What most defines Indianness? The quintessential dhaba or the iconic seals from the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Ganga or the Taj Mahal by the banks of the Yamuna, Nehru jackets or Gandhi topis, the Lux beauty queen commercials or the revolutionary Nirma television ad? Team BS came together for some collective thinking but ended up squabbling in Amartya Sen’s argumentative mode over the merits of their own and others’ inclusions.
From among hundreds, we edited down to the very few choices our pages could accommodate. As a result, several meritorious icons were dropped, leading to heartbreaks and not a little unhappiness in the office. We are sure you will find your own reasons to be upset over our selection, but we hope you agree that these final ones on our list are worthy icons of Indianness. Have a happy new year.
Almost the first lesson on Indian design will point you to the lota, the small water pitcher or pot, made of brass, copper, silver or, now, steel. It’s existed for millennia, performs a number of functions, and with its perfect contours and easy portability, is touted as the most perfect example ever of form and function. Beat that 21st century designers!
To Gandhi, mill cloth represented colonial rule and the un-Indian domination of the village by the city. Therefore, Gandhi and many of his followers spun their charkhas daily to turn raw cotton into khadi — which became the uniform of the post-Independence politician. On the tiranga, the charkha of the Congress flag was replaced by the dharma chakra.
Long before there was middle-class activism, or alternate cinema, there was R K Laxman’s “common man”, the dhoti-clad, slightly befuddled Indian everyman, at the receiving end of our corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, stoic, long-suffering but brightening up our day in a pocket cartoon that has proved as habit forming as the morning cuppa.
Dance with me, baby
Four-and-a-half thousand years back, the Mohenjodaro dancing girl symbolised the epitome of clean, minimal design in a civilisation that was at its peak. Scholars are still trying to understand what led to the abandonment of the Indus Valley settlements — and why later Indians gave up on austerity to embrace the full-blown voluptuousness of Khajuraho.
The outsourcing mantra
Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) was an economic reality that happened a decade back, opening employment avenues for millions of young graduates. It has today evolved into a sophisticated industry that generates revenues of around $12.5 billion (last year), employing slightly over 700,000 employees. Despite battling a gloomy economic outlook, the Indian BPO industry is on track to reach $73-75 billion in revenues by 2010.
…or Bhaloo, Maghu, Bhuriya, among the most ubiquitous of names for that most ubiquitous of beings — the Indian stray. Shunned by most, but fed by a few kind-hearted souls, the street dog across the country is resoundingly similar, often brushed aside as a mongrel, but actually a pedigree that is uniquely its own.
Dabbawalla & Co
The Mumbai dabbawallas have not only enthralled Britain’s Prince Charles but also taught Sir Richard Branson a thing or two about service with a smile. Well-chronicled for their network and trustworthiness and rated Six Sigma performance for the precision of delivery by Forbes magazine, the Dabbawalla Association’s error rate surpasses the benchmark that blue-chip telecom and IT companies have set for their products.
An Indian monument
Writes photographer Raghubir Singh in A Way Into India: “...It has become a metaphor for modern India, for independent India. Lizard-like, it has shed its colonial coating of Morris Oxford to don Hindustani colours. Unlike the Oxford don, tweed, thick-cut marmalade and an English breakfast of kippers and herring, it was never a British monument but it is an Indian one.” No one disagrees.
It’s the white elephant that wasn’t: the Taj has been called, with superb sentimentality, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”, a monument to love and so on. Many myths surround its creation, such as that its architects and craftsmen had to forfeit their hands or eyes so as never to outdo themselves. Some iconic moments attend its present, like the 1992 portrait of Diana alone in front of the Taj. It’s a huge tourist magnet, one of the so-called Seven Wonders of the World, the root of all the many Taj-based brand names, and by far the most recognisable symbol of India.
