A more democratic art? How the digital sphere is shaping culture and counter-culture in India
In blurring the divides between mainstream culture, alternative subcultures, and the grassroots counterculture, the internet is reducing elitism that comes with homogenous cultural consumption and moulding India’s cultural sensibility in a decidedly democratic way.
In blurring the divides between mainstream culture, alternative subcultures, and the grassroots counterculture, the internet is reducing elitism that comes with homogenous cultural consumption.
It is moulding India’s cultural sensibility in a decidedly democratic way.
The digital sphere is allowing for pockets of communities to develop, acting not as an end point for culture but a means of discovery that audiences can then go out to experience.
How much does India value and propagate art and culture?
Compared to one’s exposure to sports like cricket and badminton, culture is not a public experience, not something easily accessible when flipping through the television, and often not something one is taught in school. Much of Indian culture remains in a bubble which one is only introduced to through parents or family, or haply stumbles upon through the internet. But for the majority of young minds, such exposure simply does not exist.
“Where does your exposure to classical dance or Hindustani music start? Nowhere. It’s not part of our public consciousness,” says Ruchita Madhok, creative director at the Kahani Designworks studio. “Which is why it remains elitist. It doesn’t become a common, public, democratic sort of movement.”
The powerful, acting as sources of funds, bring with them strong censorship, also largely dictating how culture is experienced in the country. In Delhi University, a play about the history of Kashmir was cancelled. At literature festivals, the feeling of a safe space where one can voice opinions fearlessly is slowly subsiding. “There are other issues, of caste, high culture, low culture, and folk culture, issues of religion — you’re not going to find anybody hosting an Urdu event for the next few months,” says Madhok, alluding to the current state of unrest in the country.
“I think it’s not public consciousness,” she adds about the reason such strong censorship against the humanities subsists.
This selectivism is further amplified by the way taxpayers’ money is used by the culture sector. “Funds get concentrated in Delhi with people that have clout. That money doesn’t find its way to the rest of the country, to other spaces,” she explains. In museums in the UK for instance, where Madhok worked for several years before returning to India, one had to explain how an exhibition about a particular subject would appeal to every age group, starting from five-year-olds. “Otherwise they’re all like ‘what are you doing with taxpayers’ money?’ It’s a very simple question. Why are you using tax payers’ money if you’re not going to appeal to the future of this country? We don’t have questions like that here,” she says.
Understanding audiences plays a huge role in streamlining India’s young and unorganised culture sector. “There are very few people and companies in India that would even do audience research. You need impact assessment,” she says. And while ideally, culture shouldn’t have to look at that or justify what it needs money for, “at the end of the day, the culture sector needs to explain what they’re doing for people.” Added to this is the challenge of catering to the vastly heterogeneous Indian audience. “An urban model will not work for a smaller town or city. I don’t know how the cultural scene will tackle questions of equality and equity,” she adds.
Another challenge for existing cultural spaces is simply bringing audiences into their physical spaces, since they’re competing with a range of other media. Once inside a museum or gallery, there’s a certain level of commitment from the audience member. “They’re committed to walking through that room and going on that journey with you. So you have time for that story to unfurl, open itself out, and reveal its complexity,” explains Madhok. Bringing audiences to these spaces however, often begins with advertising themselves on digital spaces. And here, while audiences enter the platform willingly, their journey is not clear to them. “It’s not a space they know they have to traverse, they’ve not committed to spending a given amount of time. Anything can happen that demands their attention elsewhere, and you’ve lost them.” For this reason, online, the impact has to be instantaneous. “With a space like Instagram particularly, we found the impact has to be [within] less than a second.” If it appeals to somebody, they might read the caption, look through the story, and go back to the account for more. “So in some respects you have to work a lot harder when you’re developing digital content because there is such a great demand on somebody’s attention.”
Decreasing attention spans also mean a more surface level interaction with culture. “It pulls your attention away from things that require deeper investigation. Like the visual arts... You can’t really look at a Gaitonde or a Raza on Instagram. You have to stand before it and be swallowed into the world to really understand the power of a painting like that.” With moving to the digital world, the very sensibility of a cultural experience is getting altered. To a large extent, popularity defines contemporary culture. “One of the things I think digital media does is rob you of your ability of critical thinking. Because you don’t have the time or the capacity [for critical thinking], and the platform doesn’t encourage it,” says Madhok. And along that strain, a creator also isn’t encouraged to make work that speaks to people in that manner.
