A Goan Waltz around Postcolonial Dogmas

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Some days ago I found myself invited to a ball in Lisbon hosted by the Austrian embassy in Portugal. Revived after more than a decade, the current initiative was conceived of a way to generate funds for deserving causes. In this inaugural year, funds were raised in support of A Orquestra Geração, which is the Portuguese application of the El Sistema method created in Venezuela. Another objective was to introduce Portuguese society to aspects of Austrian, and in particular Viennese, culture.

It was because the event was billed as a Viennese ball that I have to confess being somewhat concerned about the protocol at the event. For example, would there be dance cards? It was when I actually got immersed into the ball, however, that I realized that I was not in foreign territory at all. The ball followed a pattern not merely of contemporary wedding receptions and dances in Goa, but also approximated quite well the manners that had been drilled into me as a young boy, when first introduced by my parents to ballroom dancing. One requested a lady – any lady – to dance, accompanied her on to the floor, and at the end of the dance, one thanked her, applauded the orchestra or band, and returned one’s companion to her seat. In other words, there was, structurally, not much at this ball that I, as a Goan male, had not already been exposed to.

This encounter made me realize once again, the validity of the argument that my colleagues at the Al-Zulaij Collective and I have been making for a while now; that Goans, or at least those familiar with the Goan Catholic milieu, are in fact also European. Given the fact that Goans participate in European culture, and have been doing so for some centuries now, denying this European-ness would imply falling prey to racialised thinking that assumes that only white persons born in the continent of Europe, are European.

two goans reworked

To make this argument is not the result of a desperate desire to be seen as European, but to assert a fact. One also needs to make this assertion if one is to move out of the racialised imaginations that we have inherited since at least the eighteenth century. It is necessary to indicate that European-ness is not a culture limited to a definite group, but like other cultures, is a model of behavior, in which one can choose to participate in. And one chooses to participate in this cultural model because the fact is that, whether we like it or not, this is the dominant cultural model in the world. The choice then is not determined by a belief in the model’s inherent superiority, it is simply a matter of pragmatic politics.

Some days before the ball, I intimated a continental Portuguese friend about this upcoming event, and the fact that I was on the lookout for a place I could rent a tailcoat from. She sneered. The suggestion in the sneer was, why do you have to become someone you are not. One should remain true to one’s culture, and not try to engage in the culture of others, or in other words, not engage in social climbing. The response was upsetting, but not particularly out of the ordinary. This is, in fact, a standard response, one that derives directly from our racialised imaginations. There is this misplaced idea that when we participate in one cultural model, say the European, one is abandoning other cultural models, and, more importantly, that non-whites would always be on the back foot when faced with European culture. A look at the cultural practices of Goan Catholics, however, will demonstrate the ridiculousness of the proposition.

Goan Catholics have not only taken up Western European cultural forms, but in fact excelled at them. In doing so, they have not abandoned other cultural models, particularly the local, but in fact rearticulated both these models at the same time. One has to merely listen to the older Cantaram (Concani language music) regularly played by the All India Radio station in Goa, to realize the truth of this assertion. Take the delightful song “Piti Piti Mog”, crafted by the genius Chris Perry and Ophelia, for example. Set to a waltz, the song talks of the desires and sexuality of a Goan woman. The emotions are honest to her social location. There is no betrayal of the local here, even as Perry articulates it within an international idiom. Indeed, one wonders if there is much of a difference between this song, and the soprano aria “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß”. From the opera Giuditta, and featured at the Viennese Ball, this aria also sings of the sexuality of a young woman in her prime.

There are some who would argue that what has been described above is not participation in a cultural model, but in fact mere mimicry, or at best syncretism or hybridity. To put it bluntly, Goans are mere copycats, there is nothing original in what they do. Indeed, a good portion of the post-colonial academy would describe the examples I proffer as syncretism or mimicry. To such critics my question is this, were the young Portuguese women and men, making their social debut in the ball, not also participating in an etiquette that is not quite Portuguese? The waltz itself, that great institution of the Viennese balls, originated in Central Europe. Does their participation pertain to the category of mimicry, and syncretism, or is it somehow an authentic performance? To suggest that it is, would be to fall right into the racist paradigm where things European appropriately belong to whites, and the rest are merely engaging in impotent mimicry. The anti-racialist argument would recognize that all of these groups, whether continental Portuguese, or Goans (indeed also Portuguese by right), are participating equally in a common cultural model, each of them giving a peculiar twist to the model in their performance, all of them authentic.

