maine Pyar Kiya

Civilized cultures existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Similarly, intelligent life-forms existed in South Asia before the proliferation of cable television, cineplexes, shopping centers, cell phones, and the Internet. Using the cultural keystone Maine Pyar Kiya, I have attempted to painstakingly piece together details about the life of the “common person” as he or she lived in the era predating globalization.

I present a Short Metaphysical and Anthropological Treatise on a Pre-Globalization Society in South Asia as Determined from Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya. If I have succeeded in presenting a snapshot of life in that long-gone era, I will consider my life to not have been spent in vain.

Suffice it to say that the Age of Maine Pyar Kiya was for all means and purposes an idyllic one.  However, there were cultural iconoclasts at odds with the prevailing customs of the day (cf. random grumpy faces). Deconstructing the themes leads us to the conclusion that there is irreducible complexity in Maine Pyar Kiya

More Bollywood Science here.

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the position of the scholarly community. Fair-use rationale for images: All images are low-resolution and used only for purposes of demonstration for no monetary gain where a free equivalent is not available. Copyright of original works resides with the original creator (most likely Rajsri Pictures).

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

How to get a bank loan in India

Or how to forge your own signature.

Our NRI friend Pappu Patligali recently applied for a personal loan from a local bank. He was planning on applying to one of the swank new privately-operated banks, but was advised not to by his elderly patients. “All our lives we have only transacted with the Tropical Bank of India,” they said, sagaciously.

Pappu picked up the form and got together an application packet with all the primary documents, supporting pieces of evidence, and annexures. Properly-dressed and armed with the bulging file, Pappu arrived at the bank at 11 AM. He walked up to the loan officer, who was annoyed that he was interrupted from relishing the juicy gossip in the morning papers. A Bollywood starlet was pregnant, and there was speculation that the father of the love-child was a flamboyant Australian left-handed batsman.

“Yes? What can I do for you?” barked the loan officer as he peered up from his glasses.

“Well, I came the other day. You gave me a form so that I could apply for a loan…”

“Hmmm. I need ALL documents on this list. If you are missing one only, then sorry I cannot help you,” said the loan officer as he sipped his chai. This was usually an adequate deterrent for most applicants.

“Yes, I know. I’ve brought the listed ones plus a few others. Originals and attested photocopies.”

A look of disgust crossed the loan officer’s morose face. Why were these people intent on spoiling his day? Everyone should have known by now that his mornings were devoted to scanning the newspapers. He did an hour of work in the afternoon and then went for tiffin. After a final round of chai, he was in the habit of leaving for the day so that he could yell at his wife and kids.

As he was about to find some excuse to put this aside, the loan officer looked up at Pappu and felt pity for him. Perhaps it was the martyred expression on Pappu’s face. He said, “leave you application materials and come back after one week.”

One week passed by.

“Hi. My name is Pappu Patligali. I applied for a loan last week.”

“Yes. Please sit down. I am sorry, but you will need to fill out another application form,” said the loan officer.

“What? Why? I thought I had included everything” said Pappu incredulously.

“No sir. You were supposed to provide your full signature on the line here,” chided the loan officer.

“But I did. Right here. P. Patligali. That is my signature.”

“No we need FULL signature for official purposes. Please, you write, Pappu Patligali,” corrected the loan officer.

Realizing that arguing was going to get him nowhere, Pappu sighed. He picked up another form, “signed” it with his first and last name legible, and handed it over.

“Thank you sir. Please come and check again next week.”

“Next week? But you’ve already taken a look at all the documents! Why should it take so long?” said Pappu furiously.

“No please understand. This is not America. These things take time in India or have you forgotten saab?” said the loan officer sarcastically.

Another week passed by.

“Well, have you now had a chance to look over my application?” said Pappu, hoping to finally get some sort of resolution.

“Sorry, I cannot help you. You will need to apply again,” said the loan officer coolly.

“What! What the hell is going on here? What’s the matter now?” yelled Pappu.

“There are three signatures on the application form. In two you have signed ‘Pappu’ with the capital ‘P’, but one looks like small ‘p’. I will get in trouble because it looks like fraud case.”

Pappu was furious. “I signed those documents in front of you! What is going on here? I demand to see the Bank Manager.”

Arre, no use getting gussa. What will Manager do, saab? I am here to help you, na? But try to understand. We are understaffed and this is lot of work for me.” said the loan officer with a tragicomic look on his face.

Pappu finally understood what the delay was all about. He reached for his wallet to provide some chai-paani to grease the wheels, but was stopped short. “What you are doing? Not here,” said the loan officer. “Your address is on the form, saab. You are married, na? I will come to your house and bring some sweets for bhabhiji and little ones. Oh and you please not to worry, saab. I am telling that you will get loan.”

More of The Charmed Life of Pappu Patligali here

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban