academia · critical theory · critique · design · image identity · india · reading culture · reflections · society · visual culture

A Tourist in My Nation: The Missing Swaraj – Term paper, Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity

This post consists of snippets from a Term Paper written during the module on Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity at the Young India Fellowship 2012-2013. This paper was written under guidance of Prof. Vivek Bhandari.

I used this opportunity to critique with certain faces of culture that i engage with, this is not to undermine or demean any form, event, person whatsoever.

“Rajasthani group Musafir’s promotional packet reads:

classical and mystical musicians, unexpected instruments played by

virtuosos, whirling desert drag queens, devotional and frantic folk

dances, hypnotizing snake charmers, and dangerous fakirs, including

fire eating, balancing acts, sword swallowing, and walking on crushed

glass-a fantastic entertainment! Sufi desert trance music by elegant

gipsy [sic] wizards …. A music of ecstasy, whirlwinded of climaxes

punctuated by thc gentle gesture of a breathtaking tunc. An authentic

magical experience (Maharaja, e-mail promotion, II July 200 I).

The exotic trope extends from India to Europe’s margins as groups from

southern Spain, eastern Europe, and the Balkans are also “orientalized.”

–          Carol Silverman

(Trafficking in the Exotic with”Gypsy” Music:Balkan Roma, Cosmopolitanism,

And “World Music” Festivals)

In the following narrative, I have attempted at exploring Gandhi’s ideas of Swaraj, complete freedom, in the context of enslavement through orientalised imagery, for folk artists from Rajasthan. We visited a Folk Festival in Rajasthan last year in Jodhpur, to live an experience in the dualism that I had begun to take for granted. I now choose to question what I saw and experienced, in the form of fictionalised Diary Notes, which I would have made had I visited the Festival post our acquaintance with Gandhi’s Critique of Modernity. The incidents though true, the reflections have been mostly made in the present and not when these incidents actually occurred.

Even though I chose the context as that of a particular festival, it is not meant to focus on just that or to undermine the good it would cause, but to address the larger question of Swaraj in the domain of culture,especially folk.

My basic framework was composed of theory on Swaraj, Culture, Orientalism and Civil Disobedience apart from Personal Experiences in case of the festival and Puppeteer’s Colony, Delhi.

I have changed the names of the festival, people and colony.

Trust and Trusteeship

Gandhi in Sarvodaya, mentions that the society should regard the welfare of the worst off of the society as its special responsibility. In order to create socially just conditions so that welfare could reach unto the last, Gandhi suggested the moral consideration of Trusteeship which required the voluntary transfer of excess wealth into the Trust by the wealthy to ensure that political freedom and economic freedom go together.

“I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance”1says Thoreau in his essay on Civil Disobedience. Being a participant in this festival, I tried to find out how exactly the huge amount I pay for the tickets helps the artists. It would go to the Trusts mentioned above who raise money from sponsors each year. The Trustees travel and select participants from amongst a wide spectrum of artists and festivals across Rajasthan, who would then perform at the festival based on qualitative criteria. The idea of judging and rating creative expression always intrigues me. How do we place one above the other, what informs us and how far can one keep one’s own biases? “The pattern whereby

society’s others are recruited from the periphery in order to articulate musically ‘the soul’ of the more settled members” 2  though prevalent globally, demands reflection.

My attempt is not to question the Trust’s motive which appear to be in the favour of folk art and artists, but am attempting at reflecting what could be the consequences of such a festival, based on what I experienced there. Where on one hand this intangible cultural heritage is at the risk of being lost and not surviving in the competition from mainstream, there is also the risk of placing it into a stereotypical romanticized role.

 “In working for his livelihood he ought to have earned not only his daily bread but also his eternal truth.” 3said Tagore. Is the artist’s role to be that of participation for survival and acceptance into the capitalist system eventually, or is there a greater truth which might be missing attention?

Based on an interview, the Mission Statement of the Festival says that when you listen to them perform you are not looking at them as a folk artist but you are looking at them as an artist of some calibre and merit…earlier the folk artist was more of a prop in the larger tourism mindset. There is a sense of accomplishment that “folk has become mainstream” and “Sharing the stage with international artists gives the traditional artists the confidence; an acknowledgement of their talent” 4

In the following diary entries I attempt at reflecting on the following:

This  festival ,following social welfare policies as dictated by concept of Trusteeship, is bound to get the artists recognition for their skill and provide a stage for respect, reinforced self-esteem and  future growth, however is this very concept of recognition and growth “from outside the Imperium”10? For, there is a role to be played by the spectators as well in the authority that gets granted to the folk artist especially a more renowned one.


Day 1: Visit to the Folk Festival: Reflections on the performance at Design School

Having reached Jodhpur last evening, we visited the Folk Festival today. The festival was held in the beautiful fort where one could consume culture in its most exotic and luxurious manifestation.

