Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Masala City: Urban Stories from South Asia

September, 2005

Published in Architectural Design, September/October, 2005.


“Even on wintry mornings, Anurag Tripathi cycles through the virtual decay of Varanasi. Slicing through the thick fog, he stops at a brand new hotel on the Ganges, one built around a temple and brightly lit with Christmas tree lights, and parks his rickety bicycle there… The he goes down Assi Ghat below, ignoring teeming hordes of beggars and sadhus. He makes a bundle of his white shawl and unwashed clothes, keeps it on his books and plunges into the filthy, toxic river. Shivering and humming Hanuman Chalisha, he emerges from the water, puts on his clothes and pedals down to the Benaras Hindu University Campus.  Tripathi spends the day on experiments in the physics laboratory, reading science journals, making notes, and dreaming of going to the MIT one day… When the evening mist begins to blanket the sprawling campus, he leaves the lab, cycles up to the Lanka Gate and orders a burger at a small, squalid roadside hole. Hundreds of flies buzz around him as he eats his burger – a thick, greasy potato chop in a droughty bun with some rotten onion and a thin slice of stale tomato. Finishing his grub, he picks a ‘Miss Lewinsky’ ice-cream from another vendor and moves into a narrow lane where they teach you to speak English in the American way. As darkness thickens, Tripathi gets out of the institute and moves into a damp, cold cybercafe, assumes an oxymoronish identity – coolfire21- and begins chatting with ‘serenesoul80’, a 24 year-old girl in Scottsdale, Arizona.”

-Shobhan Saxena, “America in Our Lives,” Tehelka, The People’s Paper (January 15, 2005)



“Amar, Akbar, Anthony”

Mix, in urban configurations and architectural syntactics, is not new; it is an evident reflection of social and cultural formations. Hovels and havelis, domes and shikhara spires, nuclear reactor and pyramidal forms (the roofscape of Le Corbusier’s Assembly in Chandigarh) emblematize the tenacious hybrid nature of architecture and urbanism in South Asia/India, indicating an inherent resilience to the making of economic, religious, and cultural monoliths. While Anurag Tripathi, like millions of young subcontinentals, gets a high dose of Americana now, history attests to various forms of inadequacies to unitary formations.


Mix can take on different profiles, from the cinematic sense of collage and montage, to the obvious culinary concept of masala and chutney (as well as melting pot and salad bowl), and from the biological idea of miscegenation and hybridity to the pharmaceutical techniques of concoction and amalgamation.  What ideas of “mix” inaugurate in the contemporary context, since Homi Bhabha’s seminal discussion of hybridity and difference, is to turn asunder the proposition of a unitary notion/nation, and bring the dissolution of “coherent identities, conceptual purity, and cultural unity.”1 A new battleground is laid out, as Bhabha notes, not so much between east and west, or modernity and tradition, but between essence and fragmentations. This is revealed paradoxically in the tussle among the various fragments and constituencies themselves. When it comes to sub-continental societies, mix represents a kind of invisible truce between the different classes, castes and communities, that is, when difference does not become pronounced viciously and lapse into a bloody apocalypse. The armistice, as depicted cinematically in the popular film of the 1970s “Amar, Akbar, Anthony,” where three brothers who were lost as children grow up as Hindu, Muslim and Christian respectively, has now devolved into virulent exclusivities, most notably the Hindutva variety.


In the sphere of architecture and urbanism, mix exposes a natural fluidity that is bound to happen in a condition of strong cultural co-valencies, as represented by the Mughal emperor Akbar’s city of mélange Fathepur Sikri. At the same time, an architectural fusion may just be gestural, such as Charles Correa’s theatric montage at the Bhopal State Assembly, where the selective iconic pieces are hardly commensurate with various social constituencies. Mix in contemporary urban environments is symptomatic of a guerilla strategy that surreptitiously and unpredictably thwarts the surveilling nature of the Master Plan, as in the production of the “illegal” slums, and the continuous bending of urban rules and regulations that make up the Master Plan. Without the disciplinary deployment of the Master Plan, and even within it, a city will always rearrange itself to ever new arcs of desires, to new tribal, economic, and cultural orientations. Lutyens’ New Delhi and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh share a common criticism that they disavow the inherent mix of Indian cities, and curtail any impromptu, hybridizing intervention (although the architecture of both Lutyens and Le Corbusier are better understood as synthetic work).


