My piece about the chawl themed new branch of the cafe and bar and co-working hub, Social, atCyber hub , Gurgaon. About design and its inspiration. About imitation and appropriation. About a mockery of others.
Cyber Hub is a multi-outlet development in Gurgaon, with offices, bakeries, pubs, fine dining and shops spread surrounding a central avenue, along some very spacious spokes that lead like tentacles from the main hub. On the rare breezy day of monsoon and the more pleasant days of winter, it is a pleasure to be among the crowds in this postmodern version of a Milanese piazza. The cross-pollination of art, music, food, politics, thought, architecture and more has always been a sign of cosmopolitan urbanism, but the corporate globalisation of Gurgaon has little time for such organic development. It is a market of flash and newness, with establishments and ideas emerging every day, powering the “happening” factor and keeping the transplanted citizens proud and smug, and fairly insular.
Walking down the cemented promenade at Cyber Hub, my friends and I recently came across the bright façade of the newest outlet of the popular cafe and bar, Social. I had seen it on an earlier visit, and been bemused by its kitschy attempt to appropriate the film-poster-and-truck-painting idiom.
This time, upon closer inspection, it became clear that the design team had decided to be inspired by the idea of a Mumbai chawl as the icon for “Social” bonhomie. I suppose the intention was to be droll and edgy. To many of my friends and I, however, it looked like a poor case of misappropriation. The symbolic misplacement of bits of a city’s built history without any understanding of the context. Chawls are an icon of Mumbai’s past and present, and not for salutary reasons alone. None of that nuance or meaning is even remotely acknowledged or explained in the sanitised re-rendering at Social. Instead, we have a rootless hothouse romanticisation of the chawl as a symbol of socialising and community. A chawl is about so much more than being social.
We stared at the façade for a bit, and then brought ourselves to go inside. We were uncomfortably curious to see more. The design had achieved one of its key objectives – footfall. Once inside, the theme continued to make us feel conflicted. A board listed tenant resident names in Hindi. A cement-plastered wall was covered with a collection of old-style electric meters nailed haphazardly with trailing wires.
The wall paint peeled delicately on the exterior, but there were no riverine cracks on the interior walls. The lighting was dim but tastefully planned, and the flooring patchwork didn’t make us trip. The air-conditioning was perfect, unlike anything I have ever experienced inside a chawl. As was the silence, and the air-freshener suffused a scent of affluence. Of course, there was no damp.
Nation in a chawl?
In a nation that grapples with overcrowded poor quality housing in its cities, is this the best creative manifestation of the “social” that trained design professionals could come up with? How ironic that chawls – the built form that arose as a reluctant solution to the despair of homeless mill workers – a design that the renowned urban planner Patrick Geddes called “not housing but warehousing of humans” is the theme for a place dedicated to leisure, to the recreation of moneyed urban professionals?
Is the design meant to be an urban satire? Is the joke on us? Or were the designers and their client just plain ignorant, if not intentionally disdainful?
Besides being an eatery and a bar, Social serves that latest trend in the gig economy – co-working spaces. Small rooms with chawl-style barred windows and flaky doors lined the passage – like the gala of a chawl, leading out from the lobby.
These co-working spaces can be rented by the hour, by office-less workers. So this is what the chawl idea was all about, we concluded. Except, again the symbolism is false. There was a modish, edgy charm to those little cocoons of private solitude and focus. The type of privacy and solitude, and facilities with worktables and food and drink on call that no chawl in history could ever offer. Not even the fairy tale version of the chawl in the Sai Paranjape film Katha, where there is no messy laundry hanging in corridors and the paint and varnish is all perfect.
And certainly never in the more realistic ones, as seen in other movies and books. If only Jaya Bhaduri’s character in the ’70s Barjatya superhit Piya Ka Ghar had found these cute cubicles of Social – with their shut doors and silencer walls – she could have saved her marriage some serious turmoil. But I guess all this referencing of history, books and movies is not the brief designers who work on projects in Gurgaon get. Nor do their clients presumably care.
