A Dictionary for Copy Cats

Contributors
Publication Date
January 24, 2019

Standardize (verb): to assign consistency to; “the bureaucrat standardized the length and layout of railway stations in order to induce more efficient navigation”

At some point during the nineteenth century, the British Empire in India set up a bureaucratic arm known as the Public Works Department—a body of engineers tasked with constructing everything physically necessary for the running of the colonial enterprise. From army barracks to diplomatic bungalows, prisons to post offices, the bureaucrats of the PWD built it all. It was the job of these civil servants to tame the unknown landscape of the subcontinent with a standard list of buildings, typologies that would allow for smooth governance via the replication of a familiar reality. Pattern books and standard plans were disseminated to all the districts, used to erect an indifferent and efficient set of architectures. But not long after the PWD was founded, its efforts became the subject of internal criticism—decried for their “anti-aesthetic” tendencies, strict focus on utilitarianism, and complete disregard for climate and context. [1]

Copy (verb): to unthinkingly replicate; “the locals, incapable of authoring original designs, only copied what they saw”

As the Empire grew, the bland initial designs of the PWD engineers came under the scrutiny of individuals like Colonel Samuel Swinton Jacob, head of the department’s Jaipur branch, who took it upon himself to train locals in the art of architectural drafting. The Indians under Jacob’s command were made to produce portfolios of architectural details, paper facsimiles of traditional Indian decorative forms. The employment of native copyists was part of a larger scheme envisioned by Jacob—to combine modern functionalism with the ornate qualities of traditional Indian architecture. The PWD pattern book was updated to include an exotic cast of cornices. [2]

Xerox (verb): to make a photocopy of; “she xeroxed her friend’s geography book in the lane outside school”

In 2016, Cambridge University Press along with two international publishers sued a local photocopier working outside Delhi University for its rampant xeroxing of entire textbooks and thus blatant violation of copyright laws. In cities across India, photocopy stalls and their attendants line the pavements of alleys adjacent to campuses and workplaces, offering quick and cheap services to college students and office errand-boys. A cottage industry of on-the-fly document replication, xerox keeps the bureaucratic heart beating.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, the Delhi High Court swiftly dismissed the case, maintaining that the educational needs of students trumped private-interest copyright laws. The co-eds themselves spoke in support of the accused shop, Rameshwari Photocopy Service, arguing that the actual textbooks were too expensive for them to buy. [3]

Revive (verb): to breathe new life into; “they revived the primitive architecture of the place with a touch of modern rationalism”

When Sir George Gilbert Scott was commissioned to design the university library for Bombay, he did so from a distance. Working from his office in London, he heard the city sat by the sea and so gave the arcaded university building a distinct Venetian flourish. The lancet arches landed gracefully on the esplanade, finished with a Florentine campanile. The balmy climes of Bombay welcomed the Gothic implant, borrowed details spritzed by a fishy breeze.

Recontextualize (verb): to consider in a new setting; “the amputatedtemple sculpture was recontextualized in its cold museum setting.”

In the film studios of northern Mumbai, plots take unabashed inspiration from Bollywood’s western counterpart—you could say they outsourced their R&D. Christopher Nolan’s Memento finds a masterful translation in Ghajini, Ocean’s Eleven upgraded to the blockbuster hit Dhoom. Even in the soundtracks, Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman is joyously reprised in Shah Rukh Khan’s Pretty Woman (when the 8-bit ringtone chimes, you can’t even tell the difference). The movie makers are good at the game: taking the principal elements, stripping them of the material details, replacing them with a familiar context, and watching the crowd go wild. If only architecture could be so sensitive.

Byheart (verb, transitive): to recite or write from memory; “I byhearted the entire paragraph on Mughal rule in India because my exam is tomorrow”

Outside the exam hall the students are babbling like robots, attempting to prove that they have successfully memorized the contents of the chapter in question. Descendants of Macaulay’s Children, the first generation of natives that were educated in English by their reluctant colonial masters, these jeans-clad millennials nervously thumb through their xeroxed textbooks, returning to that questionable sentence about the Taj Mahal actually being a Hindu temple. [4] That doesn’t sound quite right, but they byhearted it anyway. The oral tradition is still alive, transferring the knowledge of a civilization and all its deceptions from one generation to the next.

Spread (verb): to expose to the world all at once; “the fake video spread so fast that it quickly incited a lynch mob into vigilante action”

In what Hito Steyerl refers to as the “contemporary hierarchy of images,” there is the class of the “poor image.” This, she describes, is “a copy in motion… dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty.” Colonial lithographs produced by imperial surveyors were poor images, reducing the incomprehensible richness of the scenes they confronted to consumable etchings that imposed an occidental paradigm onto newly discovered territories, reinforcing popular notions of savage societies.