The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” 5– Edward Said

The artists dressed in their best and most colourful attire would come up on stage as per their turn, enthral us with a few pre-determined performances and feel obliged to this extended patronage. Z Khan was among the percussionists.

A balladeer and percussionist from Alwar, I have known Z Khan prior to the festival. We had once performed together in a module on inclusivity and collaboration* at my design institute.  Z  Khan, his troupe, and two puppeteers R Ji and C Ji, had come up with a performance along with a group of students. We had the opportunity to witness him in all his grandeur, his spontaneity, his witty lyrics and above all Z Khan as a human being with a history of his own, than merely Z Khan, a part of a representation- an ornamented and controlled performer on stage.

As much as I felt indignant at finding him controlled, subdued and incessantly grateful, it would be a lie if I say that the festival did not make me forget everything for a few moments, or that I wasn’t in awe of the fort’s splendour or that I did not enjoy the experience of sitting comfortably and listening to music under the moon light. Like any other tourist, I hung my camera in my neck lest I spot a picturesque scene to be captured. Having been introduced to a variety of thoughts in the past few weeks, I now wonder if I have adopted a coloniser’s “gaze”, have spectators like us who use the medium of a festival to watch from a well-defined distance denied an artist his/her self-control?

The songs and their lyrics come from different contexts and regions, many of those I did not even understand. As much as I feel that this is at least a way of encouraging (empowering?) the artists to continue with their art forms many of which are indigenous, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that perhaps I reduce something so complex and so embedded in its context to a mere spectacle, that I probably could be alienating the form from the essence. Ultimately we are subjugating the artists to the demands of the audience, to what we believe and imagine and are told (by media, by tourism department, by photographs) to be Rajasthan’s tradition and not what it is. Why does someone from outside need to organize a festival of this large scale for them, why are they not self-reliant or autonomous?

“They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte but “This reliance on outward help is a symptom of slavishness, for no habit can more easily destroy all reliance on self.” 3 Says Tagore.

But then I wonder how would they survive against the industry without monetary support, without that pedestal? Would we go to their locales and experience that life if we really are so keen on it. Why do we anyway need to experience “their” life, because we assume that “we” are a certain category and “them” the “other”? Perhaps they are still in our mind “natives” representing a certain “past”. I debated in my mind whether this is also because somewhere the artists are enslaved within the structure of the society and have still not moved out of it. Having received patronage from the royalty and the ruling classes in the past, they seem to have still not moved out of that role in the “colonial sociological theatre”

Having been introduced to Gandhi’s and Tagore’s  concept of Swaraj as well as Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience, I wondered whether these upholders of culture will never really attain their Swaraj, whether they will not escape the “social scheme of ant life” which Tagore mentions. Because even if apparently they belong to a free culture, somewhere they still have not attained freedom from inside, freedom in mind, they are still playing the part of the ruled and those that are watched. They are ordered by the system, conditioned to alien ideas of themselves and moulded to suit modernity, to stylization, control and to notions of civilization. “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” says Thoreau, are these performers then themselves? Is this their true nature?

What about realizations and warnings as these:

“To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment . . . would result in the demolition of society”- Polanyi


In such cultural imperialism where a certain form is objectified, transformed and aligned with industrial development to serve the purpose of the coloniser, be it anyone, including I who sat there in the audience, have then artists like Z Khan attained their right, their freedom, and a life of fearlessness? “Strength lies in the absence of fear…So long as we fear our own brethren; we are unfit to reach the goal.” 6 Says Gandhi.

For the convenience of the audience, the language preferred by the host was English though every now and then translations would be done for the artists, a majority of whom do not understand English. Experiencing the vernacular does not extend to its language, to what it actually is saying, to what it really is voicing. Having recently been introduced to the concept of Subaltern voices, I would want to quote Gayatri Spivak: “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  Were these performers really communicating with us, or were they only soothing our senses? Now when I reflect upon things, I have almost always learnt about them from someone from outside. It could be a museum, a documentary, a coffee-table book, research paper, fiction, blog etc. but when did I really hear from them. Apart from the opportunity I had at my institute- which in itself is a paradox, since the institute ultimately had called them to create a spectacle aligned with the institute’s purpose- I have never really interacted with them as they are and in their language.

This took me back to our performance practice, R Ji, one of the puppeteers would make deliberate attempts at speaking in English even though all of us design students (who have been trained to employ empathy, another dualism we thrive in) tried to convince him that he should talk to us in a language he is comfortable in. However the use of the English language is because that helps him attract the audience that is bound to pay him more. Having identified the weakness of his spectators and the prevailing trends, rather than feeling victimised by those he chooses to caricaturize himself to his benefit. He knows that speaking in English every now and then makes his performance more amiable and tickles the audience. He smartly named two of his puppets as Romeo and Julio, much to the delight of his audience.

