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Cities Of Joy
Published: Volume 19, Issue 10, October, 2011

Embarking on his own discovery of India, Parmesh Shahani explores different sides to many metros and returns with fascinating anecdotes....

At the Ranjit’s Svaasa design weekend I’m getting to see different sides to Amritsar. Walking through the by-lanes of the walled city, climbing across piles of cow dung, past a girl’s high school and construction scraps to reach the legendary Kesar Da Dhaba. The lanes and shops are so Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi that Haule Haule starts playing in my head almost instantaneously but then a cow moos loudly next to me and the soundtrack gets switched off as I try hard to avoid its tail swish.

Like most other fast-growing small Indian cities, Amritsar is designer obsessed, which is why the Svaasa festival is doing so well. The brain child of Vishhal Chand Mehra – the young owner of the haveli and spa – it’s a two-day annual weekend, for which he curates interesting designers from all over the country to camp out in his haveli. The designers set up their wares in different nooks and corners of the heritage structure. Jars of Millefiore honey get perched on a grand piano, Amrapali’s jewels are draped over chests in an outhouse, Gaurav and Ritika’s fab cocktail dresses are displayed in a heritage room lined with old photo frames, Rohan Arora’s floral print shoes share space with old wooden library bookcases.... It’s very charming and this city is charmed too; each morning a gaggle of Louis Vuitton-toting, Amritsar kitty party ladies make a beeline for Harangad Singh’s blingy saris, perch on his couch and tell him about their daughters-in-law, while he nods soothingly.

I’m revisiting Svaasa after two years. My last visit was very Golden Temple-focused, but in the bargain, I fell in love with the hotel. Since then I’ve sent many of my Mumbai friends like writer Namita Devidayal there. Namita chilled out so much that she even wrote a short story in the bliss.

Writing or any form of work however, is the last thing on my mind this visit. I’m too busy soaking in some creature comforts, such as the spa where the fierce masseur Jayan pounds me with his herbal potlis. Or the dining outhouse where light grilled pepper and gouda sandwiches in whole grain bread are rustled up, while bag designer Rashmi Dogra and I gossip about who’s doing what with whom back home in Mumbai. Or the English style parlour, where Vishhal plays the piano each evening, as the haveli guests surround him, sipping their drinks.

The generosity of spirit in this city is amazing; it’s something us out-of-towners really notice. So Rameshji, the gold-laden Kesar da Dhaba owner keeps his dhaba open till midnight for us – and then goes to the kitchen to personally make some shakhar parathas. His phirni is simply to die for, as is everything else – right from the chole to the ghee-dripping kulchas – but more than the taste, it’s the overflowing dildaar spirit that remains etched in memory long after.

This dildaar spirit unfortunately is sorely lacking in several of the fine dining or so-called luxury spaces in our bigger metros. I have a list of grouses, but let me give you just one example. Amethyst in Chennai, which I used to love in its old avatar, sorely disappointed me when I revisited, on a brief business trip to the city. The décor was still pretty, but the service and attitude have made me promise to never go back.

Here’s what happened. First, they didn’t bring any water to my table. After I asked twice, the waiter said, “We only serve Himalayan.” I smiled and said I’d like regular water please – either Aquaguard, or any other usual filtered water. The waiter sneered and repeated that they only served bottled water. I was surprised and reminded him of the Supreme Court ruling which states that every restaurant is duty bound to serve clean and free drinking water to its patrons. He retorted by saying that this wasn’t applicable in this restaurant. I then asked him what he and the other waiters drank. He sneered again and replied, “Himalayan.”

By now, some other waiters had gathered and they seemed to find my outrage funny. Their behaviour and attitude seemed to indicate that if I didn’t want to pay for bottled water, I really shouldn’t be at that kind of a restaurant. Of course, I left after writing a complaint in their complaint book, with a very bad taste in my mouth. (My complaint received no response, which is not surprising).

What irks me is that this actually seems to be a disturbing trend at restaurants all over the country. If I am willingly paying a few thousand rupees for a meal at a restaurant, of course I can afford to pay for bottled water. But this bottled water should be a choice, not a compulsion. Most Udipi places, that charge way less for a meal, happily give you a free glass of water, so it really isn’t that big a bother, is it? And what about the famed Indian tradition of Atithi Devo Bhava?

