Useful Critique, with the faintest tincture of atrabiliousness.

First World Problems

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Has any creature been pronounced dead more often than the hipster? It’s the coelacanth of the arts and culture world, “a living fossil” that surfaces from deep waters when it’s thought to be extinct for thousands of issue-periods.

Elsewhere in the world, the hipster has notorious, and intensely scorned identifying traits and accessories. Lacking any specific referent, it became an ideal type of the Invidious, a category applied to dismiss neighborhoods, bands, even resistance movements like Occupy Wall Street. It became a traveling type: we read about hipster infestations beyond Brooklyn in Buenos Aires, Beijing, Berlin, Beirut; even in London and Paris. And within every feature we read about hipsters there appeared, like a trompe l’oeil skull, the promise of their extinction. If any middle-aged weekend warrior looking for comedic kicks could become one, the hipster was dead.

In the NCR, however, we were still waiting on the Indian hipster’s evolution. We saw things happening in Indian cities: new activity in old neighborhoods, the conspicuous advent of a habitat remade in the images of Berlin and Brooklyn, replete with Mac-happy cafes and rustic walls ready for the discharges of first-time graffiti artists. We noticed people reappropriating old spectacles and saris, and ironically appreciating Doordarshan cartoons, Amar Chitra Katha comics, and advertisements for long-interred ’80s brands. But who were these people? How did they happen? Were they our very own homegrown hipsters?

Surely one of our new youth-culture magazines would be intrigued too, and might tell us what was going on. We had our eye on two in particular: A callow, type-happy, quasi-hipsterish periodical, avariciously committed to “pop culture, subculture and counterculture”, and an older city-based biweekly, beady-eyed for urban consumer patterns. 

But another magazine took on the task of dumbsplaining instead. This publication was known to be devoted to gratuitous provocation in its cover stories, and heedless in its pursuit of the micro-trends of India’s new era. It was the only magazine that, on an earlier occasion, had the courage to do a cover-story on the phenomenon of vajazzling.

The sub-hed of Open’s cover story, “In Search of the Indian Hipster” — “What is it?” — turns out to be not smirking or rhetorical at all, but asked in querulous earnest. What is it? The writers take aim at their winged quarry and fire. “A person dressed in skinny jeans.” Miss, by about five years. Fire! Someone who “isn’t religious, but believes in the Universe as a Whole.” Miss by about half a century. “A t-shirt with Indian graffiti.” Still. way. behind.

They squeeze their eyes shut and fire at will: “Hipsters read Ernest Hemingway.” “Sneer at Dan Brown.” “Just finished reading Osho’s Essence of Yoga?” “Oscar Wilde?” “Walk into Zara…” “No eggs and bread for breakfast!” But it’s a massacre of pure air.

It’s a hard to hit a fast-moving target, and we know this much about hipsters: none move faster. In the United States, the hipster feature is a modern genre of reportage, and a decade of consistent fire has helped improve the aim. So has an industry in which many magazine-writers are graduates trained in the fine ballistics of cultural exposition (you shoot slightly ahead), and both groups overlap with the hipsters themselves (you shoot yourself).

When you’re dealing with India — and its feature-writers, who hold their subjects in deferential awe and get snarked on for their pains — it may be wiser to just save your cartridge. But at last shots had been fired, and we had to investigate, starting with the feathers brought down by the best efforts.

There are three or four. The feature does capture a few hipster identifiers that aren’t four decades wrong, including, in the lede paragraph, the canonical rule of self-denial. It does quote Mark Greif, who may himself have bagged the bird, by aiming so far ahead of it that his essay presented itself as a post-mortem.

It interviews people who are, manifestly, people you’d point at and say Look at that fucking hipster.” And it does succeed at making its interviewees sound starved of self-awareness and full of shit (“He himself bought LPs because CDs were too expensive”), again unintentionally catching a quality of hipsters more accurate than “drinks chamomile tea”.

