Useful Critique, with the faintest tincture of atrabiliousness.

Your face is my screen

We at NCR do not buy into the zero-sum cultural theory of Mumbai and Delhi — that if one becomes more attractive, the other becomes less, and so on. It’s perfectly obvious to us that a person can afflict both cities at the same time.

It helps if that person never sleeps. Recently, rolling his hungering wide insomniac eyes over “the chaos that is Bombay”, a young Delhi impresario managed, in just under six and a half minutes, to reduce a city other than our own into an identical mess of inanities, visual cliches, and no-shit? audio samples. The production is sponsored by Cobra beer and hosted by as part of its new Mumbai City Guide. A number of good-looking Delhi hipsters host video tours of Mumbai here; in all of them, the city is much less the focus than the hipsters, and altogether the hosts have been more carefully “curated” than the tours. In this case, the impresario, who is also a VJ and other things (more on this later), makes a music video with his DJ partner, while a documentary is made of them at work.

The doc is meant to be supplemental to the video, but of course it’s the other way around. The video is a hash of “Spirit of Mumbai” visual cliches in spinny stop-motion, backed by a soundtrack of !ncredible India audio cliches with a bass track laid on top. Perhaps they played a game: “Name as many Bombay locations as you can that are so over-exposed they already have movies named after them”. Answers: Dhobi Ghat, Chor Bazar, Gateway of India, Marine Drive. It’s kind of appropriate for fresh-off-the-plane Dilliwalas leafing through Lonely Planet, because there’s literally nothing new here. It’s the documentary that ends up being interesting, but only as a comment on the conditions of its production.

Early on in the doc, at the dhobi ghat, the impresario offers an explanation of what he’s doing. Here it is, transcribed the way it sounds: "We’re trying to sample, like video and audio… and try to make like a… audio-video [he’s splashed by a dhobi, whose face he is in; he laughs]… audio-visual piece that expresses the chaos of Bombay, through the sounds and [splash; laugh] … through the sounds and sights. And this is just an amazing place for that. I’m getting wet. But it’s quite amazing."

In the background, the labouring dhobi shows no agreement that any of it is amazing: not the chaos, nor the sound of himself slapping heavy, soaked clothes onto a stone, nor the fact that an impresario from Delhi is being paid dollaz to stand in his face and be splashed. The dhobi’s doleful expression is glimpsed in the corner of the frame in the documentary, but it disappears from the final glazed and groovy audio-visual piece, leaving only a memory for the viewer, a ghost reminding her that something has gone missing.

In the move from documentary to audio-visual piece, there’s a kind of spiralling play-within-play effect : the impresario and DJ eventually appear within their own music video and, contrary-wise, the doc about them shooting the video has the same vibe, and is backed by the same samples, as the video they shoot. In short, the subject of the whole exercise is not “Mumbai”. The subject is “impresario in Mumbai” and “Mumbai according to impresario”. Or, to put things simply, the subject is: “impresario”.

This is crystal-clear again in the closing sequence of the doc. Using a jerry-rigged taxi, the impresario and DJ literally “project the stuff we’ve been shooting back onto the walls in Bombay”. As the soundtrack picks up, a window of searing white solipsism is projected over the darkened city from the window of a moving taxi, onto walls that are intentionally blank, onto faces of working-class men who live there and who are temporarily dazzled and confused by the light. Then your eye adjusts, and the real city falls back, invisible, and you see only the projection, only the impresario’s images. And then you know that that was all you were ever watching. 

To understand how this came to be — and I mean to be “hosted on and paid for by Cobra beer” — we need to bring the impresario back to Delhi and unpack the process through which he became successful. Of course, we also need to unpack the commercial decisions of the Guardian and Cobra, but those may be less interesting than the man in/with the camera. Back in Delhi, the impresario never sleeps. He is, simultaneously, a video jockey, a video artist, a restaurant proprietor, an “art cafe” curator, a creative-lab space manager, and a hydra-headed festival organiser. Wait. He’s also a chief at a design firm that does corporate graphics AND advises international NGOs on innovative public sanitation. Yes, he’s a whirlwind of entrepreneurship and creative opportunism, and this is generally known and admired about him, though he’s typically judged by intent rather than outcomes.

