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Publication: The Times Of India - Chennai; Date:2009 Feb 16; Section:Times City;
Page Number 5
The death of vulgarity
Santosh Desai

Is anything vulgar anymore? This word, once used to describe a whole host of actions,
from ostentatious displays to salacious representations, is seldom used nowadays, except by
those who use it as a moral stick to beat others into submission. The idea of vulgarity has
been appropriated as an epithet to be used by groups with extreme views on how others
should behave.
I grew up in a time that was mortally afraid of anything that remotely reeked of vulgarity.
The word itself was an ugly reminder of the import it carried, with the indecorous bulge of
consonants that stumbled out of its trousers. To pronounce something vulgar was to banish
it from the ranks of the civilised, by deeming things to be inappropriate rather than illicit.
The idea enabled a society like ours to mark its boundaries as well as to defend its implicit
belief system.
We have come a long way since that time. Watching the IPL auctions and the media
interviews thereafter, I was struck by the absence of that word from our active vocabulary
today. Here we had a spectacle where the richest and the most glamourous body shopped
the purest and the most talented by bidding on them. The sums of money were staggering,
the owners’ pride at having filled their stables with thoroughbreds was obvious and the
media attention that preyed on this event, fawning.
Afterwards there was a television interview, with the owners all resplendent in designer
glasses talking about their acquisitions. In the entire interaction, there wasn’t a trace of
selfconsciousness about what was happening. After all, they were rich and beautiful and
they had already bought Ferraris so why not sport stars now? Teams are bought and sold
everywhere but what we are revelling in now is the spectacle of acquisitions. The market in
India is not content to be an invisible mechanism but wants to strut around dressed in
gaudy finery. Wealth becomes real only when displayed. Money seems to create a vicarious
thrall as we tingle in electric empathy when we hear tales of the Ambani or Mallya billions.
As we are with the kind of displays we see on television on a nightly basis. Unseemly
squabbles between bit-has-beens and obscure never-will-bes, comedy routines based on
crossdressing jokes full of bawdy suggestiveness, high-pitched melodramatic theatrics by
reality show judges who are forever moving between tantrums, exploitative headlines in the
name of investigative reporting on news channels, up-the-skirt camera angles used to cover
a new sporting phenomenon called the cheerleader, the list is a long, long one. The kind of
people who dominate our screens are obvious attention-seeking mediocrities, but we allow
them to manipulate us into following their actions. Be it a singer called Mika, a dancer called
Sambhavana, a troubled politician’s son called Rahul, we are rivetted by their inconsequence
that is put on such vivid display.
In a larger sense, the tendency to fragment the world into hierarchical sectors, each with
different social valencies, has given way to a more uniform social field governed by the
common currency of money. The legitimacy of money and its ability to speak in a uniform
voice, has blunted the sharp differences that existed earlier. The security once derived from
one’s social class which made money secondary is no longer as much in evidence. The club,
with its focus on exclusivity based on where you came from, has given way to the 5-star
hotel with its focus on how much you can pay.
Television as a medium too hastens the move to privilege the quantitative over the
qualitative. The TRP, which is a superficial measure of viewership, determines television
content today; it is more important how many people watch rather than what kind of 17/02/2009
The death of vulgarity Page 2 of 2

influence a channel is able to exert. Today, an India TV gets the advertising support its TRPs
warrant, regardless of the content, whereas earlier, no matter how much a Manohar
Kahaniyan sold, it could never hope to get advertising support from certain kind of brands.
At one level, we are seeing a welcome democratisation taking place. Old hierarchies are
collapsing and mobility is a more transparent affair and is accessible to many more. Barriers
of birth are being replaced by those of money and achievement. On the other hand, we
seem to have actively abandoned the desire to qualitatively discriminate between things and
are content to accept what is thrown our way uncritically.
Of course, in a world full of diverse people, there can be no uniform standard of good
taste. One person’s aspiration can so easily be another person’s vulgarity. The question is
whether the idea of using any standard is being applied at all. By not actively discriminating
between things, by being open to everything that the world throws at us in a passive way,
do we help create a world where we will be ruled by people with the loudest voices, fattest
wallets and biggest sticks? 17/02/2009

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