A new Sarai: new media in Delhi

Amanda McDonald Crowley

A Sarai is an enclosed space in a city or beside a highway, where travellers and caravans can find shelter, sustenance and companionship; a tavern, a public house, a meeting place; a destination and a point of departure; a place to rest in the middle of a journey.

Sarai: the New Media Initiative, Delhi, works with these readings of the word Sarai to create a space where old and new forms of media, their practitioners and those who reflect on or critically examine these practices, can find a convivial atmosphere, and enter into shared pursuits that will create a renewal of public cultures within and across city spaces.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Geert Lovink, Sarai Reader 01—The Public Domain.

In Delhi, there appears to be amazing access to “new media space”, signs point to small cable operators, hundreds of public call offices, low cost media such as music and videotapes, reasonably inexpensive “grey market” computers and internet cafes evident all over the city. However the vast majority of the urban population is unable to gain access to these resources.

In establishing a small Sarai, a space for debate, dialogue, refuge, production of work and generation of ideas, the team of artists, activists, filmmakers, theorists and thinkers behind Sarai have taken on a huge task. The friendly and ebullient team may not be able to provide new media access to all the people in Delhi, but they will certainly influence public debates, raise awareness of work being done in this area and provide access to a significant number of communities who may not otherwise have had this opportunity.

The Sarai New Media Initiative emerged out of a collaborative vision between the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies (CSDS), a non-profit institution (funded in part by Indian Council of Social Science) and Raqs Media Collective who have since been joined by a group of independent artists, programmers, historians, web designers and documentary filmmakers. Their intention is to foster collaborative work and partnerships as well as to provide a space in Delhi where people can develop ideas. Its establishment has been supported by the CSDS, the Daniel Langlois Foundation and the Netherlands government, assisted by the energetic partnership they have established with the Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam.

We translate the term ‘connectivity’ to mean much more than internet access. For us it connotes the means and desire to forge links, build affinity groups, crystallize networks and enter conversations around/through our intellectual activity and creative work.

The research agenda of Sarai is organized around 2 core areas: “understanding the place of the media in urban public practice and consciousness, and reflections on the city as constituted through representations and technologies.” Their current core program centres around explorations of the city and the lives of people in Delhi in terms of ecology and technology; the concept of a media city and how that reflects, and also writes, the lives of those who inhabit it; an engagement with the Hindi language and its representation in the physical and virtual worlds. Sarai is also committed to an exploration of the free software community in order to design applications and hardware configurations so that they are truly accessible and allow for low connectivity and authoring tools.

In line with this agenda, the 3 day opening event, “Enter: the Public Domain”, addressed topics as broad as cinema and the city, access and censorship, social justice and the city, free software, and global new media, art and the city in contemporary literature and cinema. Artforms presented ranged from film to installation, internet to sound, photography to writing.

In reflecting on the notion of a Public Domain various speakers including Rajiv Bhargava, Geert Lovink, DL Sheth, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta discussed possibilities for tracing and imagining decentralized versions of the formation of public opinion through contemporary technologies. Discussion centred on issues of providing spaces for disparate voices and concerns.

Monica Narula presented Global Village Health Manual, a recent interactive screen-based work developed by Raqs Media Collective. The work is an extensive digital archive of research undertaken on popular print materials from 19th century India juxtaposed with contemporary medical research from the internet. The combination of sources posed a range of questions about the body in a digital age. Meena Nanji, a filmmaker from Los Angeles who is currently working in Pakistan, Afghanistan and North India, focused her presentation on strategies she is employing to develop work about the experiences of young Muslim women in these countries. Samara Mitchell, representing the Australian Network for Art and Technology and Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in Adelaide, showed Australian work and focused on interdisciplinary discussions and collaborative practices between artists, practitioners and philosophers in Arcadia, an ANAT research project exploring philosophy, theology and approaches to human/machine interactions.

Issues of access, freedom and censorship across various media forms were also central to a number of panels which sought to open up debate. Rehan Ansari, a freelance media critic and writer from Pakistan also undertaking research through CSDS, spoke about the physical space of Karachi and how the city geographically exists in mutually exclusive zones. Juxtaposing the physical with the virtual, Ansari also spoke of the website Chowk, an online space of discussion, dialogue, reviews, journalese and general chat for people living in Pakistan and India as well as people who have connections with Pakistan, providing a space of exchange for residents currently living in, and diasporas living without, South Asia. On the same panel Siddhartha Varadrajan, a journalist with the Times of India, discussed ways the news is produced in mainstream media and Arun Mehta, president of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment, suggested that the sheer size of the internet ensures that there are adequate spaces to “bypass” censorship in traditional media forms.

The task of the Sarai team will be to remain relevant to the many communities in Delhi, ensuring that they can attract the young and disadvantaged audiences that they intend to serve, and remain networked into a supportive international community. If the opening event “Enter: the Public Domain” was anything to go by, I have no doubt that they will live up to the task they have set themselves.

In Moghul India caravansarais (inns for merchants and travellers) were found at regular intervals along major highways and in cities. …Constructed by the great for reasons of charity, religious duty, and fame, they were open to merchants, scholars, religious specialists, and other travellers, but not to soldiers. The average sarai had room for 800 to a thousand travellers, and housed barbers, tailors, washermen, blacksmiths, sellers of grass and straw, physicians, dancing girls, and musicians…

The caravan sarai erected by Jahanara Begum near the entrance to the garden on Chandni Chowk was the outstanding example of its type…Jahanara wrote, “I will build a sarai, large and fine like no other in Hindustan. The wanderer who enters its court will be restored in body and soul and my name will never be forgotten.”

In Delhi, the reason Jahanara Begum’s name is remembered is the infectious energy of the Sarai Institute for New Media in their drive to establish a contemporary version of an Indian Sarai. I will remember them all for their generosity, their intellectual rigour, and their amazing dedication to the philosophy of establishing a site for the exchange of ideas and the development of new work. While this Sarai does not currently have room for a thousand ‘travellers’, the extraordinary commitment of the Sarai team to making tools and knowledge available to many Delhi artists, young people and communities who do not currently have access, and their integrated approach to cross disciplinary dialogue and debate, will undoubtedly have an effect on thousands of artists and communities in Delhi and beyond.

Sarai New Media Initiative, 29 Rajpur Road, Delhi, India, February 23-25, “Enter”, Sarai: the New Media Initiative/Society for Old and New Media, Delhi/Amsterdam 2001,

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 21

© Amanda McDonald-Crowley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001