Mansionism 2: Bungalows

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mansionism

Though I’m big on climate-resilient futures, I have an ambivalent relationship with density as a means to achieve them. I mostly grew up in company bungalows on generous-sized lots, and loved it. Both the word and the architectural style are Indian in origin. The style originated in feudal-era Bengal and spread across north India during the British Raj. In North Indian languages, the word bangla refers both to the style of house and the Bengali language.

As a prominent Bengali nobleman, Rabindranath Tagore likely had mansion-scale super-bungalows in mind when he wrote (emphasis mine):

Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

I don’t mean to be snarky, but this is the mansion whose narrow domestic walls he was born and raised in:

Jorasanko Thakurbari, now Rabindra Bharati University (P. K. Niyogi, CC-BY-SA-3)

Tagore is an anglicization of Thakur, which is a feudal title like Lord, not a last name. The Tagore family mansion pictured above, Jorasanko Thakurbari, is now part of the campus of Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, a public university dedicated to a Tagoresque tradition of education.

No, I did not grow up in mansion-scale super-bungalows like Thakur Rabindranath. I did, however, spend a couple of hours a week attending art classes at the local Tagore Society campus in my hometown of Jamshedpur, which is close enough to Calcutta to be within the Tagore force-field that radiates out of the city.

A great many of the books I read growing up came from the Tagore Society library. To their credit, they stocked a nice collection of comic-books, adventure, and science fiction, not just the de rigeur collection of Tagore’s (voluminous) works. In an indirect way, I owe my vast knowledge of Tintin and Asterix comics, and Isaac Asimov’s works, to the manor-born Thakur Rabindranath. I had access to other libraries, but the Tagore Society library was where I got the fun stuff. It was closest in curatorial style to an American public library. Tagore was my Ben Franklin.

I never did read much of Tagore himself though, beyond a few assigned short stories and poems in English or Hindi translation at school. I can tell his stuff is good, and that he deserved his Nobel, but it isn’t particularly to my taste. He was also a talented artist and composer, which is why Tagore societies around India run art and music schools. My memories of weekend art classes are inextricably linked to the sound of students in the next room practicing Rabindrasangeet, a soporific style of music he pioneered. It is easily my least favorite kind of music.

In the West, Tagore is mainly an obscure poet-philosopher. In West Bengal though, he is at the center of an entire state-sponsored alternative-education arts-and-culture industry. One that evolved out of the wealth, romantic-idealist manorial sensibilities, and sense of noblesse oblige, of the extended Tagore family. Today, the Tagore universe has its center in the town of Shantiniketan which houses the Visva Bharati University (World-India University). The town took its name from — you guessed it — yet another Tagore family mansion. Shantiniketan means abode of peace, something only a mansion can claim to be with a straight facade. Peace, after all, requires a large enough house for all inhabitants to retreat to their own rooms after a fight. You either need more rooms, or fewer people. By that definition, my current apartment is a mansion. There’s two bedrooms, one of which serves as my home office. So my wife, our cat, and I can each be in a separate room if need be. It really does make for a more peaceful existence.

Typical urban bungalows in India, of the sort I grew up in, are of course far smaller than the many opulent mansions that once housed the Tagore family, and now house the Tagore Literary Industrial Complex. But there is a familial resemblance, as in the mimetic relationship of petit bourgeois to haute bourgeois. Their construction reflects and reveals manorial attitudes, intentions, and aesthetics. They are the mini-mes of Thakur mansions like Jorasanko.

Jamshedpur, like many company towns in the region, has many middle-class neighborhoods built around bungalows owned by the company — Tata Steel in our case — and rented to its officers. Their designs derive from both Thakur and colonial styles. Unlike the socially comparable Chettiar mansions of the South, or the havelis of Rajasthan, which are more urban and associated with wealthy banker and trader classes, Bengal-style bungalows have a more rural aesthetic and are associated with agricultural wealth. They are generally built on somewhat larger plots, and usually feature flower and vegetable gardens, and fruit trees. Bengal, unlike the arid Rajasthan and Chettinad regions, is agriculturally bountiful.

The bungalows I grew up in had mango, papaya, lychee, jackfruit, jamun, custard apple, and citrus trees, as well as flower and vegetable gardens on the grounds. And servants’ quarters occupied by the families of a live-in maid and gardener. Before you head over to march me off to a guillotine, keep in mind that these bungalows were smaller than typical single-family suburban American homes, and stuff grows more easily in the tropics. I didn’t even have a room to myself until my sister left for college. These really were middle-class homes. Just in a much poorer country with a history of trickle-down manorialism. Still, I can’t deny I didn’t have at least a petit-privileged upbringing.

As a child, I assumed things like fruit trees, gardens and servants’ quarters were a natural part of the idea of a home. I still do, except for the natural part. Such an expansive and inegalitarian idea of a home is of course anything but natural. At the very least, servants’ quarters ought to be replaced with robots’ quarters.

I’ve mostly lived in apartments as an adult, but my preferred living situation remains somewhere between a large bungalow and an entire planet to myself. If I had a lawn, I’d want it to be planet-sized, and I’d tell everybody to get off it, and set my robots on them.

