The grand, the good and the garish

Could colour define class dynamics and taste? Aditi Murti discovers the different meanings of colour in the flamboyant homes of South India, the bright slums of Mumbai and the pop palettes of Rue Crémieux in Paris.

Illustration by Ananya Broker Parekh

Illustration by Ananya Broker Parekh

Do beautiful cities exist? I have only known buildings like concrete creepers, running wild, thwarting all attempts at confinement into neat and easily governable grids. Even the most beloved of urban spaces - New York, London, Paris or  Mumbai - stood somber and smelly, never quite living up to the eager expectations of migrants trying to make it.

More importantly, I had never known a city to look like candy. Vast urban areas often laid themselves out as if there were no colours that existed beyond whites, greys, mould and the occasional red brick. Yet, Chennai, viewed with my nose flattened on an airplane window, was pinkyellowbluegreenpurpleorange square globs of paint, as though flicked from a child’s paint brush.

In urban spaces, where blending in is as easy as breathing, a proliferation of bright colours is a statement, almost a protest against drabness. This sort of aesthetic dissent also does phenomenally well with people. Take for example, Pondicherry’s White Town, which grew a tourist attraction upon the backbone of its beautiful yellow walls. Or La Muralla Roja - an Arab-Mediterranean inspired apartment complex in Spain that helped inspire Monument Valley, an award winning puzzle game.  More recently, the Parisian Rue Crémieux, whose residents proposed a shutdown for certain hours to control the swarm of influencers and tourists that disrupt peace. A bright paint job is clearly cute, good for business and sparks joy.

However, you are unlikely to find tourists milling around Chennai’s pops of colour.  Rather than posh Besant Nagar or Nungambakkam, these suburban 2-3 storey homes cluster around railway stations, temples and narrow, bumpy roads.

When I ask the residents about the colour schemes of their homes, a wild set of theories emerge ranging from massive paint discounts to painters recommending expensive colours as 'in fashion’ to Vaastu/Feng Shui to how certain colours would last longer and flick away dust easier. Unlike Burano Island in Venice, where fishermen painted their homes  bright colours to spot them through the fog, there is no one Indian lore to unite everyone who paints their homes similarly.

Yet, there is inspiration. In the 1960s, designer Ettore Sottsass found himself in Tiruvannamalai, documenting the bright, yet functional decor that lined the streets of the temple town. Fast forward to the‘80s, where Sottsass founded Memphis, a design collective he described as a ‘boiling cauldron of mutations that produced bastard objects through a style that traversed metaphor and utopia.’ His most famous work was created in partnership with the Italian company ‘Olivetti’- the Valentine typewriter (available in ice-blue, lime-green, polar-bear white and most iconic, lipstick red).

A residence in Tiruvannamalai photographed by Vincent Leroux. Image courtesy: Pinterest

A residence in Tiruvannamalai photographed by Vincent Leroux. Image courtesy: Pinterest

Many observers and critics speak about the strong, almost appropriative influence of South India’s ‘architectural kitsch’ in his design. Sottsass himself wrote of and  published photographs of homes he encountered in South India for Terrazzo, a  magazine he had founded. In a 1990 issue, he said, “The people who drew the houses I photographed during my travels seem to me a little like the stuff of those who navigate the open seas of architecture [...]. I am ready to be a "voyeur" of architecture."

The  Memphis Group  founded by  Ettore Sottsass  in 1980 designed  Postmodern  furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass, and metal objects. He was said to have been inspired by the quirky homes of Tiruvannamalai.  © Venturi Scott and Associates/Cervin Robinson

The Memphis Group founded by Ettore Sottsass in 1980 designed Postmodern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass, and metal objects. He was said to have been inspired by the quirky homes of Tiruvannamalai.