Another challenge to my argument would perhaps emerge from Indian nationalists. If no one culture is authentic, and one merely choses to participate in random cultural models, why privilege the European? Why not join in the Indian cultural model? In the words of a passionate young man from the Goan village of Cuncolim I once interacted with, why not prefer your own people over foreigners? At that interaction I pointed out that crafting the choice in terms of Us Indians, versus Them Europeans, and stressing a biological or genetic proximity was falling back into the very racist equation we should be trying to be exit.

To begin with, this construction of the Indians, versus Portuguese works only because like most Indian nationalists he privileges the terrestrial contiguity of Goa to the subcontinent. The art critic Ranjit Hoskote phrased a succinct response to this claim in the curatorial essay for the exhibition Aparanta (2007) when he argued “Geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning”. In highlighting Goa’s Lusitanian links, Hoskote rightly pointed out that the seas were not a barrier to conversation but a link, and maritime connections are no less powerful than the terrestrial. Indeed, while connected to Europe, Goa has been an equal part of the Indian Ocean world, often sharing as much, if not more, with the East coast of Africa than with the Gangetic plains; that privileged location of Indian-ness. Terrestrial contiguity apart, this nationalist argument also succeeds because it willfully ignores a legal history, of Goans being Portuguese citizens, and hence European, in favour of a biased construction of cultural history. The most important support to nationalism, of course, comes from the racism inherent in the post-colonial order which is built on recognizing cultural difference managed by nationalist elites rather than stressing continuing connections. Indeed, as I go on to elaborate below, to some extent everybody participates in the European model in today’s world – in clothes and speech and education and science, and so forth. But the control of nationalist elites over the national space, and the international post-colonial order itself, would be threatened by such recognition. It is therefore necessary that while quotidian affairs run along European lines, the extraordinary is sanctified by the irruption of the national. Thus, while Indians wear pants and shirts every day, they believe that special days call for traditional garb, like kurtas. The Goan bucks this trend by privileging special moments with a lounge suit. In other words, Goan culture celebrates what is overtly European, which is what the Indians don’t like as its wrecks the nationalist posturing of not participating in European culture.

To those who would simply ask, why not exert a choice in favour of the Indian, the answer is two-fold. The first, is that there are many Goans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who are in fact choosing the Indian model. They do so because they see that this is where local power lies. Behaving like Indians, they believe that they can make their way better in the Indian world. Others, however, recognize the limitations of the Indian model. It can take you only so far. Upwardly mobile Indians themselves recognize that they have to perform by different rules when they emigrate. Worse, the captains of industry will tell you that they have to perform by European rules whenever they meet with their compatriots from other parts of the world. As indicated before, where the European cultural model dominates the world, it is merely pragmatic politics to follow that model. Finally, it is precisely the lack of social mobility that makes many wisely avoid the Indian cultural model. The very attraction of the European model is that practically any person can learn to perform in it and be accepted as authentic. Indian models are so limited to Hinduism and caste that one cannot hope to make this parochial model work as a tool of social mobility. Indeed, one could ask whether there in an Indian cultural model at all, and if it is not just a savarna/brahmanical model?

This lack of social mobility is best illustrated by an example from Goa, where the Saraswats are a dominant caste. Speaking with a Saraswat gentleman at a Nagari Konkani event, he indicated to me how pleased he was with the response to the elocution competitions organized by the Nagari Konkani groups. Many a times the winners were Catholic girls. “But their accent is so good”, he shared with me, “one cannot even tell that they are Catholics!” Where Nagari Konkani is largely based on the speech of the Saraswat caste, one is forever trapped into behaving like a Saraswat, and distancing oneself from one’s natal behaviours. One can never be Saraswat unless one is born into the caste. A good part of the Indian model is similarly pegged according to the behavior of the dominant castes of various regions. This model has been created not necessarily to enable a democratic project, but to ensure their continued dominance within post-colonial India. As such, they will put a person in their place when a person from a non-dominant caste performs effectively. The adoption of the European model, however, is not restricted to birth precisely because it has been adopted so universally. The adoption and occupation of this model by diverse groups has thus ensured that its very form now allows for local variation. Indeed, it needs to be pointed out that the model is very dynamic. Let us not forget that at one point of time one was expected to speak Queen’s English on the BBC, but the same platform, at least in its local transmission, has now made space for a variety of accents.

