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Thursday, November 10, 2005

In India, It's All Mainstream

For a change, am using this space to put down a series of jottings that explore the argument that in urban India, there's no counterculture to speak of. The mainstream rules. Perhaps one can make these random notes coalesce into a coherent article in the near future.

* Be it music, literature, film, art or fashion, all of our cultural artefacts are tinged by the banality of commerce and the acceptance of the majority; there's no discernible attempt to probe the alternative, to explore the fringe. Where is our Beat Generation, where are our Bohemians?

* What one refers to as the mainstream is, of course, an evolving spectrum. There are shades and there are extremes within it. But these are closely circumscribed: we get to choose between Adnan Sami and the Bombay Vikings; between Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi and Vikram Chandra; between Salaam Namaste and Garam Masala; between lo-rise distressed hipsters and deep indigo 501s.

* Perhaps in this country, the counterculture can only be located at the sites of social consciousness and/or ethnicity: hence the block-printed sari-wearing, jhola-carrying, large bindi-sporting, tree-hugging, dam-saving activist.

* In the United States, the mainstream, of course, is famous for co-opting the fringe and rendering it "cool": jazz and blues have influenced more artistes than you can shake a stick at; baggy, hip-revealing jeans arose out of ill-fitting prisonwear; and an example of the noir graphic novel now even finds a place among Time magazine's list of the best 100 contemporary books.

* The last truly countercultural movement that urban India witnessed was the struggle for Independence, which defined speech, clothing, food and attitudes in a way as to clearly set oneself apart from the prevailing class. Much earlier, Buddhism was a counterculture movement within Hinduism, but one that the mainstream swallowed soon enough. Thus, counterculture in this country isn't in opposition to "culture" per se; but is in opposition to politics and religion. Any cultural fallout is a by-product.

* In the Western world, the mainstream perpetuates itself by incorporating elements of alternative lifestyles; in urban India, the mainstream thrives on attitudes derived from the West.

* One reason for the lack of an alternative to the mainstream would be a high degree of intolerance and discomfort with "the other", with anything that doesn't conform. Another is that a postcolonial hangover still exists, and one must find and define oneself as a nation before being comfortable with activities outside the cultural pale. And a third reason is simple economics: how is the cultural alternative to sustain itself in the absence of recognition and funding? We have no Sundance Festivals, no Provincetown retreats, no foundation grants. But perhaps that's a situation always faced by those who choose to turn on, tune in and drop out.

4 Comments:

  • Good post..you got it darn right when you spoke about the economics bit..

    By Blogger Shivaji, at 6:04 AM  

  • Lovely post, but to some degree the co-opting goes on, see the Airtel ad that has designer slums and designer slum girls and a differently abled person and one seethes in rage that what the hell does Airtel has got to do with it? I am talking about 'dil ki baat bata kar tou dekho.'

    By Blogger Mridula, at 11:09 AM  

  • Of course, there's counter culture in India. what are blogs, if not counter culture? you, my friend, are counter culture. As always, a case of missing the trees for the forest.

    By Blogger Ăœbermaniam, at 3:40 PM  

  • Agree with your post...I think the reason is that for a counter-culture to rise there has to be some opposition to the mainstream...opposition to the status quo and hierarchy.
    We are too self-involved and readily digest whatever is fed to us. At most we complain and rant about politics/government, moral police, leftists/socialists/communists, religious right, cricket, police, corruption...etc to our friends and neighbours. And those who do make an effort to do something are ridiculed and mauled at every step.

    By Blogger ClannZĂș, at 10:04 PM  

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