Issue 9

On Building A Virtual Therapeutic Relationship

Students training to be therapists often wonder how to translate psychotherapy training from one cultural context to another. I find there are two key elements that help a therapist with this process. First, creating a framework for the work of psychotherapy, or in other words, establishing the boundaries and expectations of therapeutic work. Second, developing a relationship with the client. 

These two elements also helped me when I first began working with clients online almost three years ago. My decision to see clients in therapy online was guided by two reasons. One, I was able to offer therapeutic services to those living in parts of India without access to psychotherapy. Two, online work allowed me to continue to work with clients who were likely to face challenges in connecting with another therapist while I was in the process of moving cities. Of course, with the advent of the pandemic, many (if not all) therapists in India have found themselves working across a screen. My colleagues and I conducted a recent survey on a nationwide sample of therapists in India and found that most therapists reported transitioning to video sessions as a result of the pandemic. Well, in the web of all the relationships the world is now negotiating online, where does the psychotherapy relationship fit in? 

It is often more clear to see what we lose through online relationships. There is data to support the presence of zoom fatigue, lack of motivation, challenges in terms of negotiating space during the lockdown, and the difficulty faced by women, especially mothers, in managing family and work-related online spaces. The field of therapy is not free of these issues. Still, one has to acknowledge that online therapeutic work seems here to stay. It offers an important way to tackle the barriers faced by many in India to access mental health care. In efforts to determine how to make online therapy effective, I believe therapists need to consider what they are able to discern through these online experiences. 

Psychotherapy has always been about entering the client’s world. In the traditional face-to-face model, the therapist utilizes the presence of the client in their room to learn about the client’s life. Through online work, the therapist quite literally enters the client’s world and joins the client in a space that is often the very source of their distress. Creating a framework for therapy now includes helping the client virtually enter and exit the therapeutic space, without the physical presence of a therapist’s room. This endeavour becomes a clinically meaningful goal in itself, and it also offers ways for the therapist to understand the client more deeply. In my online work, I have worked with clients who meet with me from the same corner of their homes week after week, highlighting their ability to carve out a consistent safe space even in the midst of chaos. I have others who move from one form of data to the other, one device to the next, and room to room, communicating perhaps the motivation, difficulty and despair to establish a connection with another. What I have learned through these experiences is the need to tend to these issues as meaningful information about clients, and use this to work with the client on creating the boundaries and expectations of our therapeutic work online. 

In psychotherapy literature, the relationship formed between the therapist and client is recognized to be paramount in contributing to favourable therapeutic outcomes. Different forms and models of therapy emphasize different aspects of the therapeutic relationship. I have especially been drawn to the real relationship, one such element of the therapeutic relationship, in my online work with clients. The real relationship captures the extent to which the therapist and client are genuine with each other and are able to perceive each other for who they really are. It makes sense to consider the ways in which one’s authenticity is bound to emerge during the pandemic, not just through online work, but also through the conditions of lockdown. Not only does the therapist see the client in their living environment, the client too gets to engage with the therapist in theirs! At some points during my sessions through the lockdown, my clients have heard my rambunctious toddler on the other side of my study door (despite my best efforts to schedule sessions during nap time). During a session with a young mother, the moment of hearing my toddler laugh was marked by a shared smile and understanding of our identities as mothers, undoubtedly strengthening the real relationship between us. 

However, another client expressed feeling angry as she heard my toddler laugh. She wondered if I could even understand her reports on the struggles she was facing with her children. These reactions too become significant aspects of therapeutic work, often highlighting the client’s patterns and conflicts in close relationships. In this case, the client’s reaction to me was similar to how she was feeling towards others in her life, misunderstood and angry. In psychotherapy literature, these reactions are termed transference and are believed to be an unconscious carryover of how one experiences others onto their relationship with the therapist. I have appreciated the way online work allows therapists to tend to these interpersonal patterns. For example, a therapist might consider if the client feels comfortable with online work because it gives the client the emotional and physical distance they are used to in their other relationships. In another situation, a client’s frustration with connecting with the therapist via video might also be mirrored in their sense of wanting more in relationships outside of therapy. 

Online therapeutic work is challenging and most would agree it does not replace an in-person therapeutic encounter. In my opinion, the more relevant question is not one that pits in-person and online therapy against each other, but rather the one that addresses how we can use online therapy effectively. A step in this direction seems to entail recognizing the privilege of being able to learn more about, and show more to, our clients as therapists. My experiences with online work have made me value the opportunities one has as a therapist to continue to work and connect with others, through these changing and challenging times in the world. 

Avantika Bhatia is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Ashoka University. Her research focuses on the process and outcome of psychotherapy. She is also drawn to the study of mental health concerns in college students and mothers, and women’s career development in India. As a therapist, she follows a psychodynamic approach and works with college student concerns, trauma, maternal mental health and interpersonal concerns. 