Ashoka turned from conqueror to loving father of his people when he converted to Buddhism. And 2,200 years later, the lion capital of his pillar at Sarnath became the emblem of the Indian republic. Four lions in mid-growl sit atop a drum showing the Buddhist chakra and four other animals, all incarnations of the Buddha.
Chacha Nehru’s rose
Nehru was occasionally photographed with children: voilà, he became Chacha Nehru. Nehru wore a rose in his second buttonhole, whenever roses were in season: voilà, there are Nehru Rose Gardens around the country. But Nehru’s rose, like his elegant clothes, was a mark of the man’s love for quality of all sorts, and so closely identified with him that few other people in the public eye since have had the courage to attempt similar accessorisation. And these days what man will wear a flower?
In the name of Ram
Gods ride chariots. Epic heroes like Arjuna rode war chariots. When BJP leader L K Advani wanted to spread his message of Hindutva in 1990 — by staking the Hindu majority’s claim to the supposed Ram janmabhoomi in Ayodhya — he too rode a “rath”. This one was a decorated minibus, on its way from Somnath to Ayodhya. It hit a roadblock when Advani was arrested. But frenzied kar sevaks brought down the Babri Masjid nevertheless.
He may no longer be the Indian artist who commands the highest prices for his canvases but he is India’s face of modern art, the barefoot painter who remains, at 93 years, a rockstar. In exile currently, on account of an obscenity case against him, Husain is hardly a stranger to controversy, having first courted it when he painted Indira Gandhi as Durga during the Emergency, earning flak from the intelligentsia.
A fistful of salt
After the Congress declared “full independence” from British rule as its goal in 1930, the first issue Gandhi chose to campaign against was the salt tax that hurt the poorest the most. Satyagrahis marched 390 km, from the Sabarmati ashram to the sea at Dandi, to “make salt”, defying the might of the Empire. A symbolic masterstroke.
Partition is the original sin of the Indian republic. The word refers not just to the division of territory but to the entire set of experiences set in motion in those hurried pre-Independence months of 1947 (historians will say, much earlier), whose tremors we, in all three countries, still feel each day. Millions were displaced, hundreds of thousands killed, and much suffering undergone. Yet the Indian nation survived — with scars.
Dacoits and bandits
The word dacoit (bandit) is probably derived from the Hindi word dakaitee, armed robbery. The most famous Indian dacoit was Chambal’s Phoolan Devi, while the bandit title went to south India’s Veerappan. Devi’s apparel and Veerappan’s moustache are irreplaceable in popular culture but unfortunately their real life exploits were completely eclipsed by Bollywood’s Gabbar Singh.
These two men are the most successful examples of filmstars crossing over to politics in India. They became trendsetters even while politicking. While N T Rama Rao chose Swami Vivekananda’s garb in Adhra Pradesh, ostensibly to emphasise his populist policies, M G Ramachandran cultivated his own image with trademark fur cap and dark glasses to mask his balding pate and sunken eyes.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Teresa to most of us, was called the “angel of mercy” by Calcutta’s poorest and least cared-for. Her charity and drive built one of the world’s largest and best-organised missionary organisations, and also won her the Nobel Peace Prize and a great deal of criticism. Regardless of a formal conferring of sainthood, the blue-bordered sari of her order has itself became iconic, a symbol of selfless love.
Long live Ayurveda
Ayus, or “life” and veda, “knowledge”, come together in Ayurveda, the ancient Vedic science of health. Today it’s a form of traditional medicine, one of India’s most important cultural exports. Research is on, worldwide, into the health benefits of herbs used even as Indian institutions worry that these may be patented in the West. Meanwhile, tourists flock to our spas whose tribe has grown.
Wheatish complexion. Or, how about a homely but “convented” girl? The big Indian arranged marriage was turned into a money-spinner by the newspapers, and now the Internet does an equally competent job.
The Hum do, hamare do slogan, the red triangle and Nirodh condoms featured in what were probably the first social marketing campaigns in the country with the background score of “pyaar hua iqraar hua “.