© Venturi Scott and Associates/Cervin Robinson

Urban, planned architecture could never buy into the Memphis kitsch philosophy “The reason why modern architecture shies away from colour is simply because it is expensive and difficult  to pull off,” says Mahesh Radhakrishnan, founding partner at the Madras Office of Architects. He adds, “Years of learning from purely European and Modern design examples does not make innovation easier.”

Even with over 20 years of experience and a slew of fascinating projects in MOAD’s portfolio, Mahesh’s kitschiest project kept the colours within the house.  Play Room, a kid’s activity center in Chennai is a careful duet between bright colours and light, playing with fluorescence and softening volatile colours like red. For him, there was no choosing colour without calculating how light would fall upon, reflect off and be absorbed by it.

Over his time working for a diverse range of clients, Mahesh had also observed that the rich in India rarely externalised their tastes.

“As you grow richer, your tastes get a bit...muted. People who paint their homes in soft colours on the outside deck it up beautifully on the inside. There are art, furniture and interior design marvels that you can incorporate within a house, which leaves homeowners okay with a plain white exterior. The best example of this sort of situation would be a museum. They are plain white on the outside but possess treasures inside. Whereas, a brightly painted home remains functional within, because the home in itself is art,” he says.

Vincent Leroux, who visited Tiruvannamalai to photograph Ettore Sottsass’ inspirations, also wrote “...While the multicolored façades of Tirunamavalai's houses are pure aesthetic provocation, their interior organization nevertheless meets the traditional way of life of their owners, without any conflict.”

Just like Sottsass, Dedeepya Reddy created Chal Rang De to paint away dreariness. However, the dull bits  she wanted to be rid of belonged to the slums in Asalpha, Mumbai. Reddy, the founder of  a digital media agency, would travel via metro to work daily and find her spirits ebb when she passed Asalpha. Thus, she decided to brighten it up with volunteers, bringing in good cheer, fame and also further employment for people who lived within the region. The idea blew up, and a year later, a slum in Pune was recently painted in bright colours by a different NGO named Misaal Mumbai, with an aim to ‘change the mindset of the people living within.’

What piques interest is Reddy’s interview with the Guardian, where she says, “The metro and the road seemed so developed, and this slum looked so different. It didn’t fit in. I thought of what could be done with minimum resources. Colours make me happy, so I thought, ‘Why not paint the homes to brighten them up?”

While there is positive urbanism abound in such philanthropic painting, there is also an inherent selfishness. While these movements adopt the language of change-making and positivity, their gaze remains that of the upwardly mobile person, with both distaste for how the lower class live and the mobility to fix only their problem with the view.

In his book, ‘Rule By Aesthetics’, Dr. Asher Ghertner describes the sudden illegality and  displacement orders for slum dwellers in Delhi, all on grounds of ugliness. He wrote about a particular face off between the Delhi Development Authority and an environmental group, in which a multigenerational slum “was declared ‘unplanned’ and illegal by the DDA for being a ‘nuisance’ to the neighboring middle-class residential colonies.” This led to a court supported demolition of the settlement, minus compensation.  The evidence? A set of photographs that showed the “unsightly” conditions in the slum. Conveniently, a ‘world class’ mall soon took up its space.

Does painting a slum ease away the permanent negativity that surrounds it, especially for anyone who isn’t middle/upper class? In a country where you're not hired over the area code you inhabit, how well do painted slums fare over unpainted slums? Can a coat of paint and tourist affection save you from potential demolition?

Aesthetics is a fickle thing, making beloved kitsch of what is conventionally garish.  Combined with a city’s volatile, swelling landscape, the lines between choice, taste, and class blur till a beautiful space is just the richest looking space. Maybe, pops of colour do register protest against the austerity of the moneyed.

Or maybe, as Selvaraj, a grocer from Mylapore, Chennai put it, he painted his home bright pink just because he happened to like it.

Aditi Murti loves oven roasted tomatoes, beautiful crockery and writing as an excuse to hyper-fixate on abstract notions. Read more of her work, her Twitter whining or find her actual self hanging out with the hostel stray kitten. 

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