Progress Pavilion: On India’s Mela Economy

By Aditya Dev Sood

The sun has been hanging low for a while now, so different from the high summer. I find myself imagining the extreme angle of its likely incidence, the cause of its fleeting presence nowadays. The garden gets next to no sun, and cold is setting into the house for the short but sharp winter that Delhi experiences. The cool dry air and gentle sun make this the season for mela-s, festivals of culture and commerce that are scripted into the cultural geography of all north India, but brought to exalted expression in the social calendar of New Delhi.

We began by buying soap made at an ashram in Gangotri, the Himalayan mouth of the river Ganga at the Dastkar handicraft mela. We traipsed through the sarees displayed at the Chinmaya Mission mela, and enjoyed the root-beer at the American Women's Association mela, and bratwurst with beer at the German Mela. This morning we're back from the Delhi Commonwealth Wives Association mela, where we bought woolen slippers and hats at a stall run by the wives of diplomats from Kyrgyztan.

Indian middle class Diverting as these outings are, they're just sideshows to the real mela event of the season, the India International Trade Fair. The IITF, as it is universally referred to, is promoted by a government body and held in a specially-constructed fair grounds called Pragati Maidan, literally 'Progress Pavillion.' The first IITF was held in 1980, at the very zenith of India's era of socialism. In keeping with the state symbolism of those times, the event would be inaugurated on the 14th of November ever year, the birth anniversary of India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Punjabi call center Over the years, Pragati Maidan's 150 acre site accumulated new halls, auditoria and spectacle sites in keeping with the annual needs of the IITF. Some of the major states of India, were allotted sites where they have built semi-permanent pavilions that strain to capture the cultural and economic ethos of their region. Karnataka's pavilion is built as an over-scale replica of the medieval stone temples that dot its rural landscape. Just across, Gujarat has traded up the standard kitsch-tourism representations in favor of an unconvincing replica of modern technology park, replete with multiple satellite dishes and LED displays. This seems more and more the style these days, with Punjab also featuring full-scale models celebrating call centers.

Karnataka pavilion Once you step inside, each state pavilion offers more or less the same set of propaganda pieces: infrastructural achievements, investment opportunities, and culture and tourism destinations. The differences lay in the quality and manner in which these regional stories are told. West Bengal, where nothing has changed in 30 years is still using dioramas and macquettes to illustrate state projects like wind mill farms, and paying homage to its leading intellectuals through a gallery of heroes made up of black and white photographs. On the other hand, Bihar, now under new and dynamic leadership, is showing interactive displays which promise new kinds of investment opportunities in the state. There is something winning about this kind of regional self-celebration, for it suggests that the diverse infrastructural, trade, and business activities that go on in a particular region eventually come together to create a larger whole, whose total meaning is the state itself.

Moga silk shirt The displays and dioramas on the main floor of each state hall feel to me like a flash animated commercial en route to the content I'm actually interested in, which would be the vending stalls in the basement of each pavilion. These have regional varieties of silk, sarees, leather craft, pickles, spices and in the rare case even kinds of rice wine and fermented juices. In the Manipur pavilion we find a pickle made from its famous king chilli, perhaps the hottest I've ever tasted. In Assam, my fiance tries on a red white and gold mekhla, a kind of regional saree style transitional to the south-east Asian sarong. We find a foodstall run by a bunch of students from Nagaland serving millet beer, discretely served with newspaper wrapped around the bottle, the desi equivalent of sipping from a brown bag.

Space odyssy Even as folk dancers divert the crowds at the foot of various state pavilions, the structure and power of the Indian state is also on display in various halls throughout Pragati Maidan. Just across from one of the food courts is a permanent display of Indian Ordinance, announced on the exterior by decommissioned fighter jets and tanks, inert but still menacing. The Indian Railways has its own expansive pavilion. In a great Hall of Technology public and private sector companies are showcasing light electrical machinery, stabilizers, looms, printers. This year, in the wake of the Indian Space Research Organization's joint discovery, with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Agency, of water on the moon, there is a special audio-visual program on Nehru's vision of space as an opportunity for international peace and cooperation. In these ways, the IITF also represents the Nehruvian architecture of state, a logic also expressed in India's Republic Day parade.

