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The Global Local
Published: Volume 19, Issue 5, May, 2011

The Poonam Pandey phenomenon that played out during the World Cup, theories of self-making and world-making – Parmesh Shahani re-lives captivating memories and exchanges...

As I write this, the IPL global juggernaut continues unabated while memories of Dhoni’s World Cup final six still bring smiles to faces all around. What I personally found most captivating was the Poonam Pandey saga that played out alongside the tournament. Poonam, of course, is the model who said that she would strip for the Indian team if they won the cricket World Cup. She subsequently didn’t, but her declaration ensured that she remained the most searched term on the Internet from India and the number one trending topic on Twitter in India throughout the tournament.

I was intrigued by the Poonam Pandey phenomenon on two counts. As a self-created brand, Poonam managed, through sheer ingenuity to capture the nation’s attention during an opportune moment. Think of all the crores that the cup’s commercial sponsors paid to get noticed way less than her. I’m a big fan of Poonam’s chutzpah. She has already been signed up for Fear Factor Khatron Ke Khiladi Season 4. Wherever she goes from here on, she will take her exponentially increasing fan base with her. I see Bollywood item numbers, a full-fledged movie, brand endorsements, and all the trappings of success that come with more permanent fame.

I was also intrigued by Poonam’s story because I located it in a timeline that’s longer than Twitter – a timeline that includes Indian women repeatedly being discriminated against whenever they have shown any sense of agency over their minds, bodies or decisions. In our society of Khap Panchayat honour killings or widows being beaten to death while the entire village watches but doesn’t intervene, a confident, sexy Poonam Pandey is discomforting, just as characters like Chanda and Paro from DevD are discomforting. Rakhi Sawant, Mallika Sherawat and Pooja Bedi are discomforting. These women are sex symbols that take agency in their own hands. I acknowledge that the notion of sexiness they define themselves by still conforms to male ideals, and thus their self-presentation remains within and for the male gaze. Still, the very step of their staking claim to their own representation is important.

What the Poonam Pandey phenomenon did as a sidebar during the World Cup was to tap into the undercurrents and anxieties in India not just around stripping but around globalisation as a whole. In our society, a women’s body is considered property to protect (by men, for men) and the act of stripping is considered the ultimate degradation for the woman and insult for those who were meant to protect her (think of Draupadi in The Mahabharata). The degree of clothing women have on their body is a societal measure of decency or indecency. So the traditionalists’ narrative is that Indian women are decent because they cover their bodies and foreign women are wanton because they expose.

Poonam’s declaration that she would strip was a missile. It’s my body and I can do what I like, she seemed to say, thereby converting the act of stripping into a display of power instead of victimisation. Salman Khan strips for narcissism and Sourav Ganguly does it as a celebration and nobody blinks. But when a Poonam Pandey talks about doing it, there is anxiety because she is a woman, and women aren’t really supposed to do such things, unless they’re forced to, and by men, of course. In which case, it’s a horrible thing to happen to them.

On her Facebook page, Poonam wrote she had her family’s support and was doing this for the country. She also wrote that she was a modern Indian girl. I think that it is this particular framework of modernity that many people find deeply disturbing. Visit her Facebook page to read some of the messages her detractors have posted or go to any of the web articles about her that have a Comments section. You will be shocked, disgusted and perhaps a little scared by the opinions of your fellow countrymen.

I recently participated in two events where similar anxieties around globalisation and values were expressed. In Mumbai, I conducted a panel discussion for the Asia Society on multiculturalism around the world. My co-panelists were Lin Chung Ying, the Consul General of Singapore, and Robin Higham from the University of Ottawa in Canada. I had hoped to have a nuanced conversation about things like soft power and hard power, the challenges for multiculturalism in today’s world including who gets to speak for who within multicultural societies, conflict resolution in these and whether multiculturalism institutionalises segregation or not.