“I think because people have these monotonous experiences on the internet, they want to have the real deal in person.”
In this sense, the digital world is also, conversely, working as a stimulus where culture can grow. It is allowing for pockets of communities to develop, acting not as an end point for culture but a means of discovery that audiences can then go out to experience, through making different types of expression freely available to a much broader audience. And in a circular feeding off each-other, it’s the visibility of an audience that gives cultural professionals the impetus to create cultural spaces and experiences, resulting in a growing alternate culture scene.
This visible audience is important in providing encouragement when trying to create alternate cultural spaces. “The ecosystem here is so hard on people that you can only do it for so long,” says Madhok. When she returned to India in 2012 to set up her studio, she was “hugely optimistic” about the direction the alternate subculture was heading toward. “But eight years down the line, we see that a lot of the spaces have fizzled out, a lot of those initiatives have petered off.” The challenges range from the cost and investment of setting-up, obtaining permissions, and tackling the “delicate sensibilities people have regarding certain issues and subjects. It’s as hard as ever.” To really make a mark in the alternate culture scene, one must be either very young, energetic, and full of optimism, or a seasoned professional with at least 20 years of experience.
But as these spaces subsist, audiences, and subsequently the alternate culture sector, grows. “It’s a chicken and egg scenario. The more support you give, the more audience you’ll have,” says Madhok.
While social media allows constant audience interaction, aiding the mainstream and alternative culture scenes, there is also in the country a grassroots counterculture scene, indebted entirely to digital spaces for its formation.
This can be seen especially in the case of rap and hip-hop, over the past few years. Hip-hop, which grew out from the Bronx in the ‘80s, was the product of a more marginalised community. “I’ve seen the same thing happen here in Dharavi or other lower socio-economic neighbourhoods,” says Nisha Vasudevan, director of the series This Is My Hood, which documents India’s hip-hop scene, adding, “I think it’s because of the accessibility of the style that it really breaks all these boundaries.”
From the rise of Tamil rappers to Chennai’s breakdancers, local communities would continue existing in pockets if they didn’t have the internet to connect through. Being able to connect with each-other online “has been integral to founding the scene. Without that they wouldn’t even have known about events happening in each-other’s cities and there would not have been a scene,” asserts Vasudevan.
“Now, as time has passed, they’ve been able to form collectives which work together with rap elements, graffiti elements, and have spaces in which they can go and break and have competitions,” she adds. While vibrant, this counterculture is still a grassroots movement, and for the most part, people struggle to monetise what they’re doing, focusing primarily on the art as a form of expression. However, Vasudevan notes that while the counterculture “may not be lucrative and sustainable in itself for a long-term period, there are avenues it opens up that they [artists] can move into”.
As culture grows, it dilutes, and often “there’s an element of wanting to keep your scene small or authentic and pure, not let it get sullied. So the bigger something gets, it does lose some of its core. And because of that there’s always going to be kids in a counterculture movement who want to keep their scene small,” explains Vasudevan. But the internet, which affords the counterculture a means of mobilisation and popularity, then leads to movies like Gully Boy introducing it to the mainstream sensibility, which in turn leads to dedicated interest and branded content giving it a decided push. “I don’t even know if you can call it a counterculture anymore,” says Vasudevan. On the other hand, there is however “a huge counterculture of protest music and folk music that also lives in India that doesn’t get as much of a spotlight, because it’s probably not a monetisable act.” And in other instances still, “it’s actually, genuinely so underground, you don’t know it exists.”
In blurring the divides between mainstream culture, alternative subcultures, and the grassroots counterculture, the internet is “reducing the elitism that comes with consuming only one kind of content or being only interested in one kind of thing,” says Vasudevan. “You can definitely have an eclectic set of tastes.”
The interviewees were speakers at the EyeMyth Media Arts Festival.
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