Rather curiously for a state that reveres the feudal Tagore family, West Bengal was ruled by the (democratically-elected) Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), for 34 years, until 2011. Rabindranath was the Tolstoy of Bengal in more ways than one (at least 4 ways: long flowing beard, feudalism, communism, and literature). The Tagore family was among the rare noble families with roots in feudal pre-British India that managed to reinvent itself as an enlightened and progressive ally of the downtrodden in an Actually Communist™ post-independence milieu.

The Tagore mansions evolved relatively peacefully from feudal holdings to public educational institutions. Not a building-milieu fit transition you’d expect to be navigated peacefully. The family played a major part in the Bengal renaissance, and its philanthropic and educational initiatives tended to focus on the underprivileged, and harmonize well with the communist mood of a young independent India.

It takes fairly special milieus, generally based on oppressive extraction, to give rise to even bungalows, let alone proper mansions. But many other milieus can use them once they exist, including actual communist ones apparently. And once the idea exists, it can perhaps be realized in non-oppressive ways.

The perception of the Tagore family is in stark contrast to the perception of the Thakur class in general, which remains as hated in modern India as it was through the Mughal and British eras. Though the manorial system (known as the Zamindari system) was abolished post-independence throughout the subcontinent in the 1950s, the legacy of it still shapes the societal structure and built environment of the region.

So unless you’re talking about notable exceptions like the Tagore family, the title Thakur is pretty much synonymous with villain in India. Until fairly recently, Bollywood movies frequently featured an evil Thakur as the primary antagonist. In real life, conflicts between Thakurs (now an increasingly economically distressed and downwardly mobile class) and the underprivileged continue to this day.

Of course, a subset of the class has reinvented itself as the new metropolitan elite. They are now more likely to feature as suave, globalist protagonists in Bollywood movies than as villains. Amitabh Bachchan went from playing anti-Thakur heroes in the 70s to Thakur-like benevolent rich patriarchs in the 90s. Neoliberalism ate Bollywood.

I suspect many in today’s once-again-socialist-tending times would likely want all mansions torn down and replaced with greener and more egalitarian built environments. But maybe the idea of a mansion can be refactored and squeezed into a smaller form factor. Maybe even one that fits within a Green New Deal.

Series Navigation<< Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Thakur = kulak? Seems like the universally hated figure of modernity, in all of its instantiations, from the French revolution onward.

    Basic universal hate isn’t directed towards industrial capitalists which are still kind of ambivalent, but to the heirs and reminders of the feudal order. Today one can resent the Davosians, the rich Anywheres, what was called the “Jetset” a generation ago but they constitute a class whose presence is entirely mediated and para-social. You probably don’t see this specimen in real life.

    Although the word “feudalism” still inflicts indescribable horrors among moderns, functions like taxing, judging and punishing. have been withdrawn from the landlords in the age of absolutism and their centralized state machines, under kings like Louis XIV. I wouldn’t wonder if that is also the time when populist agitation against land owning people started, not only those who executed power, but landowners in toto.

    Nomadic tribes mostly inflicted indescribable horrors to premodern farmers. They were the first the State had an eye on but they were largely defeated in the age of enlightenment when the eye of the State began to spot the landowners and local aristocrats. In the 19th century, thanks to democratic representation even under absolutist regimes, the rural bourgeoisie was represented by the Conservative Party. The most notable representative of the Conservative Party in Prussia and later in the German empire, was surely Otto von Bismarck, who among other things launched the prototype of what became the social welfare state, mostly in response to his attempts to defeat the Democratic Socialists of the Bebel-SPD which were persecuted as dangerous revolutionaries. When Bismarck left office he failed to defeat the SPD but it converted itself into a reformist party, something it remained ever since. Ironically Bismarck also fought in his “Kulturkampf” ( culture war ) against the Catholic “Center” party, which was, well centrist, but suspected to be controlled by Rome. The Center was revived after WWII but morphed into the CDU in 1945, a conservative reformist party, in the style of Bismarck, which over-adapted to its political enemy under Merkel, whose most important legacy in domestic politics, will be that her political tactic gave birth to a new party to the right of the CDU, the AfD.

    Just like the Thakur in your description, the modern CDU is now neoliberal, urban and globalist, suspicious of nationalism and multicultural.

  2. Good one! Took me back…

    • I think Agatha Christie or something said she never thought she’d be able to afford an automobile but not a maid. Tech leverage has wildly inflated the mean economic value of a human work-hour, with the consequence of pricing out all the jobs that still can’t be made more efficient via automation.

  3. Peter Davies says

    Same here. I grew up in a series of colonial bungalows on tropical plantations or estates owned by the British company my father was employed by. I think that it affected my ideas about what a good, solid house should look like and how one might spend time in a world of leisure structured around meal times and recreational activities. I still believe that the gated retirement villages I see being built now with shared recreational facilities such as swimming pools, tennis courts, library and games rooms are but a watered down interpretation of what British colonial life might hae been like for ex-patriots in the colonies. Rather like a cruise liner lifestyle but based on land.

  4. Peter Davies says

    I was force-fed Tagore at university but in the context of his poetry and what he did for the poor. I didn’t realise that he came from such a wealthy background.

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