It was also appropriate that the first reaction it elicited on Twitter was a contemptuous rejection from @Humphrey_Bogart, whose previous tweet had been, “Where can I buy combat boots for women in Mumbai?”

So there was all of that. And the New Clothes Review won’t attempt a portrait of Indian hipsters that’s any better, as we never go out anymore, now that Yeti delivers.

Anyway, the question of interest isn’t “The Indian hipster: What is it?” but only “The Indian hipster: How do we write about it?” In the event, this article was written according to the File ASAP Feature Formula, an industry standard, which explains many of the ways the article fails. Rules of FAFF include “Share insensitive quote from vapid fashion columnist” (check), and “Any foreign publication is a higher authority”; thus a quote from a 2009 article in Time, a double-strike against contemporaneity. FAFF writing also proceeds from outside in, from visible actions back to motivations. That’s fine, but it never gets very far into the latter, due of word-limits and difficulty: not the difficulty to the writer, but the presumed difficulty to the reader, a FAFF anathema. Here’s the real banana peel.

If one thing that defines hipsters, including Indian ones, is quick-fingered appropriation and equally quick discard of cultural playthings, then the story can’t be about the playthings. You have to go deeper than that. And to do that, you have to ask weird questions.

Like this one: How many of your Indian hipsters were middle-class? Let’s make FAFF walk the plank again for that one. It’s true that, for reasons reaching into the dark soul of media publishing, FAFF articles are nearly all about the Indian upper-class, even if they pretend to be about everyone. Poor Indians, handled by the current-affairs desk, are Poor; rich Indians are Indian. Nothing very original here. The Indian Hipster, if you run the decryption, is the Rich Indian Hipster.

The only time the word “rich” appears in the feature is in a quote, a long gripe by someone who is apparently not rich yet had internet access back when “the internet was still young.” Had the reporters pushed the word out into the rest of the feature, a lot more would have become visible on its own.

***

One of the better shots the article took was that a hipster “doesn’t care who forms the government.” To this idea, the totally hipster @Humphrey_Bogart replied — MT — “What do you mean hipsters ‘don’t care who forms the government’? People like that aren’t called hipsters, they are called idiots.”

Actually, people like that aren’t called idiots, they’re called wealthy. We’re generalising, but members of the Indian upper class really are well insulated from electoral outcomes, and for most of us the question of who forms the government is academic. Yet @Humphrey_Bogart may be onto something: It’s possible that hipsters fare relatively well, as their condition does entail a febrile curiosity about new images and options made available by external change. They’re not especially insensate to who forms the government. They’re just insensate to what has formed them.

When you’re rich, and young, Indian, and possibly a little overeducated, it is hard to be content without a meaningful life and yet it can be hard to lead one. In the feature, when an advertising hipster derides the new middle class, happy with “the Gucci t-shirt you have spent your whole life trying to afford,” you can almost hear the fragility of his scorn, for nothing will give as much purpose to the adster’s life as the Gucci t-shirt, however vulgar, gave to a chump from Munirka. Adster doesn’t want the Gucci t-shirt, because he can afford it.

One solution is to down periscope and submerge into a different kind of economy, an economy of cultural information, where scarcity is not based on cost but on originality and velocity. We reach into the future, obviously. We also reach into the past, a warm sea covered in curious flotsam perfect for exceptionalist consumers. Now that the internet is no longer “still young”, we turn tech-rejection into another display; thus the recurrence of LPs and typewriters in the feature, and its woeful misapprehension: “To be a true hipster… one would have to give up all the luxuries technology offers.”

No, being online was essential. Online, we could all be honest fishermen, eating our own catch: the fashion ideas and recherche literature, the “obscure samples” and new tracks by Major Lazer, the affectations of speech and the customised job-descriptions in design which gave us comparative edge, and with enough edge, gave us purpose. So we became hipsters. And we could spend our whole lives trying to be them.