But the poor image still proliferates today, transformed into the “trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores.” In rampant cycles of copying and redistributing, an image begins to deteriorate in its original meaning or physical resolution (or both), allowing for mistranslation and deceit but also appropriation and empowerment. The poor image, Steyerl argues, has a different kind of aura—one “no longer based on the permanence of the ‘original,’ but on the transience of the copy.” [5] While the quality of these slippery digital files decreases with each transfer, their contents, for better or worse, gain astounding visibility.

Whatsapp (verb): to send information via messaging platform WhatsApp; “Did you see that meme I whatsapped you of Narendra Modi’s face photoshopped into a waterfall?”

Whatsapp forwarding is the digital xerox—a beacon in the age of the digital facsimile. It facilitates the transmission of fake news and daily memes to relatives, friends, and coworkers in a matter of instants. The fervor generated by the Whatsapp forward is perhaps greater than that of the radio in the 1910s—especially amongst its 200 million Indian users, who forward messages more than any other country in the world. With a flick of our fingers we replicate bits and bytes and bobs, transferring data to the next recipient in a massive game of hot potato. The game got so heated and the information so questionable that in August 2018, Whatsapp officials decided to lower the forwarding limit, only for India, to five people per message. [6]

Seem (verb): to appear as though; “everyone agreed that the plaster cornices seemed just like the originals”

The city of Bombay is an amalgam of borrowed styles, a catalogue of architectural elements snatched from other places. The jarring nature of its combinations may have been the reason why Aldous Huxley proclaimed in 1926 that “architecturally, Bombay is one of the most appalling cities of either hemisphere.” Nevertheless, the writer managed to find some pleasure in later buildings, including the town hall, with its Doric colonnade, pristine white pediment, and grand entrance steps. “In Bombay,” he admitted, “it seems as good as the Parthenon.” [7]

Reproduce (verb): to create something very similar to; “they reproduced the same film with different actors and a catchier title”
A second Parthenon was erected in Bombay in 2018, made entirely out of Ambuja cement. A colonial-era sports club in the southern tip of the city chose for its new extension the Greek temple style, this time with ionic capitals shaped like the ears of baby monkeys. There is something fantastic about the reproduction of an icon in another context: The Acropolis becomes carpeted in coconut trees, toga-touting Athenians turn into sweaty Indians playing squash. An alien yet familiar architecture bears witness to messy cultural shifts—and though it might confuse archaeologists a million years hence, we can, for now, enjoy the ironic fluidity of so fixed a form.

Copy-paste (verb): to lift digital information and transfer it to another location; “she copy-pasted the dated but incisive writing of the late V.S. Naipaul into the end of her document”

“Every discipline, skill and proclaimed ideal of the modern Indian state is a copy of something which is known to exist in its true form somewhere else. The student of cabinet government looks to Westminster as to the answers at the back of the book. The journals of protest look, even for their typography, to the New Statesman. So Indians, the holy men included, have continually to look outside India for approval. Fragmentation and dependence are complete. Local judgment is valueless. It is even as if, without the foreign chit, Indians can have no confirmation of their own reality.” [8]

[1] Peter Scriver, ‘Institutional Agency’ and architecture in the field of colonial empire building, SAHANZ, 572.

[2] Vikramaditya Prakash, “Between Copying and Creation: The Jeypore Portfolio of Architectural Details in Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India (London: Routledge, 2007), 120.

[3] “Publishers Lose Copyright Case against DU’s Photocopy Shop,” Https://www.hindustantimes.com/, September 16, 2016, https://www.hindustantimes.com/delhi-news/publishers-lose-copyright-case-against-du-s-photocopy-shop/story-Yly8FJ1mNjf71snIL8tpvO.html.

[4] Nandini Sundar, “India’s Higher Education Troubles,” The New York Times, August 03, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/03/opinion/india-higher-education-modi-ambani-rss-trouble.html.

[5] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in The Wretched of the Screen, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 42.

[6] “WhatsApp Forwarded Message Limit in India Is Now Five Chats: Here’s What It Means,” The Indian Express, August 10, 2018, https://indianexpress.com/article/technology/social/whatsapp-has-officially-rolled-out-forward-message-limit-for-india-users-5298706/.

[7] Aldous Huxley, “Arriving in Bombay,” in Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (Bombay: Penguin Books, 2003), 147.

[8] V. S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World: Essays (London: Picador, 2002), 32.

Publication Date
January 24, 2019
Volume
4
Number
10
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