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Mother India: The idea of unity in diversity

Posted by Rohit Lahoti
January 17, 2018

NOTE: This post has been self-published by the author. Anyone can write on Youth Ki Awaaz.

The idea of unity in India stems from accepting the differences in terms of region, religion, caste, ideologies, race and language. The following research dwells upon the idea of unity prevalent within some of the Indian cities. The dense nature of the built fabric combines various facets of a place in terms of spaces and people. To understand how these facets fuse to create a multi-dimensional experience, I am using the idea of layers to decode the functioning of Indian cities. 

Like India like any other city, it takes generations and decades to be what they are, to embody the culture they belong to. By layers, I mean the multiple cultural filters that have been significant in shaping a place during that particular era in history. These filters can be in terms of people, politics, historical events, geography, architecture, attire etc. It is these layers, when observed carefully, gives us a deeper insight to their symbolic associations in the growth of the city. The idea of unity by diversity in “Mother India” feels real when all these layers from different epochs of time function together.

To take the case of Mumbai, it is a city which started formally growing after the arrival of Portugese in the 16th century followed by Britishers, Marathas, Mughals, Parsis, Gujarati, Konkani, etc. Today, it is one of the largest cosmopolitan cities of India. These addition of layers over centuries has its visibility in the urban landscapes of the city through some form or the other. One can find a 11th century sacred tank to a 200 year old Irani Hamam to a Chinese temple to a Victorian architecture monument to the mill-workers chawls to a Christian colony to a recently conceived contemporary gigantic bridge Bandra-Worli sealink. The diversity of layers percolates down to the way the city and its people behaved then and the way they behave now. These simultaneous functioning of layers are also visible in the attire people wear, the festivals people celebrate and the multitude of food varieties they relish. These layers are not just visible explicitly and in a tangible form but there are many underlying layers which are implicit and intangible. The functioning of these layers at an equilibrium represents the idea of “Mother India” for me.

The layers need not just be the external layers but the equilibrium of the internal layers are also necessary for a smooth functioning of a city or a place. Talking about Dharavi, the largest slum-pocket of Asia in Mumbai, has the most complex of layers where people who live come from different regions, religion, caste, and class. In spite of being one of the few places with such a large density of layers, it functions harmoniously and at a steady pace. In the image below, we again see a function of multiple layers happening at the same time. The feature image published here was taken on a Friday, which is a Jumma day for the Muslims. The otherwise fully-packed two-way road reduces into half where on one side people pray in huge numbers while on the other side, the regular traffic moves at its own pace.

The idea of layers, as said before, can be explicit and implicit. To quote some examples, a Muslim family celebrating Ganpati festival or a group of Christian young men relishing sweets on Mohammad Ali Road during Ramzan, or me, an upper-caste Hindu, rejoicing on Bakalava (a traditional Iranian sweet) on a Parsi new year. All these actions have a series of layers, some visible, many invisible. The uniform functioning of these layers from generations gives a city the character that truly embodies the idea of “Mother India” that is united by the diversity.

I also wanted to draw an analogy of the idea of layers with the idea of Mother. The role of mother or women in India is very versatile. To call her a woman first and then a mother will make us realize the multiple layers of personalities that she embodies and carries within herself. She has a multitude of roles throughout her life, right from an obedient daughter to an under-fed child to an over-conscious college girl to a dutiful wife to a caring mother to an obedient daughter-in-law. These multiple personalities inside one woman are symbolic of the multiple layers inside her which makes her behave differently in different circumstances. While a man, owing to the power of patriarchy, can be the way he is in a variety of situations.

The idea here primarily takes into account the city of Mumbai to understand the idea of layers. The parameters thus used for understanding the city of Mumbai can be used like a prototype in decoding the layers in other cities and towns. The idea of layers in a “Mother” and in “India”, thus, has a strange analogy. Just like conceiving the idea of a mother without the layers (as mentioned above) is impossible, the idea of cities in India and the way they function is inconceivable without the orchestra of a variety of layers creating a symphony. The “Mother India” conceived in this research is through the lens of a city – here, Mumbai. Different cities and towns and villages can be perceived through different filters and shall have multiple underlying layers. The idea is to use this research as a starting point for conceiving and building the larger narrative of “Mother India” through scaling down to towns and cities.

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