Music is definitive of hipsterdom, and it’s at least intriguing that in the United States, an era of revanchist high capitalism coincided with the rise of many strains of indie music, and both coincided with a broad turn of pop away from hassling the social milieu to mildly acquiescing to it. For instance, the aestheticisation of suburban American life as a fey and melancholic experience, full of vague but terrible puzzles. What we call hipster culture has, at different points, grown obsessed with granting to rich life the existential privileges of poor life: the feeling that the neighbourhood you grew up in was hostile; the understanding that your current life requires you to dress like a trucker or a homeless person.

This poverty angle is the one pronounced hipster sub-trait that hasn’t really travelled to India. Big surprise! Yet new arrangements of poverty and wealth in India’s cities have been a critical condition of possibility of the emergence of whatever the Indian hipster is. Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat, Hauz Rani: the poverty of urban villages has kept their property values low, their residents disempowered, and made those locations available as an urban blank slate, on which any number of projects could be enacted with barely a thought for the bottom line.

But the cool they trafficked in was precisely what would kill them: it draws in the Audis and the rowdies, the other rich kids, and aligns property values with the rest of South Delhi. HKV becomes GK II. The demise of some of HKV’s definitive establishments, in recent weeks, illuminates the only poignant detail of the hipster economy: that in the end, for all its skill at appropriation, its role is to be appropriated in turn by corporate capital. They blaze the trails into working-class geography, tagging the walls as they go, but once the trail is open, the gentrifiers become the second-wave evictees. For one precious moment — the moment they’re made to leave — they resemble the bohemians they’ve spent so long pretending to be.

For now, though, we are still young Indians with a penthouse view over the country’s Lorentz curve. We stay in motion, always pushing at the margins of the cultural matrix; not asleep but wide awake, which is how the profane and defensive irony enters the picture, and very quickly becomes its frame. We know it’s all make-believe; ours to construct, consume, and aestheticize. It’s a big thing about being an Indian hipster, or any hipster: pretending you can’t see the great flares of politics and urgency in your own lives and societies. We couldn’t credit the importance of the actual landscape around us, flooded with actual ethical challenges and hard political truths.

We turn our walls into glowing screens instead of going outside. The world is then a place that just needs to be made interesting. You got to be a better person by choosing the right playlist. Or maintaining an immaculately curated Pinterest board.

***

Alternatively, forget everything we just said and go with this: “There’s nothing wrong with people terming themselves hipsters, because it’s a good thing for Indian society.” It may be the least hip thought that ever formed in a human mind, but it’s credited to a semi-famous-musician-who-wants-to-make-films-based-on-books, and its theory is much shorter. He thinks that the work of cultural fishing and filleting is economically valuable. For growth. This isn’t wrong and it isn’t contradictory to our theory, either. It’s a third, FAFF-approved choice of emphasis presented to the feature writer: what the thing looks like, where it is coming from, or why it is all just going to be great, promise.

And if you do want to describe what the thing looks like, just make sure you describe the events-horizon of Indian hipsterdom. Describe the swing-dancing classes that got started in Hauz Khas Village after a couple busted out the Charleston during a Prohibition-themed (that’s US Prohibition-themed) secret party at Elma’s Tea Lounge. Or the invitation-only DJ night above a granite warehouse in Chhatarpur, with no directions to the place, only latitude-longitude figures. The party was called “Grime Riot Disco”, a phrase that, in high hipster form, comprises three words which each have their own profound and troubling local meanings, but which are taken together to only sound internationally coloured and perversely attractive.

Or shoot further ahead: Dream up your own Indian hipster hot-tub and report on that. There’s an imaginative vacancy in our city, now that TLR is gone. Make the answer to “What is it?” anything you like. It might not be real, not at all. But was reality ever that important?

[Strictly representational] image by lecercle on flickr

Anonymous asked: Such incisive critique. Thought it died in Delhi, possibly due to some germ infection in its raw food experimenta festival. Stumbled upon NCR on a nasty day of Delhi...well, atrabiliousness, and shook my head in relief. There's still some left; do you guys have an email address?