R Ji also expressed his desire to learn the English Language because he felt that without it literacy is incomplete, he wants to read beyond that available in his mother tongue. He wants to be able to teach his children to speak and read in English, for their better future. His thought resonates with the apparent colonisation by the English Language. One comes across various Langauge training institutes along with personality development so as to “develop” the natives and make them fit into the system, increase their worth. But Gandhi warns us that we must not make of it a fetish. In its place it can be of use and it has its place when we have brought our senses under subjection and put our ethics on a firm foundation.” 6

In Gujarat, where I was studying at that time, there seemed to be a very distinct focus on the language than on literacy itself. I vividly remember a hoarding where cheap Corel Draw effects were used to depict how the word “Gujarati” written in its script would turn graphically into the word “English” written in English, where Gujarati was at the base and English on top. I find it to be saying a lot more than any other advertisements I have seen or posters stuck on walls. The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength but because we keep them.” 6 I somewhere agree with Gandhi.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I strained my neck to catch the last glimpse of Z Khan. I looked around at the audience, belonging to the elite class; they sat in royal postures while nodding their heads to the music in a patronizing fashion.

This was followed by a guest performance, a Spanish troupe- for the festival authorities want to take it beyond Rajasthan and invite troupes from different countries. This falls in line with the global trend of world music festivals. However some amongst the audience did not seem too pleased with this intrusion in the aura of “authentic” Rajasthani Folk, a concept that Silverman questions in her research on Romani music and world festivals. She wonders as to why we look for that authenticity which is bound to cause the musicians to be static in time. This was similar to an unexpressed resentment amongst us students when we realized during our performance that R Ji and C Ji’s style was not as folk, mostly it was a much more simplistic version inspired from populist cinema. Where Z Khan stood for exclusivity and almost rejection of any external influence on his art form, R Ji did not hesitate in being more inclusive. However both of them chose to comment on the society and system through the agency they could exert through their art.

Last evening, there had been an opening ceremony in the Old City of Jodhpur. As it was aimed at a much wider audience, many of the performances seemed more inspired from popular modes of entertainment in the urban setting than folk. Amidst tight security, these were performances open to all, but was it really so? The local residents climbed on to the terraces and sat on the walls to watch, as the space below was occupied by those who wore the attitude of official visitors. This dualism was similar to the one we faced in our performance. Our narrative was a plea against the demolition of a market in Ahmedabad due to a development project, as it would cause great loss of livelihood to those in the informal sector. The irony was that this message was performed within the confines of an institute and its guests, most of who, apart from representatives from the market, would be benefited apparently with that project. As Ashis Nandy would say, all of this seems to be “double entendre; it is as much a part of the oppressive structure as in league with victims.” 7

* It was fairly easy for us to be sitting in an institute and have debates over how we should be inclusive as a society and the relevance of Creative Commons and Open Source. This is where the paradox lies. I know for certain, that I would not want all my work to go into creative commons and somewhere at some point I must have definitely been inspired by some form of art or the other which could be some community’s common form of expression.We rarely find people arguing against themselves.” – Gandhi

Day 2 : A trip to the Tourist Spots

We visited an ancient temple today. Though we do not prefer using itineraries, the receptionist convinced my fellow travellers to visit some of the tourist destinations highlighted in a brochure at his desk. Without questioning the criteria of selecting these particular destinations over others, we also looked at them as products to be consumed. These landmarks and tourist spots are communicated of in the “voice of colonial modernity” 7 and are then expected to live up to that image and words associated with it: “Experience the Real Rajasthan, the Land of the Maharajas”, “Sunset in the Desert” etc. and an air-conditioned taxi would come to pick you up for the same, establishing our role as the esteemed spectators from outside visiting for an experience of the exotic.

At the parking lot, I saw a jeep filled with pilgrims, all dressed in their local attire, looking bright, colourful and picturesque. My immediate impulse was to capture them in a photograph which would then float along with the many such renderings we often come across of Rajasthan and its people; for I would carefully select my frame to not include the mobile recharge stall and the bus next to them. I would produce it as an isolated ‘object’ of study, stamped with an otherness.” 8 We often ourselves confuse our nationalism (Incredible India) or patriotism with Orientalism. Had I clicked that photograph, my colleagues in my Design School would have admired it for its aesthetics, for a much celebrated naive sense of traditionalism we tend to attach to such exclusive characterizations of ethnicity. Had I included the mobile recharge stall, we would have called it a montage of the old with the new. In either case the image would lose its original independent meaning and would adopt a narrative we see befitting in our reproduction of the same, one that would “glorify the present system and its priorities” 8. If I use them in an article, I would give a caption to entrap it in my interpretation. It would become a part of a larger discourse and not retain its individuality. It would be subject to my way of seeing, just like the artists, just like the sites I would visit.