In the early days of IITF, in an era when India's nascent middle classes had never seen the inside of a mall or even envisioned a hypermart, the fair served as a rare opportunity to view and perhaps even to buy exotic imported luxuries like toaster ovens and air conditioners. Even as the fair has grown in size and participation each year, it has shrunk in terms of the sheer volume of stuff that gets bought and sold each day in the malls of Noida, Gurgaon and Faridabad, on every edge of New Delhi. Nevertheless, parties from all parts of South and South-East Asia and beyond were represented at the IITF this year. This year, the Chinese state-sponsored delegation came in numbers, but came looking for investment opportunities and local partners, not to proselytize nor to sell trinkets to the people of Delhi. They left early, leaving behind carpet-sellers from Afghanistan, saree and suitings shops from Bangladesh, and stalls from Thailand selling everything from jewelry to cosmetics to potpourri. The International-ness of the IITF has a distinctive flavor, not like an airport duty-free, but more like a re-enactment of the Silk Route, the Fur Route, the Spice Route, networks that connected India with the pre-colonial and pre-industrial worlds beyond its cultural and geographical extremities.

Katia by katia By far, my favorite part of IITF is the diversity of handloom fabric available to touch, to appreciate, and to buy, especially handwoven silks, especially from Bihar and neighboring states in north-central India. Every piece is unique, you will never see another like it. And in its warp and weft you can read the corporeal knowledge and intelligence of the weaver, which made meaning from the imperfections and knots of silk yarn, consoling patterns that variegate like a landscape, or like bark, approximating the complexity of nature through the human eye, hand and mind. In the Bihar pavilion I find a rough katia silk in dirty brown. It feels like sack cloth, but perhaps ten times denser and a hundred times more expensive. I ask the guys behind the stall how much I'd need to stitch a suit, but they don't know: they're weavers not traders.

I am transported in my mind to rural Karnataka, where years ago my company, CKS, had documented patterns of trade in the rural economy. In the absence of malls and supermarkets, and given the diffuse distribution of the population in the countryside, a system of local weekly markets operates, which cycles through the countryside, so that on any given day you might be able to find a local market less than five kilometers away. You might go there to buy groceries or staples or fuel or essential tools and supplies, but you might also go to sell what was cooking or pickling or spinning or weaving or otherwise in preparation within the house. Most of the buyers at such santhey-s or haat-s or peth-s or similar weekly local markets might at the same time or on other days be sellers. The relationship between buyers and sellers is direct, and in principle at least, reversible. Through the propagation of the charkha, the manual spinning wheel, Gandhi's social philosophy expressly enjoined all of us users to also be creators of value. The village market and Gandhian economy, therefore, follows a decentralized peer-to-peer model, the very antithesis of the modern retail chain, and of late capitalist consumerism in general.

Mela-s are more festive, extensive and intensified versions of local markets, conducted to an annual rather than weekly calendar, often in alignment with harvest cycles. The people must have something to trade and something to trade with, for there to be a reason for a mela. The form of the mela seems to promote a kind of critical regionalism, similar to the wine concept of terroir: the kinds and varieties of goods available can be known on the basis of where they are from, the special techniques were employed in the creation, and the distinctive natural materials of which they are constituted. At Pragati Maidan, the cultural, material and regional specificities from across India have been carefully curated in order to create a ritualized and tropic space, through which one can understand and celebrate the macrocosm of India.

Localized agrarian trade was the communitarian foundation of Gandhi's vision for India's future, which was to be lived in its villages, at a timeless tempo, never to be disturbed by dams, irrigation projects, vaccination, the green revolution, satellite television or mobile phones, all of which are also and at the same time being celebrated at the various halls of Pragati Maidan. And alongside the village economy of Gandhi and command industrialism of Nehru, Pragati Maidan now also hosts the vast consumer appetite of India's growing middle class, due in large part to the economic liberalization of Manmohan Singh. All these forms of economic and social life perdure within the melee of India, incompletely resolved, with no clear teleological direction. We wait for their interaction and recombination to generate counterforms and alternatives we cannot yet imagine, as revolutions within revolutions still waiting to happen.

Nehru at the charkha