Our own space Odyssey
Sqn Ldr Rakesh Sharma (bottom, left), the first Indian but 138th human in space, got his share of headlines. His moment was the “Saare jahan se accha” quip when PM Indira Gandhi asked him how India looked from space. But lines must be spared for the mission’s Indian backup cosmonaut — Wg Cdr Ravish Malhotra (top row, right) — who despite training equally hard and outranking Sharma, never made it.
The original terror icon
Images of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai on fire may be fresh in our minds but it is this 35-year-old skyscraper that will always be associated with terror in our hearts. The Air India building in south Mumbai was among several city centres targetted during the 1993 serial bomb blasts. Fifteen years later, Mumbai’s iconic building witnessed another terrorist assault — only this time it was the neighbouring Trident-Oberoi hotel.
Kama Sutra land
When Vatsyayan wrote the Kama Sutra, his how-to treatise on sex in the fifth century, he could hardly have imagined that it would be in active publication so many centuries later. To the world, it signals sexual prowess, something Indians lament is sadly lacking in themselves. Yet, India remains the Kama Sutra land — ask any visitor.
What women, both urban and rural, are likely to hold in common is the continued and powerful belief in the special capacity of the saree to make a body more beautiful and womanly. This degree of intimacy between the wearer and the garment, more than that for any other form of clothing, may lead to a sense of the saree itself being animated, as having, in a metaphorical sense, a life of its own.
What the hamburger is to America, the samosa is to India — a deep-fried pastry filled with potatoes (or mince or peas or nuts). An anytime snack, all the way from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, served everywhere from the toniest 24-hour diners to neighbourhood “sweet shops” to makeshift roadside stalls, the samosa unites India.
The dhabas, succour for millions of Indian highway users, can be credited to Punjabi enterprise and truck drivers in need. Today, of course, all our highways have these food havens where hearty, inexpensive meals and makeshift “restrooms” are guaranteed. And the concept has moved on: It is not odd to find a “dhaba” in a five-star hotel!
Steady slip ons
Worn by celebrities and commoners alike, the humble Kolhapuri chappal aka “paaytaan”, as it is called by locals, was originally fashioned by cobblers in rural Maharashtra. Ingeniously designed, the footwear does not have any iron nails since the sole and the upper body of the chappals are joined by leather cord stitches.
You grew up the day your father ruffled your hair and strapped on an aged HMT watch to your wrist. It was the fulfilment of initial aspirations and often a symbol of the passing of the patriarchal baton. Inspired by prevailing design trends, the government mandate for Hindustan Machine Tools, till then forging heavy tools, resulted in these nickel-shiny timepieces. The aam-admi got his Janata model, now prized by collectors.
The dosa, with its steamed companion, idli, is permanently associated with the identity of a “Madrasi” (south Indian). S/he must be asked by fellow countrymen about the secret of mastering this preparation if s/he is a bonafide native. But the southies went a step further to satiate north Indian taste buds — by stuffing the dosa with paneer. Ugh!
Colourful chaos descends on the sleepy town of Shravanabelagola every 12 years. The exquisitely carved monolith of Bahubali, considered among the largest in the world, is the holiest shrine for the Jain community in the country. Devotees come in lakhs to perform the Mahamastabhisheka, a ritual that may seem to be in total contrast to the austerity preached by the sect — a chance to perform it can cost up to Rs 1.5 crore.
Monk in a bottle
It is probably India’s favourite rum, or rather alcoholic brand. From its uniquely shaped bottle (oak-patterned surface), to its taste, Old Monk’s popularity cuts across all segments and it remains the largest-selling brand in the country for good reason. It’s affordable, it goes down well with almost everything, it is there on all party menus, and, of course, it tastes great. It has probably been around for as long as, well, an Old Monk!