I’m venting all this with the gorgeous Harathi Reddy-Rebello as we wolf down the divine mezze tasting platter at masterchef Abhijit Saha’s Fava restaurant in Bengaluru’s UB City. Here, they bring us free table water, much to my satisfaction, and Harathi’s amusement. I have just realised that unless I vent about something a couple of times, it just doesn’t go away from my mind. Harathi concurs, but then she’s a Bengaluru girl and Bengaluru is full of such nice people. It’s fun to listen to stories of her jet setting life where she’s managing home and business in two cities – and travelling incessantly all over the world, and I love the UB City plaza, which is very Singapore-meets-European plaza on a summer day. Slightly fake and OTT, but still quite lovely.

The travel stories continue in my conversations with Sanchita Ajjampur – another Bengaluru belle. (Bengaluru has such smart beauties. If only I was inclined that way!) This time we are in Sanchita’s villa on the airport road, that’s decorated with ancient crucifixes, wonderful photographs and chic overstuffed couches. Over a simple homemade salad, Chilean wine and pasta with pesto, Sanchita shows me her labour of love, the book Fable, printed with exquisite embroidered fabric and with images of her children. You read one of Sanchita’s fables in last month’s Verve’s anniversary issue, but holding the actual book in one’s hand is something else. Sanchita’s men’s fashion show some weeks later in Delhi is pretty cool, and I’m glad we have another good menswear designer to buy from now. I wonder how she manages to do so much, including a parallel life in Milan, but she simply shrugs her shoulders.

This is what I like about Bengaluru so much. It’s full of overworked high-achievers, but the city as well as its people, have a gentle ease about it. When I bump into Arundhati Nag at Koshy’s and gush about how much I love her theatre space Rangasharda, she saunters over from the next table to mine, to tell me about her future plans for the theatre scene in the city.

Roy Sinai, another old friend, has transformed himself in Bengaluru, from global CEO to edgy city art photographer. Over bacon and eggs at Koshy’s again, we talk about his work, and what he’s trying to create with the photography scene in the city with Yolk, Sam Mohan’s studio collective that he’s a part of. Professionally, Yolk functions as a production house, photo studio and artist representation agency. Alongside, they’re using their space to host workshops from carpentry to cooking, for photography talks and as an adda for visual artists of all kinds to just hang out.

Bengaluru is so ripe for a young art scene, especially one skewed towards photography or video. It has a bunch of edgy artists. It has interesting spaces like Yolk. It has a new class of working professionals who are potential buyers. People who work in the IT industry at mid management levels may not be able to afford paintings worth lakhs of rupees but can easily acquire a photograph for 30 grand. How to create a scene where potential buyers like these can come together with image creators and have conversations about creativity? This is something that Yolk and others are trying to do, including more established galleries like Abhishek Poddar’s Tasveer.

But let’s not forget the real reason I am in Bengaluru. It is for the Yahoo Innovation Conference. I drive up to the Hotel Lalit to find that CM Yeddyuruppa and his gang are here, wheeling and dealing, milling all over the lobby loudly on the day of his resignation. For a second, when I see the media scrum outside, I do a Rajni shake of head, ŕ la Sivaji and think ‘cool’. Alas, they are there for Yeddy, and ignore my fabulously co-ordinated Moschino-Mark Ecko geek chic look that I’d spent an hour preparing. So I glare at them through my sunglasses and mutter another Rajni dialogue from Sivaji – “Gimme a break” – while swishing by.

On stage, Mukesh Bansal of Myntra and Sachin Bansal of Flipkart, as well as a whole lot of other techies, say nothing new. They want an insurance industry to evolve around e-commerce. They dismiss offline players – like Landmark and Future Group trying to go online. The big question about what will happen to them once Amazon enters is left unanswered. “Can you talk little more about penetration?” someone in the audience asks with a straight face. I look around but am the only one giggling.

