A red carpet for visiting dignitaries is so passé. India rolled out a red-pink-green-orange-blue-purple-magenta Qutub Minar which led many to wonder, is Incredible India now Blingy Bharat? Judging by the images coming out of the G20 summit, that seems to be the official national aesthetic. In fact, Blingy Bharat has a nice ring to it.
The Qutub Minar was at least not physically harmed by the lights projected on it. Some other old monuments were less lucky, according to the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage (INTACH). INTACH complains calligraphy has been plastered over one while another monument has sprouted a new roof. There were news videos of the visiting leader of Oman looking somewhat bemused as a bevy of folk dancers suddenly burst into hip-shaking jhatkas. The Argentine President encountered a chorus line of young women dancing to a Carnatic remix of Ed Sheeran.
Joe Biden also got treated to Sheeran’s ‘The Shape of You’, while Rishi Sunak got a taste of Bolly-Bihu. It was like IPL cheerleading came to G20 dressed as folk dances of India. Others, too, got into the act to showcase the best diversity the country could offer. A restaurant somewhere in Delhi covered their political bases and advertised a Biden Tandoori Malai Broccoli (₹1,275) and a Trump Half-Tandoori chicken (₹1,375).
The hoopla is not surprising. Whenever Delhi hosts a splashy event — whether it’s the Asiad or Commonwealth Games or G20 — the government of the day adopts a two-pronged approach: Operation Prettification and Operation Vanish.
Rushed paint job
Operation Prettification comes with rush jobs of plaster and paint. Operation Vanish targets street dogs, langurs, slums, everything regarded as embarrassing. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi is on the defensive after videos surfaced of street dogs being trapped inhumanely and not being tagged so they can be returned to their localities. The NGO People for Animals has threatened a lawsuit.
None of this is unique to Delhi or one regime. Travelling in Arunachal Pradesh last year, I came across huge sheets of blue tarpaulin blocking out the view along the side of a highway that snaked through forested mountains. Behind the blue tarp was a village. Apparently, the Defence Minister had passed by recently and the entire village had been blue-screened out. In Delhi, green plastic sheets blocked out neighbourhoods deemed as eyesores. They came with high-minded quotes from the Prime Minister plastered on them. It was Indira Gandhi’s old ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan being taken a bit too literally.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi posted, “GOI is hiding our poor people and animals. There is no reason to hide India’s reality from our guests.” Of course, the Congress was as happy to do Operation Vanish in its heyday. In the end, we have no dog/ monkey/ slumdweller problem. We have a problem with VVIP foreign guests seeing street dogs/ monkeys/ slumdwellers.
Instead, we would rather razzle-dazzle them with Shiva linga fountains, laser shows and over-the-top public art which is often iffy. Kolkata, for instance, once decided to show off its love for football with a humongous sculpture of two statuesque legs with a football globe on the waist and nothing above it. The latest public art additions to Kolkata are shiny replicas of London’s Big Ben. A parade of mini-Bens now keep Indian Standard Time in the city that that has no direct flights to London any more.
Case of sour grapes?
Of course, art is subjective. One person’s art can be another person’s travesty. The technicolour Qutub Minar no doubt has many fans as does Ed Sheeran-meets-Carnatic. Culture exists beyond the elites, it evolves and transmutes, and when the old order complains about it, that can just come across as sour grapes.
One has to move with the times and one could argue that populism is the new elite and everyone needs to get used to it. Bigger, brighter, bolder are the new buzzwords, and who are we to argue if that’s what fits the national mood?
To paraphrase a famous movie title — this might be our moment of ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bling’.
But could someone at least format the heading on the dinner invitation from the President of Bharat? And choose a cleaner font? As Karan Johar’s Rocky aur Rani taught us, even bling must come with a sense of design.
The writer is the author of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’, and likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.