The devil watches TV
As is the case with last words, the green devil’s were also extremely famous. “Neighour’s envy, owner’s pride”, he said, the catchline for an ad for Onida. The cheeky devil was first seen on our TV screens in 1982 and was an instant hit. The big ears and tail added to his evil look.
For the past 40 years or so, she has been a traffic stopper. She effortlessly turns into Aamir Khan, Sachin Tendulkar or Zinedine Zidane and looks the part in each of her avatars. Political upheavals, terror attacks, sporting glories, she has been through it all and yet remains as fresh as she was. The ads still remain utterly butterly delicious! Yes, that’s the Amul girl we’re talking about.
The Maharaja at work
A Maharaja, greeting you like a common butler? No, no, he was welcoming you as an equal into Air India’s “palaces” in the air. But this one was a working Maharaja. He donned many costumes for his airline — from that of a sumo wrestler (Japan) to a Red Indian’s (the USA) — always, however, keeping his famous moustache. He made his first appearance in 1946, and became one of India’s most recognisable mascots.
Taste the Thunder
Probably the first-ever “masculine” brand in India — who can forget the Taste the Thunder campaign? Despite foreign brands, Thums Up remains India’s favourite and original cola with desi macho icons like Bollywood’s reigning king Akshay Kumar endorsing it.
The sight of a couple and two children is the first thing which probably comes to your mind when you think of a scooter. A Bajaj scooter. And the jingle “Buland Bharat ki buland tasveer, hamara Bajaj’” stuck the right note as it symbolised what a great and progressive Indian middle class stood for.
Washing your linen
Be it Chitrahaar in the old Doordarshan days or the K soaps in today’s era, Nirma, or “washing powder Nirma”, as the jingle went, has been on the menu for many commercial breaks. Generations have grown up listening to the jingle and even though the packaging may have changed, who can forget the dancing girl in white?
RS and MS
Pandit Ravi Shankar and M S Subbulakshmi offer interesting sociological insights through their personal lives. Subbulakshmi, born a devadasi, became the face of post-Independence, south Indian Brahminism, referred to as “more Brahmin than a Brahmin” in her later years. Ravi Shankar, born of Brahmin blood, married a Muslim first (Annapurna Devi, daughter of Ustad Alauddin Khan), fathered a daughter, Norah Jones, with the American Sue Jones and finally fathered Anoushka Shankar before his second wedlock. In his defence, it is said he was helpless as “women threw themselves at him.”
The hockey wizard
Wizard, genius, legend. We could go on with the superlatives and still not do justice to the man that Dhyanchand was. Such was his unbelievable skill that sporting authorities had to break his stick to see whether there was a magnet inside it or not. A true hero in a country where non-cricketing heroes are few and its first global superstar.
The name is Tendulkar
What can you say about a man who has been carrying the hopes of an entire nation ever since he was a teenager? Decades have passed but India still stops when Tendulkar is at the crease. People rejoice when he scores a century whereas a pall of gloom descends on the nation when he gets out. Tendulkar continues to enthrall the young and the old with his dazzling performances.
Tryst with destiny
June 25, 1983. The day when the world sat up and took note of Indian cricket. Since then, Indian cricket has not looked back and has grown into a monster. As rank outsiders, Kapil’s Devils stunned the entire cricketing world with their memorable win at the mecca of cricket, Lord’s, on June 25, 1983, against the mighty West Indies.
Yoga is now fitness orthodoxy (it came home to urban India after the West made it cool), so it has developed new sects and yogacharyas galore, each with a celebrity cheerleader. Madonna and her vigorous Ashtanga yoga, for instance. For every ailment now, someone will bracingly tell you to “Try yoga.” Yoga is popular because it usually doesn’t involve hard, sweaty, repetitive outdoor exercise — where’s the space for that?
Vamp the show
As Bollywood’s nautch girl, no one has — or will — come close to the position of Helen, the original item girl of the ’70s. Says Jerry Pinto, author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb, “When I watch an item number now, I miss the old dances in which Helen performed… In the move that is the standard sexualized challenge on every female dancer’s face, I do not find the laughing invitation to naughtiness that I remember in Helen’s.”
