Visit to Sarai New Media Centre

Dehli, October 2002

A year and a half after the new media centre Sarai opened, I returned to Delhi, curious to meet new staff and see how projects have evolved[1]. The centre is a buzzing hub, full of energy. During the six days of my stay I only got a glimpse of what is going on. I will not attempt to sum up all the projects that Sarai is initiating and facilitating but will briefly go through a few of the activities and feature a subjective mélange of projects—and people—that I became familiar with during my stay.

Delhi, as hot and polluted as ever, is undergoing a major transformation. The construction of the subway is well underway. The first line will be opened late this year. Due to the tense situation in Gujarat and Kashmir, Delhi feels under a siege. Surveillance and control have been stepped up; there are police roadblocks here and there. Politically the week was marked by the elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which resulted in a defeat for the ruling National Conference. This party is a partner in the Hindu nationalist BJP led National Democratic Alliance coalition, the current Indian government. Positioning itself ‘off the radar,’ so far Sarai did not have to deal with state interference. The impression one gets of Sarai is that of a dynamic cultural centre where new media are centre stage but not the sole denominator. Instead, what Sarai drives is a passion for cosmopolitan intellectual debate on contemporary city culture. The central concern of Sarai is the connection between urban culture, media and daily life. The annually published Sarai Reader is proof of the strong ties to book culture. At the same time the Sarai server is host to a range of electronic mailinglists, from the South-Asia IT list ‘Bytes for All’ to a discussion forum on community radio in India.

At Sarai there is a weekly public screening program, using easy to obtain VHS and DVD copies of feature films and documentaries, not 16 or 35 mm. On the program this week an Iranian film (Kandahar by Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The day I arrived Michael Saup of ZKM gave a workshop, which was supported by the Goethe Institute, which itself could not host such technological events. Also there were two Australians doing a residency. In the midst of it all, staff meetings, heaps of them. And yes, there were the occasional electricity cuts. Because of road construction the ISDN connection to the Net had been down for a while but this improved later on in the week[2]. One of the Sarai founders, Ravi Sundaram, said bandwidth could have been better but that the government was holding up connectivity because of the post-911 security clearance of cable landings.

Let’s look into some of the projects. Ravikant, a former historian, is responsible for the language and popular culture program. Hindi is perhaps one the largest language in the world but the illiteracy is also one of the highest[3]. However, the best books on the Hindi public domain all are written in English. Experts on Hindi film only publish in English. Ravikant’s research looks at the implications—and possibilities—of new media for Hindi popular culture. He is the editor of the ‘Hindi Media Reader,’ a Sarai publication due to come out in November, arguably the first new media publication in Hindi with commissioned articles on free software, satellite channels and tactical media. The reader also contains specific essays about the Indian context. As a first book on these issues, the reader celebrates new media. Ravikant: “The Hindi world has been obsessed with print culture, which rose in the late nineteenth century. Related is the love for literature. But in our age they’re more ways of looking at the world. Film and television now constitute language.” In the Hindi context it is important to discuss the anxiety between ‘high’ literature and popular media. The Hindi media reader discusses the relation between the book and the computer. Sarai wants to play a mediator role and lift the knowledge of one sphere and transfer it into another. Ravikant knows only of a few Indian media theorists; post-Marxist scholars and writers who have been struggling against the dominant trend that treats audio-visual media as suspect. New media are usually seen as part of the package called globalisation.

Over the last few years considerable progress has been made concerning the introduction of Hindi as a computer user language, both on the level of software interfaces and on the Net. But still a lot of work needs to be done. Like Japanese, Hindi has its own set of characters. Both programs and the keyboard need to be adjusted. Ravikant: “At the moment there are three levels at which work is being done. There is the font solution, in which you have to install fonts within the application you use. Then there are the dynamic fonts. Thirdly, there is the Hindi Unicode (the extended standard of ASCII), which will be the long-term solution. However, you can’t use it yet for the Linux-based Star Office. Compared to open source programs, Windows has a much better support for Hindi Unicode. The BBC Hindi site has started using Unicode. You can download fonts from there, which are for free. But keyboards have not yet been adapted.” For those interested, there is a yahoo group that deals with Hindi and computing. Lately, Linux groups in India have woken up and start to deal with the language issue. Ravikant: “I just came back from a conference in Bangalore that dealt with all the issues of standardization—mainly visited by Linux users[4]. Whatever input devices we use, we should give people choices. In India old school typists turned DTP operators do most of the work. Their needs should also be taken into account. Many are bi-lingual workers. But there are also those who only speak Hindi. For them we should also offer the phonetic choice at the QWERTY keyboard level.”