Sitting inside the Chawl-themed Social
We moved to the area beyond the co-working space and the chawl theme suddenly dropped out in favour of the blast-from-the-past English-Parsi hybrid home décor. In the actual social arena of the dining and bar area, we were out of chawl territory and into the genteel sensibilities of another sort. The dance floor did have a festive bunting spangled courtyard look to it, which I found perfectly fitting for a common celebratory space. And there is nothing typically chawl about that. It is something the chawls too borrowed from the wider repertoire of celebratory symbols.
We came out and sat across from the establishment, on the lush grass-covered open amphitheatre of sorts – the sort of place a chawl resident would crave and not find across a real chawl courtyard.
While we waited for the clouds to make up their mind about raining, my friends and I examined our response to what we had just walked out of.
One of my friends was visiting from Canada, and has never been to Mumbai or anywhere near a real chawl. The other friend is from Maharashtra and familiar with the original model, which supposedly inspired the design team at Social.
I have lived long years in Mumbai, visited chawls and studied them too. We all agreed that we felt disturbed at the sort of disconnected insensitivity this design theme signalled to us. Kitsch does not offend my friends or me, though we may not be fans.
One of them is a clothes designer and sources handloom and crafts from all over the country to mix and match them in her creations. Borrowing idioms is, like I said, what makes for cultural cosmopolitanism. But Social’s channelling of the chawl theme is another level of blindness. Chawls seem to be treated by Social as something alien, and out of the realm of understanding and connection. And thus, an easy fit for misappropriation. They are another world, inhabited by others – in much the same way Hindi cinema depicted tribal women in ’70s Eastman colour films, like we joke about the “others” who we deign to be so different from us, who are hardly granted courtesy or dignity of respect. These others are so different that we cannot imagine any relation except of a voyeur and a taker with them.
My friend wondered how a real chawl resident would feel when faced with this Social. She felt offended. We know people who live in chawls or have family there, or those who once lived in chawls. Would they agree that Social had appropriately conveyed a sense of community and connectedness?
Or would they feel uncomfortable? In exoticising the chawl, we felt, the designers had robbed real life and real people of the dignity their homes deserve despite the despair, disrepair and dilapidation they cave under.
We asked ourselves, would we bring the chawl’s (as shown above) appearance or its way of managing limited space, its majboori ka jugaad, into our far more spacious homes?
Given a choice even a chawl resident would want to upgrade to a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen set-up at least. Even when he is not keen on shifting from the convenient location, he is all for the repair and betterment or redevelopment of the chawl into a block of modern flats with more privacy and status, while being attached to the community features and social benefits.
Nostalgia or living space?
Is the chawl a piece of nostalgia for a majority of those who left it or for anyone else? What comprises that nostalgia, if at all it exists? Memories of the people who lived there, of the interactions and the bonds formed? Certainly so, as is also true for all neighbourhoods, and all social networks that help us belong – those that support us.
Is there also an element of charm and beauty in its built form itself? Going by personal experience, scholarly research and documentation and films on the chawls of Mumbai, I think not. The chawl was by necessity a crowded housing solution for teeming middle and lower middle class workers and traders who needed to be housed near the markets or mills they powered with their hard work.
It was a functional response to a logistics problem, and while there are definite social benefits for residents, they are not symbolised by the clothes hanging outside or the lack of maintenance of the buildings themselves. Nor would there be any nostalgia for the rats, the roaches, the community toilets and the lines at the community water tap.
Remember the 1984 art house film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho about hapless chawl tenants, their internal politics, the games of rapacious promoters, landlords and lawyers? In chawls then and now, community living and conviviality happened as much because of the form as a function of other factors, like a shared place of origin, caste, workplaces, shared commercial interests and links forged as neighbours bound by similar circumstances.
And much like the rest of community life, social conviviality and “we are one big family” ideas are under stress everywhere, including in chawls, due to wider social, cultural, technological, political and economic forces coming from beyond the chawl. When one built form is being used as a theme to “inspire” another built form, one cannot stop at transplanting just the idea of social solidarity (forced, at that) as the only or the primary association with a chawl.
When dhabas and Warhol can be chic, why not chawls?
I emphasise on nostalgia and the quality of material culture because one might wonder if I doth protest too much. What about adorning our homes with mirror work from Kutch?
