a loud voice from a small city
The thought that is forming for me now is not what I had begun thinking with, not too long back. In a matter of minutes, my mind hopped around and a rather benign idea of “why I am so particular about curation” reached the question of city, space, pace, idea of life and a memory from 2006.
But then, it all makes sense. It will, to you too, dearest reader, for I hope you have the kind and indulgent heart of one who takes upon a journey through the mazes of another’s mind.
When all else is chaotic, chronology helps.
Sometime in 2006, I went to Delhi to seek admission at the undergraduate level. I will save the story of my career adventure for another time. For now, I just want to underline this one incident when sitting next to a girl from Mumbai in a hall of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, I was filling a form. We both got talking and we were rather happily looking forward to a possible three years together, when she suddenly asked me – where are you from? Agra – I said. And I cannot quite forget the shock that came over her. Her voice literally broke as she repeated – oh-h-h a-a-ag-g-r-a he he he. Within the next few minutes she drifted away to another bunch of people. It took me some time to register what just happened.
Until that time, I was only aware of the deep irritation and aversion some of my friends and I had developed towards the city over the years. It was dirty, regressive, old fashioned and with no real opportunities, not for the intelligent, especially English speaking starry eyed youngsters. There was almost nothing that I cared about more than getting out of Agra.
What I did not know was how the outside world perceived the city. We had one of the seven wonders of the world. Whatever may be the case, surely no one should doubt the city was capable of having some smart and intelligent people coming from its long history of culture, art and academic excellence. But I was mistaken and it kept getting reiterated as time and again over the next eleven years people would mention the name of this city with despair, disdain and other similar things, while of course mentioning with emphasis that they weren’t talking about me or everyone from here. For years I had been told that I was too loud and too bold for a woman or for someone with as small a frame as mine. Once out of Agra, I was, however, too loud, too progressive, too crazy and too weird even for the small town (or is it a city?) that I came from.
2016 – I decided to quit my job at IIT Mumbai and move back to Agra. I simply didn’t feel comfortable with the pace of Mumbai, besides the size of average houses and exorbitant prices one paid for sheer existence slogging through one’s days and nights. That was not my idea of life, of space, of existence, of anything. It is not as if I do not like Mumbai. I love it, absolutely. Just that it is not where I would choose to live. In my late twenties by then, I was pretty clear that my choice of city could not depend on the job or a salary package; I had pursued things for long enough. Rather, I wanted to choose the space I want to be in and then figure out all else around it. For reasons that I hadn’t anticipated, what was intended to be a move to Pondicherry ended up being a shift back to Agra- home. It was a bit earlier than I had thought I would come back to Agra, for somewhere within I did know I wasn’t done with this city yet. In anycase, I decided to come back. Isovi was an important part of this decision making and the move back to Agra. How and in what ways, I was yet to discover.
As for 2016, I was happy to be back to less traffic, more ease of pace, bigger houses and significantly lower living costs.
It is only now, in 2021, that the relationship between these preferences and the things I have been trying to do with branding, marketing and entrepreneurship is becoming clear to me. In fact, until sometime back, I had never quite seen the connection between my choices of easier pace of life and conscious fashion.
It is plain blind sight on my part that I could not see this connection earlier. For someone interested in architecture, spatial dynamics and literature, it is at best a lazy application of academic acumen. Having confessed that, I think I will dive right into signs of these relationships that I am able to trace now before they slip from my grasp, for ideas and their articulation can often be a rather elusive affair.
It started with the need to curate; to organise things and information. The overwhelm of the big cities, the malls and the exploding access to consumer items and information drew me to the task of arranging things, sorting, selecting, filtering and making sense of what was before me. There was this constant feeling of clouding in my head every time a barrage of information or objects came gushing before me, in the form of advertisements or in the case of real time interaction with the outside world. My confusion was very obvious as I noticed at repeated instances how I would end up coming back not having bought anything at all when I in fact did go out for something I needed or actually buying in a rush without any sense of clarity. Things were also rather similar and I couldn’t differentiate between the quality of what was available or the source of where the products came from- geographically or historically. This was also the case with information; I saw myself shirking away from the internet and social media platforms because it was simply too much to digest. Initially I thought that it was something wrong with me but in moments when I would be more in touch with myself it was very clear that something was amiss.
This, however, became more evident to me as we started work on the website. I was simply aghast and deeply disturbed by the fast paced, congested and high alert mode of selling and buying. This was exactly what I had chosen to leave behind in the metropolitan cities when I came back to be in Agra. I did not want to be shown a hundred million things of a similar kind and be told that I would miss out on them if I did not buy them soon enough. ‘Fast paced’ became synonymous to being in tune with this new world. It has taken me over four years of engagement with startups and this work to actually see how my resistance to this fast paced way of things, architecture of information and aesthetic choices is not mere technological ineptitude on my part. For quite some time, it was perhaps just easier for me to hide behind excuses of being old fashioned, slow, lazy, etc. But I am actually none of those. I am not technologically challenged nor am I slow. I am certainly not regressive or lazy. And when I acknowledge those things about myself, I am forced to look deeper into my actions and motivations.
