How to balance restraint and extravagance

How to balance restraint and extravagance
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First Published: Thu, Sep 03 2009. 08 45 PM IST

Simple affair: The Murthys at the wedding reception of their daughter Akshata. PTI
Simple affair: The Murthys at the wedding reception of their daughter Akshata. PTI
Updated: Thu, Sep 03 2009. 08 45 PM IST
This column is about flamboyance and restraint and how to balance the two; or indeed, whether they need balancing. India’s wedding season is just beginning and from now through March, we will witness a parade of weddings—some flamboyant and some restrained. Recently, Bangalore saw a high-profile wedding when IT icon Narayana Murthy’s daughter married her Stanford classmate. While the wedding pictures made front-page news, the local papers repeatedly reported that the wedding was a low-key elegant affair, in tune with Murthy’s persona.
Simple affair: The Murthys at the wedding reception of their daughter Akshata. PTI
Traditionally, the south, except for Hyderabad, has always been about simple weddings, although even here, the displays are getting more and more grand, even gaudy. Nair weddings take the cake with their 10-minute ceremonies conducted at the local temple, followed by a banana-leaf lunch. The bride wears an off-white kasavu sari; the bridegroom wears a sparkling white dhoti; the gold jewellery is tasteful but kept to the minimum. Syrian Christian weddings overdose on the gold jewellery but the outfits remain restrained.
The difference between south and north Indian weddings has to do with a single factor: liquor. In Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, most wedding receptions do not include liquor. While there is a buffet, there usually aren’t multiple counters with monumental displays of food, serving everything from Thai to thayir saadam (curd rice).
Delhi weddings, I am told, particularly Punjabi ones, are gleefully over-the-top with sumptuous spreads, riotous colours, elephant processions and guests clad in Sabyasachi and solitaires.
I have been wondering about flamboyance and restraint and which path to follow. It is a tough call because every decision in the flamboyance versus restraint debate falls in the “nice to have” category. Do you really need a Tarun Tahiliani lehenga or is it nice to have? Do you really need a polki diamond necklace or is it fun to wear?
For me, part of it is a philosophical issue about how money is used. You can spend Rs25,000 on a Banarasi silk sari. You can also educate about six poor children for one year with that money at St Aloysius School down the road from me. The way most of us deal with this equation is by contributing what we can to charities we care about and showing some restraint in our purchases. In the south, many ladies, particularly in the previous generation, might salivate over a Rs15,000 Kanjeevaram silk sari but the odds are that they will choose one that costs less even if they can afford it. My Punjabi friends tell me that their parents, on the other hand, will buy not just one sari but two—just to show that they can afford it.
The other aspect is whether you are being had. This applies particularly to brand names. Let’s face it: The monogrammed brown Louis Vuitton bags are ugly. They are the colour of cow dung and the logo sprinkled all over the bag looks gauche. Their Murakami bags are slightly less so. Their Epi leather bags, on the other hand, are mighty fine; ones I would love to own.
For me, the thing about Louis Vuitton and other brands is the sneaking suspicion that I am yet another sucker who has fallen prey to their marketing tricks. Sure, I might appreciate the quality and workmanship of a hobo bag but I have to wonder if the money I am plonking down shows that I am a creature with good taste or one more bimbo with a Birkin bag as arm candy.
There is beauty in restraint but there is a certain joie de vivre in flamboyance. I think that most of us admire Gandhian restraint. At the same time, we enjoy the good things of life, many of which are exercises in flamboyance. The fast cars, the pretty skirts, the sparkling jewellery, the 6-inch stiletto, the tastefully done up home, the art collection are all examples of personal style. You could argue that they epitomize the civilized life; they show that you are a cultured individual with good taste. That said, most of the greatest human beings in the world—ranging from Mother Teresa to Mohammed Yunus; from Albert Einstein to Madame Curie; from Nina Ananiashvili to M.S. Subbulakshmi— embraced restraint more than they did flamboyance; or so I have heard. They each had one or two extravagances and eccentricities; but beyond that they were not about “show”; about making other people’s eyebrows rise and jaws drop.
I think the answer to this fork in the road—the one that I have come up with anyway—is to permit yourself extravagances in areas that matter to you but choose simplicity and restraint in all other areas. If you enjoy spacious homes—as my husband does—go ahead, build yourself a mansion. But wear khadi in your mansion. The juxtaposition is sexy. If you enjoy jewellery, not just to show off to other people but to wear within your own home when you are expecting no company, go ahead, buy yourself gold, silver and diamonds. My mother is that way. She notices jewellery in other women, loves wearing different pieces, ranging from glass bangles to solitaires, and changes her jewellery daily.
I use the Holden Caulfield barometer in all areas where I am caught between restraint and flamboyance. Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time, hated appearing “pseudo”. The same could be said about the things we like to consume. If you are drinking wine to appear sophisticated in parties, you are a pseudo and you shouldn’t try. If, on the other hand, you drink wine in the privacy of your home, go ahead and have a glass on me.
Shoba Narayan is flamboyantly restrained. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Sep 03 2009. 08 45 PM IST