The assertion that technological society is something greater than what came before, and that it is bound to bring us a better world, has lately fallen open to grave doubts. The industrial revolution is about a century old, and we have had ample time to draw a few conclusions about how it is going. It is not too soon to observe that this revolution may not be living up to its advertising . . . [and is] creating terrible and possibly catastrophic impacts on the earth.
Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred
On knowing the keyword for this issue of the blog, “Underground”, the first thought that came to my mind was of roots – for obvious reasons. Deciding not to grub up the thought, I made a few more general associations and dwelled further on plant systems and the way in which root networks grow. Opposed to the vertical growth of whatever portion of the plant is terrestrial, rhizomatic root growth patterns in particular hold great value in the development of thought.
Alternate spaces and arenas have proven themselves to be a need of the hour. This is evident in the way that common, accessible spaces are cluttered with information that may or may not be verified, correct, or even required. Dissenting voices therefore bring with them alternate views and approaches that challenge the general perception.
A few years ago, I chanced upon an article that spoke about the last Qatibs (Urdu calligraphers) of Delhi. It aptly articulated the fact that what was once a major profession has now all but perished, and manages to offer its practitioners opportunities to write legal documents, that too because government norms require Urdu transcripts, and a few wedding cards which are far and in between. Further reading led me to discover The Musalman, a daily newspaper published from Chennai, which still employs Qatibs to draft the layout of their articles. Employing calligraphers to manually write newspapers dates back to a time when type setting Urdu letters was a challenge, owing to the structure and alignment of the script. Over the years, technological advancement has allowed for the development of Urdu fonts, and typography in the language can now be handled digitally, without much difficulty. The Musalman, at the time of its inception followed what was then the standard – employing calligraphers to laboriously prepare the layout of the entire newspaper, which then would eventually be sent to press. What is most intriguing today, is the choice made to continue with a method that is now obsolete, and persist when the liberties of modern printing technology are many; the Musalman has only to benefit from them. Several questions arise. Are they overly sentimental about letting go of people, and processes, and traditions that brought them where they are today? What can be the way ahead for the Musalman? It would be unfair of me, as an author, to take a judgmental stand in this regards, however something about holding on does hit a loudly resonating note. The mainstream is an ever swelling river with a sometimes overwhelmingly fast current. To break free from what is normative, firstly, narrates a tale of romancing values and ideas that might hold more value in times gone by. The newspaper was established in 1927. At a time when communal discord was seen as the key to conquer the Indian subcontinent, the daily insisted on retaining the post of the chief reporter for a Hindu – a practice it follows to date. None of this will be considered revolutionary, today. But what makes it really special is the fact that there still are things that drive The Musalman to do what it does – and these driving forces are beyond market influencers like demand and supply. An interesting point to note here is the transition of what was once a la mode into a defunct and obsolete system, and now the other. One strong root, standing the ground, fiercely.
Dinesh Kumar writing his daily paper. Source: India Today (https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/this-journalist-from-muzaffarnagar-is-on-mission-for-educating-and-spreading-awareness-on-real-issues-via-his-handwritten-newspaper-1208922-2018-04-10)
Dinesh Kumar, an independent journalist from Muzaffarnagar, U.P. has been covered in the news of late for pasting manually drafted and entirely handwritten newspapers across different locations in the city. He believes that his efforts are not in vain.
When it comes to generating information, it is next to impossible to create content and not worry about its dissemination. The mainstream in its course of evolution has established an ecosystem within which ideas are generated and in turn their propagation is mapped. The prevalent norms and structures also determine what information is worth propagating. But for something as simple in effort as Dinesh Kumar’s newspaper, or let’s say independently published zines, the modes of outreach seem anarchic. Staying clear of the mainstream requires the generator of information to cultivate an audience, albeit a niche target, that is keen on receiving the information, and also strategize methods that will ensure movement of these publications.
PES:NYC, Artist-in-Residence Alex Callender's work in progress on site at 181 Stanton, NYC. Images sourced from the Instituting Otherwise website. (Source: https://institutingotherwise.cargocollective.com/Project-for-Empty-Space)
It’s unfortunate that existence of an equal alternative is now perceived only as a rebel opposition. There’s an untouchable boundary where the mainstream restricts the genuine flow of ideas and puts it in biased boxes. In the many conversations I’ve had with curator, writer, and good friend, Meenakshi Thirukode, there has been the constant mention and discussion for the need of alternate spaces. The need for structures that are independent of institutional rigidity, for spaces built on a skeletal framework of acceptance, freedom, and creative integrity. Meenakshi’s curatorial practice, called Instituting Otherwise, is a noteworthy example of a successful alternate. A particular project that Meenakshi co-founded with Jasmine Wahi is Project for Empty Space (PES). PES is a not for profit organization that brings art (or the idea of it) out of the pristine and sanctified white cube, and into unutilized empty spaces with an aim to broaden the reach of art and curation, and allow it to infiltrate into the midst of a wider and more diverse audience. Through her work, showcasing art in spaces outside the galleries makes a loud political statement of identifying and calling out patriarchy driven infrastructure that in several manners limits artistic or creative expression. This here, is the other important aspect of the other ground. Creating actual fertile ground for others to explore, grow and thrive.
I am reiterating the fact that the spaces available out there, though seemingly within an arm’s reach, are a saturated swamp. There is an excess of trivia and a severe dearth of space. The need to make more room gets louder and more pressing. However, one needn’t get rid of what’s old to make way for something new. Alternate spaces or the Other Grounds provide legitimacy to the voices that hark from under the din of the routine.
Kadamboor Neeraj is pursuing Bachelor’s degree in Visual Art (Painting) from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU, Baroda. His interest in Art History and Aesthetics, further allows him to explore and express delicately layered narratives through his work. Neeraj maintains a blog where he writes about what he sees around him, and about his interactions with people. He is always up for a good conversation on culture, society, and history. If you can’t find him either in an intense critical debate about contemporary culture, or painting or typing away in the studio, just follow the cats.