The policing of cultural boundaries is one of the silent ways through which racism continues to flourish. It is in partly in the breaching of cultural boundaries that racism can be broken. Further, it is in operating within the idiom of power, and then filling the forms of power with differing contents, that negotiation with power operates and one moves from the margins of power towards the centre. In this project, Goans are past masters. Viva Goa!

(First published in Raiot on 26 April 2016)

No Bamboo Banawing!

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Guadua Bamboo Timarai Beach Resort in Costa Rica by Ing. Alejandro Restrepo. *You may use our pictures on blogs or websites, provided that you credit us with an anchor link to: Guadua Bamboo

On a recent visit to the Konkan Bamboo and Cane Development Centre (KONBAC) at Kudal, I came to know that there has been a drastic change in strategy to promote bamboo as construction material. Rather than endorsing bamboo as an affordable material for the poor, especially to build cost-effective houses, it is now being popularised as a material that satisfies the upwardly mobile elites’ fad of sustainability. Although the desire to replace unsustainable materials is laudable, the question is whether these projects, using bamboo, are truly as sustainable as they claim to be? Moreover, there also arises an issue of appropriation of material culture, especially of the poor in tribal areas by the dominant elites.

One of the strongest criticisms of the appropriation of the architecture of the poor has been made by the sociologist Anthony King, who writes that the rich often appropriate the architecture of farmer’s cottages (farmhouses) for their vacation homes (which are usually their second or third home). These elites, King observes, only absorb the aesthetics of a farmer’s house and not their lifestyle. The problem of the cultural appropriation of marginalized cultures without assimilation of the marginalized population seems to be prevalent everywhere. Raising the issues of cultural appropriation of hairstyles is a recent video titled Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows by Amandla Stenberg. There are many similarities between hairstyle and architecture. Both are about identity, and clearly about style. In so many ways, hairstyles are, in fact, a form of architecture. Stenberg’s major criticism is that white Americans love black culture more than they love the black people.The video demonstrates how hip-hop and pop have been appropriated from African American culture especially in terms of hairdos such as pleats, cornrows and so forth, while continuing with the racist hatred towards black people. These hairdos, as Stenberg notes, are ways in which black hair is kept from knotting. Stenberg laments that while these hairdos are stereotypical of the community, when white Americans adopts them, they turn into high fashion. This is a similar way in which vernacular architecture gets appropriated when architect claim them as ‘contemporary-vernacular style’. While the rich appropriate the poor farmer’s cottages to model their vacation-homes, these houses are always fitted with appliances and systems (air-conditioning etc.) needed for the comfort of upmarket modern living, which the vacationers cannot do without. Additionally there is also a failure to acknowledge the role of vernacular people, the ones who have championed the use of sustainable materials and forms in the first place.

In his book, The System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard argues that a suburbanite who aspires to move up into a higher class usually does so by buying antiques – symbols of old social position brought with new money. Essentially, he argues that the upwardly mobile class signal their social standing through material signs such as antique furniture, works of art, and so forth. Today, it is materials like bamboo that are being pressed into the service of consumption, because they give the image of sustainability. Using bamboo is fast becoming fashionable as appearing sustainable can symbolize that one has truly arrived in the elite world. Bauldrillard further discusses that every object has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed. While a plastic chair in a living room can be put to use, it never seem to be dearly possessed, whereas the antique voltaire, may at times not even be used but is dearly possessed as an object. The argument for the bamboo is similar. The rich use it in an attempt to possess it as an object rather than utilising it functionally. It seems that the dominant cultures intermittently stoop to peripheral ones in order to appropriate from them, without the guilt of further marginalizing them. The violence is doubled as the poor are made to believe that there is legitimacy in the marginalized culture only when there is a sanction of it by the dominant ones.