Despite rampant nationalism, the Hindi part of the Internet is much more tolerant than one would expect. Ravikant: “We learned to live with the tension of hate sites. There are limits to what you can do against them. There is such an obsession in India with the protection of the ‘purity’ of culture. We therefore have to find ways to talk about other topics. There is always the danger that the Hindi language agenda gets hi-jacked by the guardians of cultural purity but that should not stop us from getting involved. I am hopeful. The Hindu right wing forces are losing one election after another. The ruling class is in fact not following the nationalist economic agenda.”

Cybermohalla is perhaps one of the Sarai’s most impressive projects. In May 2001 a media lab was established in a slum called ‘LNJP,’ a ‘basti’, next to a hospital in central Delhi. The settlement is living under the permanent threat of eviction. Bulldozers could come at any time and force the inhabitants to resettle on the outskirts of the nine million people metropolis. The project is based in a small room nicknamed Compughar, has three computers (two of them Linux), mainly used by a group of young people most of whom are young Muslim women. Shveta, who trained as a social worker before coming to Sarai to work on the Cybermohalla project, has taken me to Compughar and translates from Hindi to English the many stories the youngsters have to tell. The co-coordinator Azra Tabassum, a lively 20 years old, shows us around. Compughar is a self-regulated space. Azra looks into the everyday functioning of the lab. Monday to Saturday everyone meets from 10 to 4. There is lots of laughter—and expertise. The Cybermohalla project is now well under way. The frequent visitors, most of them school dropouts, have quickly learned to master word processing (in Hindi), drawing and animation programs (Gimp), games, the digital camera and a scanner. There is even a phone and email access via a modem but the connection is not always that stable. At length we discuss the use of Hindi fonts, compare chemical processed pictures with digital ones, and go through of the countless computer animations the children have made of their computer drawings.

Cybermohalla is not just one out of many Digital Divide projects. Together with Ankur, the Society for Alternatives in Education, Sarai has developed a unique methodology. Ankur’s philosophy is to give young people what they are deprived of in schools. Prabhat, who works for Ankur, writes: “What is needed is that we be excited by innovation, but not get swept away by blind faith in it. That there be creativity, along with a critical attitude.” Unlike most projects in this area the focus is not primarily on (Micro)software training. It takes courage to step outside of the development logic that IT is solely about bringing prosperity etc. Cybermohalla is first of all about digital story telling. The participants go out, into the small lanes, and bring back what they have heard and seen. Technical training is only one aspect. The ability to tell stories is as important. Prabhat: “Within a month the children understood that they were not doing a normal computer course.” A community media memory was in the making.

Shveta tells me more about the way Cybermohalla works. “We use a variety of media forms, from wall magazines to html pages, animation, stickers and diaries (texts, audio recordings, photographs). The participants write about the basti, about the neighbourhood , they make excursions into Delhi (short walks, for instance), as well as to other cities. Excursions are often in small groups. The texts – narratives, reflections, descriptions – written individually, are shared within the group. It is through this loop of writing, readings and sharing, and very significantly, the conversations these engender, through the words and ideas that they move through, that Azra, Nilofer , Shamsher, Suraj, Babli, Shahana, Mehrunisa, Yashoda and others discover and evolve the various concepts we engage with.” The conversations, Shveta explains, are critical to the process of ‘concept making’ at Cybermohalla. Ruchika, another researcher at Cybermohalla, brings, through readings and discussions, into the labs her own narratives about the city, narratives she is currently working on through her interactions with ‘scavengers,’ people who live on streets, ‘street children,’ the ‘invisible margins’ in the city.

Besides Shveta, there is Joy, who is a web designer the Sarai media lab, provides support and shares skills in text editing, image manipulation. Also part of the team is Ashish, who oversees the technical skill sharing for the use of low-end consumer technology (camera, dictaphone, sound equipment, microphones). Ravikant, involved in Cybermohalla because of the Hindi language aspect, agrees that the project has a ‘post-educational’ emphasis. “The mainstream understanding is that there is a direct link between technology and development. And between education and employment. We could say that at Cybermohalla these kids gain critical skills. But we should pretend that we provide existential comfort to the people associated with us.” Shveta: “It’s not just the mainstream understanding of a link between technology and development, or between education and employment, but also the notion, a class-based bias of looking at certain peoples as culture deficits, waiting for a delivery system of ideas, words, concepts and skills, that invariably gets articulated under the garb of the language of ‘lack’ and ‘empowerment’. Sadly, this masks the significance of ‘cultural creativity’, or that of users and producers contributing to and guiding (technical) innovation.”

