India, according to Jaakko Pesonen, a Finnish artist, is not black and white, never has been
New Delhi: More than 1.7 million foreign tourists visited India in 1993. Among them was Jaakko Pesonen, a Finnish artist intrigued by Indian culture and history. It wasn’t his first visit. Pesonen grew up in Asia and visited India in 1971, when he was five years old. More than two decades later, he was drawn to the country once again when he came in contact with the Indian fashion and crafts community through a friend. Several visits during the post-reforms era have shaped his experiences and impressions of India.
“A lot of people in those days came here for spirituality, for finding themselves. I was not one of them. I was very clear about why I wanted to visit here," he says.
Economic reforms introduced in 1991 would change the Indian landscape in ways that could not be envisaged then. But this wasn’t so obvious in 1993. Delhi, Pesonen’s first port of call, was far less crowded, the cars on the road were fewer (there were only three models, after all) and the houses were mostly stand-alone. “No high-rises, no Metro, no malls, no cars, very few people. It was a different city," recalls Pesonen.
Socializing was mostly in people’s homes, though he does remember Hauz Khas Village emerging as a hot spot around then. “Things were changing, there was talk about it, but reforms did not manifest themselves in any way then. We were still drinking Thums Up and Limca. Everything was made in India. The only change that I did notice was that hand-painted banners and signs were on their way out; in fact, I think that in terms of landscape, it was a completely different country owing to the hand-painted signs. The printed ones started making an appearance around this time," says Pesonen.
The fashion scene, which he was closely associated with, thanks to his friends, was on the verge of a boom, though the first generation of Indian fashion designers had already appeared in the 1980s. “Those who are big names today were just starting out," says Pesonen, who counts David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore of Abraham and Thakore as his good friends. Fashion shows weren’t the social events they are now and, of course, the fashion week was unheard of. “It was exciting, glamorous, but also in its infancy. There were fashion shows held during New Year parties, in flights... it was a bit clumsy to be honest, but do remember the world was very different at that point of time. I am not sure how different the fashion scene would have been, even in Helsinki," says Pesonen.
The 1993 trip took Pesonen across the country from Gujarat to Karnataka, distances that he covered by train. Flying was not common and anyway, a train journey still remains the romantic traveller’s preferred means of exploring India. “The number of hours I have spent trying to purchase a ticket, going from one counter to another to the next, only to be told, that no, I need to go to yet another counter. In those days, if you wanted some work done, you had to keep a whole day aside for it. In that respect, I would say things have changed so much and we have the Internet to thank for it. Now, one can get tickets booked in minutes and I think this has impacted the overall pace of life in India also. Things just move much faster now."
Pesonen has made several trips to India since his second visit in 1993. The differences that economic reforms wrought had started becoming very apparent in 1997, the year of his third visit, but by the time he came back in 2012, it was as good as coming back to a different country.
“Everything had changed. Delhi had the Metro, there were malls everywhere," he says. “My friends, who had started small labels in the ’90s, were exporting to other countries."
Pesonen visited Bengaluru this year and admits to having been taken completely by surprise at its transformation from a sleepy pensioners’ town to the IT hub it is today. “But if you were to ask me the biggest impact of reforms in India, I would say it is the emergence of the middle class. In my first visit, I met my friends and the man on the street. This teeming, bustling middle class that you see on the streets now, in metros, comprising of men, women, boys and girls, all of whom are working, was not there."
Pesonen turned 50 this year and he says he came to India to escape the increasing polarization in Finland, the immediate trigger for which is the refugee crisis. Suddenly, there is economic uncertainty, fear of the unknown and hostility towards the other, sentiments that did not exist in his part of the world. “It’s very black and white and I needed a respite from all of it."
India, according to Pesonen, is not black and white, never has been. “It always had its share of complexities and coexistence," says Pesonen. “For me, India has always been a shade of grey when it comes to the human condition. Be it a pre-reforms India or a post-reforms one."
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