The use of bamboo as ‘sustainable’ material in the construction of elite houses is also problematic because of the cost and distance of procuring it, as it is usually not locally available. Holistic sustainability has to factor in the ecological implication of transporting materials, plus the carbon footprint of the air-travel that the ‘designer’ architect would spend on travelling to the site. Moreover, even if sustainable material is used for the building of a second or third home, then the very idea of sustainability is defeated because sustainability has to be about satisfying only the primary needs of living and not about luxury.

It is not that architects and clients should completely ignore bamboo as a sustainable building material. In fact, organization like KONBAC have resorted to the marketing of bamboo to elites because there is no culture of building in bamboo in our society. Today, bamboo should not be a material of choice but that of convenience and compulsion. What is then required is a system of making bamboo easily available by creating a network of bamboo farmers, as KONBAC claims to have done. It is also important that the government create bamboo forests in close proximity to urban areas so that its transport from the source to the site is sustainable. Building in bamboo should not be about style but that of real ecological and social responsibility.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 24 April, 2016)

Conflicts, Ideals, and Idols

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shri2bnavdurgadevi2bmadkaiThe conflict in the temple of Navadurga in Marcaim has begun to attract some amount of attention. A superficial understanding suggests that the conflict revolves around the question of the future of the deity currently worshipped in the temple. It appears that the mahajans of the temple wish to replace the deity because it has developed cracks. They argue that this is standard ritual practice and it is hence not an unusual decision. The villagers of Marcaim, however, will have none of it. They argue that they are attached to the idol, that She has been worshipped for generations in the temple, and they do not wish to see the idol replaced.

There are a number of other issues as well, especially that of who owns the temples, but this is not a question that I would like to go into in this piece. Rather, I would like to reflect on the implications of the arguments involving ritual propriety that the mahajans have put forward.

Those familiar with the ritual prescriptions in the dharmasastras will agree that when they make their argument the mahajans of the temple are on firm ground. According to brahmanical ritual, an idol is representative of a deity only when it has the prescribed iconography, and after the ritual ceremony of the pranaprathistha, or life infusing. Once resident within the image, great care is normally to be taken of the image, such that it may come to no harm. Further, this image is not moved, for this too is believed to displace the spirit of the deity. The moment harm comes to the idol, it is incumbent that the idol be disposed of, normally through immersion in a body of water, a new idol prepared, and the pranaprathistha carried out once again. This is orthodox brahmanical practice and if one follows the letter of these laws, the demands of the villagers of Marcaim are on very unshaky ground.

Indeed, it is this practice that has ensured that all across the subcontinent one frequently comes across images that seem to have been desecrated and immersed in wells, or sometimes buried. These discoveries are often credited to the acts of violence of Indian nationalism’s standard scape-goat, the Muslim ‘invaders’. Fearing desecration by the Muslims, the story goes, the priests hid the idols so that they may not come to harm. Taking the mahajan’s argument about temple ritual seriously results in a new understanding; that these deities probably reached these resting places thanks to the dictats of regular brahmanical ritual, not because of alleged Muslim violence. A recognition of this practice would go to buttress the arguments made by scholars such as Richard Eaton, that the desecration of temples and idols by the Turko-Afghan warriors in the medieval period has been grossly over-estimated. When temples were destroyed, he argues, this was done largely because the deity in the temple had a political significance. This is to say that the deity represented a ruling dynasty.

Taking the argument of the mahajans seriously also leads to the undoing of a much cherished historical myth in Goa. If one cannot in fact worship an idol that has been desecrated, or damaged, how is it that idols from temples destroyed by the Portuguese in the 1500s were transported to their current locations in todays New Conquests? If we take this argument seriously, then it must be that the idols from the Old Conquest villages were not in fact rescued, nor moved to new locations. It follows that the deities currently worshipped in the New Conquests are not in fact from the Old Conquest, but were already present in the villages. In fact, this is what a small segment of bahujans claim. They allege that the deities now claimed as family deities of certain caste groups were always present in their current locales and that the temples were actually usurped by ancestors of the current day mahajans, and given an invented history. That histories were invented is not improbable. As I have demonstrated in the case of the temple of Damodar in Zambaulim, a rigorous examination of the origin myths of these temples reveal many inconsistencies.