One year into the project the produced material was brought together in a beautifully designed, bi-lingual book. On July 11 2002 the ‘By Lanes’ publication was presented at Sarai[5]. All the children, parents and others came to Sarai. The place had never been that packed. The Compughar group read their stories. The response of the basti community was mixed. Ravikant: “There was some opposition, but now there is openness about what the women are doing. For the first time there are reports coming in from the basti citizens themselves. Before reports were usually written by outsiders.” The Compughar group made an animation about the fierce debate within the basti community. Why would the outside world be interested about the everyday life of the slum, some asked. The style of the diary-type entrances in By Lanes about daily life in the settlement is reflexive, poetic, and at times nostalgic. The online stories in Cybermohalla’s ‘Ibarat’ newsletter, for instance about a train journey to Mumbai, are more fragmented and narrative[6].

In the afternoon we visited the second Cybermohalla media lab in the Dakshinpuri resettlement district. The lab had opened only two months ago. Pinki is the co-coordinator. The growing group of participants was still in the process of finding out about the possibilities of the software. Both exhausted of the encounters and the long journey through town by car, Shveta and I returned to Sarai.

In an email exchange, a few week later, Shveta writes: “What Cybermohalla creates is a context for researchers, media practitioners, web designers, programmers—from different contexts, with our specificities, pursuits, subjectivities—to interact, to collaboratively, dialogically create and transform our own, and one another’s ’ practices through an awareness of and a critical engagement with one another, to participate in the process—as Jeebesh puts it—not as unequals. It is a dialogic reflection among peers. The processes are not determined by their ultimate purposes. Skills, forms and materials are not introduced into the labs with a fixed, predetermined purpose or instrumentality. We’re not working with or within a curriculum, or ‘evolving’ one. Otherwise where would the room exist for experimentation, or a playfulness with forms, an interrogation of these?”

Let’s switch to Sarai and the arts. Sarai is by no means a national centre. From the beginning it has been embedded in regional and international networks. The exchange program between Sarai and the Amsterdam-based Waag Society for Old and New Media is one example[7]. The Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh, Monica and Shuddha), founding members of Sarai who have been working together for a good ten years, have been showing their work abroad for a long time. Recently, Raqs had an installation work at the Documenta 11 art exhibition in Kassel, Germany[8]. A year before the opening of the show one of the ‘platforms’ (D11 curator Okwui Enwezor’s term for public debate), had taken place in Delhi[9]. Raqs’ installation, ‘Coordinates of Everyday Life,’ consists of two parts. The video section, using a few projectors in a dark room, engages with Delhi urban culture. Shuddha: “Many hours of shooting were done over a period of one and a half years. It is 90 minutes of video material if you want to see everything. We engaged with the city in a systematic way, each week identifying an element of city life. We would then go to that particular spot and shoot. There is for instance footage of us in the fog, standing on a bridge at one camera angle for one and a half hours. We learned a lot from that discipline. In filmmaking you are always under the pressure to move your camera and yourself. This shift is related to our move into the arts. It is a move away from the ‘universal clock’ of television. At the same time it is a more serious engagement with documentary filmmaking. Before, the ‘clock’ of television was running in our heads. Now, there is no search for any spectacular, decisive moment. We did not look for the significant shot. In that sense creating a work for an arts context allowed us to re-engage with the documentary sensibility.”

The work also looks at law, the legal regime that governs space, the textual component of the work. Shuddha: “Certainly the presence of rules and regulations in urban space has increased dramatically. The first piece that you see in the installation is the law on land rights, dating back to the 19th century. It defines what is property in land. What matters here is not so much the codification as such but its precise articulation in todays context through regimes of surveillance and urban relocation.” The paranoia about security is significant in Delhi. For the installation Raqs also produced stickers. They contain simple messages such as ‘look under your seat’, ‘do not touch abandoned objects’ or ‘missing persons report immediately’.