While I was contemplating on the possible consequences of this action, another tourist went ahead with her DSLR and clicked multiple images in succession, lest she missed the shot. A visitor to the oriental India, she would share this romanticized version of “the other” on her return, aligning with a colonial discourse “based on the distinction between the ‘the East’ and ‘the West’”, ‘objectifying’ the subject of her interest as “contained and represented by   dominating frameworks.” 8

I moved further down the road and came across a Police superintendent who introduced himself to me in broken English and wished to acquire my name and country of origin. I told him I am from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, he seemed to be amused and not much convinced. I do not know whether it was my attire, my expensive camera or more fluency in my English than his, which made him automatically raise me to a higher pedestal. His unjust treatment of his own self, reminded me of Gandhi’s “fears of inadequacy” and “perceptions of white superiority” 9, in this case perceptions of the superiority of English Language. I was perplexed by his treatment of himself as a subject and recalled Thoreau’s statement. “We should be men first and subjects afterward.” 1This Superintendent who with pride spoke of his position of authority, is he really a free man?  Isn’t he in his mind still occupying the role of the colonized; the role of the native? Perhaps for that brief interaction he did lose his “sense of identity, lost touch with himself ” 9as Malcolm mentions in his autobiography.

I thought that since that region must be flocked by visitors, “emulation” 9 must have gotten normalized. Perhaps that was an exemplification of his attempt at establishing self-esteem. as in the initial phases of Gandhi’s and Malcolm’s struggle for Swaraj.  Maybe the social norms had caused him to “become inwardly small” and hence “be belittled by others” not due to exertion of power by others, but as Tagore says, by being “ humbly conscious of their dwarfed humanity” 3

<<Visit to Temple. Purchase of Churan . Walk back>>

A boy who was sitting next to a goat (another photographic imagery) waved at me and asked ‘What your name?” “Poornima”, I replied. “Poornima! Poornima! Poornima!…” I could hear him chanting my name as I hurried to catch up with the rest.

From the temple we were to tour Sand Dunes. We had been informed by the driver who was also a guide, that there were sand dunes in close proximity and a must watch for anyone who visits that side. The driver dropped us at an entrance fashioned like that of a fort behind which were luxury tents. One often comes across such artificially created manifestations of a cultural identity, or what Tagore would have called “external conformities” 3, to recreate a certain experience, but rather than a restoration to an identity of self, I find these to be in adherence to the image granted upon us by those we consider superior, or those whom we want to attract to visit us in the first place. Rather than a symbol of pride or self reclamation, I find these to be signifying our captivity into certain stereotypes of ourselves. Rather than a “Recovery of self” this seems in alliance with the “Intimate Enemy”8 of Ashis Nandy’s interpretation.

A German shepherd expressed surprise at our presence. There seemed to be no one, and definitely not the sand dunes. I entered a hall which had huge framed photographs of the Maharaja, Maharani and the Prince in his Polo attire. These photographs though not completely exclusive or rejecting western influence, were to create an ambience of luxury. This framed luxury served as a reminder of the different roles we occupy in between the polarity of exploiter and exploited.

After exploring the place I ventured inside the hall adjacent to the entrance and reached a kitchen. The man greeted me with enthusiasm and told us that a camel ride is the only option to reach the dunes. The cost for every ride was very high and negotiable at the same time. I secretly wished to head back but much to my dismay the group decided to rent a camel cart.

Once the cart arrived, we left for the sand dunes. Rather than being greeted with the fantasised images of our assumptions, we travelled through cotton fields, met cows and children on the way, who laughed at our vanity of not choosing to walk like them. (We had thought that we would be moving through sand, not a kuccha road.) Finally we did arrive, to climb a mound of sand and watch the sun go down.  I could not come to terms with this reality of tourism and us as tourists. I could not believe that in our sedation with the ideas of authentic and images not located in time or space, we had lost our good sense, or else how could one expect to reach sand dunes in such close proximity anyway? I felt deeply embarrassed at my mystified perspective. Also I experienced for a change not just watching someone or something, but also being watched. I was as much a spectacle for the children on the way, as their local environment was a remote site for me. It is not just the others I have been meeting are to be freed of their psychology of subjugation, but also I who needs to be freed of this psychology of the colonizer.

Day 3 (Part 1) : Shopping and traditional attire

We went for shopping in the day time and tried our level best to hunt for a pair of Jootis, local footwear that would fit into my large feet. The shopkeepers advised me to either give up or to reduce the size of my feet. I decided to visit the National Handloom Centre.