Glad we could be of comfort. Do write to us: sir.ian.mcquillan@gmail.com

Your face is my screen

We at NCR do not buy into the zero-sum cultural theory of Mumbai and Delhi — that if one becomes more attractive, the other becomes less, and so on. It’s perfectly obvious to us that a person can afflict both cities at the same time.

It helps if that person never sleeps. Recently, rolling his hungering wide insomniac eyes over “the chaos that is Bombay”, a young Delhi impresario managed, in just under six and a half minutes, to reduce a city other than our own into an identical mess of inanities, visual cliches, and no-shit? audio samples. The production is sponsored by Cobra beer and hosted by www.guardian.co.uk as part of its new Mumbai City Guide. A number of good-looking Delhi hipsters host video tours of Mumbai here; in all of them, the city is much less the focus than the hipsters, and altogether the hosts have been more carefully “curated” than the tours. In this case, the impresario, who is also a VJ and other things (more on this later), makes a music video with his DJ partner, while a documentary is made of them at work.

The doc is meant to be supplemental to the video, but of course it’s the other way around. The video is a hash of “Spirit of Mumbai” visual cliches in spinny stop-motion, backed by a soundtrack of !ncredible India audio cliches with a bass track laid on top. Perhaps they played a game: “Name as many Bombay locations as you can that are so over-exposed they already have movies named after them”. Answers: Dhobi Ghat, Chor Bazar, Gateway of India, Marine Drive. It’s kind of appropriate for fresh-off-the-plane Dilliwalas leafing through Lonely Planet, because there’s literally nothing new here. It’s the documentary that ends up being interesting, but only as a comment on the conditions of its production.

Early on in the doc, at the dhobi ghat, the impresario offers an explanation of what he’s doing. Here it is, transcribed the way it sounds: "We’re trying to sample, like video and audio… and try to make like a… audio-video [he’s splashed by a dhobi, whose face he is in; he laughs]… audio-visual piece that expresses the chaos of Bombay, through the sounds and [splash; laugh] … through the sounds and sights. And this is just an amazing place for that. I’m getting wet. But it’s quite amazing."

In the background, the labouring dhobi shows no agreement that any of it is amazing: not the chaos, nor the sound of himself slapping heavy, soaked clothes onto a stone, nor the fact that an impresario from Delhi is being paid dollaz to stand in his face and be splashed. The dhobi’s doleful expression is glimpsed in the corner of the frame in the documentary, but it disappears from the final glazed and groovy audio-visual piece, leaving only a memory for the viewer, a ghost reminding her that something has gone missing.

In the move from documentary to audio-visual piece, there’s a kind of spiralling play-within-play effect : the impresario and DJ eventually appear within their own music video and, contrary-wise, the doc about them shooting the video has the same vibe, and is backed by the same samples, as the video they shoot. In short, the subject of the whole exercise is not “Mumbai”. The subject is “impresario in Mumbai” and “Mumbai according to impresario”. Or, to put things simply, the subject is: “impresario”.

This is crystal-clear again in the closing sequence of the doc. Using a jerry-rigged taxi, the impresario and DJ literally “project the stuff we’ve been shooting back onto the walls in Bombay”. As the soundtrack picks up, a window of searing white solipsism is projected over the darkened city from the window of a moving taxi, onto walls that are intentionally blank, onto faces of working-class men who live there and who are temporarily dazzled and confused by the light. Then your eye adjusts, and the real city falls back, invisible, and you see only the projection, only the impresario’s images. And then you know that that was all you were ever watching. 
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To understand how this came to be — and I mean to be “hosted on www.guardian.co.uk and paid for by Cobra beer” — we need to bring the impresario back to Delhi and unpack the process through which he became successful. Of course, we also need to unpack the commercial decisions of the Guardian and Cobra, but those may be less interesting than the man in/with the camera. Back in Delhi, the impresario never sleeps. He is, simultaneously, a video jockey, a video artist, a restaurant proprietor, an “art cafe” curator, a creative-lab space manager, and a hydra-headed festival organiser. Wait. He’s also a chief at a design firm that does corporate graphics AND advises international NGOs on innovative public sanitation. Yes, he’s a whirlwind of entrepreneurship and creative opportunism, and this is generally known and admired about him, though he’s typically judged by intent rather than outcomes.