The second part of ‘Coordinates of Everyday Life’ at Documenta 11 was a piece of open source software, presented on PC monitors. Opus (Open Platform for Unlimited Signification) is a web-based database structure for shared content[10]. Opus is an attempt to create a digital commons in culture, based on the principle of sharing of work, while at the same time, retaining the possibility (if and when desired) of maintaining traces of individual authorship and identity. I asked Shuddha to what extend the conceptual nature of the Opus database was related to the precise nature of the Delhi everyday life imagery. Shuddha: “Both are about inhabiting space in a different way. One is about being restrained by legal regimes in offline space, the other reflects on the possibility of sharing space in a much more free-floating, dispersed fashion. We started to be interested in work that enables work. Opus means work. It’s a work about work. It’s not an object that can be contemplated. Rather, Opus is a playground. I look at Opus as a building or architecture, a blueprint. It is like a building waiting to be inhabited. It takes some talking to communicate to an art audience what the implications of Opus are.” Those familiar with free software immediately understand the basic ideas behind Opus. But they would ask: ‘why label it art’? Shuddha: “Certainly. Software questions the boundaries of art. The most interesting response came from a group in Brazil called Recombo who were doing something similar with music. They take the idea of the remix culture literally and built an online architecture for people to make collaborative music. In this way peer-to-peer distribution is extended with peer-to-peer creation. Others are interested in the source code. Now we are translating the Opus ideas into physical space. It is a work commissioned by the Walker Art Center, in collaboration with Atelier Bow Wow, a group of Japanese architects. The show opens in February 2003. We are trying to figure out what kind of analogue manifestations Opus can have in a gallery space.”

In August 2002 a delegation from Sarai flew to Sao Paolo to install a work of Raqs Media Collective at the new media arts exhibition Emoção Art.ficial[11]. The installation called location (n) has eight clocks and eight monitors. Shuddha explains: “The crucial idea is one of time zone. The clocks represent different cities such as Sao Paolo, New York, Lisbon and Delhi. Instead of hours the face of the clock has emotions such as epiphany at 12 o’clock, anxiety, nostalgia. The fun of the work is that visitors can compare the different states of being in each city. The whole room is filled with the sound of a heartbeat, layered on to which are the sounds of global electronic transactions, modems, fax machines, and phones. On the monitors you see a face slowly moving from left to right. It’s a mysterious image because it looks like as if the face disappears on one and then reappears on another monitor. The face seems to be travelling between the time zones . We are playing with the Kulishov effect in early cinema where expressions and objects each produce different emotional effects. In our case it was about the expression of the same emotions in different time zones. Globally speaking we always had the same emotions. It’s just that there is no singularity. Everyone feels the same but at different point of time.”

My round along the Sarai projects ends with an interesting exchange on free software and open source and the Indian context. Tripta is responsible for the free software public outreach project of Sarai[12]. Before stumbling into the Linux scene she studied ancient Indian history. In retrospect, Tripta explains, she already encountered open source issues during her study, as she could not access the artifacts and primary sources. Six months ago she became a member of the Delhi Linux User Group[13]. At the first meeting she was appointed general secretary. In the beginning her curiosity was born out of activism. The group brought out its own distribution CD and went to schools to give presentations. Tripta: “After a while I realized that the group did not manage to penetrate into the schools and break through the barriers of preconceived ideas. Microsoft is the software that authorities use.” In a response to this impasse, the Delhi group decided to put up a website and post research outcomes of each of its members. The main issue is: how can Microsoft’s hegemony be broken in more than technical ways? The aim of Tripta’s research is to get more people interested in the cultural aspects of free software related issues. Without research such work cannot happen, she says.

Tripta: “For me open source and free software is not an isolated body of knowledge. It should be placed in a specific context. In my research I am not only looking at the rival factions between the free software purists and the open source pragmatists. I am mainly looking at the Indian context. I am also interested in the media representation. I asked Tripta what the specific situation of Linux in India is. “Programmers here are not into the development of Linux itself. They are more involved in the service industry. Linux is new here and only few people have expertise in this field. So Indian programmer do not change the source code (despite the philosophy). They even develop code and then release it as proprietary software, parallel to their free software activities. This does not only lead to a personality split between the daytime and the evening. Also, the overall development of open source stagnates. There is certainly the image that Indian programmers are not designers. They are not good at conceptualizing software. Instead you tell them to do a certain thing and they will program it. This is might be a caricature but there is some truth in it. There is a sense that Indian techies cannot penetrate other disciplines. In order for this to change a difference sensibility towards technology needs to be developed. For most of us technology is still this overwhelming thing. The distance between us and technology needs to be broken down.”

