“All that Glitters...” Gold and the Indian Imaginary

Dr. P.P. Ajayakumar

Consumption and its sociocultural, experiential, symbolic and ideological aspects have been studied by researchers all over the world. Consumer research has emerged as a compelling academic brand and is described by the term, ‘Consumer Culture Theory.’ However it is to be made clear that the Consumer Culture Theory, as it is understood today is not a “unified, grand theory” (JCR 2005) with a common perspective and homogeneous viewpoint though it refers to a unified area of operation. On the other hand it “addresses the dynamic relationships between consumer actions, the marketplace, and cultural meanings” (JCR 2005). Instead of viewing culture as a homogeneous system of collectively shared meanings the Consumer Culture Theory attempts to explore the “heterogeneous distribution of meanings and the multiplicity of overlapping cultural groupings that exist within the broader sociohistoric frame of globalization and market capitalism” (JCR 2005). It is true that the present day lived culture is by and large integrated with the transnational capital and global market especially in the context of Globalisation. In this context studies on the culture of consumption becomes all the more relevant.

Consumption has grown beyond the possession of goods and articles and it demands studies on its aesthetic, hedonic and ritualistic dimensions revealing its intimate associations with lifestyle and identity formation. It has been identified as a cultural practice which involves a complex array of forces that interplay to produce divergent array of meanings that inform the ways in which we interact with the society and define our identity. It may not be reasonable to consider consumption as a negative practice altogether that mess up the existing value system and its attendant institutional structure. Its impact is more subtle and complex. The Consumer Culture Studies is not blind to the productive aspect of consumption and it addresses issues related to the ways in which consumers appropriates the symbolic meanings embedded in the advertisements to come to terms with their particular social circumstances and to further their identity. The market place is not just an area where goods are sold and bought. It has become “a preeminent source of mythic and symbolic resources through which people, including those who lack resources to participate in the market as full—fledged consumers, construct narratives of identity” (JCR 2005). It is this unprecedented, unstoppable and hegemonic influence of the market in our life, behaviour and even in the formation of our identity that informs this paper that focuses on the consumption of one of the most sought after metal in our part of the world, the Gold.

The use of gold as a decorative metal has been in practice in different parts of the world from very old times. It is believed that gold has been in use in Eastern Europe way back in 4000 BC itself. Historians claim that Gold jewels were used by people belonging to the Sumer civilisation in Iraq. Gold was used in the burial ceremonies of the Kings and it was buried along with the dead bodies in Egypt from 2500 onwards. By 1500 BC it has become the standard medium of exchange. The huge demand for gold might have begun after this development and even expeditions were conducted to different parts of the globe in search of gold. The expedition of Alexander the Great to Persia was mainly for gold. Australia became the chief attraction for settlers because of the presence of gold in that continent. The gold rush in America is also a case in point. The mad rush for gold with an eye on its high market value emanates from the desire to amass wealth and to become rich as gold is a sure bet for affluent living. It is true that gold possesses a kind of value that no other metal claim to have possessed so far. But its value is not limited to its identity as a commodity but has deep rooted sway in the cultural milieu, the belief systems, rituals and social practices.

In India Gold is considered to be an inseparable part of our customs, practices and rituals that it acquires a position that is beyond its real worth as a commodity. Pinank Mehta writes about its cultural associations in ancient India:

It is the essence from which the universe was created. In a dark and lifeless universe, the Creator deposited a seed in the waters he had made from his own body. The seed became a golden egg, bright and radiant as the sun. From this cosmic egg of gold was born the incarnation of the Creator Himself—Brahma. From the root word Hari meaning imperishable, comes Hiranya, the ancient name for gold. Brahma is referred to as Hiranyagarbha—the one born of gold. (www.gold-eagle.com)

The above passage makes it clear that gold was revered as a metal with divine potential and is associated with the creation of Brahma, the great creator. It is referred to as the seed of Agni and is considered to be sacred and a sign of ultimate beauty. Our myths and puranas are full of references to gold. Gods and Goddesses are described to be riding on golden chariots. The mythical stories of King Midas and that of Pakkanar in widely different ways signify the desire for gold as mindless greed. While King Midas’s love for gold makes him blind, Pakkanar’s strong aversion for gold makes it a detestable object. It reveals the idea that while gold is revered by many the evil impact of gold on our culture and society was highlighted by others. The folk myth about Pakkanar points towards these oppositional positions prevalent in our ancient culture.

According to the folk myth Pakkanar was a poor man who earned a living by selling winnows made of bamboo. He was extremely honest and true to his profession that after making enough money for the day’s living he will give the rest of the winnows free of cost. One day when he went to the forest to cut the bamboo he found gold coins pouring down from it. He was so frightened that he ran away from the place and on the way he saw three people riding on horseback. On enquiry he told them that there is a man killer in the forest. They proceeded further and saw heaps of gold in the forest. After collecting as much as they could they felt hungry and one was sent to collect food while the other two guarded the gold. The man mixed poison in the food so that he could kill the other two and get the whole quantity of gold. But the men waiting in the forest made a secret plan to kill the person who went to collect food. When he came they hid themselves behind a tree and killed him and then ate the food that was poisoned. Thus the prophecy of Pakkanar became true, all the three died. Pakkanar’s story goes against the mad desire for gold and to a certain extent exemplifies the tradition that goes against the tradition of venerating gold. King Midas is referred in Greek mythology as a person who could transform everything he touched with his hand into gold. Overjoyed by the power he embraced his daughter and she transformed into a golden statue. According to the legend Midas died of starvation as a result of his mad love for gold. The story of Midas similar to Pakkanar’s story once again points to the alternate positions that existed even in the past.