There is another option, however. One can assume that the shastric regulations were not taken seriously in the sixteenth century, and despite being damaged, were rescued and lovingly reinstated in new locations. Making this argument would save the currently popular history of the migration of the deities from their homes in the Old Conquests. However, if this hypothesis is taken as fact, then it works to undermine the argument that the mahajans of the Navadurga temple are forwarding today: that a damaged idol must be demolished, and that affection for an idol is irrelevant in the matter since these rules are time-honoured aspects of the dharmasastras. This would result in a win for the villagers of Marcaim.

As it turns out, therefore, upholding the shastric argument ensures that the mahajans’ argument in the Navadurga temple case is on a much stronger ground. But the implications of this argument is that it displaces many of the cherished beliefs of Goan history, including the fact that the temples in the New Conquests are family deities displaced from the Old Conquests, and therefore the very claim of the mahajans to hold that title.

To quote Alice, as she lost her way in Wonderland, it gets “Curiouser and curiouser!”

(First published in the O Heraldo on 1 April 2016)

Divining Reasons for the state of traffic

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Last Christmas season my family and I fled tourist-invaded Goa for some peace and quiet. Little did we realize, despite friendly advice, that our destination, Sri Lanka, was also one of those holiday favourites that gets flooded at Christmas time. Along the five days that we were on the island, in addition to experiencing the incredible beauty of the country, we were also forced to spend much of our time in traffic jams, whether in the capital city Colombo, in Kandy, home of the famous Temple of the Tooth, or on the roads between these two cities.

I had been to the island-state some years prior to this family holiday, and I am sure that the country I witnessed was entirely different in terms of the amount of traffic that one experienced. If anything, my journeys then were experiences of smooth flows from one destination to another. It appears that the end of the decades-long civil war may have released extra income into the economy creating the kind of spurt in traffic that one witnessed on my last trip.

Yet, despite the fact that we spent a good amount of time in traffic jams our experience of traffic in Sri Lanka was not the same as that in India, and/or Goa. A traffic jam in India is an occasion for tons of honking and attempts by individuals to cut through the traffic jam by getting onto the opposite lane and charging to the head of the line. Others follow the lead of the first offender which ensures that within a matter of minutes the jam has been complicated beyond imagining and that instead of two lanes, one has multiple lanes, tempers rise and what could have been resolved within a shorter time takes forever to be repaired.

In the course of the short stay in Sri Lanka my experiences of traffic jams were anything but similar. To begin with traffic jams were the result not of indiscipline, but because of the usual reason for the phenomena, too much traffic on small lanes. Rather than cut across lanes and try to short circuit the system people waited patiently for the traffic to move. It took us a couple of minutes to realize that our experience of the first jam in Sri Lanka was different from what we encountered in India. There was no honking! So strange was the situation that we could just not contain ourselves, and kept repeating this fact, over and over again, to ourselves, and then when we returned home to every one we met.

How can this difference between the road experience in India and Sri Lanka be explained? While in Sri Lanka I did notice that there were clear signs, at least in Colombo, indicating that lane discipline had to be maintained at all time, and the presence of traffic police at regular intervals. Speaking with the driver of the cab we employed we got the sense that the police are invariably on hand to take any offender to task. Responding to our queries he also suggested that it was unlikely that the police would accept bribes from offenders.

In the course of our journey, as we grew close to our driver, he shared much with us about his country. What I would like to focus on, as I try and resolve this question of the traffic discipline in Sri Lanka, is his narratives about the State. He spoke about the health care system that offered free, reliable and dependable service to all Sri Lankans. Trying to build a pattern from all that I had heard from him, I realized that in Sri Lanka the people were assured of an ever present state that was reliable, and dependable. I doubt that the same could be said about India.

In India, one knows that one cannot rely on the state to maintain the law. The infrastructure of the state is invariably seen as tools to enrich those who gain access to public office. The enforcement of the law is not uniform. Any one in Goa will acknowledge that if one has connections to the officer’s superiors one can get away not only without a fine, but after having insulted the traffic officer. In other words, in India one knows that the state will not look after you, nor will it work to create a level playing ground. You have to look out for yourself in a dog eat dog world. In other words, it is not rules that help you get ahead in India, but the violation of rules, and muscling in on a scene gives you more than waiting patiently in line. The absence of a traffic etiquette in India is therefore the result of a failed state.

In sum, it seems that if there is a difference between traffic behavior in Sri Lanka and India, the reason can be pinned down to the fact that at least at the level of the average citizen, the Sri Lankan state is seen to be a neutral arbiter of rules that are taken seriously, while in India, one knows that the state has abandoned its role and made way for the so-called laws of the jungle to take root.

