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.