Withholding judgement about these outcomes — or rather, letting the Mumbai video say everything — what interests us is the system of waterworks that pipes non-commercial funding into such undertakings. In recent years, many such projects, including his, have been funded by the Goethe Institut, the cultural wing of the German embassy. How come? In part because young Delhi cultural producers, including this one, are eloquent in a post-millenial verbal mimicry that’s capable of legitimising harmless, repetitive ideas as urgent and cutting-edge social-cultural interventions. One example arrived in the publicity for a tour of British visual jockeys (whom the impresario would, obviously, be accompanying). One of their events was described thus: “Through the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, the project seeks to uncover who we are as human beings and how our complex identities are connected to our every day environments through a multitude of different rituals.”

It’s no accident that this pile of jargon sounds like it dropped from a meme. It’s a very savvy treatment of words that are hard currency in our cultural circuit, quite separate from what they mean (help yourself: collaborative multidisciplinary juxtaposition curated multimedia spectrum bricolage). To improve the metaphor, these are words treated as audio samples, looped and mixed into recursive sequences — and Western embassy funders can’t resist the beat.

Thirty years ago, the largest form of cultural embassy in India was the Soviet Union's. Through vernacular publishing, mobile libraries, grants to workers' movements and so on, it reached out to the middle and working classes (there were also sufficient ballet performances in Delhi for the rest of us). At the time, cultural diplomacy was political and its goal was to build constituencies for bilateral ties. Today, when cultural diplomacy is commercial, and its goal is tourism revenue or investment, its audience has shrunk to the people most likely to supply these: the metropolitan elite. A survey of recent years' event-funding by the Goethe Institut or the British Council makes it quite clear that their emphasis is on high arts and avant-garde entertainment, whether or not an audience exists for it. Or rather, an audience does exist, but it seems not to concern the embassy that that audience is minuscule and already satiated with its own state-subsidised cultural menu.

Is there anything tinier than the audience that’s interested in celebrating “interdisciplinary processes and experiences that shape contemporary thought and action”? There is — and that’s the community of intermediaries and impresarios ready to serve up this sculpted language-turd to funders, and serve down (though it doesn’t go far down) events to the very proximate audience, mostly their friends. There’s little competition for these grants, since the circles of producers and consumers are so vertically restricted, and the networks of non-elite cultural strugglers are too far below even to be rejectable. Result: anyone who grabs a teat can milk it till the EU goes bankrupt, and can do so while producing vainglorious nonsense and building a pile of projects beneath them that allows them to reach ever-higher, more lucrative teats.

If the only outcome of life in this stratosphere was under-attended light shows in Lutyens Delhi and wasted tax-payer Euros, that would be one thing. But India is a poor (and chaotic) country, and the conscience of foreign funders is acute if ineffective. Elite impresarios can’t show the mercy of simply leaving sub-elite society alone. Instead, every social problem ends up remade in their own image.

For example: In the least of their errors, they will pull the classical arts, already patronised by the middle class, into their dubstep-thundering echo chamber. This may require a German-funded multimedia collaboration with a Bharatanatyam dancer, overlaid with a Greatest Hits of fund-baiting — references to the environment and world peace, set to the synthetic faux-elevations of Goa psytrance. Afterwards (clicking back to the Guardian video) the impresario can make this comment: “We have such a huge and diverse tradition of classical arts, performing arts, it’s just amazing to be able to dip into that, and not solely be urban and futuristic, but kind of mix everything that India stands for, and has stood for, and mix that with what we stand for.”

Oh, impresario. It breaks my heart, but you are futuristic. You will take the next grant and the next one, and be on the next Newsweak list of future faces of a techno-globalised India. And we are all way too close to what India stands for, and has stood for since time began. But that has nothing to do with Bharatanatyam or break-dancers, and everything to do with your own performance: the one that keeps what’s on top on top, what’s inside inside, and makes the rest of the country dance to its tune.