Whenever, we, people belonging to the Middle Class or higher, visit such spaces, we feel that we are participating in a progressive and constructive way of supporting the traditional livelihoods of others.  British activist Jake Bowers notes that, “Multiculturalism is fine and dandy when it is at an acceptable distance”2(Patrin Listserve, 27 May2000). My choice of that particular place was this expectation that certain selected items would definitely be there. Seeing a pair of Levi’s jeans at National Handloom will be a cause of surprise for me, but it wouldn’t be so at a mall nearby. I fear that I might be exemplifying Gandhi’s fears of our versions of civilization, where we choose to see different nations. I chose to see different Jodhpurs, or the same Jodhpur differently, in separate segments.

However at that particular moment the most dominating criteria was to find footwear in my size, than could be worn along with the few traditional attires I own for occasional wear. The thought of not wearing those clothes everyday is more utilitarian than anything else; however the occasions when I do wear them have an air of pseudo cultural interpretations. My deliberate stance on traditional attire on those certain occasions speaks more of “new secular hierarchies, which have reduced major civilizations to the status of a set of empty rituals.” 7


Back at the institute, we would celebrate “Cultural Day”. On this day, all students dress up in clothes specific to their region and culture, and the entire student body gets itself photographed. This is followed by a cultural program which displays diversity and then dinner. Do we reclaim our identities, or we reduce them to symbols? More than that, why do we need a specific “Cultural Day” to experience our “Culture”? Whose culture is this, my culture as one enslaved, or the culture of the enslaved adopted by me in mere tokenism? What I wear on a daily routine, is it not my culture?


Reflections Post Festival


While returning from the Festival today, I wondered how wide spread could be the impact of such a festival. Yes, some of the artists do get to perform in international festivals, some get recognised in talent hunt shows, but how sustainable is that impact? Would it have changed general public’s attitude towards them? Would it change the State’s attitude, get them recognition beyond awards and more in the form of aid for livelihood and healthy living? How much of an impact would it have on them as citizens in a democracy, in their day-to-day interactions and strife for survival?

I begin with the ones I have most closely interacted with, also them being direct beneficiaries of such events and festivals. I found their behaviours often conflicting. 

Z Khan could throw tantrums (along with his instrument) if students would not follow his instructions, and would with great pride flaunt his ipod (that he could not use despite our attempts at teaching him to do so), but Z Khan was obviously dependent on the faculty who invited him, for his troupe’s food and stay, and hence his will was subordinate to hers.  This does not amount to true spiritual freedom, this increases reliance on external parties to recognise them through their skill. Z Khan’s sweet demeanour is not his humility, but a mask he cannot do without in front of his- at the cost of sounding extreme- masters.

On the eve of our performance, dinner was organized in the lawns. I saw C Ji and R Ji sitting quietly in the corner, squatting on the ground. There were empty chairs to be occupied, but they did not even look at those, those were mentally beyond their reach. No one in our campus would have raised an eyelid if they would sit on them, but what surprised me more was that no one offered them to not sit on the ground and occupy seats either. This, when we had just performed as part of a module called “Inclusive Growth”. When they politely declined my request, I also sat down next to them. In the then gathering of more than a hundred people, only one more student joined us. I ask, aware that I would sound child like, but had it been Shubha Mudgal or Adele, sitting on the ground, will almost all hundred not have joined? Is folk mainstream? Have they achieved the same status as the festivals proclaim? Have the remaining hundred people or so, been freed from a colonial mindset? I doubt if any one of us can ever say as Thoreau did in prison :“I did not for a moment feel confined.”1

 R Ji and C Ji returned to their hometown in a bus which left not from the station close by, but one that was much farther off. They did not have the courage to speak of this inconvenience caused by the administration department who booked their tickets. When I got to know of this, I spoke to them and expressed my embarrassment as well as anger at them for not having demanded what they deserved, for not having put their foot down, I was hurt, I was naive, I wondered have they no sense of control? 

Where entrepreneurial skill is alien to Z Khan- he cannot start a festival of his own, more than doing it, he would not even dream of doing so, having surrendered somewhere in his mind- R Ji is more of an opportunist than him. Considering the fact that the institute hosted international students, he set up a puppet stall and sold his puppets at a good price. However the stall could not be put up without the permission and aid of the institute itself. Just because the artists have traditionally been rooted in these structures, is it fair for that belief to continue? According to John Ruskin, whose thoughts influenced Gandhi, the insistence of political economy on its separation from moral questions, is the cause for the lack of social wealth generation.

The festival was limited to Rajasthan and our performance to an institute in Gujrat, but Rajasthani folk arts are not limited by geographical boundaries. I attempt here at reflecting upon a different set of folk artists, who migrated from Rajasthan to New Delhi around 70 years ago. These are the residents of a Puppeteer’s Colony in Delhi.