And I am now going to state a hypothesis which may border on provocative – the present architecture and aesthetics of the online consumer market are designed to play with the indecision and confusion of the viewer, so as to push her into making thoughtless choices. It is actually a systematic murdering of thought and contemplative ways of being. It is also an appropriation and complete homogenization of diverse sensibilities in a top down approach where the what, how and why’s of working methods and parameters of success are being determined by the same drive which set that high paced and congested lifestyle of metropolitans in the first place. This, coupled with the insidious romanticised glorification of the rural, organic, handcrafted, off the grid lifestyle creates a fabulous recipe of ever confounding and challengingly irreconcilable desires, leaving an aftertaste of guilt and dissatisfaction.
The advent of social media has actually marked a huge possibility of proliferation of extremely diverse voices, tonalities, rhythms and styles. However, very soon it has been overtaken by tendencies that dominate all other forms of expression and existence. Ironically, scapegoating of technology and social media comes easy to all, including its ardent users. It is also important to point out in this same breath that it is not a one way demonic or violent appropriation of the ‘potentially alternate’ by the ‘powerfully dominant’ systems – the aspirational values of those who actually can bring about something different is an overriding factor, a necessary precondition as it were, in their being co-opted- we are willing slaves to trends and formulas of success and recognition. We wish to be seen as fitting seamlessly into the metropolitan lifestyle even at the cost of our own organic pace or textures which might be small town or rural, and very unique and flavourful in themselves.
So where does this leave us? To my mind, it is in the arrangement of information, in the architecture of our design and aesthetic choices that our singular, unique diversity and heterogenous cultural explorations and expressions can find their way. Curation is the opposite of arbitrary aggregation, where in the former one chooses very particular parameters of selection of products or information. It is deliberate, driven by specific thematics, ideas and patterns, often intended to facilitate and further sense making mechanisms and bring attention to every item that is presented. Likewise, the architecture of our websites, very much like that of a store or a house, is key to navigation and experience. It is how we map the terrain we walk upon. Maps are amazing and supremely helpful, but to carry the same map on every route one travels is likely to leave us at dead ends or just very limited findings. Not to mention the things that are excluded from the map altogether. It is not possible to find any satisfaction or sense of awe or wonder if everything is rushed, if our maps and guides are reduced to a checklist alone. Chances are we will keep traveling to newer places, one after the other, in a frenzied search of new experiences and insights. Like we keep scrolling endlessly in search of things, buying one thing after the other without finding any lasting joy. To expect sustainability and consciousness in our lifestyle and choices when we are devoid of feeling satisfied or whole at all times is a rather harsh and unfair expectation of ourselves.
I feel the need to emphasise that I personally do not believe there is anything wrong in a fast paced, template based, map driven lifestyle, traveling or shopping. I do not doubt that some of us work wonderfully well through those. Like there are people who love the metropolitan experience and would give anything to live that life.
What I am trying to make space for, however, is yet another way of doing things, one of the many others possible. To me that way lies in a certain possibility of thought, of wandering, of time and space enough to process and deliberate, in what is perhaps best described in a word often used in my city -tasalli -roughly understood by the native speaker as an ‘ease of being’. It is an arrangement, architecture, design and aesthetics that can embody that very organic and local experience of ‘tasalli’, that I am trying to discover and formulate.
There is an anecdote that comes to mind. As a kid this was a story which we as a family used to laugh about a lot. My mother, when writing her PhD thesis, at some point needed some research material which she could have found only in Calcutta. So my mother and her father, like dutiful academic scholars, went to Calcutta. They stayed for a couple of months with my grandfather’s sister, a first cousin of his. Long story short, on one particular day of their stay they couldn’t get a taxi and they decided to take public transport. Now, the details of it are all lost in my childhood. What I remember is that when the conductor of the bus, or the tram, tried to rush the passengers to step in quickly, my grandaunt, who did not think she could let these people go alone and had tagged along to ensure their safety, shouted out loud (in her native Braj), “arre bhaiya, naik sabar karao, Agrebaare hain” (brother, do have some patience, there are people from Agra).
Neha identifies as a flanuese and a transdisciplinary practitioner. For now she is living in Agra, her birthplace, and spends about one third of her time as a creative collaborator with the Agra based silver jewellery brand ISOVI (https://www.isovi.in). The experiences in the above blog draw upon, though aren’t limited to, her work with the brand over the last four and a half years.