MISSING THE PARTY

No one knows the NCR, so no one ever invites us to their parties. It’s just as well, though, because we’re kind of awkward in crowds. Instead, we usually spend our Saturday nights in the Review’s dusty Malviya Nagar office. It’s not so bad, really. Some evenings we catch up on our reading. Sometimes we have long heart-to-hearts with friends. One Saturday night in December we sat around until three, cups of hot tea in our hands, singing Beatles songs. Good fun.

In a recent Mumbai Boss essay, Rosalyn D’Mello explained that she goes to many parties, with several famous people, and not only is she having a good time, but she’s having a better time than anyone: anyone in Mumbai and anyone anywhere else in the whole country. “The Delhi ‘house party’,” she says, “is a reflection of its buzzing cultural calendar. There’s more than one book waiting to be written about these BYOB treats.” She bums cigarettes off of Pablo Bartholomew, she schmoozes with Sarnath Banerjee, and she thinks Delhi is grand for letting her in.

No one invites us to those house parties, so we can’t judge that claim. But we know something about the cultural calendar which she says the parties reflect, and we don’t understand what she’s talking about. In a good week, she says, “almost every other day, there’s between three to five must-attend events happening across the city.” But the number of high profile events is no indicator of their quality, and we know that many of them are nothing but boring non-art and non-critical thought: William Dalrymple is a colonial apologist, Hari and Sukhmani put me to sleep, and the Bagel Café doesn’t actually sell good bagels. There’s certainly a great deal of cultural production taking place in Delhi (also true of Mumbai, also true of every city in the world), and a greater amount of that production in Delhi seems to fit into the various categories of “high culture” than in other Indian cities. But there’s also a huge amount of fluff, and a huge amount of back-patting and self-congratulation about this fluff. 

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We aren’t Delhi-haters. That tribe paints Delhi in too-broad strokes too, and hasn’t yet delivered the knock-out blow against the city — that it gets really too hot here and we should all go someplace else — so we won’t engage them. We like Delhi just fine. What really upsets us are Delhi’s apologists and promoters, the Delhi-lovers — of which D’Mello is a fine specimen.

The question isn’t whether Delhi is a good city or a bad city or a better city than or a worse city than – answers to those questions will always miss the mark of twenty million people’s lives and experiences. We want to know why there is so much boring high culture in this city, why so many D’Mellos feel compelled to defend Delhi’s worth, and why they cite this boring high culture as proof of its worth.

                                                         ***

To appreciate high culture in this way — without any critical lens — is the logical converse of the Romantic injunction to create “art for art’s sake”: if the making of art has moral value regardless of its content or context, then it can’t be considered or criticised in those terms either, it must simply be loved. No politics or even displeasure here: we’re consuming Art.

And so we realise that D’Mello has provided us with the key to the conundrum of Delhi’s high cultural back-patting: “The Delhi ‘house party’ is a reflection of its buzzing cultural calendar. There’s more than one book waiting to be written about these BYOB treats.” Indeed there are. The cultural calendar has the same character as the house parties: both are bourgeois. The value of art openings and book launches, we’re told, is that they “feature open bars and facilitate networking with publishing bigwigs and art enthusiasts." Both the cultural calendar and the house party are delicate games of Jenga, the goal of both to accumulate social capital while protecting the social status quo.

This much isn’t unique to Delhi: Bourdieu demonstrated that the bourgeoisie, everywhere and always, are condemned to appreciate only reactionary and anti-intellectual art, which provide for them both a means of self-assurance and useful symbolic capital — a demonstration of their good taste. But D’Mello’s piece indexes a tighter loop in Delhi between the world of high cultural production and high social reproduction — between the art gallery and the house party — than even Bourdieu would predict. The domain of cultural production, for him, has a limited autonomy that allows for class treason, for the production not only of new critical tools, but also of new forms of solidarity between bourgeois and proletarian. What’s wrong with Delhi, then?