Every epoch brings its own poetry of mix, and every hybridity is distinctive. A new interfusion is certainly redefining the contemporary urban landscape in South Asia in ways that are unprecedented and not fully predicated on home-spun norms. If an earlier amalgam was of the Hobson-Jobson variety, triggered either by colonial infraction or metropolitan-rural polarity, the new mix is engineered by a triad of forces – transnational culture, new media and intoxicating consumerism. The former is emblematized in the figure of the Anglicized “babu sahab,”2 while the latter in the poly-placed NRI (the non-resident Indian), already a quasi-mystical figure in the Indian imagination, as one popular film after another attests.


While all Indian/South Asian cities are undergoing paroxysmic changes (but not quite as the Shanghai phenomenon), it is far from clear if the new landscape, with new works of architecture, is a culturally liberating condition or a surreptitious profit-driven product. Is the mix only spectacular, or does it promise social justice? Is it truly a mix, or a juxtaposition of attitudes and desires that are tangential to each other, in reality maintaining a wedge between the various constituencies? Will the triad transcend the deep cut of the religious divide, and offer a new promise for Amar, Akbar and Anthony as the metrosexual metropolis?3


Mixed Blessing

Masala, originally a culinary term for spewing spices, has now entered the Anglo-Indian vocabulary as an ideogram of amalgamation. What the “melting pot” is to the American sensibility, masala is to the South Asian imaginary, alluding both to a mix and a potent, spicy content. This culinary sensibility has now traveled to a wider body of work. The film industry in Mumbai – Bollywood, which perhaps should now be called Mollywood with the change of name of the city – employs the term as a tool for concoction and exaggeration.4 Salman Rushdie, in his various novels, employs the masala mode, in his characterizations, imageries, but especially in the spoken language, as a postmodern vitality. It is this vitality and hybridity that threaten the grip of the classical and the thoroughbred traditional, as well as the squeaky, clean modern.


Fusion is now the cultural engine from Mumbai to Macao, especially as they are spewed out non-stop through the omnipresent TV channels. The infinite mixing capability of the camera and the digital media – like the fast output of a TV commercial that in 3 seconds will flicker 30 images of diverse provenance – has taken collage or montage to a new height.  In music, new genres are being configured by an invigorating and sometimes unabashed miscegenation in the form of “remix.” Musical remix may be a metaphor for a larger reality where life or culture is no longer whole; it is composed of the simultaneous existence of multiple realities, of bits and pieces of both the familiar and the strange, and it does not matter whether they add up to a whole, and whether the bits and pieces are themselves constantly in flux.


If mix and hybridity are the new mantras that will dislodge the power of the pure and unitary, we are not yet sure if it is eventually going to be redemptive or simply disruptive. The term hybrid still refers to some kind of originary pureness, although it gets its current valorization by sullying that purity. Where the new heterogeneity differs from Bhabha’s idea of hybridity is that it is not necessarily situated in the interstices and fissures of official spaces but constitutes it own spatial matrix. The new mix presents its own terms of reference.


A Place Called Elsewhere

In the 2003 film Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon, the setting is a fictional town eponymously called Sundarnagar, or the city beautiful. It is a town of idealized dreams and bourgeois opulence, of houses belonging to the purveyors of traditions, with living rooms the size of a small stadium, populated by pampered patriarchs, gullible grandmothers and servile servants, all in their proper places. The lawns to the houses are wide, and the driveways regal, while the riot-free, languorous town harbors manicured parks, quaint telephone booths, gardens, outdoor spaces to run away to, and that includes quite inexplicably snow clad mountains, lush streams, sandy beaches, all at the same time. In the film, Sundarnagar is depicted as a town in India, but the fact of the matter is the entire film is shot in New Zealand. The Indian city of Sundarnagar may be fictive, but it is depicted in a real place, and that place is elsewhere, and that is the fixation in Hindi-Bollywood films: the relentless flight towards elsewhere.