“And therefore while we keep our wells reserved for the cleaner sect, we allow our ponds to get polluted, the ditches round our houses to harbour messengers of death.”3: Tagore

In the light of the existence of such Festivals and renderings of the Rajasthani Folk Art and Artists, how do I look at the struggle of these artists in another space and context?

This colony initially comprised of puppeteers who had migrated from Rajasthan due to lack of patronage in their homeland and increasing competition from entertainment through cinema and other gadgets. As John Ruskin would have opined, industrial capitalism might lead to riches economically but contradictorily it causes impoverishment. Impoverishment results in increased migration to other cities in search of livelihood, and the puppeteers were joined by artists from other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar over time. The colony now comprises of 12 sects including balladeers, magicians, acrobats, drummers and dancers, population estimates varying from 3000-6000 people.

The land on which they reside was uninhabited and having not been recognized as lawful citizens of the city, they constructed their houses on their own and lived for a long period without basic facilities of water, electricity, sanitation, education or options for alternative livelihood. There is a presence of a Trust, which apparently is not very functional any more apart from the school being run.

Today the colony is a slum which over time has acquired a unique identity due to the niche of its residents. Apart from party (customers), the colony is frequented by students of art, photography, amateur documentary filmmakers, lifestyle journalists and inquisitive researchers. A recent phenomenon though is the advent of “Slum Tourism” highlighting this one for an “Artist’s Slum’s Tour” addressing mostly visitors from Europe. These are what Kurin would term as “cultural brokers.” 2

On visiting the colony I am often greeted by two different attempts at reclamation of themselves. One is through preservation of  their local art and lifestyle, second is through emulation. When one enters the school, set up by the Trust, one meets young men with long hair (colored streaks) and piercings, interested in B-Boeing and choreography than puppetry or drumming. This however is not caused as much by not respecting their form of art, but due to frustration at not being able to sustain. The artists gets work erratically for six months in a year during season, and are idle for the rest of the time. They generally do not have any savings and live for the present. Many among these are internationally renowned, they perform in cultural functions organized by government bodies, but the reality is beyond the image.

Even more threatening is the fact that they might lose this land, have their homes demolished, and get scattered. Their land has been sold by the government to developers so that this could be the site for Delhi’s first skyscraper. Gandhi and Tagore would have both denounced such private interest at the cost of public good; however the slum dwellers have only the option to either accept rehabilitation or fight it out. One of the puppeteers’ wife, who spoke to me on one such visit, said that they were not going to fear anyone but God and are going to not step out of this land. It is not just shelter, but identity for them now. The State however has its means. Often the slum dwellers are picked up by the police on trivial grounds, especially because the men in the colony are infamous for drinking habits- A reason why the skyscraper residents would not want them to be anywhere around their enclave.

Though they have been spoken about in the newspapers and documentaries, also Sulman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, they are yet to be heard. They lack their own voice and are dependent on third parties for solving conflicts among themselves. Secondly their economic desperation has caused them to be subservient and complying in most cases. If one looks at any of the visiting cards, one sees Minnie mouse, door welcome girl, tribal dance, pop corn machine among other facilities offered for birthday and other parties to the elite in Delhi. A far cry from the oriental identity which gets people to them in the first place. Even crumbs from a table are better than

nothing at all in a time of starvation (Patrin Listserve, 25 May 2000). 2

They explain that no one is interested in their age old stories and people want the latest, hence they are ready to adopt. This reminds me of the sacrifice Tagore mentions and how I would not even dare to attach the term “dignity” to this. How do we even expect Swaraj in a situation so complex, where it is not just the “tyranny of India rule” through political, economic and social discrimination which surrounds a people, but their internal class based disputes and variations as well? There are many romanticized stories about the unity and harmony they live in, but mostly fiction. This is not to suggest that they are subjects of pity, but they definitely demand attention and empowerment through means that get them self reliant. They seem to have “lost power to combat all aggression and exploitation.” And are in a“state of abject passivity”. 3

Some of the youngsters propose an alternative. Having been personally affected by gimmicks such as these : “such marketing reinforced the belief that the Gypsies were freshly imported, authentic exotics”2, they ask to rebuild and redesign their space as a cultural colony.  Having gauged the “Intimate Enemy” closely, they are certain that people would flock in large numbers to experience the tradition, the benefit of which could be shared by the developer and Government. “This would also take Delhi closer to the image of Paris they want” says one young puppeteer in a matter-of-fact tone. This would take Delhi closer to its “Englistan” and temporary salvation to the residents. Some of them have indeed come out of their dormancy, and have started their own groups or organized others as brokers, but it is a tiny fraction of them. Having participated in many a festivals, having retained and many a times self-propagated their identity as preservers of the folk, their reality right now is that of people fighting for their most fundamental rights under the Indian Rule, people fighting for both political and spiritual Swaraj, some of them exhibiting fearlessness, some frustration and some fear. They await leadership from amidst themselves.