(First published in The Goan, on 10 April 2016)

When Transgenders Organise

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An organisation, possibly the first, of transgenders, was recently established in Goa. If one carefully listened to the voices of the persons from the community, the issues were typical – difficult to get a house on rent, difficult to access hospitals and clinics, a dehumanizing gaze, harassment from the police, lack of decent job opportunities. “When we go to a hospital, which ward do we get admitted to – female ward? male ward?”, was a poignant question asked.


Often, many of us have ridiculed transgenders, simply because we failed in recognising the humanity of transgendered persons. If you have travelled by train, transgendered persons are a familiar sight, seeking alms and heaping blessings if you oblige and cursing you if you don’t. Can you blame transgenders for this conduct, when it is one of the scarce avenues of acceptance, legitimised in Hindu religious texts? It is that quaint kind of recognition that cuts both ways, where recognition comes with the price of outcasting and minoritisation.


The other avenue is the tradition of transgenders being invited for blessing the wedding couple and the new-borns. There is a conditioning that if one does not give the transgenders enough bakshish, they will curse you. So for the fear of their wrath they are given some token money. The hankering for higher amount of bakshish is considered part of wedding ceremonies. Such token integration does act like a relief where at all other places they are othered. But even this token integration in society is problematic because the weddings and birth ceremonies are the very events that transgenders cannot otherwise participate in.


Then again, other workplaces do not offer jobs to transgenders because of misconceptions about their capacities, as they do not fit into the binaries of male and female. It is convenient to maintain a dominant workplace aesthetic that simply sweeps what it dislikes under the carpet. Transgenders indeed do not fit into those binaries. Why should they? Why should the world revolve around binaries?


By now, the Supreme Court has recognised in a judgement pronounced by it in a case filed before it by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) – that transgenders have a different gender identity than male and female, and must enjoy all legal and constitutional protection. Further, the Apex Court has also left it open to transgender persons to identify themselves as male or female, as per their sense of association, if they so choose. The Supreme Court has in fact called out society’s morally failure by its unwillingness to contain or embrace different gender identities and expressions.


The Supreme Court has directed that the Centre and the State Governments should take steps to make transgenders feel a part of society and to treat transgenders as socially and educationally backward classes of citizens and extend all kinds of reservation for admission in educational institutions and for public appointments, besides framing social welfare schemes for their betterment. The Governments are directed to take proper measures to provide medical care for transgenders in hospitals and also to provide them separate public toilets and other facilities.


Needless to say, like men and women, transgenders also have various other identities that determine the course of their lives. This means that transgenders from depressed castes, or economic backgrounds face double victimisation because of these other axis of marginalisation, and transgenders from privileged sections of society face an intersection of privilege and disadvantage.


Hence, building alliances with struggles for housing rights, struggles for appropriate and sensitive health care, becomes critical as a way of expressing disapproval over the core politics of discrimination, exclusion and inequality for exploitation and oppression that informs the State’s and society’s attitudes.


For, if housing per se becomes difficult and inaccessible, because of large areas, often forcibly acquired and exclusively appropriated for gated communities, a battle for housing rights of transgenders will have no meaning, when the very retention in Goa of basic housing, is made difficult. This holds true for working people’s struggles as well. If workers’ rights and the mechanisms to access these rights do not stay strong, then this further undermines and disempowers workers who bear an additional identity on the margins, such as transgenders.


If the fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (c) of the Constitution of India of forming cooperatives, is denied to any section of the population, as has presently been the case with tribals at Caurem seeking to form a mining cooperative, that is a situation that bodes ill for all marginalised sections including transgenders, who can also be beaten with the same stick.


This also works conversely, calling for various other socio-political movements to build alliances. If a transgender is subjected to police harassment or torture in custody, and the same is justified with a perspective that the transgenders deserve it, then that opens the pandora’s box for police harassment and torture in custody, to be justified in certain circumstances. If a transgender is subjected to discrimination and harassment at the workplace, and the same is ignored, this is the slippery slope down which discrimination begins to entrench itself and gets justified in all spheres.


