City City Bang Bang, Columns

The poverty of the rich?

Does one need to learn how to spend money, especially if one has a lot of it? Admittedly, this is a problem very few of us will face, but the kind of wedding celebrations that we have been witness to (so to speak) in the last few weeks seems to suggest that spending money too might be a skill not everyone can master. If one had an infinite amount of money, what would one spend it on?

One is not engaging in the argument about whether such extravagant deployment of wealth is good or bad. That discussion is being carried out elsewhere; this is an inquiry into the notion of wealth as seen not from the perspective of accumulation, but from that of its utilisation. To put it more simply, if one wanted to outdo the Deepika-Ranveer or the Ambani-Piramal weddings, what would it entail?

More celebrities? A longer list of international stars? More world leaders? A performer bigger than Beyonce, if such a person exists? 5 performers of the scale of Beyonce? Hosting it on a private island? Giving more lavish return gifts to the guests, maybe a Porsche each?

In theory, limitless money affords one the ability to let one’s imagination run wild. One can do virtually anything one wants or dreams about. In practice, this imagination seems to stop at conceiving of extravagance as a more bejewelled Bollywood awards night. The Great Indian Wedding is nothing but an imitation Bollywood function, where the bride and groom pretend to be the stars, and the extended family simulates the dubious charms of being in Karan Johar family dance sequence. The brotherhood of awkward uncles in clothes that make them look like barfis going Shaava Shaava.

Extreme wealth can often reveal a poverty of imagination. More, bigger, shinier. Touristy destinations. The use of celebrity props. Celebrities offer the biggest bang for the buck for they represent the most concentrated combination of wealth-fame using the least amount of imagination. They become the garbled shorthand for an intention to dazzle without having have to take the trouble of using any expressive form of language. When in doubt, Salman Khan.

Stepping outside the frame of expensive weddings, is the more difficult question of what does one exchange money for once one has enough of it? At the first level, wealth gets signified by visible scale. More is better. The quantity of gold and diamonds. The number of guests. The length of the menu (the Polynesian counter is in tent number 14). Disproportion being the order of the day.

But scale by itself is an inefficient way of spending a lot of money. It takes up too much space, and takes too much work. For efficiency to come in, more symbolic ways of spending money need to be embraced. Not a wedding at home, but one at an exotic destination. Not just an expensive lehenga, but one stitched by a designer. Not just a printed invitation card, but one designed by an artist.

The luxury brand is an attempt to separate input from output. We pay for something far in excess of what goes into it. Price can no longer be explained by the ingredients of the product that one buys. Value becomes mystical. Anything can cost anything. A necktie can cost a few lakhs. A watch a few million dollars. A night in a hotel room a few hundred thousand dollars. Luxury brands are very useful for offloading very large sums of money without having to buy a lot of things; they are masterful objects of compression.

Or one can buy meaning. This is a fascinating commodity for there is no limit to what it can be worth nor any boundaries that govern what constitutes meaning. Art produces a consensual illusion about meaning and the value that we agree to place on it. A masterpiece, once commonly agreed upon, can be worth anything, depending on the economy. Installation art pushes the limits of this form of value production by challenging the idea that things have any intrinsic worth or any claim to a higher standard of beauty. They sell meaning, shorn of the pretence of aesthetics as we commonly understand it. Collectors of various kinds confer value on objects that they assign meaning to. Stamps, first day covers, matchbox labels, coins, old machines, film posters, antiques, memorabilia- all these acquire value simply because a small group of people decide so.

The greater one’s wealth, the more abstract the things that money buys. Philanthropy is one way in which what money buys is the wholly intangible ability to feel better about oneself, by choosing to spend the money on other people who need it more. After all, even if one has bottomless wealth, the self is finite. Of course, not everyone is ready to go this way, for it requires a degree of satiation, which is hard to come by in a country where the newly rich haven’t yet got over being dazzled by their good fortune.

The other possibility that serves the same purpose is to patronise the arts, or build something of lasting cultural value. The super-rich have through the ages supported artistic endeavours that would otherwise had little commercial reason to thrive. Today’s tourism industry is founded on the imagination of those with untold money generations ago. Monuments were built to defeat time and mortality in an age when people thought of time and legacy differently.

The obvious truth about spending money is that one has to part with it in exchange for something that one values. People with a lot of money may or not may have a responsibility to spend it well, but certainly they have a choice to determine what it is that they value. How money is spent is a measure of far one’s imagination can travel, and of how wide one’s sense of self is. Money can set one free, unless one decides to be a prisoner of one’s own imagination.

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