Beauties and beasts
Published In India Today issue On ‘Beauty’, 2009
The cultural theorist N. Rajyalakshmi interviews the artist Pushpamala N. on the quest for eternal youth, beauty and fitness, and the culture of consumption.
NR: Ms Pushpamala, what do you think about the recent craze for plastic surgery in India?
PN: You know I’m really shocked at how powerful the plastic surgery lobby seems to be. Some years ago, Agony Aunts in magazines advised people with acne, big noses, skinny, fat, etc. to use grandma remedies, exercise, or just change their hairstyles or clothes to hide the feature. It’s straight away nose jobs and tummy tucks and botox injections now. And I’m sorry to say that our plastic surgeons being no artists, make all the noses the same, a Caucasian upturned Barbie doll nose, which you can see from Shilpa Shetty downward. I think a standard how-to manual comes along with the nose job kit, which the surgeons follow faithfully!
NR: And the nose is one of the most individualized features!
PN: Someone told me that the shape of the nose and the shape of the chin are related, so if you change one, you have to change the other. I think this was Michael Jackson’s downfall – as he kept changing his nose, he had to keep changing his chin.
Which reminds me, fairness creams being big business here, all the ‘phoren’ cosmetic companies are in the race for the huge market. East meets West, tradition meets modernity etc. Shah Rukh Khan who started off being brown skinned is fair and lovely now, no doubt from using the men’s fairness cream that he endorses.
NR: But I see more people walking now in the cities, it’s quite the fashionable thing to exercise!
PN: Oh yes, the ideal of urban Indians in the past was the survival of the fattest - to let go as soon as you have your first child, let it all hang out from between your too-short blouse and the too-low sari waist - or have it all pop out extravagantly between the buttons of the too-tight safari shirt. It was a sign of prosperity and contentment. Men and women nowadays are buying sports shoes and going for brisk walks round and round the walking paths that have been created in all the former playgrounds of our cities. They are usually of Japanese- type design, and have artificial rocks created from gravel and Fevicol between picturesquely low rolling mounds of Chinese grass.
I saw a very funny Kannada TV talk show where the ‘thin’ male anchor is telling the fat ladies that if they don’t lose weight their men will fly away- and then there’s a sort of montage of large women jogging and puffing juxtaposed with rows of beauty contestants walking the ramp. Talk about sexism!
NR: And what do you think about beauty contests?
PN: Years ago, when ABCL was hosting the first Miss World contest in India in Bangalore, a motley crowd of protestors landed up from all over India, extreme right rubbing shoulders with the leftwing, feminists with religious bigots etc. saying it was against our culture, sexist and morally corrupting. But in fact, it’s amusing to see that all these so-called decadent Western phenomena match quite effortlessly with our good old feudal values like the arranged marriage market and buttress them. If the ideal of an international class is the minimal lean mean Kareena Kapoor in designer clothes, the desis love the heavily ornamented bahus of the K serials. I’m amazed at the number of jewellery shops – is there a recession? In fact, much of the consumerism here revolves around marriage and dowry.
NR: And fashion shows seem to have caught the Indian imagination…
PN: Ms. Rajyalakshmi, walking the ramp is a rage everywhere and is an integral part of Indian culture now! All annual college functions have fashion shows. It fits in seamlessly with our yearning for past glories and our anxieties about caste and religion. Our fashion designers survive on their Punjabi wedding outfits. One of our fashion gurus who was incarcerated in a Dubai jail some years ago passed the time by training his fellow jail inmates how to walk the ramp, which apparently had a spiritual effect. Walking the ramp seems to satisfy some deep atavistic need in us, perhaps it goes back to our ancient custom of the swayamvar, or even the traditional marriage selection interview, where the girl was asked questions, told to thread a needle, and to walk up and down to check whether all her faculties and limbs were in working order.
NR: (laughs) Do you think we are obsessed by beauty?
PN: Well, recession or not, one business which is thriving and expanding in India is the beauty parlour. You find beauty parlours in the poorest slums and farthest boondocks. This is in a country, mind you, where most people lack piped water or sanitary systems, leave alone literacy or public health care. And these beauty parlours, amusingly, have blonde blue-eyed models advertised on their signboards. Colonialism is like a mind parasite! And while there is this whole cornucopia of cosmetics and toiletries to beautify us, our towns and countryside are being uglified relentlessly, from factories dumping toxic waste, filth and garbage, to mindless unplanned demolitions and building. So while the European cities we so admire remain beautiful museum pieces, we make our habitats unliveably ugly and unhealthy. The worst epidemics of cholera, hepatitis and plague start in our richest cities.
NR: Gyms are flourishing too, sometimes three or four on a street…
PN: As in everything else, our film stars set the trend. It takes so much energy to make the pelvic thrusts and bosom shudders in filmy dances that they’ve taken to weight lifting, building six packs and power yoga, inspiring the nation. But somehow yoga has not really caught on in a big way with Indians, perhaps because it is actually traditional and has no exotic appeal besides being usually taught by conservative old fogies. I must admit I’ve started going to the gym myself lately to keep fit, in a gentle geriatric way. But the biggest racket now is the Ayurvedic massage spa, which is spreading out from Kerala with an unstoppable centrifugal force and is our latest gift to the world.
NR: How do you think globalization and liberalization of the economy have affected our self-image?
PN: It has created a culture of the surface, from economic and political policies to a general obsession with trivialities, or in trivializing everything. There’s a strange idea that multiplying luxury goods will benefit the poor. It’s like the icing on a mud cake, and the icing has only shown up the ugly poverty in the country, the kind of poverty that is not found anywhere else in the world except in sub-Saharan Africa.
The media is the worst manifestation of this. A leading paper had horrific pictures of the Gujarat riots next to photographs of the latest modeling contest on the front page. All images become equal and saleable, pain and suffering become products. This is really evident in the Page 3 – ization of culture. A society’s art forms provide a mirror, a critique and a means to introspect. A serious discourse on art, literature, theatre, cinema and music is a serious introspection about our times and ourselves. I think there’s been a dumbing down of society lately that’s to be regretted. We’ve become beastly, though that’s an insult to animals!
NR: What effect do you think the collapse of the global economy will have on this euphoria of consumption, or this ‘beastly beauty’?
PN: Well, we’re considered economically booming so all the ‘phoren’ brands are wooing us with goods that they can’t sell otherwise. A friend remarked that just as ten years ago when Indians started winning international beauty competitions, cosmetic companies and designer labels flooded India, Slumdog Millionaire’s success would open the door for an influx of western film companies. I heard from film friends in Mumbai that there are scores of western film units coming there after Slumdog to film Dharavi, rag pickers, the Deonar Municipal Dump, etc. The funniest story was about the municipality hearing about a particular shoot and sending imported garbage trucks with mechanical road washers and garbage men dressed in spotless overalls and gloves to the spot to impress the units. Perhaps the government should stop ‘beautifying’ our cities by clearing slums, we can make more money out of slum tourism!
The last ten or fifteen years have been extremely contradictory times, with a kind of opening up, as well as a kind of looking backwards to some imagined golden past in order to preserve grand old hierarchies and exploitative systems. There’s been a lot of violence, a beastliness and brutality between different sections of society, struggling both to open up, and to close out. There have been so many tensions and aspirations released by a certain notion of progress which did not consider and still refuses to consider the ground realities. Why are we so seduced by the image of Singapore, a small trader island the size of Bangalore under a notorious dictatorship, which in no way relates to the needs of the vast and diverse sub-continent that is India? Surely we need to think beyond surface glitter.
Bangalore November 2009