Picture Credits: Paige Stampatori for The Washington Post

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Alliance of new parties alone may not be enough: Mrinal Borah on Assam 2021

A research scholar at the Special Centre for the Study of North East India (SCSNEI) at JNU, Mrinal Borah is a well-known activist and commentator in Assam. As Assam approaches assembly elections, Jyotirmoy Talukdar sits with him to discuss the jailed leader Akhil Gogoi, and what new political calculations hold for the state’s future.

On the importance of Akhil Gogoi in Assam’s politics

If the 1990s were the Parag Das era, then people who followed the politics in the post Assam Movement era would arguably agree that Akhil Gogoi is the tallest opposition leader in Assam for the past one to two decades – the leader who everyone would listen to despite ideological differences. The often aggressive politics of Akhil seems to have hit the right chord among the masses especially the liberal middle class and the rural population, at least in those predominantly Axomiya speaking regions and among a respectable non-Axomiya speaking section.

Akhil fills that gap between the Nationalist and the Left which was left as a vacuum since the 80s. Interestingly, he could carry out in the media the Left narrative without using the traditional jargon. All this while, on the streets the movements carried the basic material questions of land and water rights. A systemic change might be far-fetched today on any front. Yet the reforms programmed through the movements led by Akhil are significant. It is to be noted that they were manoeuvred in such a way that big corporate owners like Naveen Jindal were also taken by surprise, which is made evident by a courageous challenge where Akhil demanded that the Lower Subansiri Dam Project be shut immediately. People of Assam saw hope in him someone who could bring them out of their miseries.

On Akhil Gogoi’s political journey and important interventions

In 2005, Akhil came up with his new brand of politics that took the people’s imagination to the days of Parag Das. After the rejection of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) due to the charges of secret killings in 2001, Congress came to power and remained without any electoral opposition till the BJP dethroned them in 2016 riding on factors like anti-incumbency, Modi wave and intra-party conflict in the party. In this period, when there was no opposition to vote for, the rise of Akhil filled the vacuum and he soon became the voice of the people.

This seems like a brief history but for many of us, he is the opposition that would find favour cutting across ethnicities and religious beliefs. Akhil, if we try to comprehend him ideologically, was someone who could mobilize the peasants on the questions of “internal colonialism” which was lucidly explained to them as ‘baniyas’ snatching their land by fooling them with false promises. It proved to be a successful way of putting things across in rural areas where land was being sold at a very low price to the corporates to set up big godowns and factories near the Guwahati city. The peasants till now were more or less with the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) but it lacked a charismatic leader, and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) led by Akhil was the platform for many of them, owing to his charisma.

Consequently, students joined and this unity of students and peasants created a new group of activists. This is the most important contribution of KMSS and Akhil’s political life. Today, we see a new bunch of young leaders like Manas Konwar and Bittu Sonowal who come from this particular formation.

On Akhil Gogoi and colleagues joining the electoral fray

Let’s try to understand that after Akhil was jailed, two important developments took place in Assam’s politics. One is the formation of the Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP) – an organization that enjoys the support of both the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) – and the Raijor Dol which is led by the KMSS. Akhil is the president of the Raijor Dol. These two entities are a result of the Anti-CAA movement in Assam and formed an alliance recently.

Anchalik Gana Morcha, another state-based party led by Ajit Bhuyan made a tactical move of joining the grand-alliance led by Congress. Without a doubt, the Raijor Dol and the AJP will be able to garner votes that are anti-BJP and anti-Congress. The leaders, Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Akhil Gogoi might also find support from the grand-alliance in their respective constituencies that they personally choose to contest from. However, without any big alliance partner, it might be a challenge for this new alliance alone if it decides to contest elections without the help of parties with a credible and tested presence in Assam.

With all the money and organizational strength till the booth level at the BJP’s disposal, it is a mammoth task for any opposition to fight them alone. Let’s not forget the initiatives that keep fueling the ruling party’s strength. Pouring gifts like red scooters for girls, monetary benefits to the students are some examples. Red scooters are almost seen as a symbol of development and the BJP’s gift for loyalty in rural settings, which is utterly shocking. If the new formation is meant to defeat the current ruling alliance, then it needs to understand how the electoral understanding of the election itself has changed recently. Akhil and comrades must be encouraged to contest elections in 2021 by focusing on a few constituencies where they have an opportunity to defeat the BJP.

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a Senior Writing Fellow (English Language Teaching) at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.

