By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - If "simple living, high thinking" was what Indians of another era aspired to, today it is a different creed that's driving their lifestyles. If you have the money, modern Indians would argue, flaunt it. And they seem to have plenty of money to flaunt.
Take Mukesh Ambani. The chairman of Reliance Industries, number 14 on Forbes' list of the world's richest and India's richest resident, is building a vertical palace for himself in Mumbai that will rise to a height of 570 feet. The "palace in the sky" will have three floors of gardens, two floors of swimming pools, a helicopter pad and space to park 170 cars. His wife, mother and two kids will occupy the top four floors. The family of six will be waited on by over 600 servants.
Or consider liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya, whose net assets have been pegged at about US$1.5 billion. He has some 42 homes scattered across the world, 250 vintage cars, a customized Boeing 727 and two other corporate jets, and three yachts, including one once owned by actor Richard Burton. He wears gold chains, diamond earrings and a big bracelet with his initials spelled out in diamonds.
Mallya's loud lifestyle might have provoked disdain among most Indians some years ago. Not anymore it seems, if one goes by the number of those who now mimic Mallya's flashy lifestyle.
No event provides Indians greater opportunity to show off their affluence than weddings. Weddings have turned into extravaganzas, with rich - and even middle class - families competing with each other to put on the flashiest show in town. The clothes, the jewelry, the gifts, the menu, the entertainment, the locale, even the guest list drip with ostentation, the showier the better.
When steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal got his daughter married in the summer of 2004, guests received a 20-page silver-cased invitation. The engagement and the wedding were in French palaces, Kylie Minogue entertained the guests. The wedding was a $60-million Bollywood production. Hotelier Vikram Chatwal's week-long wedding to model Priya Sachdev spanned three Indian cities and is estimated to have cost about $80 million. The icing on the wedding was the star invitee - former US president Bill Clinton. The wedding of the two sons of Subrato Roy, head of the Sahara Group, had about 11,000 guests, including powerful politicians, the entire Indian cricket team and Bollywood celebrities.
India was once associated with Gandhian austerity. The unmaterialistic "other-worldliness" of Indians was often seen as a trait unique to this country.
Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru gave up lucrative professions and comfortable lifestyles to plunge themselves in the freedom struggle. They dressed simply in khadi (handspun cotton fabric), ate and traveled like the masses. Gandhi celebrated his austerity, wearing little more than a loincloth. Simplicity carried a statement.
At her wedding in 1942, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru and later India's prime minister, wore a khadi sari made of yarn her father wove while in prison during the freedom struggle. The "jewelry" she wore at her wedding was made of flowers strung together by the family gardener. Whatever happened to that understated elegance of the Indian wedding?
It never existed, some might say.
Indeed, Hindu weddings have always been elaborate affairs, with celebrations running into several days and hundreds, even thousands being invited for the ceremonies. Yet a wedding had a personal touch to it, even if the invitees were distant cousins one had never met previously. It was still an occasion when people would invite their kindergarten teachers, the family cook and the old chowkidar (watchman) and their entire families.
Not anymore, it seems.
It is unlikely that Mittal or Roy would have known personally even a tenth of the people they invited to their weddings. Their invitees were people who provided the event with star power and glamour. Weddings today provide Indians with an opportunity to display their influence and connections with the rich and the powerful.
And it's not just the seriously rich that love showing off. Even the middle class do so, often running into serious debt to organize weddings with ceremonies looking more like a glitzy scene from a Bollywood film. They pay horrific amounts to have people they do not know attend their weddings.
Indians love showing off the power they wield, the perks their jobs bring them. Officials and politicians vie with each other to ensure that they are surrounded by gun-toting security personnel and that they are given an "official car" with plaques announcing their position in the hierarchy and sirens signaling their VIP status.
This compulsion to show off wealth and status seems at odds with the general perception of the Indian as unmaterialistic in outlook, parsimonious in spending and austere in lifestyle.
But "Indians have never been, and will never be 'other-worldly'," argues Pavan K Varma in his book Being Indian: The truth about why the 21st century will be India's. Hindus worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. "The pursuit of material well-being, artha is a principal goal of life," Varma points out. Indians "hanker for the material goods that this world has to offer, and look up to the wealthy". And like wealth, "power in the Indian way of thinking is a legitimate pursuit".
Indian society is deeply hierarchical. A person's entire worth is dependent on the position he occupies in the hierarchy. In such a system, "The assertion of status [and its recognition by others] becomes of crucial importance," Varma argues.
Whether an official has direct access to the minister, how many telephones are on his office table, whether his car is air-conditioned - all these are indicators of his status. When a person's sense of self worth and his social standing are so intimately connected with who he knows or what he owns, it is not surprising then, that people look for any opportunity to put these on public display.
Today there are more wealthy Indians than ever before. India is now home to the largest number of billionaires in Asia. The number of millionaires in the country has crossed 100,000 and is growing at a rate of 20.5% per year - the second fastest in the world after Singapore. A booming economy and a robust stock market have contributed to a more prosperous, 320-million strong middle class with growing disposable income. Not only do they want to spend it but also they want to be seen splurging.
And unlike the pre-liberalization years, when Indians had few things to show off besides an Ambassador car or gold jewelry, today they have access to the finest of branded goods. They don't have to go to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to buy what they crave, they can purchase it here.
With liberalization, not only do Indians have the means to lead opulent lifestyles, but also the stigma associated with "Western materialism" and excessive lifestyles during the freedom struggle and the decades of socialism have now been removed. The pursuit of wealth is not considered dirty any longer. Being rich and showing it off as did the the kings and emperors in the past is fashionable again.
It's the era of the modern maharajahs and nouveau nawabs.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.