One query and many responses, at times overlapping each other. Sometimes, there is a nod or two of approval. At others, one does not quite agree with the other. Then, there are talks among them, of newer ideas, the possibilities, and the promise of the future.
When the founder members of Sarai come together for a chat, they echo what Sarai is — a platform pulsating with multiple voices with a common aim. A programme of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Sarai is an exciting mix of researchers, from the world of academics to the arts.
Their voices are reasonably assorted but the aim has been common: to build a model of creative research practice in which multiple voices express themselves in diverse forms. Its entire work has free public access, either from its archive housed at the office, or from its website (www.sarai.net).
Having just celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Rajpur Road office with “seven book launches and a room full of people on an evening when even the gods spoke through heavy rains,” each member exudes a sense of success, a silent feeling of pride at being part of the platform. Restrained as they are, a little prodding is required to make them revel in their laurels.
So you name some of Sarai's ground-breaking achievements — the birth of the graphic novel, the revival of the ancient art of storytelling, Dastangoi, a Hindi computer keyboard and blogging in Hindi, the city's festival of queer films…well, no mean feats!
“That's true, we never thought of it all these years…Sarnath Banerjee (who wrote the graphic novel “Corridor”) was a Sarai-CSDS fellow, so was Mahmood Farooqui (a well-known dastango now),” says Ravi Sundaram, one of Sarai's founder members.
“Actually, we still don't know the real impact of what we have created, either through our fellowships, our discussion lists, our residency programme, the cybermohalla (a collaborative project with the NGO Ankur on one's place in the city or cyberspace), our Sarai Reader series or other publications. In almost 15 to 20 tier-two cities today, you will find Sarai fellows,” he adds.
“That Sarai from the very beginning was confidently international is reflected through its 15 web discussion lists.” The discussions, “where people from all over the world take part,” range from exploring emerging forms of urbanism in our metropolises to forums to discuss images, films, art, new media, etc. to how the Internet and IT technologies promote development, among other issues.
In Maithili too
Ravikant, in charge of the Hindi Sarai Reader series, joins in, recollecting the initial days of thinking up Hindi words for cyber use. “We had to think hard which word to use so that people can identify with it. Today, I am glad we have taught people how to write in Indian languages on the Internet.” Currently, Sarai fellows are developing keyboards suitable for Kashmiri, Chhattisgarhi and Maithili.
As for the birth of Sarai, another founder member, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, elaborates, “It was in the aftermath of the nuclear bomb tested by the then BJP Government. The whole atmosphere was different. There was a huge cultural and intellectual crisis. We sensed a silent demonstration of people against it. The need for a space for different voices was evident to us.” Sundaram ruminates, “It was a bold move by CSDS to have allowed us to explore the idea during such a time.”
While CSDS fellows Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan, a film scholar, came on board to form Sarai, Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta joined in from Raqs Media Initiative. From 1998, they debated for two years on the design of the model. The success was almost instant, “as 91 per cent of the people who travelled through Sarai in the first year itself got published, not by Sarai alone but by other publishing houses too,” notes Bagchi.
Now with an eventful decade behind it, the challenge is to look for newer possibilities. “One way is to focus on how seeing is a part of our thinking process,” says Bagchi. The idea has gone into its new art gallery at CSDS.]
“It is not a regular art gallery. An exhibition will go on for a year. More than concentrating on artists, we will focus on ideas,” adds Iram Guffran, who along with Amitava Kumar is in charge of the gallery “Studio and The City”. Another possibility is thrown by Sengupta. “In the first 10 years we looked at technology and welcomed it at a time when others were refusing to engage with it. Now, maybe we can think of doing a critical discourse on the urban built forms.”