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The Decorative Impulse: Jita Test, Day 5

This graceful vine–or a scattering of diamond shapes–appeared on the supports that held corrugated tin houses in place.

It always seems to come as a surprise that poor people, too, care about beauty, pleasure, and even fun.  This week in Bangladesh has presented many opportunities to observe how important pretty patterns and bright colors–or just generally nice surroundings–are in the lives of our respondents.

I guess many of us who are fortunate assume the poor are so focused on survival that they don’t notice these more “superfluous” things.  Or maybe we think that they suffer so horribly that they can no longer be moved by beauty. Or–and I fear this is the truth–we think they should focus only on survival and thus implicitly have no right to pretty things.

Here, I was struck with how often basic surfaces had been decorated. The Bangladeshis have always seemed to me especially fond of color and pattern–even their trucks are painted as if for a carnival–so it was not entirely a surprise to see the way these were woven into even the most humble materials in homes. For instance, there is, as a standard matter, a pattern on the support beams for the corrugated tin walls. Sometimes it’s a vine, as here.  Sometimes, it’s diamond shapes.  Occasionally, you see that the inhabitants have painted these a pretty color.

Small windows, set into the tin and fitted with decorative grilles, allow light in.

The same window, from the outside, with turquoise shutters

The corrugated tin walls are cut to make windows, so that each room can have light and a breeze.  These are fitted with grilles, which are often decorative. Shutters are usually painted (turquoise seems a favorite) and sometimes there are curtains.

This pretty flower-inside-a-circle was a common motif.

A red circular design with a flower in the center appeared often on the porches or just inside the front door. I was assured that the design has no mystical meaning–it is not a good luck sign or anything–but is only there because it is pretty. Homes that have cement foundations are often scored around the edges with a diamond pattern inlaid in red.

Many of these additions were made by “the workmen,” meaning they were done at the time of construction and were not added later by the inhabitants.  At first, I was discouraged by this, but it is surely testimony to the demand that the standard practice of workmen includes decoration.  And, the inhabitants often add their own embellishments. In the end, it is really no different from decorating a home in the US or UK.  Some of it comes with the home–floors, windows, moldings–and some of it is added later–color, curtains.

Note the pretty pattern in the doors here–and look through to the bare dirt and corrugated tin of the neighborhood.

One of the poorest houses we saw had a pattern burned into the wooden doors whereby you entered the one room.  The large, carved wood fourposter bed inside had a canopy.

It was clear, too, that effort was being made to display taste, just as in other environments around the world.  Nearly every home had a large display case, in which a modest collection of china and glassware was arranged attractively.  In the home of a new bride, whose husband had gone to Saudi Arabia to work, we saw a very large and elaborate china cabinet.  I asked her where it came from and she proudly told me that her new husband had made it for her before he left.

With such pride in display of glassware, it was an easy decision to choose what our field gift would be:  lovely china mugs in a prestigious Bangladesh brand. Many would think such a gift was inappropriate for people who sometimes haven’t enough to eat.  But it is in the nature of gift-giving that people choose the frivolous and luxurious to express gratitude–a utilitarian gift is often seen as an insult.  (I still remember the Christmas my father gave my mother an electric knife.  I think she is still mad about it and he has been dead 20 years.)

These women are proud of their homes, as women are everywhere.  I found most of the rooms very pleasant places to sit and chat.  I am sure the tin makes these homes hot in the heat and loud in the rain, but this week I enjoyed these carefully kept spaces and the chance to chat with the women who keep them beautiful.


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