Another clue in D’Mello’s piece: nearly all of the institutions she mentions as the sites of Delhi’s superior art scene are funded either by the Indian state (the universities) or by foreign states (the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institut) as instruments of state policy. Unlike in, say, Mumbai, in Delhi the terms of the high cultural conversation are being set by bureaucrats and by the exigencies of diplomacy, and the city’s bourgeoisie is reading the script. Through the deliberate undermining of the partial autonomy of high cultural production, we’ve ended up with a lavishly-funded but critically-bankrupt cultural world. Unless Delhi’s culture-consuming bourgeoisie learns to pay attention to the large mass of cultural production taking place outside of Chanakyapuri and outside the house party’s gate, they’ll have no idea what they’re missing.

Local is my favourite colour

Hauz Khas Village, the most rapidly gentrifying quarter of south Delhi, throws up a lot of uneasy juxtapositions. Such as a “pay-what-you-will” café whose walls are adorned with suitably wrinkly-and-wise local colour from the Himalayas, and has a large picture window providing an inviting view of the Village’s own brand of local colour – tiny children, dragging canisters of water up to their shacks down the lane.

But this unwelcome reversal, with the inhabitant unwittingly turning into the object of contemplation and worse, a marker of “authenticity”, for a whole other class about to destroy the very qualities they prize and celebrate as “edgy”, “real” or “colourful” is a sadly universal story.

There is another window down a lane in the Village, which also invites the spectator to contemplate the local colour. The kitsch artefacts in the window are the usual agglomeration of hallucinogenic-candy-coloured horn-OK-please, ideal boy, and Bollywood imagery, but at gringo-baiting prices. It’s a slice of the street, thoughtfully sanitised for those who think the street is seething, perilous chaos. Think that cutting chai tastes of dysentery? That the auto moves like a rampaging bull? That the cow – wait, you have to get a picture of that, or nobody will believe you’re actually in India. Anyway, just put all this on your cushions – chai cups, autos, cows – and voila, you can congratulate yourself on being so giddily foreign that you may well have been reincarnated as a Hindoo.

While kitsch is so well entrenched as a failsafe business strategy in high-class consumer goods, it makes most of this rant just sound like high-minded churlishness, there is something different about this window. It’s clearly the product of a uniquely foreign, neo-colonial gaze – with a post-modern twist, as one of the (albeit better-produced) lines dramatises. Aside from a “gaai mata” cushion or two, the line includes coasters and mugs made out of what appear to be “found” studio photographs of south Indian men, posing with touching sincerity, in pastel shirts, lustrous moustaches, and flamboyantly 70s hairdos.

The founder of the product line is a French lady with an enthusiastic sense of humour – who, earlier this year, posted a picture of pink-shirted youths with mullets and moustaches on her product label’s Facebook group, wishing its members a joyous 2011, “filled with lovely moustaches”.  Admiring members return the enthusiasm, professing they “love” these men, and occasionally, that they want to marry them.

This light-hearted chatter rings a bit hollow and hypocritical, amplifying the chasm between classes and nationalities that’s increasingly making the Village more disquieting than delightful. Quite clearly, these products showcase the charmingly naïve vanity of the local third-world relic, who sports a moustache unironically, qualifying him to be a quaint Other, served up against an equally comically unfashionable starred-or-striped-or-leopard-printed backdrop for the amusement and pleasure of the first-world sophisticate. 

As the critic Catherine McDermott puts it, “Kitsch is a sensitive area because enjoyment of it relies on a sense of knowing superiority, which is not far removed from condescension or arrogance. To put it simply, objects that enjoy the status of kitsch in a smart city drawing room may at the same time be on display as an object of reverence in another home.” Like the original studio portraits, which might resonate with personal sentiment for their subjects, and those close to them.

“If you like Kitsch and India, you’ll love us,” goes the catchphrase of the product line. You will, especially if you think kitschy India is best admired from afar, safely behind picture windows and screen-printed images.