Time to fly back to Mumbai then, straight into the GoJiyo virtual worlds summit, where speakers like Graham Brown (Mobile Youth) and Peter Kim (Dachis Group) are more fun than the Yahoo bunch. This summit brings together different stakeholders around the virtual world space – global designers, youth experts, online experts and gaming experts – brainstorm about the future of virtual worlds. I’m not a virtual world user (My first life is hard enough, I simply cannot deal with a Second Life) but I greatly enjoy listening to Ashish Patil of Yash Raj Films talk about Indian youth. The ribald lyrics of the Bodhi Tree song GMD that he plays for us, put DK Bose to shame. It is my recommendation for this month. Google it.

Ashish is eminently qualified as a youth expert, having been with MTV for over a decade and now producing youth films for YRF. Still, I get a little queasy when he defines Indian youth through the lens of ‘selfish’ and ‘metopia’ and their preferred entertainment as making fun of other people. Or maybe I’m just in denial. Ashish also feels that today’s young Indians are a lot more casual about their nationalism. Kolhapuri slippers and denims. Lassi in a can. National anthem with electronic guitars. T shirts saying ‘I love Kolkata’ instead of ‘I love New York’. This I agree with, and we see different variations of this casual (and not so casual) nationalism on display in the Anna Hazare spectacle some days later, but how can I attend the rallies with my protesting buddies? I’m too busy attending my conferences and talks....

Such as the sparkling discussion between artists Jitish Kallat, Gieve Patel and writer Ranjit Hoskote, that marked the release of the MF Husain anthology of essays –Barefoot Across the Nation. Or another book release organised by Padmini Mirchandani for Rahul Mehrotra, Mumbai starchitect, chair of the Harvard urban studies and design department, and author of Architecture in India Since 1990.

I love Rahul’s four-fold classification of India’s post-liberalisation architecture – global practice, regional manifestation, alternate practice, and counter-modernism. He projects vivid images from his book on to the screen – from homes like Antilla to the Swaminarayan Temple. He speaks of his problem with what he calls impatient capital, or globalisation money that necessitates the building of copy-paste glassy skyscrapers. He is scathing in his criticism of the systems in which Indian architects get trained and the non-interest of civil society in creating a meaningful environment.

I also brave sheets of pouring rain to listen to my third standard classmate Ulysses Sengupta present on complex systems using terms like ‘cellular automa’ at Studio X, Columbia University’s spacious new experimental design and urban planning hangout in Mumbai. Ulysses has created special software that can enable his team of researchers to simulate growth patterns in cities like Mumbai based on extensive research of a range of factors (including population, railway stations….). The larger context of his talk was how to design for unplanned cities. How does one do research? How does one plug in unpredictability? How does one simulate for a city like Mumbai? I find Ulysses’ and Rahul’s talks resonating with each other. Both architects talk about possibilities and working with what we have, instead of idealising some notional past, or merely lamenting the present problems.

Of course, whatever we do, we can never match the Japanese in terms of city planning – in ideas as well as execution. At the Observer Research Foundation’s India-Japan Rediscovery conference, I listen in awe as Keisuke Sasaki from the Japanese government speaks about how efficiently post-earthquake and tsunami Japan was rebuilt. It is surprising to see roads that were split into two, being repaired in a matter of days. (It makes the pot-hole infested drive back home ironic.)

Sasaki-san presents an interesting thesis – that post-earthquake-tsunami, Japan can use its creative industries to spark off economic growth, which can be environmentally sustainable as well. He wonders how Japan might become more attractive to India and vice versa. I don’t think such collaborations can be forced. The best of them happen spontaneously. Take the case of jewellery designer Kazuo Ogawa for instance. A chance visit to the Ajanta-Ellora caves as a tourist to India in 1978 inspired him to become a jewellery designer and over the years, he created a lot of pioneering Indo-Japanese fusion jewellery, including work for Ganjam.

His recent and unexpected death left the jewellery industry in both India and Japan shocked. I witness the emotional finale at the India International Jewellery Week where models in gowns by Yumi Kutsura display Kazuo’s most spectacular creations. Reflecting on his show and his life with Atul Parekh, Kazuo’s Indian collaborator for so many years, I am reminded of the comment that someone at the Observer conference made – that the commonality between India and Japan is that both cultures have feelings that cannot be put into words.

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