Instead, what I heard from both the speakers, and indeed from the audience members too, were very crude fears about how immigrants might completely change their host countries, how multiculturalism was something that needed to be accomplished as state policy for economic reasons, but once other people come in, they should understand that there are particular ways of being Canadian or Singaporean or Australian or whatever and these were linked to the specific values that each country had. It seemed that globalisation to these folks was a one-way street that spelt assimilation and it had to be policed in a very specific way. It all sounded quite similar to the conservative diatribes about Poonam Pandey that I heard later.

So, I went to Delhi to attend the Counterpoint think-tank’s conference, The Inner Lives of Cultures, in quite a glum mood, even though the attendee list included such exciting people like philosopher Charles Taylor, mythologist Devdut Pattanaik, psychiatrist Sushrut Jadhav, poet George Szirtes and writer and performer Amit Chaudhari. But my spirits lifted when I heard Henrietta Moore, cultural anthropologist from the University of Cambridge talk about?the “differences that make us want to reach out to and embrace them”. Finally, someone was saying things I could relate to!

According to Henrietta, theories of globalisation or theories of cosmopolitanism aren’t of much help in today’s complex world.?In Kenya, she told us about meeting people with the names World Bank, and IMF, and after the civil war in Rwanda, some villages were renamed?Kosovo and Baghdad, even without their having TV or the Internet. How did this happen? To explain, Henrietta introduced the term ‘ethical imagination’. She asked:?how are we all engaged with the challenge of what it is to be historical? To her, it is through the process of self-making and self-stylisation. Not an embrace of possessive individualism. Rather, a fervent attempt to grasp the present, and make something of it.

To illustrate, Henrietta gave us the example about some young fashion designers she met in Indonesia who use corporate logos, album covers of foreign rock bands and other such images to include in their garment designs. There are no consistent affiliations, no consistent allegiances for them. They are always remixing. They are concerned with making something and it needn’t be similar to what they made earlier. The whole point is that the material comes from somewhere else. The difference is important. The character of the embedded cultural form in their designs is that it is a citation of others, not a copy. These designers talk of themselves as entrepreneurs and as global citizens. Fantasy plays a key part in this process of self-making, said Henrietta, and fantasy connections don’t have to be based on explicit meanings, they can also be based on unknowing.

To Henrietta, the ethical imagination is about how we link projects of self- making to projects of others and to the project of world-making. So using this framework, we don’t look at globalisation as something that comes from one place and goes somewhere else. Rather we see it as something that arises simultaneously in different parts of the world. Of course, we are all ‘located’ – the location could be geographical, cultural, imaginative, but it is a location. From here, we project ourselves out into the world and the world projects on us. The different aspects of ethical imagination are scalar – they could be closer to us as something in our homes – or they could be broad concepts like ‘India’ or the ‘the environment’. And people across spaces could be connected through these concepts in today’s world via the Internet and digital technologies, or through the process of imagination itself.

Padma Shri Dashrat Patel, who passed away in December 2010, was an artist and designer who was certainly very vested in the project of self-making and world-making. His work spanned architecture, furniture, painting and photography. He is perhaps most well-known for his path-breaking work in ceramics and for designing the festivals of India that were organised all over the world. Patel founded institutional spaces like NID and the Rural Design Institute, and often collaborated on projects with friends like dancer Chandralekha, photographer Henri Cartier Bresson and architect Louis Kahn.

When I pay a visit to the Dashrat Patel Museum in Alibaug, I really regret not having met Dashratbhai in his lifetime. His friend, the designer and architect Pinakin Patel set up the museum in September 2009 as a tribute to his mentor and Dashrath lived there amidst his works until his death. On weekdays, he would teach the local school children painting or photography. He worked right until his last moments.

I get off my ferry from Mumbai and rush to the museum before it closes for the evening as the museum is only open on weekends. It is an elegant building, white and simple, that looks magical at dusk, with slivers of glass windows at its edges that enable you to look inside-out or outside-in. Viewing Dashrath Patel’s lifetime of work, from the impressionistic paintings of his early years to the later wood and paper collages, from the dhurries to the tea pots, I am reminded yet again that modernity, just like globalisation, can comprise of both the old and new, rural and urban, light and dark, the abstract and the figurative. It is not about exclusion but about inclusion. It is, as Henrietta suggests, about an ethical imagination. If only the Poonam Pandey detractors or my Asia Society co-panelists from the multiculturalism debate could get this.