It is time that the State is held accountable for taking the lead in doing away with binaries in true spirit – both by adding another column of ‘other’ in the gender column and by having proactive policies which embody the spirit of inclusion and non-discrimination.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 April, 2016)

Zaha Hadid and our Starchitect Culture

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The death last week of Zaha Hadid saw expressions of grief from both the architectural world and the general global media. Because Hadid was not merely a highly successful architect but a ‘starchitect’, one of the tiny group of the world’s most sought-after architects who are also global media celebrities in their own right. Along with others like Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, and Norman Foster, the Iraqi-born and London-educated Hadid was an international brand, whose prestigious projects, with their trademark gravity-defying forms, included a cultural centre in Baku, museums in Milan and Glasgow, an opera house in Guangzhou, and the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics. A winner of the top international awards for architecture, like the Pritzker in 2004, the 2016 RIBA gold medal, and the Stirling prize (twice), she was also celebrated for being the first woman, the first Muslim, and the first person of colour in this largely white man’s club.


One could question the last though, about whether Hadid’s success really made any difference to most other women or Muslims or coloured people. It’s like Nooyi becoming the president of Pepsi, touted in the Indian media as a victory for Indian women. But what difference does it really make if elite women, be it a Nooyi or an Indira Gandhi, reach the top? Not much; India at least still remains a terrible place for most women, especially Dalits and tribals, aspire though they might to change their lives. In fact, those who aspire often have to pay a terrible price for their dreams, like Delta Meghwal, the 17-year-old Dalit girl who also died last week. Meghwal wanted to be a teacher but was raped and killed in her own college in Rajasthan last week; the news barely merited coverage by the press.


What I want to dwell on here, however, is the criticism that Hadid faced in the global media, despite being so successful, award-winning, and well-connected. The starchitects have been accused of being exclusively concerned with aesthetics, for working for and thus giving credibility to autocratic governments, and for projects that are over-expensive, insensitive to the social context (people were forcefully evicted for the construction of Hadid’s cultural centre at Baku), and exploitative of labour. As Mary Mcleod (Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Post Modernism to Deconstruction, 1989) put it, ‘That contemporary architecture has become so much about surface, image and play, and that its content has become so ephemeral, so readily transformable and consumable, is partly a product of the neglect of the material dimensions of architecture – programme, production and finance – that more directly invoke questions of power.’


Neglect of issues of production was blatantly visible in the Gulf states, the site of many glittering new starchitect projects amidst reports of abusive labour conditions. Hadid was in the news in 2014 for a report claiming labour deaths in the construction of her new football stadium project for the World Cup 2022 in Qatar. The project was however yet to start construction at the time and she responded with defamation proceedings that won her apologies from the concerned journal. But she was still criticised for her apparent lack of concern for the problem; there had in fact been a great many deaths on other football-related construction sites in Qatar. Hadid instead declared that construction worker deaths were not her problem but that of the government. ‘It’s not my duty as an architect to take care of it’.


Her stance was in sharp contrast to the many Middle Eastern and other artists who had earlier announced  a boycott of the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, where similar labour abuses had been reported.

It might however find some support in this part of the world. India is probably far worse than the Gulf when it comes to construction labour conditions. Laws ensuring minimum wages, weekly offs, safe working conditions, housing, and so on, are rarely if ever followed. Even here in Goa, we rarely see anything close to even the most basic safety precautions being taken on construction sites. Not surprisingly, the number of ‘accidents’ on construction sites are legion, and taken for granted. It’s only the big project disasters which cause embarrassment – like the Canacona building collapse or the recent Calcutta flyover collapse. These may lead to arrests of contractors and officials, but the basic labour conditions remain the same. Architects however rarely complain. Nor does the law see it as an issue that concerns architects.


Similarly, the criticism that Hadid faced for the displacement of people for her Baku project would never be heard here. Settlements of the poor are regularly uprooted in India for projects that will benefit others, sometimes on a huge scale like the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, or otherwise for resorts in Goa. But the architects whose designs come up on these sites are never questioned about the ethics of this system.


Thus, despite the absence of starchitect figures like Hadid, starchitect culture is the norm here. Because that’s precisely how the caste hierarchy of production works. Labourers are invisibilised, by employing them through contractors. The settlements of the poor are illegalised, and so not important. And it’s never the duty of the architect to worry about either.


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 April, 2016)