Remaking urban space in India has led to dispossession of citizens: Jisha Menon

Jisha Menon, author of Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India
Jisha Menon

In Brutal Beauty, Stanford scholar Jisha Menon explores the transformation of Indian cities since the neoliberal economic reforms started in the 1990s. In an interview with The American Bazaar, she speaks about the book.

By Asif Ismail

In her new book Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India, Jisha Menon documents the “seismic transformation” that has taken place in urban India in the aftermath of the market reforms launched in the early 1990s.

Taking her hometown of Bangalore as a paradigm, the Stanford University scholar walks the readers through the “dark underbelly” of the new Indian capitalism, showcasing both creative and destructive energies of globalization.

Much has been written about the politics, the economics and the sociology of neoliberalism. Brutal Beauty powerfully chronicles another dimension of the enterprise: its aesthetics.

Menon, an associate professor of Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford, and the Fisher Family Director of Stanford Global Studies, looks at the new landscapes of Indian cities — especially that of Bangalore — through a series of aesthetic projects, ranging from photographs to video art.

Bangalore’s “transformation from an earlier somnolent rhythm of life to the high-technology capital of the Global South was accompanied by a dizzying velocity of transnational traffic in capital, media, information, commodities, and people,” she tells The American Bazaar.

The Indian American academic shows us the connection between farmer migrations and farmer suicides, “between the agrarian crisis and the aspiration toward high-tech industry in the city.” She points out how the neoliberal project justifies “the rampant decimation of Bangalore’s tree cover to make way for wider roads, larger buildings, a new airport, and other megacity projects.”

Book: Brutal Beauty: Aesthetics and Aspiration in Urban India
Author: Jisha Menon
Publisher: Northwestern University Press

Menon’s first book, The Performance of Nationalism:  India, Pakistan and the Memory of Partition (Cambridge UP, 2013), explores, again through cultural archives such as films, plays and rituals such as the lowering of flags at Wagah on the India-Pakistan border, performative aspects of nation-making.

She also co-edited, along with Patrick Anderson, a collection of essays — Violence Performed: Local Roots and Global Routes of Conflict (‎Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) — which examines the link between violence and performance in geopolitics.

At Stanford, Menon also holds a courtesy appointment in comparative literature. Previously, she served as the director of the university’s Center for South Asia, and the Denning Faculty Director of Stanford Arts Institute.

Menon earned her PhD in Drama from Stanford and a master’s in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi. Prior to joining the Stanford faculty, she served as an assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Here is the full interview:

You write that the idea for the book germinated during a visit to Bangalore, your hometown, to direct Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Can you share some details? 

Yes, Brutal Beauty had its initial inspiration in September 2008 when I worked with playwright and director Abhishek Majumdar to adapt Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard through a devised rehearsal process. I directed the play, which we called City of Gardens, and we staged it in Ranga Shankara and in Grasshopper in Bangalore. The production mapped Bangalore’s emergent urban politics onto Chekhov’s classic realist play. Like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which captured a moment of transition from feudal landed aristocracy to a robust bourgeoisie in turn-of-the-century Russia, I felt that Bangalore was also undergoing a seismic transformation. The production allowed us to grapple with questions that I felt were particularly important to Bangalore city dwellers: how do rhetorics of development and globality justify the rampant decimation of Bangalore’s tree cover to make way for wider roads, larger buildings, a new airport, and other megacity projects? How has neoliberal capital entered into and rearranged social, class, and gender relations in the city? Doing the play was a fascinating journey for me because it opened my eyes to the competing narratives of belonging and exclusion in the city. And I wanted to delve deeper into some of questions that the process of doing the production revealed to me. So that was the germ of the book project.

The flip side of the “emergent aspirational” city homes is the rubble of demolition and dispossession, you point out. On the one hand, there are city-dwellers who aspire “to remake themselves in the idealized and ubiquitous images of the “good life” and remake “their cities in the image of foreign destinations, such as Dubai, Shanghai, or Singapore.” On the other, there’s rampant dislocation. There is a disjuncture between, in your own words, “the promise of capital and its material effects on the ground.” Is it inevitable that liberalization produce winners and losers? 

When liberalization exacerbates inequality then unfortunately, there will be a widening gulf between winners and losers. It is a complex picture, however, as we see social programs that have focused on citizen’s “self-empowerment” in order to facilitate the ability of working classes to access the benefits of already existing welfare programs; there may be better strategies to implement the government’s welfare schemes; there has been an increase in government revenues that could be channeled toward redistribution. But the failure to deliver on these promises displays a lack of political will, bureaucratic inertia, and a deeper disregard for the working classes.

Why did you choose Bangalore as a paradigm to analyze urban India’s transformation? Can the city be considered a microcosm for India’s metropolises, small and big? 

