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Critique of consumer culture

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AJIT DUARA

Whitewash is an attempt at mocking the pretensions of the great Indian middle class.

WHITEWASH, by Gautam Bhatia, is a diatribe on the pretensions of the great Indian middle class. The author uses satirical humour to sanitise his nausea about everyday events and the way they are reported through the distorting prism of our media. As he says with some venom in the introduction: “India, love it or hate it. Certainly it is impossible to be unaffected by it. My own relationship with the place is tainted by the distaste I feel for the people and incidents that unmake it every day”. He is exasperated with the country he loves, or at least with its representation in the information, misinformation and disinformation barrage that filters through our consciousness, 24 x 7.

Inspired by MAD?

Whitewash seems to be designed on the principle of the American MAD magazine. This was started in 1952 by Publisher William Gaines and Editor Harvey Kurtzman as a counter to the whitewash of America by the post-war consumer boom. Middle class suburban U.S. was flooded with consumer goods and their relentless and vulgar advertising in the print and then the nascent electronic medium. Consumerism tends to become a middle class value system with judgements on social status based on numbers, prices and brands. MAD magazine was a reaction against that and it continues to be published today with the unique distinction that it accepts no advertising whatsoever. This allows it to mock the consumer culture of the day.

Refreshing antidote

Certainly it is possible that Gautam Bhatia did not intend Whitewash as a take off on any magazine, least of all MAD, and the comic book format of MAD magazine is not followed here. But the satire on consumer culture, particularly Indian advertising, is as visceral as it is in MAD. What stands out is the need for such a publication, on a regular basis, to maintain our sanity and humour and Whitewash is a refreshing antidote to the malign media malaria of our day.

Like the charming newspaper you are now reading with your morning cuppa , Whitewash has an attractive and easy-to-search-for layout — Features, News, Interviews, Business, Health, Gender, Auto, Heritage, Astrology and Classifieds.

Of course, it also has a Page 3, unlike this newspaper, which begins like this: “A heavenly evening at the Grand, the open air restaurant at the Taj Oberoi Sheraton.......To celebrate Queenie Kapoor’s aborted pregnancy, which coincided with the start of the Siesta condom Fashion Week, the city’s social set gathered along with a sprinkling of diplomats, eunuchs, bureaucrats and fashion designers. Rafael Delgardo, the portly Portuguese Ambassador, was there in the nude with his lovely Indian mistress, Ruchika Bedi, sporting a yellow chiffon with gold tassles.”

Spoofing the ads

The matrimonials on the classified pages are fascinating: “Slightly demented but extremely corrupt Khatri Punjabi civil engineer, working on massive Dam project in Madhya Pradesh seeks discreet Khatri Punjabi woman working in World Bank for marriage.”

And here is the art critic of the newspaper waxing eloquent on the R.P. Sarkar retrospective in the city: “The picture was indeed powerful. It was difficult not to be moved by it. Its duality was oppressive and suppressive...so lyrical and yet so diabolical, even rude, in an expressionist sort of way. Clumsy to the inexperienced eye, but highly painterly to the practised one. To my mind the artist had captured a peculiarly modern condition — that of loneliness in a crowd, by cleverly using the girl’s breasts as a metaphor for both abundance and abandonment..... naturally if you find metaphors floating about on its surface , then obviously the artist has progressed to a higher aesthetic plane of inquiry . Here, of course, I would like to distinguish between a hanging metaphor and a metaphor that is swaying lightly in the breeze..”

All in the game

The 73-year-old Gautam Bhatia is, however, not averse to blowing his own trumpet. On the back jacket of Whitewash, along with all the blurbs from the media he satirises, is a particularly flattering review excerpt from The Indian Architects Quarterly. It says: “Too bad Bhatia is a writer. With his absurd and ludicrous view he would have made a fine architect.”

Whitewash, Gautam Bhatia, The Viveka Foundation, p. 240, Rs. 550.


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