Still gold has been one of the ancient obsessions for man and it continues to be so. It is gifted in connection with most of the auspicious occasions like birthday, marriage, anniversaries, retirement and is offered at temples by the devotees. In India the major use of gold is for making ornaments. The huge number of jewellery shops in India and the kind of demand that it has among all sorts of people irrespective of religious, regional differences is phenomenal. Naturally gold rates are published by the newspapers every day and its ups and downs are closely watched by people. It is one of the hot favourites in our temples and churches where the golden statues of deities, gold plated roofs and gold covered flag posts are considered to be signs of prestige and divine presence. The Sikh Gurudwara at Chandigarh is known as ‘Golden Temple’ as its tomb is covered with gold. Crowns of Kings were always golden, the medal given to the first position in competitions in Olympics and other sports events were no exception. Different usages like ‘golden age,’ golden valley,’ in English and ‘pon kathir,’ ‘ponnin kutam,’ ‘ponnu thampuran,’in Malayalam are indications of the deep rooted influence of gold in our languages and culture.

What makes it the most sought after metal? What all things constitute its value? It is true that the design and production of gold ornaments is a big industry in India and it provides employment to thousands. Intricate designs in the gold ornaments are a marvel and have attracted people all over the world. But the reception of gold in our society is not directly related to its worth as a precious metal or its quality of design. On the other hand the priority that gold enjoys in our part of the world depends heavily on its imagined value constructed by its cultural associations deeply imbedded in the myth, rituals, belief systems, social practices and fashion. One feels proud to wear the gold ornaments like ring or chain and it is believed that it adds confidence and to a certain extent beauty to the body and luck to those who wear it. It will be interesting to explore the divergent ways in which gold influences our lives and to analyse how it shapes our identity, contributes to our culture and is received in our society.

The construction of the image of gold happens at different levels and at different locations. It is true that the long standing acceptance of gold as a precious metal and its exchange value are significant elements that contribute to its value and perpetuate the discourse. Social functions like marriage, religious festivals and celebrations are certain other locations where its performance as a precious metal happens. The news items in the national dailies, features in news magazines, direct or indirect references in films and especially the advertisements that appear in the print as well as visual media provide yet another location where the image is perpetuated from time to time. The paper will focus on some of the recent advertisements that appear in the visual media.

Most often the advertisements capitalises on the commonsensical knowledge that we possess about gold. Fashion, beauty and the value systems are also connected with gold to perpetuate its worth and the fix its relevance in our day to day life. One of the advertisements of Bhima jewellers summarises the commonsensical notions about the intimate association of gold with women and her identity. The advertisement shows famous vocalist Unnikrishnan, Key board player, Stephen Devassy and Mattannur Sankarankutty performing and in the song in the background which integrates women with gold is as follows:

“ Pennayal Ponnuvenam
Patharamattavalkkekan Bheemathan
Swarnam charthidenam
Bheemathan swarnam charthidenam.”

The message in the first line refers to the idea that if one is a woman she should have gold. The identity of a woman is incomplete without gold. It sounds very natural as the use of gold is so common among women in our part of the world. The presence of the famous musicians in the advertisement adds authenticity to the idea and makes the discourse more effective. The background of the advertisement is set in dim light and the scenes have yellow tinge, commemorative of the colour of gold. What is fore-grounded by the advertisement is the integral association of the woman with gold. But while projecting gold as the core of womanhood it is blind to the vital qualities that a woman should possess like intelligence, courage, education, individuality and the like. It is these absences that are of great interest while interpreting the advertisement.

At present in India marriage ceremony and its performance is integral with gold. The image of a bride without wearing gold is unimaginable. Most often the bride is decorated with gold from top to bottom. It is by and large intimately associated with the social imaginary in our society. Jaques Lacan studied the role of images and the imaginary in the workings of the human mind. He refers to Lorenz’s famous experiment with Ducks. Lorenz had put his Wellington Boots next to Duck eggs. As the Ducklings hatched out and saw the boots they became imprinted with its image. Wherever that boot went the little ducks would follow it. They mistook Lorenz’s boot for their Mummy. Similarly through repeated associations the Indian imaginary of wedding is always associated with Gold. The image of a bride fully decorated in gold is a constructed one which has been engraved in the mind through constant practice and performance though it appears to be natural. The lines referred above that connects woman’s identity with that of gold does not originate in the imagination of a man/woman but is imprinted in our social imaginary through recurring performance.