“My patriotism does not teach me that I am to allow people to be crushed under the heel of Indian princes if only the English retire… This is not the Swaraj that I want.” 5Gandhi would have expressed his disapproval.




Works Cited


  1. Henri David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
  2. Carol Silverman, Trafficking in the Exotic with”Gypsy” Music:Balkan Roma, Cosmopolitanism, And “World Music” Festivals
  3. Rabindranath Tagore, Cult of the Charkha
  5. Edward Said, Orientalism
  6. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj
  7.  Ashis, Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism
  8. Partha Chatterjee, ‘Gandhi and the Critique of Civil Society’, in Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies III (New Delhi 1984)
  9. Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Nonviolent Power in Action
  10. Ashis Nandy, ‘From Outside the Imperium: Gandhi’s Cultural Critique of the “West”, Alternatives, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1981


books · communication · design · designing for children · play and learn · storytelling

Fun Books

I cannot imagine my childhood without books. I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by a wide variety, ranging from classics to comics, from illustrated children’s books to thick books with text in english and hindi.

But this post is not about my books, this one is about books for Amaila, my niece.

I want to ensure that my niece does not miss out on the experience of books, later its her own choice.

I often visit this bookshop at Nehru Place, Delhi, which sells some gems as second-hand books.

Some of these books are very interesting and engaging,hence I decided to share some pictures of those books.

Here goes the first one:

Poke-A-Dot book
Poke-A-Dot book

See those dots? You could poke them and count as you do that!

Count as you Poke: photograph: poornimasardana
Count as you Poke: photograph: poornimasardana

The touch and sound feedback is just brilliant and also addictive. Reminded me of bubble wraps but these are much sturdier and provide endless poking. Once you poke from one side, turn the page, and poke it back from the other side! It is an exciting incentive for children to begin to turn pages, which are thick enough to turn with ease.

Turn the Page to Poke: photograph: poornimasardana
Turn the Page to Poke: photograph: poornimasardana

My niece, who is an year old, got so excited when she used it for the first time that she decided to sit on those and check if that created the sound as well.

Poke-A-Poke: photograph:poornimasardana
Poke-A-Poke: photograph:poornimasardana

She does not get bored of it and the wear and tear shows how much it is used daily. It has been good fun for her. My mother has come up with an interesting story to narrate as she turns the pages.

In case you are looking for something to help your child engage with counting, this could be an interesting buy.

Also, more than one person can poke at a time, it becomes a sort of game, but warning, my nieces almost fought in the competition to poke more than the other.

Here is a link:

academia · communication · critical theory · critique · design · society

acknowledging bias

At times my indulgence in critique surprises me. So does my self assumed endeavour in understanding and being aware of things around me.

Why do I want to necessarily find a meaning in what I am seeing, why do I want to connect it with a way of thinking?
Why do I need to have this urge to theorize daily life? Why can’t I just be lazy or indifferent about different things?

As I sat in the auto-rickshaw and noticed “Columbia” embroidered on the driver’s jacket, I had the urge to talk to him, to find out his origin, his story, his aspirations. Had I done that, and shared it with some co-thinkers we might have had a discussion on trickle down of desires.

When I see a hoarding announcing luxury apartments in the lap of nature, I give that sly smile. I click a picture or make a note as if I have had a superior understanding as compared to my fellow beings. As if the paradox in the statement is a hidden form of knowledge that only I and a few others have attained by their study and observation.

At times my egoism annoys me.I give so much importance to my thought, to how I see things, that I fear I might forget that others have their opinion too, and there really is no one simplistic way of looking at things, At times in trying to acknowledge complexity and uncovering different layers of meaning, i fear I end up imposing a personal view more than discovering what is there, earlier I used to make it complicated.

At times, when I am a part of a forum or workshop which has more people like me, it irritates me when listening to faux accents . When I watch their hands move and hear in a sing-song voice words such as “interesting”, “fascinating” and “rich”, I silently wish they would actually elaborate.I feel suffocated when in the name of participation people voice the most redundant of concerns with facial expressions signifying grave seriousness. It makes me disconnect, it makes me yearn for a more …simple way of maybe speaking? A more grounded sense of being? As much as I love reading culture around me, at times I feel my habit of raising myself to a pedestal where I can make a remark on it, makes me disconnect from reality rather than being immersed in it. This is just to acknowledge it, and keep a check lest I get too lost in the sheer pleasure of it all.

books · comics · communication · design · projects · society · Uncategorized · visual culture

Comics Love- experience with the World Comics Organization

I love Comics, I think everyone should. I love the medium and wish to experiment with its form and functionality.

