India’s Industrial Heritage: The History in Everyday Objects

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If you’re in your late 20s or younger, the following words will probably read like gibberish: Onida, Murphy, Sumeet, Garden Vareli, Singer. And yet these very words, among many others, spelt ‘future' to an India excited to find her feet, yearning to be self-reliant, and searching for an identity, as the country shook off the colonial yoke.

These were the post-Independence years, when India’s march towards her future was defined in no small measure by the rise of industry. It was a vision driven by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted technology to power industrial innovation.

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru | Wikimedia Commons

Believe it or not, for most of us who grew up in this new urban India, the world around us evolved at a pace that was at times difficult to keep track of. We saw how industry grew, changed and reinvented itself.

We wore clothes stitched from Raymond’s suitings and Garden Vareli sarees only on special occasions; treasured Videocon washing machines, which replaced washing boards in our backyards; depended on Kelvinator refrigerators, which kept growing in size; and the Usha toasters and sandwich-makers that our moms used in their kitchens. This is that story, the story of our lives.

What Is Industrial Heritage?

The narrative of Indian industrialisation is unique in many ways. It is the story of a country that was industrialising and de-industrialising simultaneously, of people struggling to find an identity within myriad political, ethnic, social and economic discourses. So what does industrial heritage mean in the Indian context?

The common man now had a new urban movement that he was a part of. Industrialisation was creating opportunities and situations he had never encountered before. Suddenly, there were jobs, companies that people were a part of, and a sub-society in which each person had a certain place and position.

Bombay Telephone Company, Ltd advertisement
Bombay Telephone Company, Ltd advertisement

Townships or residential colonies for employees of these fast-emerging industries began to crop up. People grew together and formed new memories and narratives that became their new identities and shared heritage. The movement of humans from rural pockets started to be channelized towards urban centres.

Birth of the Middle Class

Industrialisation also gave rise to new lifestyles. The big cities seemed shinier and better than ever before. Common folk could finally afford things that had been the prerogative of the elite. With the creation of the working man, it was truly the birth of the middle class. Also, new gadgets began to fill our homes.

Our sense of belonging too began to change. Suddenly, there were housing complexes, cooperative housing societies and industrial townships that held within them people who could relate to each other as equals, and who felt they belonged even though they came from different regions, places or communities. These new pockets were inhabited by people who came from similar economic backgrounds, and it began to define their identities.

Bajaj Auto
Bajaj Auto

People were no longer known by their lineage, rather by their employment. This was the birth of the ‘Coal India-waley uncle’ or the ‘SBI-wali aunty’ or ‘TATA Chem-waley Sharma Ji’. These were the legacies they would carry forward into future generations, and their stories were being rewritten in these collectives.

As industrialisation gathered momentum, society became further stratified, once again, based on jobs. Public housing schemes by state housing boards came up and there was now affordable housing based on income groups. So there were the ‘forces kids’, the bankwalas and the sarkari babus. Indian society, in the big cities, at least, was getting gentrified.

Consumerism Takes Root

It wasn’t just people who were changing; the insides of their homes too were undergoing a transformation. Good jobs meant good incomes, which meant people could buy new things. A promotion at the office meant an Onida TV set, which meant you could skip a few steps up the social ladder!

Neighbourhood families started to gather in the living rooms of families who could afford a television set. Special dates would be fixed in advance to catch the best of what was beamed through those exciting new ‘boxes’. In those days, this usually meant programming from Doordarshan.

Allwyn Refrigerator advertisement
Allwyn Refrigerator advertisement

Visual communication too was fast keeping up with growing consumerism. We saw a pretty actress on TV pick up the phone and call her husband at work, who asked her to prepare a wonderful meal for the guests from the office who were coming to dinner. She promised her best and ran to her kitchen, where her brand new United pressure cooker held out the promise of a great meal, which would help her husband get a promotion that was due!

For the common man, aspirational goals were being set by the television – do well at the job, have a telephone at home, buy your wife a United pressure cooker, cook meals in advance, save time, be successful.

It was the visual manifestation of the ideal dream, or so people were led to believe. All of a sudden, people wanted to keep up with the Jonses or the Joshis; and the Joshis, who were ahead in the race, wanted to do even better. And all these dreams, little and big, were supported by the ever-growing Indian industry and consumer markets. To feel safe, every household needed to secure their valuables in a quality-assured Godrej steel safe.

The ’90s: A New Direction

The ’90s saw the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Indian markets due to economic liberalisation. Suddenly, the West was closer than ever before. Our two basic Doordarshan channels made way for hundreds of cable TV channels, while Videocon and Sony TV sets sat pretty in almost every urban household.

Newer technologies changed our way of life. In some ways, it was for the better and in some ways, it was debatable. As the country produced more, the working class began to heave and struggle. There were labour strikes, overworked dock workers, and mill workers protested in one voice.

Godrej soaps advertisement
Godrej soaps advertisement

These were stories of real people with real struggles and it provided the perfect plot for Bollywood. We soon saw the silver screen showing the story of industrialisation on a regular basis. And it was not all song-and-dance. There were serious movies made on serious themes, and we began to see what the blasting of a mine looked like; they took us inside a Mumbai chawl; showed us what the daily life of a mill worker was like. We were hooked and couldn’t get enough.

Soon, VHS tapes came into our lives and we could finally have entertainment at will. We spent hours with rented tapes and video players, living and reliving these moments. The next big change came with the arrival of the affordable family car. With the Maruti 800, the everyday Indian proudly roamed the streets with made-in-India horsepower.

Making A Future Narrative

This was the India we grew up in, one fed by the sheer will of our industries, which touched the lives of every citizen. For those who believe that consumerism murdered our values, think again. Today, India stands shoulder to shoulder among the biggies in the global market. This identity and position rests on the foundation laid by Indian industry and its ability to power growth across the decades.

Over time, the walls came down, boundaries blurred and the way companies did business completely changed. The way we consume too underwent a sea change. The Jones and the Joshis no longer mattered; as consumers, we began to compete on a global scale.

Bajaj Chetak advertisement
Bajaj Chetak advertisement

Our lives and lifestyles are now defined by global brands, and in addition to aspiration, there’s also acquisition. So, even if a part of the outcome is debatable, we should respect the role Indian industry has played in our personal legacies and future narratives.

Maybe it’s time to look at that old Godrej cupboard with new eyes, or refurbish and repair our Jaipal mixers, and dust off our Usha toasters and plug them in again. They are reminders of a time when India was excited to greet her future, of an era when India dared to stake her claim as a power to be reckoned with.

Let us protect our industrial heritage while we work towards a sustainable future.


About the author -

Hinna is an interdisciplinary practitioner, writer and artist. Trained as an architect she works in the space of shared cultural heritage having co-founded a social innovation enterprise called www.Jugaadopolis.com . When she is not working she’s traveling around the country with her experiential travel startup (www.Wildloggers.com) or cooking up a frenzy in #hinnaskitchen . While playing mommy to a handful of a three old daughter.