In the summer of 1998, with the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party focusing its nation-building efforts on nuclear power, a group of artists and intellectuals in Delhi began to feel uneasy about the absence of a critical public culture. Three members of the Delhi-based artists’ group Raqs Media Collective—Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula—realized that real criticism and creative approaches to culture would only be possible under a facility that was independent of state and market control. They teamed up with Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan, both scholars at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), an independent research institution, to create their own oasis of dissent and counterculture.
Since its formal inception in 2000, Sarai has been functioning as a programme of the CSDS, nestled in its picturesque north Delhi campus. The programme draws more than just linguistic weight from the word sarai or caravansarai, which in several Central Asian and Indian languages refers to shelters for travellers and pilgrims. Sarais have historically fostered rich exchanges of languages, stories and ideas.
Earlier this month, over a cup of coffee during Sarai’s week-long celebrations to mark its 10th anniversary, Sengupta told us about some of its research projects, ranging from detective novels from the Hindi belt to print culture in pre-colonial Bengal. A good indicator of the breadth of Sarai’s interests is a fellowship that supported a pensioner who spent a year documenting citizen agitations over inflated electricity bills.
Innkeeper: Sengupta with a display from a Sarai project. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Working bilingually in English and Hindustani, this latter-day sarai was designed to be a convivial place where people from different backgrounds could work together. Its brightly painted basement offices host a research centre that focuses on media practices, urban issues and contemporary culture. This is supplemented by a dedicated publishing and translation programme, a software laboratory, workshop and screening spaces, and an atelier for contemporary art and design. Through its annual fellowships, Sarai has also been supporting independent research.
Ten years down the line, these efforts have yielded results. It was under the aegis of Sarai that the ancient Urdu storytelling tradition of Dastangoi was revived by scholar Mahmood Farooqui, who used his 2004 fellowship to research the texts. Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor was composed partly on a 2002 fellowship, paving the way for other Indian graphic novels. Journalist Basharat Peer started work on his evocative book, Curfewed Night, that documents his experiences growing up in war-ravaged Kashmir, as a Sarai fellow in 2004.
Sarai’s goal of working independently of formal institutional frameworks is very marked. “We have no threshold for entry. We don’t really consider previous work or qualifications when we award fellowships,” explains Sengupta. “What matters is the research proposal at hand.”
Today, Sarai reaches out to a dynamic community through its expanding network of members. It has links with organizations such as the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore and the Waag Society in Amsterdam as well as initiatives in São Paulo, Beirut and Mexico City.
But there’s a lot more to be done, observes Sengupta. “To make a serious difference, we need at least 50-100 organizations across India with the scope that Sarai has,” he says. To streamline its focus, Sarai will trim the number of independent fellowships to support consolidated projects from this year onwards.
This is a time for philosophical turns. “We’ve realized that what we wanted to do has caught on. We don’t have to spread ourselves thin trying to support every new creative wave,” he says. The most significant contribution of Sarai in its first decade has been spreading the virus that initiates change. And as we speak, it floats in the air.