After visiting the museum, I decide to stay on in Alibaug at the Radisson Hotel for a couple of days, mainly to check out its much-talked-about Mandara Spa. Wise decision, even though some friends tell me that the ‘real’ Alibaug is best experienced from a summer home. What is real, anyway? For a weekend getaway, I much prefer unreal! I fall in love with the sprawling Thai and Balinese style property and until I get my own ‘real’ Alibaug beach house, I foresee visiting the Radisson several times a year. Given that it’s just an hour across the sea from Colaba and it takes way longer to get across Mumbai in traffic most days, I may actually even pop in for just the spa treatments alone.

The Mandara in Alibaug is Asia’s biggest spa at 20,000 feet in size, with 16 individual spa pavilions. So, it feels private even when there’s a full house, which is all the time, since it’s always crowded with harried Mumbaikars. I have a Thai massage, administered with just the right amount of pressure, and feel my city-stress melt away. A perfect prelude to the amazing Konkan coastal meal I eat at the Kokum and Spice Restaurant. The menu is extensive, with dishes from Raigad, Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri, Goa, Karwar and Mangalore. The shooters of soul kadi, buttermilk and aam panna that kick off the meal are a perfect amalgamation of the traditional presented with a contemporary twist, and the playfulness continues throughout, with the all woman staff, the exquisite gold plated tableware, entrees like kale sukhe mutton, and some spectacular ukdiche modaks as dessert.

I feel a similar kind of amalgamation in the two other new spaces that I visit this month – the Le Mill store in Mumbai and the Grey Garden concept restaurant in Delhi. Both are collaborations between friends and both combine Indian and global elements effortlessly. Le Mill is Mumbai’s answer to Milan’s 10 Corso Como or Collette in Paris. Its founders – Cecilia Morelli Parikh, Julie Leymarie, Aurelie de Limlette – wanted to create a space where they could showcase excellently crafted products that were being produced in India, but not sold here. Fortunately for them, Parikh’s in-laws had the space available – a 15,000-square-foot mill that was being used as a warehouse in Wadi Bunder. The much in-demand architect Ashiesh Shah was roped in to transform the rice mill into Le Mill, a stylish destination that would entice the Sobo and Bandra crowd to make the trek to the city’s docks.

I think the concept is working well and I’ve loved my visits so far. It’s such fun to shop in a place which has the luxury of space as well as a very particular design perspective. Ashiesh has split the store among different levels. I adore how he’s placed a shipping container right in the centre of the store, to house fine jewellery and then glitzed up the inside with an ornamental glass ceiling. I love the felt black crows and white flamingoes that are perched all over the store, looking down on me as I shop. I appreciate the rugs and the eclectic bags and accessories and the fact that I can buy Pero baby clothes or Bandit Queen linen from different sections within the store. Like Chennai’s Amethyst, Le Mill has an in-house flower shop and it’s fun. With an organic wi-fi enabled café to boot, I can totally see myself hanging out here, especially on weekends, when I can combine it with some late morning (real) flamingo watching at Sewri.

Delhi’s Grey Garden within the Hauz Khas village has a similar vibe. Celldsgn’s Himanshu Shani along with his friends like BLOT’s Avinash Kumar, thought of creating a space that they would want to hang out in. The result is a tiny six-table restaurant that is a cross between a fashion show set, an art gallery and an antique store. Off-white cotton fabrics drape the ceiling; there are watches, cameras, matchboxes and feathers placed within the glass-topped restaurant tables and an outside seating area that overlooks the historic 13th century Hauz Khas lake.

The Grey Garden’s menu changes every day and it comprises fusion dishes like coconut pesto chicken and difficult-to-find-elsewhere wines. What is more exciting is their 12-seater Friday supper club with guest chefs and even more experimental menus. It almost makes me wish I were living in Delhi full-time.

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