Has any creature been pronounced dead more often than the hipster? It’s the coelacanth of the arts and culture world, “a living fossil” that surfaces from deep waters when it’s thought to be extinct for thousands of issue-periods.
Elsewhere in the world, the hipster has notorious, and intensely scorned identifying traits and accessories. Lacking any specific referent, it became an ideal type of the Invidious, a category applied to dismiss neighborhoods, bands, even resistance movements like Occupy Wall Street. It became a traveling type: we read about hipster infestations beyond Brooklyn in Buenos Aires, Beijing, Berlin, Beirut; even in London and Paris. And within every feature we read about hipsters there appeared, like a trompe l’oeil skull, the promise of their extinction. If any middle-aged weekend warrior looking for comedic kicks could become one, the hipster was dead.
In the NCR, however, we were still waiting on the Indian hipster’s evolution. We saw things happening in Indian cities: new activity in old neighborhoods, the conspicuous advent of a habitat remade in the images of Berlin and Brooklyn, replete with Mac-happy cafes and rustic walls ready for the discharges of first-time graffiti artists. We noticed people reappropriating old spectacles and saris, and ironically appreciating Doordarshan cartoons, Amar Chitra Katha comics, and advertisements for long-interred ’80s brands. But who were these people? How did they happen? Were they our very own homegrown hipsters?
Surely one of our new youth-culture magazines would be intrigued too, and might tell us what was going on. We had our eye on two in particular: A callow, type-happy, quasi-hipsterish periodical, avariciously committed to “pop culture, subculture and counterculture”, and an older city-based biweekly, beady-eyed for urban consumer patterns.
But another magazine took on the task of dumbsplaining instead. This publication was known to be devoted to gratuitous provocation in its cover stories, and heedless in its pursuit of the micro-trends of India’s new era. It was the only magazine that, on an earlier occasion, had the courage to do a cover-story on the phenomenon of vajazzling.
The sub-hed of Open’s cover story, “In Search of the Indian Hipster” — “What is it?” — turns out to be not smirking or rhetorical at all, but asked in querulous earnest. What is it? The writers take aim at their winged quarry and fire. “A person dressed in skinny jeans.” Miss, by about five years. Fire! Someone who “isn’t religious, but believes in the Universe as a Whole.” Miss by about half a century. “A t-shirt with Indian graffiti.” Still. way. behind.
They squeeze their eyes shut and fire at will: “Hipsters read Ernest Hemingway.” “Sneer at Dan Brown.” “Just finished reading Osho’s Essence of Yoga?” “Oscar Wilde?” “Walk into Zara…” “No eggs and bread for breakfast!” But it’s a massacre of pure air.
It’s a hard to hit a fast-moving target, and we know this much about hipsters: none move faster. In the United States, the hipster feature is a modern genre of reportage, and a decade of consistent fire has helped improve the aim. So has an industry in which many magazine-writers are graduates trained in the fine ballistics of cultural exposition (you shoot slightly ahead), and both groups overlap with the hipsters themselves (you shoot yourself).
When you’re dealing with India — and its feature-writers, who hold their subjects in deferential awe and get snarked on for their pains — it may be wiser to just save your cartridge. But at last shots had been fired, and we had to investigate, starting with the feathers brought down by the best efforts.
There are three or four. The feature does capture a few hipster identifiers that aren’t four decades wrong, including, in the lede paragraph, the canonical rule of self-denial. It does quote Mark Greif, who may himself have bagged the bird, by aiming so far ahead of it that his essay presented itself as a post-mortem.
It interviews people who are, manifestly, people you’d point at and say “Look at that fucking hipster.” And it does succeed at making its interviewees sound starved of self-awareness and full of shit (“He himself bought LPs because CDs were too expensive”), again unintentionally catching a quality of hipsters more accurate than “drinks chamomile tea”.
It was also appropriate that the first reaction it elicited on Twitter was a contemptuous rejection from @Humphrey_Bogart, whose previous tweet had been, “Where can I buy combat boots for women in Mumbai?”
So there was all of that. And the New Clothes Review won’t attempt a portrait of Indian hipsters that’s any better, as we never go out anymore, now that Yeti delivers.
Anyway, the question of interest isn’t “The Indian hipster: What is it?” but only “The Indian hipster: How do we write about it?” In the event, this article was written according to the File ASAP Feature Formula, an industry standard, which explains many of the ways the article fails. Rules of FAFF include “Share insensitive quote from vapid fashion columnist” (check), and “Any foreign publication is a higher authority”; thus a quote from a 2009 article in Time, a double-strike against contemporaneity. FAFF writing also proceeds from outside in, from visible actions back to motivations. That’s fine, but it never gets very far into the latter, due of word-limits and difficulty: not the difficulty to the writer, but the presumed difficulty to the reader, a FAFF anathema. Here’s the real banana peel.
If one thing that defines hipsters, including Indian ones, is quick-fingered appropriation and equally quick discard of cultural playthings, then the story can’t be about the playthings. You have to go deeper than that. And to do that, you have to ask weird questions.
Like this one: How many of your Indian hipsters were middle-class? Let’s make FAFF walk the plank again for that one. It’s true that, for reasons reaching into the dark soul of media publishing, FAFF articles are nearly all about the Indian upper-class, even if they pretend to be about everyone. Poor Indians, handled by the current-affairs desk, are Poor; rich Indians are Indian. Nothing very original here. The Indian Hipster, if you run the decryption, is the Rich Indian Hipster.
The only time the word “rich” appears in the feature is in a quote, a long gripe by someone who is apparently not rich yet had internet access back when “the internet was still young.” Had the reporters pushed the word out into the rest of the feature, a lot more would have become visible on its own.