Yes, I think Bangalore offers a great paradigm to consider the transformation of cities and its people in the wake of liberalization. When I was growing up in Bangalore, it was called the “garden city” or “pensioner’s paradise” of India. It is now the high-tech city, the 24/7 city, a city that literally never sleeps, as call center workers and others in the BPO industry are working through the night to service customers across the world. Its transformation from an earlier somnolent rhythm of life to the high-technology capital of the Global South was accompanied by a dizzying velocity of transnational traffic in capital, media, information, commodities, and people. Already investors are looking for other cities where they can replicate the experiments that they conducted in Bangalore.

What has been the effect of liberalization on rural India? Have you looked into it? 

My book looks at the artwork of Bangalore artist Surekha who works with a farmer, Subramani in Varthur, near Whitefield, to comment on the toll that liberalization has taken on farming communities. Surekha’s sculpture grows the ragi crop out of abandoned computer keyboards and considers how the development of technology within India’s IT city displaces farmers. The ragi crop itself is becoming increasingly scarce as ragi farmlands are appropriated for purposes of real estate development. It shows how the usurpation of farmlands fragments the organic interconnectedness of food, land, and community. Collaborating with a farmer enables Surekha to create a piece that speaks pointedly to the agrarian crisis within the region and its relationship to liberalization. The incentives that companies accrued from locating their industries in rural regions no longer continued post liberalization. As a result, many industries moved their operations to peri-urban areas, with the effect that the city itself grew outward, folding in those peri-urban areas and transforming them into satellite towns. Surekha’s sculpture of the discarded keyboards used to grow ragi sprouts forces us to think critically about despair-driven farmer migrations, farmer suicides, and the relationship between the agrarian crisis and the aspiration toward high-tech industry in the city.

Another Indian American writer from the Bay Area, the late Bharati Mukherjee, talked about the psychological and emotional consequences of liberalization in a fictional work set in the Bangalore of the early 2000s. In “Miss New India,” she grudgingly points out that globalization and outsourcing industry has advanced women’s empowerment. In fact, in an interview, she criticized some Indian American post-colonial critics for their unwillingness to see that. What is your take on that? 

Gender and sexuality have certainly been focal points of contestation in the wake of liberalization, and I discuss this in my book. To say that liberalization ushered in liberty would be misleading, but there were certainly major transformations in rethinking gender and sexuality. In popular culture, we saw a shift in representations of women from an image of an unthreatening, controlled, reproductive femininity that upheld caste and class norms within the planned city to the new “liberalized” Indian woman, like Bharati Mukherjee writes about, who was programmatically trained and reshaped to export out into beauty pageants and fashion industries. The figure of the woman was now not simply a metaphor for reproducing the nation but also a metonym for consuming desirable commodities. You will recall the television show, Rajani, from the 80s, about the socially conscientious, thrifty woman who anchored the values of the middle-class Indian family. Today, the competing images of the newly empowered career woman jostle against simultaneous explosion of television family dramas that anxiously reinforce conservative hierarchies within the extended family.

The book’s title, “Brutal Beauty” is quite powerful. Aren’t “brutality” and “beauty” an oxymoron? Can you shed some light on the title? 

I wanted to think about how discourses of beauty are mobilized toward quite brutal ends. “Beauty” becomes a crucial lens through which to understand the spatial aspirations of politicians, real-estate entrepreneurs, and urban planners. Making cities beautiful is central to the aspiration of remaking urban space in the image of the idealized world-class city. The implications of this have landed on a range of dispossessed citizens from evicted slum dwellers to street vendors, who have been at the receiving end of these beautification programs. In addition to city-making, I also explore how aesthetics are deployed in remaking new aspirational citizens. It is through new modes of sartorial and somatic habits, new patterns of behavior, that subjectivity is reshaped to suit the demands of newly emerging capitalist society. While city planners, architects, and development officials cite given templates of “world-class cities” as aesthetic models to aspire to, the artists I discuss critically intervene into prevailing discourses of urban beauty. Their artworks, [which] are really very beautiful, allow us to see the havoc that is wreaked by taking recourse to discourses about “beautification programs” both in the city and on the self. So, yes, there is a doubleness to the way in which beauty works in the book. These quite beautiful artworks also become sites to contest some of these urban practices.

You grew up in Bangalore, a city that you write, “now grows at a pace so rapid that it eludes our conceptual grasp of it.” I am sure you are carrying a piece of the Bangalore of your childhood within you. Are you nostalgic about the old city? 

Yes, I am nostalgic for the old city, even as I am aware of the dangers of nostalgia, and that it can foster exclusionary narratives of belonging. But I think a “reflexive nostalgia,” as Svetlana Boym puts it, one that complicates the developmental and progressivist accounts of the world-class city can also inspire citizens to dream of and strive for different futures for the city.


Violence of Partition silenced to circulate non-violent narrative: author Jisha Menon (June 10, 2013)

Bharti Mukherjee – the Matriarch of Multiculturalism (April 15, 2017)

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