If Mehboob Khan’s Mother India showed Nargis (in an iconic image of wielding the plough) as a protagonist in the village, K Asif’s lavish Mughal-e-Azam, made over nine years, held the position of being the highest-grossing film in Indian cinema. The record was broken 15 years later by Sholay, a revenge drama of sorts. Before that was Raj Kapoor’s Bobby, with Dimple Kapadia’s mini-skirts and Rishi Kapoor’s bell-bottoms, signalling the arrival of romance.
The first suggestion of Indian fashion, the jodhpurs, was probably just a pair of churidar pyjamas worn by horsemen, converted into high street apparel when a royal visitor from Jodhpur in London had to get himself some gear stitched for riding when his baggage was sunk at sea. The ballooning-at-the-thigh and tight-from-knee-to-ankle pants have since remained trendy among a certain set.
The first kiss
That’s Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai in Karma, 1933. Considering that even today leading actresses are reluctant to kiss onscreen, it is no surprise that this still has attained such a cult status. Even in real life, Devika Rani was regarded as a woman ahead of her times; strong, liberal and iconoclastic, and her reel persona fitted right in. However, despite such a “bold” beginning, the portrayal of sex in Hindi mainstream remained limited to the flowers and bees imagery for a long time.
Mango for a motif
Kidney, comma, teardrop, mango or Welsh pear: it’s the paisley, the Indo-Persian textile motif that's ubiquitous in Indian fashion and design. It’s instantly recognisable in the West as well, thanks to the East India Company, the Scottish town of Paisley, which produced vast quantities of paisley cloth in the 1800s, and 1967’s Summer of Love, when the paisley was one of the signs of the psychedelic times. You see it everywhere.
“Ohmegod! I won!”
Before IT, our most attractive export was Sushmita Sen. Millions of Indians watched her win the Miss Universe 1994 title, and saw her white-gloved hands rise to her face in immaculate ecstasy. It was a heady moment, never mind that beauty pageants may be exploitative and discriminatory. Since then she has hardly taken the universe by storm, unlike rival Aishwarya Rai, Miss World in 1994. But Sen's moment of victory remains uneclipsed.
A Ray of light
Satyajit Ray (1921-1992). He made his films in Bengali yet they are of universal interest. For his subjects, Ray chose themes common to the entire human race — emotions, conflicts, joys and sorrows. In 1992, he received an honorary Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. He remains our most notable Oscar-winner till date.
Romancing the rains... in reel time
This still, part of a song sequence from the 1950’s classic Shri 420, is among the most enduring and popular images of Indian cinema. Apart from the fact that it features the magical pairing of Nargis and Raj Kapoor, two iconic actors of Hindi cinema, the image also owes its tremendous appeal to the lyrics of the song, “Pyar hua...”, expressing love. Ever since, the Indian monsoon has been part of the imagery of Bollywood, connoting lyricism and romance.
The Indian milk pail could almost be a totem for the middle classes, a symbol of aspiring prosperity for those in rural areas, suspended from railway carriages and two-wheelers by milkmen coming to urban centres to sell their milk, suggestive of Mother Dairy kiosks… And now, in the hands of Subodh Gupta, ironically a work of installation art priced way above middle-class prices.
The big books
Premchand’s last and greatest novel Godaan (1936) portrayed the harshness of village life, through the experiences of a poor farmer who gave his life to own a cow. Jawaharlal Nehru used his years in prison well: one outcome was The Discovery of India (1946), his most famous book, a sweeping survey of India’s history and culture from Harappa to the British. And Indian writers in English are grateful to Salman Rushdie opening up the Western world of letters to them, and for making Indian English cool. Rushdie’s breakout novel was the ever-awarded Midnight’s Children (1981).