Withholding judgement about these outcomes — or rather, letting the Mumbai video say everything — what interests us is the system of waterworks that pipes non-commercial funding into such undertakings. In recent years, many such projects, including his, have been funded by the Goethe Institut, the cultural wing of the German embassy. How come? In part because young Delhi cultural producers, including this one, are eloquent in a post-millenial verbal mimicry that’s capable of legitimising harmless, repetitive ideas as urgent and cutting-edge social-cultural interventions. One example arrived in the publicity for a tour of British visual jockeys (whom the impresario would, obviously, be accompanying). One of their events was described thus: “Through the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, the project seeks to uncover who we are as human beings and how our complex identities are connected to our every day environments through a multitude of different rituals.”

It’s no accident that this pile of jargon sounds like it dropped from a meme. It’s a very savvy treatment of words that are hard currency in our cultural circuit, quite separate from what they mean (help yourself: collaborative multidisciplinary juxtaposition curated multimedia spectrum bricolage). To improve the metaphor, these are words treated as audio samples, looped and mixed into recursive sequences — and Western embassy funders can’t resist the beat.

Thirty years ago, the largest form of cultural embassy in India was the Soviet Union's. Through vernacular publishing, mobile libraries, grants to workers' movements and so on, it reached out to the middle and working classes (there were also sufficient ballet performances in Delhi for the rest of us). At the time, cultural diplomacy was political and its goal was to build constituencies for bilateral ties. Today, when cultural diplomacy is commercial, and its goal is tourism revenue or investment, its audience has shrunk to the people most likely to supply these: the metropolitan elite. A survey of recent years' event-funding by the Goethe Institut or the British Council makes it quite clear that their emphasis is on high arts and avant-garde entertainment, whether or not an audience exists for it. Or rather, an audience does exist, but it seems not to concern the embassy that that audience is minuscule and already satiated with its own state-subsidised cultural menu.

Is there anything tinier than the audience that’s interested in celebrating “interdisciplinary processes and experiences that shape contemporary thought and action”? There is — and that’s the community of intermediaries and impresarios ready to serve up this sculpted language-turd to funders, and serve down (though it doesn’t go far down) events to the very proximate audience, mostly their friends. There’s little competition for these grants, since the circles of producers and consumers are so vertically restricted, and the networks of non-elite cultural strugglers are too far below even to be rejectable. Result: anyone who grabs a teat can milk it till the EU goes bankrupt, and can do so while producing vainglorious nonsense and building a pile of projects beneath them that allows them to reach ever-higher, more lucrative teats.

If the only outcome of life in this stratosphere was under-attended light shows in Lutyens Delhi and wasted tax-payer Euros, that would be one thing. But India is a poor (and chaotic) country, and the conscience of foreign funders is acute if ineffective. Elite impresarios can’t show the mercy of simply leaving sub-elite society alone. Instead, every social problem ends up remade in their own image.

For example: In the least of their errors, they will pull the classical arts, already patronised by the middle class, into their dubstep-thundering echo chamber. This may require a German-funded multimedia collaboration with a Bharatanatyam dancer, overlaid with a Greatest Hits of fund-baiting — references to the environment and world peace, set to the synthetic faux-elevations of Goa psytrance. Afterwards (clicking back to the Guardian video) the impresario can make this comment: “We have such a huge and diverse tradition of classical arts, performing arts, it’s just amazing to be able to dip into that, and not solely be urban and futuristic, but kind of mix everything that India stands for, and has stood for, and mix that with what we stand for.”

Oh, impresario. It breaks my heart, but you are futuristic. You will take the next grant and the next one, and be on the next Newsweak list of future faces of a techno-globalised India. And we are all way too close to what India stands for, and has stood for since time began. But that has nothing to do with Bharatanatyam or break-dancers, and everything to do with your own performance: the one that keeps what’s on top on top, what’s inside inside, and makes the rest of the country dance to its tune.

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