Having graduated from my fellowship in Science and Liberal Arts, I had some time before I started with quantified and mass acknowledged productivity –  “job”.

So I decided to volunteer with the World Comics Organization in the month of June. If you are hunting for work to silence inquisitive aunts and (very) concerned friends, I am sorry, this probably isn’t the genre for you, however, if you are wanting to experience sincere efforts at giving voice to the subaltern , this probably is a space you would appreciate.

I do not think I would do much justice at introducing World Comics for there is much depth to the organization and work, perhaps you could go through their website and engage with what they mean by Grassroots Comics and Comics Journalism.

To me what matters the most, is that they have managed to take comics to people in their everyday lives, and have enabled them to tell their own stories, in their own words and images.

Sharad Sharma, the founder, has maintained an archive of all these narratives, which I truly feel are a brilliant account of narratives ignored in prevailing media and stereotypes. Moreover, I sincerely feel that this methodology reduces a researcher’s bias and could definitely be an innovative methodology to be used in ethnographic study. In fact, in my upcoming projects, which require ethnographic study and community engagement, I intend to conduct workshops with the communities I work with, to create comics wallpapers and to create a forum for sharing stories, perspectives and history.

Some of the important points that stuck to me through my interaction with the organization:

1. It is actually great fun to work in collaboration towards a common goal. The task of creating 28 panels out of two comic books for an upcoming exhibition, involved four people, two who had created the original work, and two who re-used and redesigned panels to be exhibited. beginning with a simple layout, we quickly developed an understanding of each other’s styles and managed to pull off a harmonious set. Devendra and I have a rough style which was given that subtle finality with Sharad Sharma’s eye for details, something I am still only attempting at achieving on my own. It was brilliant to see how after the panels were designed he went through those and introduced finesse with a blurb here or a patch of color there, it was very interesting to see hsi play with text as image.

I often wonder how did they manage to run an entire foundation through only volunteers, I think the most critical aspect is to respect every person and every task, be it making Chai or photo-copying or training people in making comics. Also, to acknowledge every person’s opinion and agency, is not just humbling but also encourages healthy dialogue and willingness to co-operate.

2. At times when lots is to be done, rather than thinking too much, dive deep into it, and just keep doing bit-by-bit. I know it sounds so obvious, but generally that is exactly what we don’t do. At World Comics there is too much positivity and constant work being done, no one stops, everyone is on to something and happily so. It inspires you to just get down to the task (at least as long as you are inside the studio). I think, the fact that Sharad Sir sat on my head, and sort of politely disciplined me into coming up immediately with a simple, neat layout was a great help later. I have faced this paralysis of ideation many-a-times, it is good to have a basic vision, but then explore as you are into it.

3. It is important to understand the purpose of the exhibit, what is to be conveyed, so that the content could be aligned. It is almost a curatorial procedure, ha! you mocking us? go see the number of illustrations and text, it can be tough to choose from such a huge pool of data.  It is very important to be strict when filtering it. Everything looks great, but the idea is to only put as much is enough and appropriate to summarise the larger message in the books. Of course the audience plays an important role and has to be kept in mind while doing so. We did not have much time left for editing though, and that is a learning for next time, particularly for text, it could have been much more simplified.

4. Umm, for all my faux dislike for MAC, I think I had fun using it :). Also, have overcome an inexplicable dislike for photoshop.

5. We played with colors and I think it worked well. So the idea was to start and end with violet and have continuity in panels through the color transition. A coincidence was that green came during the panels clarifying myths on Islam, so then we managed to place RSS based panels in oranges which though was stereotypical we still greedily delved in it in order to assist the audience in relating to the context better. It was interesting how these colors could break the monotony  and assist movement of eye, while the layout and transition kept a uniformity. The titles were kept in contrast with the background, while the bubbles of successive panels had colors belonging to the family of its preceding panel.

6. I think, the organization being quite democratic and liberal, I felt confident in the choices I made, and also learnt quite a lot from feedback, slight shifting of image, a little variation in the tint, adding some data in empty space, playing with layers, creating every panel as a composite whole, it was good fun to see the project complete and exhibited.

7. Great printing can be done at small press, some hidden gems in Delhi.

8. A great cartoon with black gel pen could be given various manifestations later, hence do not disregard a simple process of creation.

9. Last but not the least, to work with time limit, to keep it simple.

Some photographs of the exhibit displayed at India International Centre (IIC) Annexe, New Delhi (10-14 July, 2013):

photograph courtsey poornimasardana2

Exhibition by :World Comics India

Books by :Ram Puniyani, Sharad Sharma