This flight to elsewhere is structurally embedded in the song-dance numbers – “chansons d’amour,” the raison d’etre of Hindi-Bollywood films. I call the location of these “chansons d’amour” song-sites. The “song-site” in the Hindi-Bollywood filmic imagination weaves in music, dance, couture, urban and landscape imagery, not to mention hip-hop and catwalks, into a phantasmagoria of dreams and desires. The literal space of the “song-sites” has always been an exotic, far-away place, somewhere that the amorous protagonists could be transported to instantly without a cue. The lush valley of Kashmir was a ubiquitous site of that dream topography, as also places like Manali, Kanyamumari, Goa, and Simla. But now more and more, since Kashmir descended into political chaos, the “song-sites” exist subliminally in imported places from Switzerland, Germany, and even New Zealand. Charming, urbane, or just generally well-formed places, as National Geographic exoticas, are grafted onto the body of an extremely predictable and hyper-theatrical narrative that may have a generic setting in some village in Punjab, or a chawl in Mumbai. What makes Mein Prem Ki Diwani Hoon striking is that it is in its entirety a “song-site”; it takes the elsewhere of the “song-site” to the entire film.


What to make of the manufacture of this cinematic urban imagery without being facetious? Can one make a Italo Calvino-like catalog of these grafted places, as a kind of modern fable of urban imagination? Or, can they be treated as a cryptic enumeration of the collective fetish of the Indian urban middle class as it encounters, experiences and succumbs to (new) global coordinates? Are these sites a symptom of a latter-day postmodern hybridity (a New Mix) manufactured, distributed and consumed filmically? Is Bollywood, surreptitiously, unwittingly or unselfconsciously, writing alternative visions for urban India? Is cinematic Sundarnagar, as Thomas Pynchon did with the medium of TV in his fictional work Vineland, a “quixotic cognitive enterprise” that converts a postmodernist space into a tool for thinking about an otherwise elusive and unrepresentable system?5


These places from elsewhere, real and actual, become fictive in the Hindi film narrative because the places are not named, and they are not located with any amount of precision; they are literally framed to be “foreign,” to be elsewhere. It is this admixture of actuality and alienness that make these sites hyper-real places. In the generic Hindi films, the sites of the songs are hyper-real because they are seemingly real. The sites are not unreal by themselves. A city like that exists somewhere in Germany. A landscape like that exists in Switzerland. And yet they become profoundly unreal, or seemingly real, and hence hyper-real, by the nature of being grafted on the cinematic body, when they are collaged, montaged, cut-and-pasted alongside a familiar and urbanistically messy landscape, a real city in India. The significance is in the juxtaposition, in the being side by side.


What is being side by side is the usual and the ideal, the place here and now and a place elsewhere, the messy city and a dream topography. The former is of a native and the latter of a transnational provenance. It is also in this sense that spaces of Hindi film represent a mix. And despite what is perhaps conceptually a jarring hybridity, the satisfied audience takes it as a “flow,” a flow through diverse, unrelated, discontinuous spaces, not unlike negotiating an actual city. Sundarnagar is not an isolated cinematic place, and yet Sundarnagar is not an Indian town that could be located with precision for it is part of the longing of the urban upper/middle-class, refracted by the NRI phenomenon, to approximate an “elsewhere.” It is not clear though if that longing is therapeutic or psychotic.


What distinguishes Sundarnagar from another well-known fictional town – R.K. Narayan’s literary Malgudi – is the transnational divide, the frame by frame embodiment of intercontinental utopias on a native set of references, of the presence of the idea of a globally charged site that replaces (or at least contests) the vestiges of the empirical here. Is Sundarnagar then a premonition of Indian cities happening in the simultaneous collapse of either Nehruvian or Gandhian ideology, and the proliferation of a global, transnational indulgence?


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