What about truck art inspired décor and navaar ka manji-s at Punjabi dhaba-themed restaurants? What about hanging phulkari duppatta as curtains in my plush duplex apartment?
What about Andy Warhol and the Campbell Soup posters?
And there lies the pointer to our ignorance, insularity and insensitiveness and false equivalence. There is a difference between cultural diffusion that happens naturally, and deliberately designed misappropriation, even when it is only an attempt at inspired imitation.
A phulkari duppatta is a textile craft artifact that has always been that, and using it as a curtain rather than as a duppatta is hardly an act of disruptive or disingenuous appropriation.
A dhaba is a robust part of the road transport network economy in the countryside, and most of us English magazine readers do not have any qualms about stopping and eating at a dhaba. Most of us also have rural homes of grandparents or of uncles and extended family where manji-s are a way of life.
It is a way of life that may have been left behind or was only occasionally encountered, but it is not something that was a mark of our majboori. Havelis and peasant homes all had manji-s, though the haveli would also have additional hardwood takhats. A dhaba is associated with a certain earthy purity because of the way it began and operates even today.
Just like Andy Warhol’s posters of Campbell Soup tap into the feelings of home and nurturance, and also call out consumerism and mass marketing, dhaba food spells the taste of the countryside, and also signals the travel-light quality of truckers’ lives.
Similarly, the manji-s we sprawl on are relics of a more leisurely time, of afternoons spent chucking mangoes under the courtyard tree and of things made by hand, by local artisans. The staple of all dhaba food, the ubiquitous ma ki daal – also found in all gurudwara-s, Punjabi homes and the five-stars and every north Indian eatery across the world – is something that has travelled well outside its home because it offers much to meet many real needs and serves practical functions.
What similar features can we say we aspire to or are happy to adopt from chawls – those chawl residents themselves would like to hawk to the world outside? Nothing that is distinctly chawl, I am afraid.
The equivalence of chawl living with the ultimate in social interaction is also lost on me. The chawl style of living was an adaptation to adversity. Are visitors to Social celebrating that? Or, to take a long flight of fancy, is it perhaps about je suis chawlwala? I just don’t know!
When a girl from a chawl topped the CA exam in recent years, it was big enough news for India Today to carry a photo feature. Nowhere was it anybody’s contention that she achieved this because she lived in a chawl. Rather it was noted that she achieved this in spite of being a chawl dweller. Do we hear of chawls being recommended as the ultimate aspirational residential product on the market because of her achievement? Is it anybody’s claim that Social is celebrating and acknowledging in its new theme the lives of its patrons who actually come from chawl kind of homes? That would indeed be about inclusive design and being an inclusive community that acknowledged all forms of social solidarity, as created by different built forms. But of course that is not how things are.
A chawl as home is loved, as every home is, by its residents. All homes deserve respect in real time, not a caricature like Social, Gurgaon. How many of us can honestly admit that anything remotely connected to a chawl is an aspiration or a tradition for most of us who visit places like Social?
If you had a colleague who lived in a chawl and he called you home for a drink, would you go? What then is the imagery and nostalgia and material culture of a chawl that the Social design team has tried to imitate? Is it anybody’s contention that clothes hanging out to dry overhead as you sip expensive imported wine on a cast iron chair in the balcony at Social is a new aesthetic turn?
What is the point of the names board? Is it not a mockery then to use the chawl theme to denote community and the spirit of convivial socialising?
Andy Warhol wanted to make the public go with that “Mmm Mmm Good” feeling on seeing his Campbell Soup posters. What feeling is Social wanting to evoke? If it really was inspiration and admiration or even nostalgia – why only the façade and entrance area are done in that way? Why is the main eating and socialising area all done up with crystal decanters in teak-and-glass cupboard and off-white lampshades diffusing pools of yellow light, and plush sofas and soft curtains?
Never seen those in a chawl, have you? Oh, but then I forget, you have in all likelihood never been inside one. Borrowing existing elements and reappropriating them in new forms is a part of art, and human existence.
This how we retell old truths as new stories. But not all borrowings are beautiful or meaningful. Some are horrendous abominations, and to me the new Social design theme is one such miscegenation.