Then there has to be a viable business model; a universal problem with significant local consequences. Tripta: “Free software cannot be isolated from the social reality in India. I don’t want to see our efforts as a hobby. That wouldn’t bring us very far. Maybe within programmers’ circles it might be a heroic thing to do to sit through the night and hack the code but in the larger picture it reduces its own importance.” Another global trouble topic is the total absence of women. Tripta: “Recently I visited one of the colleges. There were lots of women around in the computer science department. Later I realized that all these women, after their graduation in computer science will either study psychology, do an MBA, history or whatever. But none of them will pursue programming. They said that men were better at it. There is the widespread idea that women cannot think logically. The issue is not that women are not using computers. What we should do is break down the barrier between users and programmers.” A cultural turn seems inevitable.

The cultural change we speak about here will not come overnight and might have to be accelerated by conflicts and dialogues. Hackers vs. artist types is a conflict that also exists within Sarai, like in so many new media arts organizations. There are tensions with the first generation of young programmers and the artists/intellectuals. Tripta, trapped between the two, explains: “In both ‘camps’ there is this arrogance: what I know you won’t be able to understand. Then the conversations cease to happen. Techies should be involved on all levels. Programming should not be seen as a commissioned job. Techies have to be fully aware what the ideas behind a certain project is. The problem is: techies at Sarai do not see why technology should be used within arts and culture. They do not see the point of net art and prefer to do ‘more substantial’ stuff. It is important that these issues are addressed in this space, because if they are not discussed in Sarai, then where would they? Businessmen wouldn’t even bother to look into such issues.” For Tripta the conflict is all about sensitivities and the backgrounds people come from. She stresses the importance of going to schools. “We are building a web portal for students to put their open content on. That could be a beginning. The continuing use of Microsoft products has led to a closed sensibility towards software. In that sense, the use of open source software in daily life would indeed make a difference. But that’s only a long-term solution. For artists and critics it doesn’t really matter what software they use. What counts is the openness towards the ideas and the willingness to start the dialogue with programmers.”

When I leave Sarai, the staff is examining 120 applications that have arrived for the second round of the seed grants program for students and young researchers. Sarai is committed to generating public knowledge and creativity through research. The Independent Research Fellowship Program is one of Sarai’s most successful initiatives. In particular Bangalore initiatives have benefited. Sarai does not just support Delhi-based individuals and initiatives. Themes are as diverse as habitation, sexuality, labour , social/digital interfaces, urban violence, street life, technologies of urban control, health and the city, migration, transportation, etc. Operating within limited space it was clear from the start that Sarai would not be able to expand dramatically in terms of staff and offices. Around 20-30 micro grants will be awarded. Also, preparations are underway for three conferences: a meeting in December about intellectual property rights, a groundbreaking conference about the city in January 2003 and one about ‘crisis media,’ early March[14]. Dazed and encouraged about Sarai’s activities, debates and contradictions, I leave Delhi.

(Edited by Linda Wallace)

  1. A report of my visit to Sarai was posted to nettime, March 23, 2001. A slightly different version can be found in Dark Fiber (MIT Press, 2002). Sarai’s website:www.sarai.net.
  2. Supreet, one of the Sarai programmers explains: “We have a PII 400 Mhz with 56kbps dialup which I think is pretty decent config for a machine connected to net. It requires 333.916 secs this particular page to load which is AFAIK is graphics which shows all the projects inside the OPUS database. See:
    http://www.opuscommons.net/templates/doc/index.htm. A few more numbers are available at http://www.opuscommons.net/usage/
  3. More than 180 million people in India regard Hindi as their mother tongue. Another 300 million use it as second language. Source: http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/hindiint.html.
  4. See: www.indic-computing.sourceforge.net.
  5. Online version available at http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/book01/bylanes.htm.
  6. URLs of the Cybermohalla Ibarat newsletter:
    http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat01/page1.html
    http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat02/pages/page01.html
    http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat03/PAGES/page01.html
  7. URL: www.waag.org. The Waag Society has been instrumental in the founding of Sarai.
  8. See:http://www.documenta.de/data/english/artists/raqs_media/txt_kurztext.html.
  9. The platform took place from May 7-12, 2001. See report: http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2001-May/000069.html.
  10. URL: www.opuscommons.net. Silvan Zurbruegg and Pankaj Kaushal did coding. See also Sarai’s posting to nettime, July 2, 2002.
  11. Raqs Media Collective @ Sarai: The New Media Initiative, Emoção Art.ficial Exhibition, Itau Cultural Centre Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 2002. URL: http://www.itaucultural.org.br/index.cfm?cd_pagina=1415
  12. http://lap.linux-delhi.org/cgi-bin/view/Main/LapHome
  13. http://www.linux-delhi.org/
  14. If you wanted to keep informed about Sarai’s activities, please subscribe to their electronic newsletter. Emai: dak@sarai.net.