Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
Objects of desire
Art critic and freelance writer based inChennai.
"I think I'm getting the urge" said Priya. Her eyes had the glazed look of a hunter who has just scented blood. The odour might have been somewhat stale and dusty like the inside of an old bachelor's apartment, but this only increased the lust. She had warned us to drag her away from temptation. Already, she was pawing at her wallet in the back pocket of her designer jeans.
"Listen, I've got to get in there. They've given me a fantastic deal. A twenty per cent discount on every thing I purchase from the place", she begged. "I'm getting withdrawal symptoms. I swear I haven't been near one of these places in ten days." We smiled in a superior way.
"No bookshops, no books, no nice maggies, no comics for the children, no pamphlets showing you how to improve your memory, Priya. This is where the ink dries up. No commas for a bookshop junkie, only full stops." For the truth has to be told. Priya was as addicted to bookshops as your common or garden junkie. Even after we left her, it was not certain how long it would be before the lure of the printed word would draw her once more into the twilight zone of the neighbourhood bookshop.
Priya belongs to an elite brigade of addicts, who are happy to acknowledge their craving. She would never agree that she has anything in common with the more everyday forms of consumer addiction, the supermarket surfers, the bargain hunters, the boutique raiders, the mascara madams, the shoe fetishists, the lingerie loonies, the crystal crazies and the girls who spend their time in the shower singing, "And diamonds are a dame's best friend!"
Has it been noticed that even object gratification, or the joy of buying inanimate things to satisfy an inner craving, comes with a gender bias? Men are known as collectors: women as hoarders. World conquerors, emperors, kings, tyrants and tycoons amass objects for the sake of the country, or the company. Women do it for the sake of the nest. When Lord Elgin collected his marbles from the Parthenon, or his Indian counterpart tossed the Kohinoor into the Queen Empress's cabinet, they were seen as scholars. Ivana Trump on the other hand, is a vamp. It probably explains why Priya is not ashamed to admit to a passion for books. Until not so long ago, books were seen as the male preserve.
In patriarchal societies, men were the ones who collected manuscripts, paintings, works of art and of course, books. Women just dusted them. A man who selects rare wines, beautiful objects, rare diamonds, cars, country estates is celebrated as a connoisseur, a patron of refinement and taste. A woman on the other hand, is a fortune hunter, a greedy opportunist, an Imelda Marcos, who will forever be associated with a pile of footwear, even if the Sultan of Brunei or Michael Jackson could probably out-run her any day. They never counted their designer boots and booties. Poor Imelda on the other hand, being the frugal housewife, despite her taste for extravagant splurging in footwear, insisted on arranging them close to her bedroom, in a walk-in closet, in neat little racks. She was eventually caught out and ridiculed.
Objects are a source of power. In more primitive times, the ability to choose stones that could be sharpened for the kill established human beings as tool makers. It allowed them to hunt together in packs, to kill the fleeter footed antelopes, deer, bison and the woolly haired mammoths, which were then celebrated on the walls of caves, in the form of wall paintings. These were the objects of desire for the primitive man and woman - food, the glory of the hunt, men shown using their sharpened stones, spears and nets. Women played a supporting role. Or so the story goes. They searched around the family hearth, looking for roots, grubs, and berries, in their role as gatherers. These objects were taken for granted, you don't see cave paintings that extol the merits of a bowl full of fat juicy grubs.
As the power to make things increased in range and sophistication, so did the need to make a statement about material wealth. The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were possibly the most successful among the people living in the societies of the past, to convey to the rest of the world, the magic of the object. They not only built their Pyramids, they amassed enough objects to fill museums all over the world today and documented them in exquisite paintings on the walls of their crypts and vaulted tombs.
This need to pin down the object in paint, or fresco, to create an image of it for others, who might not have the power to acquire it, is what has been expanded for us as advertising. Advertising allows us to dream that we too can be Pharaohs. Cleopatra, the old temptress of the Nile, has sold more soap and bathroom accessories than any one bubble bath manufacturer. The odd rumour that she used to bathe in asses milk, or that her matchless beauty was the result of her own experiments with Eastern unguents, spices, rare gems and herbal products, has resulted (with a little help from Hollywood) in an instant identification of any bath or skin care product with the fabled Queen.
So clearly have the images been reinforced through a skilful merging of ancient myth and current marketing methods, that lurking inside the psyche of every woman waiting to pick up a bar of luxury soap, there is the hidden hand of Cleopatra. "Give me my soap, pass me the gel, I have immortal longings in me!" she cries, imperiously, as she pushes her trolley down the aisle. Remember how so many different soaps have been promoted as the recipe used by Queens and Princesses of the past, or those that are labelled "Imperial Lather"? What could be more absurd than comparing a concoction of sheep fat, lanolin and soda ash with a few perfuming agents, to a King or Queen? Yet, that is the power that resides in a bar of soap, once it has been packaged through advertising.
"My grandmother might have bought a bar of 501 soap that served the entire household needs, but I have to look for ten different kinds of soaps and detergents," explained a housewife. "Forget my complexion, even my dishwasher needs to be pampered with four different types of washing agents."
Walk down the aisle of any supermarket and you will notice that it's the women who are "manning" the trolleys, making the choice between 60 different kinds of shampoos, gels, conditioners, herbal supplements, non-oily pomades. We are still only talking of hair maintenance here, not yet looking into the hair tinting, dyeing, bleaching, curling or straightening department. In the gorgeously saturated world of conspicuous consumption, women have been placed in the forefront. They are both the targets of the marketing blitz and the end users. It's their responsibility to maintain a beautiful, dirt-free, dust-free, sweet smelling, artificially air-freshened home. Once they have created this perfect environment, it's the women in their role as home-makers, interior decorators, designers and custodians of style and taste, who have to fill these spaces with suitable objects.
"I love the way she touches the fabric for the curtains and the sofas, it's so sensuous. Women make better designers, because they are perfectionists," explained a young businessman, who ended his observations with the famous line, "after all, God is in the details." God might have created Adam, but it was Eve who opted for free choice. It's she who decides on the details, the minutiae of the material world. The material girl is both icon and victim.
The freedom to choose has become for many, the tyranny of choice. The ever increasing range of products, or the many versions of the same items, very carefully differentiated by brand names and by packaging and positioning, has created a craving for things. It has created a whole new breed of hunters who are forever hungry. Their grazing grounds are in the newly opened malls and arcades. You can see them hunting in packs on Sundays with their families in tow. While the children are allowed to run wild on the floors reserved for toys and games, where they can look for the next Barbie, or the latest miniature Kaleshnikov, the mothers are getting lessons in make-up, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen accessories, the traditional domain of the female, the fathers are investigating their own toys, cameras, watches, electronic goods and of course, books and music, those old mind improving objects.
These neon lit caves are filled with images, signs on the walls that show others like them, urging them to get on the trail. There are big white hunters holding tennis rackets, or golf sticks, who sell T-shirts, sporting shoes, caps and other specialised accessories. There are bronzed goddesses, who flash their teeth promoting a brand of mouthwash. There are chunks of food disguised as burgers, milk-shakes, ice-cream, pop corn. There is noise from hidden speakers that mechanically recreates the excitement of the hunt in the boom-boom-boom of the rapper's voice. Buy! Buy! Buy!
It's sweeter than sex. It's instant gratification. It's primitive. It's universal. An object of desire can confer the purest form of power. Until the next time and the next object comes along.
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