The association of gold with wedding is not limited to any particular religious group alone. It is one of the common features that unites the otherwise differing religious groups. One of the advertisements of Malabar Gold exploits this commonality that runs through all religions by equating it with the famous dictum popularised by Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘Unity in diversity.’ Presenting a collation of few shots of Hindu, Christian and Muslim marriages the superstar of Malayalam cinema, Mohanlal announces the motto, “Thousands of cultures, only one passion, Malabar Gold.”

Here the denotative meaning of the advertisement projects Malabar Gold as the common emotional bond among all religious groups. In a country like India where religious intolerance is a national issue often debated in the media and performed on the streets, the denotative meaning of the advertisement goes far beyond the personal or emotional and rises to the level of the nation. At that level gold becomes or is looked upon as a cementing force that is capable of uniting the Nation. The objectification of gold as a decorative metal, a sign of wealth and by and large as a powerful binding force that unites the nation displays the different layers of meaning associated with Gold.

It is true that the identity of a person is constituted by divergent elements that contribute in the construction of his/her personality. In one of the advertisements of the Kazana Gold the mother watches her daughter appearing very beautiful wearing gold ornaments and inspired by her gorgeous looks the mother goes back to the dressing room and reappear wearing a gold chain. The comment in the end that she looks like a film star’s mother refers to the impact of gold on the mother’s identity. The mother’s desire to look good, to become a match to her daughter is generated by her daughter’s desire for gold. It is interesting to find that gold not only generates desire but is generated by it. There are lot many advertisements that appeal to the desire in women to look attractive. In all these advertisements gold is presented as the preserver of beauty and protector of youthfulness and the power that brings out the beauty in women. Gold also functions as a fetish attracting young men to women. Several advertisements reveal this obsession of man towards gold. Their love and adoration for a particular woman is defined by their obsession with the gold ornament that she wears.

The series of advertisements released by Kalyan Jewellers became viral as it deviated from the usual exhibition of gold and focussed on stories that depicted the importance of trust. It presents a girl who leaves her house in order to elope with her lover. Mother and father recognise her absence and read her letter while the girl remembers her childhood days and the love and affection showered on her by her parents. Feeling guilty she comes back to her parents and embraces her father while her lover waits impatiently with a taxi. The story presents two options before the girl. One is a traditional wedding with the permission of her parents and the other is a love marriage by eloping with her lover. Though she attempted the second she finally landed on the first option.

Kalyan’s advertisement attempts to promote the traditional wedding. It may be interesting to analyse why Kalyan Jellers promotes traditional wedding or tradition as such. It is declared towards the end of the advertisement that “trust is everything.” It can be trust in tradition or in Kalyan Jewellers which stands for tradition. But there are certain absences that could be identified in the story line. Though the girl has kept the trust that her parents had on her she has broken the trust that her lover had in her. Moreover her lover’s plight is not addressed in the advertisement. At the outset the advertisement favours the formal, traditional marriage and rejects love marriage. What is hidden within the obvious love for tradition appears to be the possibility of selling gold as the traditional marriages involve dowry and the exchange of huge quantity of gold as dowry. Thus the advertisement reiterates the dominant structures adopting innovative methods in promoting the use of gold.

The discursive construction of gold gives it an image of a precious divine metal that would bring luck and good fortune in life. Social practices and belief systems contribute to the enhancement of this image and helps in perpetuating the “faith” in Gold. The image is enriched through various associations created through complex cultural practices and ideological conditioning in which various institutions including family, religious institutions, popular magazines and visual media participate. It is the intervention and interaction of these institutions that provide proper ground for the market to operate.

Another aspect that is relevant in the study of gold will be its use as a fashionable object. For centuries is has been used as a decorative metal. It is true that the use of gold in divergent ways helps in defining the identity of the user by supplying innovative styles and fresh fashions. Innovative designs create marvellous body images that redefine the very identity and declare that your body is unique. The art works done on minute pieces of gold is something that we have failed to appreciate as the artistic side of it is overpowered by the ‘value’ of gold. As bodies are key markers of identity, the body gains meaning in relation to the gold that it wears. It could stand for tradition, love, wealth, trust, protection from evil and even modernity. It is not just the human body that is decorated with gold. Temples and idols are covered with gold or even made of gold. A sign of the holy power these gold plated pillars and roofs appear to have added glory to the place of worship.

But it is true that the elevation that the user of gold experiences is based on the imaginary value that he assigns to gold informed by the ideological practices in which he/she is fleshed and shaped. The confidence and satisfaction that he/she gains is admirable but is founded on fantasy. The festivals like ‘Akshaya Thritheeya’ are good examples of the commodification of the traditional belief in the Capitalist culture. Gold integrates divergent realms like business, religion, tradition, art, fashion, modernity and lot more adding layers of meaning to its value. Thus the consumer of gold consumes not only gold but also its associations. It does not satisfy desire but teaches how to desire.

Works Cited

  1. Arnould, Eric.J and Craig J. Thompson. ‘Consumer culture theory (CCT): Twenty Years of Research.’ The Journal of Consumer Research. Vol.31.No.4(March 2005).pp.868—882 (www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/426626 Accessed: 06/05/2011 14:26
  2. Mehta, Pinank. ‘india’s love of Gold.’ www.gold-eagle.com Accessed: 20/2/2015 10:30



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