Monday, May 10, 2010

Strange Partners To Development: Beauty

The first few posts of this blog should have already told you that the development sector is one that is very close to my heart. However, in some sense I have always felt like a misfit in this sector. Now that I am no longer employed in the sector, I have been able to take a step back and give this some more thought.

The idea that I am playing with is that I have always been at the margins of this sector because my main interests are those that are considered peripheral to it. As I love Venn diagrams, please visualize this idea with me as one of them. At the center of the diagram is a circle marked "development". Along its perimeter are three other circles, labeled "beauty", "culture" and "writing". My interests lie in the areas where these three circles overlap with the central one.

Saying that I am at the margins of development makes me feel empowered. My undergraduate training in anthropology made me sensitive to the fact that it is often those at the margins of a community who are best able to comment and reflect upon it. If the development sector is my community, then I like to think of myself as that marginal person. In the next three blog posts, I am going to talk about each one of my interests, respectively, and how they overlap with "development".

When development practitioners narrate their experiences, they often begin with how they came to the sector. I can think of a few examples of where these stories begin with encountering someone who is poor, and questioning how this person came to be in this situation. At the core of these stories is the experience of being troubled by inequality, or injustice. I suspect that there are many more stories like this.

My story was somewhat different. For all of my childhood I was an NRI (Non-Resident Indian). We visited India almost every year, but we only visited the cities, where most of my relatives lived. That was until I turned 14, when my mother decided that as most of India lives in the villages, I needed to see what that India was about.

We went to see the work of Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a women's development organization in the state of Gujarat. Kutch is in the desert and little grows there, so it is really their livestock and their craft traditions that are central to the lives of people.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, that trip was an intellectual and emotional awakening for me. But if I leave aside the intellectual motivations that prodded me towards the development sector, there are a few, select images and emotions that are seared across my mind in memory of that trip. The first is the shock of arriving in a village after dark, glowing white and spotless in comparison with the rural towns we had left behind, which unfortunately seem defined in India by their dirtiness. Of drinking the sweet milk fresh from the guest cow, and of sleeping under stars that had nothing to outshine, but did so anyway. And the white of this village in contrast with the riot of colours of this region's craft tradition, the mirrors of the Jat women stitched so painstakingly close to one another, and yet allowing an exuberant orange to push through the cracks.

The next villages I visited, three years later, were in Andhra Pradesh's Mehbubnagar district, a world away from the desert of Kutch, yet still starved of that most precious element, water. While the dry earth told of suffering, there was also a beauty to it, at the places where the parched, zigzagging lines met the solid, red and white stripes of the temples dotting the countryside.

Lately I have spent less time in the field, but more time observing and thinking about how development issues are portrayed through images. I recently attended an exhibition called Poster Women II. The title of the exhibition, "Painting Our World: Women's Messages Through Art", encapsulated the sense of unease that it left me with. The second part of the title was straightforward - the exhibits were by rural women, largely using traditional art forms to convey messages related to development. However, if the first part of the title was to fulfill its promise, then surely developmental issues were only one (albeit important) part of women's worlds? Surely rural women suffer flights of imagination, and experience love and the pain of loss, just as others do? Where were these themes in the women's art?

Of course, there were some exceptions. The most memorable piece for me was one where the entire page was covered with women on bicycles. This piece, and one other that did not have a clear developmental message, can be seen here. The artist behind the women on bicycles is Teju ben.

Why is beauty important, not only to art, but to development? An article from the New York Times News Service, published on April 15th in The Hindu, reported that there has been a significant drop worldwide in the number of women dying each year from pregnancy and childbirth. However, some advocates for women's health tried to pressure The Lancet, which published the findings, from releasing the information until certain meetings about maternal and child health take place in June and as late as December. The advocates were worried that they would not win support for more foreign aid for maternal health if the good news was made known.

Assuming a worst-case scenario, in which funding is denied for maternal health because deaths are in decline, then this might be the fallout of viewing recipients of aid solely as problems for development. Instead, if the goal of aid is to ensure that women are healthy, lead physically active lives, are mobile, independent and free, then reducing deaths is clearly not enough. Which vision of health does a page covered with women on bicycles convey?

Can beauty ever be detrimental to development? Absolutely. Images of women carrying water pitchers, and tribals wearing face paint and feathers, often grace ads for tourism to developing countries. These images, and the "attractions" associated with them, can ensure that women are not relieved of the drudgery of fetching water, and that tribal societies are forced to remain static against their will. So what I am advocating is not simply the production and circulation of "happy images" of rural life, but rather the use of art and beauty to paint a more holistic picture, of the recipients of development aid as people who experience joy and suffering, who live in places that are beautiful and harsh, and who have dreams and aspirations in their own right.

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