One of the better shots the article took was that a hipster “doesn’t care who forms the government.” To this idea, the totally hipster @Humphrey_Bogart replied — MT — “What do you mean hipsters ‘don’t care who forms the government’? People like that aren’t called hipsters, they are called idiots.”
Actually, people like that aren’t called idiots, they’re called wealthy. We’re generalising, but members of the Indian upper class really are well insulated from electoral outcomes, and for most of us the question of who forms the government is academic. Yet @Humphrey_Bogart may be onto something: It’s possible that hipsters fare relatively well, as their condition does entail a febrile curiosity about new images and options made available by external change. They’re not especially insensate to who forms the government. They’re just insensate to what has formed them.
When you’re rich, and young, Indian, and possibly a little overeducated, it is hard to be content without a meaningful life and yet it can be hard to lead one. In the feature, when an advertising hipster derides the new middle class, happy with “the Gucci t-shirt you have spent your whole life trying to afford,” you can almost hear the fragility of his scorn, for nothing will give as much purpose to the adster’s life as the Gucci t-shirt, however vulgar, gave to a chump from Munirka. Adster doesn’t want the Gucci t-shirt, because he can afford it.
One solution is to down periscope and submerge into a different kind of economy, an economy of cultural information, where scarcity is not based on cost but on originality and velocity. We reach into the future, obviously. We also reach into the past, a warm sea covered in curious flotsam perfect for exceptionalist consumers. Now that the internet is no longer “still young”, we turn tech-rejection into another display; thus the recurrence of LPs and typewriters in the feature, and its woeful misapprehension: “To be a true hipster… one would have to give up all the luxuries technology offers.”
No, being online was essential. Online, we could all be honest fishermen, eating our own catch: the fashion ideas and recherche literature, the “obscure samples” and new tracks by Major Lazer, the affectations of speech and the customised job-descriptions in design which gave us comparative edge, and with enough edge, gave us purpose. So we became hipsters. And we could spend our whole lives trying to be them.
Music is definitive of hipsterdom, and it’s at least intriguing that in the United States, an era of revanchist high capitalism coincided with the rise of many strains of indie music, and both coincided with a broad turn of pop away from hassling the social milieu to mildly acquiescing to it. For instance, the aestheticisation of suburban American life as a fey and melancholic experience, full of vague but terrible puzzles. What we call hipster culture has, at different points, grown obsessed with granting to rich life the existential privileges of poor life: the feeling that the neighbourhood you grew up in was hostile; the understanding that your current life requires you to dress like a trucker or a homeless person.
This poverty angle is the one pronounced hipster sub-trait that hasn’t really travelled to India. Big surprise! Yet new arrangements of poverty and wealth in India’s cities have been a critical condition of possibility of the emergence of whatever the Indian hipster is. Hauz Khas Village, Shahpur Jat, Hauz Rani: the poverty of urban villages has kept their property values low, their residents disempowered, and made those locations available as an urban blank slate, on which any number of projects could be enacted with barely a thought for the bottom line.
But the cool they trafficked in was precisely what would kill them: it draws in the Audis and the rowdies, the other rich kids, and aligns property values with the rest of South Delhi. HKV becomes GK II. The demise of some of HKV’s definitive establishments, in recent weeks, illuminates the only poignant detail of the hipster economy: that in the end, for all its skill at appropriation, its role is to be appropriated in turn by corporate capital. They blaze the trails into working-class geography, tagging the walls as they go, but once the trail is open, the gentrifiers become the second-wave evictees. For one precious moment — the moment they’re made to leave — they resemble the bohemians they’ve spent so long pretending to be.
For now, though, we are still young Indians with a penthouse view over the country’s Lorentz curve. We stay in motion, always pushing at the margins of the cultural matrix; not asleep but wide awake, which is how the profane and defensive irony enters the picture, and very quickly becomes its frame. We know it’s all make-believe; ours to construct, consume, and aestheticize. It’s a big thing about being an Indian hipster, or any hipster: pretending you can’t see the great flares of politics and urgency in your own lives and societies. We couldn’t credit the importance of the actual landscape around us, flooded with actual ethical challenges and hard political truths.
We turn our walls into glowing screens instead of going outside. The world is then a place that just needs to be made interesting. You got to be a better person by choosing the right playlist. Or maintaining an immaculately curated Pinterest board.
Alternatively, forget everything we just said and go with this: “There’s nothing wrong with people terming themselves hipsters, because it’s a good thing for Indian society.” It may be the least hip thought that ever formed in a human mind, but it’s credited to a semi-famous-musician-who-wants-to-make-films-based-on-books, and its theory is much shorter. He thinks that the work of cultural fishing and filleting is economically valuable. For growth. This isn’t wrong and it isn’t contradictory to our theory, either. It’s a third, FAFF-approved choice of emphasis presented to the feature writer: what the thing looks like, where it is coming from, or why it is all just going to be great, promise.
And if you do want to describe what the thing looks like, just make sure you describe the events-horizon of Indian hipsterdom. Describe the swing-dancing classes that got started in Hauz Khas Village after a couple busted out the Charleston during a Prohibition-themed (that’s US Prohibition-themed) secret party at Elma’s Tea Lounge. Or the invitation-only DJ night above a granite warehouse in Chhatarpur, with no directions to the place, only latitude-longitude figures. The party was called “Grime Riot Disco”, a phrase that, in high hipster form, comprises three words which each have their own profound and troubling local meanings, but which are taken together to only sound internationally coloured and perversely attractive.
Or shoot further ahead: Dream up your own Indian hipster hot-tub and report on that. There’s an imaginative vacancy in our city, now that TLR is gone. Make the answer to “What is it?” anything you like. It might not be real, not at all. But was reality ever that important?
[Strictly representational] image by lecercle on flickr