Picture Credits: Facebook (akhil.gogoi.5832)

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Issue 9

Ancient Pandemic, Modern Eyes

In May of 430 BCE, an epidemic broke out in Athens, entering through the port of the city, the Piraeus. Although the pathogen is still a matter of debate, the effect was clearly devastating. By the time it subsided five years later, up to a quarter of the population had died (75,000 to 100,000 people). A mass grave discovered in the cemetery of the city, the Kerameikos, may be associated with this epidemic. Thucydides, who lived through the epidemic, wrote that “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered” (2.47). Physicians, he said, were most susceptible, because of their care for the sick.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to read Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague without seeing parallels in our own time. Attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19 by restricting air and sea travel echo Thucydides’ claim that the pathogen entered Athens through her port, while his acknowledgement that medical professionals were hardest hit, especially early in the crisis, is reminiscent of the great cost born by doctors, nurses, and carers now. Those who have wavered between awe at the speed of scientific research and the development of treatments for COVID-19 and despair at how much remains to be understood might also empathize with the way in which Thucydides moves from scientific scrutiny of the symptoms of the Athenian plague and helplessness, as he recalls, “Some died in neglect, others in the midst of every attention. No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; for what did good in one case, did harm in another” (2.51). 

Terracotta oil flask with painting of Philoctetes on Lemnos, ca.420 BCE. MMA 56.171.58. Source.

The Athenians were not unaware of the causes of the disease. They observed that infection traveled from person to person, and, it seems, they practiced a form of social distancing. In the same passage, Thucydides writes of the fear of visiting neighbors, the choices people were forced to make between care for others and their own safety. The impossibility of separating mental and physical health also pervades his description, as despair leads the Athenians to become even sicker.

It is the physical symptoms of the disease which have attracted the most attention by scholars, but the socio-psychological effects which I find myself most drawn to in this account. Thucydides writes not only of despair, but also of shifting social mores, as people begin to question their beliefs about the workings of the world (2.53). He is critical of such changes, casting them as the disordered and temporary effects of a world turned upside down. But I have to wonder if the questioning and re-evaluation of priorities, which I and many others have experienced over the past year, will be so fleeting.

In the years following the plague, the healing cult of Asclepius took on a new prominence in Athens. In 419/8 BCE, a decade after the outbreak, a sanctuary of Asclepius was built on the South slope of the Athenian acropolis. Interestingly, the location chosen for the sanctuary was adjacent to the Theater of Dionysus, quite possibly because of the curative powers associated with music, drama, and dance. At sanctuaries of Asclepius outside of Athens, theaters became a regular feature, and the curative properties of performance became increasingly integrated into the healing cult. Epidauros, for example, is the site both of a sanctuary of Asclepius and of the most acoustically perfect theater in the Greek world (seating over 10,000 spectators). Centuries later, in the Roman era, a small theater was built into the extra-urban sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum, providing a space for visitors to the sanctuary to benefit from concerts and other performances, while a larger theater in the city center served the needs of the population during her civic festivals.

Theater at Epidaurus, 4th c. BCE. Photograph by Carole Raddato. Source.

Last semester, I taught a course titled “Classical Performance,” in which we discussed the use of music, drama, and dance for healing purposes in such sanctuaries. The impetus for this conversation was Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, the story of a wounded Greek hero abandoned on the island of Lemnos, apart from community and medical treatment. On the island, Philoctetes’ wound festers, smells, and oozes, as he makes a home for himself in the wild. Philoctetes is not just a play about disease, but profound solitude. It is also, I think, a critique of what a community which refuses to care for its most vulnerable really means (whether we are to see Athens as that community is another question). 

I also find it remarkable just how long after the plague of 430 Sophocles wrote Philoctetes, which debuted at the Dionysia two decades afterwards, in 409 BCE. This makes me wonder if we have not yet seen the full creative response to COVID-19, and if perhaps that will develop over many years to come. Will we too put our faith in the healing power of the arts, as we (I hope) recover from the psychological and physical effects of this time of crisis? What, I wonder, will the artistic responses to COVID-19 be in twenty years’ time?

Mali Annika Skotheim is Assistant Professor of English at Ashoka University where she teaches Global Antiquities and Ancient Philosophies.

Picture Credits: Eye Ubiquitous—Getty Images

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Food Beyond the Mess: Why Campus Outlets are Invaluable to Indian Colleges

Food hasn’t changed much after a year of the pandemic but a sub-culture of Indian eating has: that of campus food. While the cafeteria (known better as the mess) in Indian colleges falls under the purview of private catering enterprises, there are yet other, more loved outlets dotted throughout campuses. They usually aren’t well-known franchises (with the exception of a Subway or a Dominos), but instead smaller restaurants. These places don’t only offer up great food, but also a refuge in the secluded island that an urban university can become. These outlets suffered the same fate as other small Indian restaurants: business faltered more and more with each lockdown. Now with the vaccine as a slim purveyor of hope, and the distant likelihood of universities restarting—it’s time to take stock of what was lost in the past year, and what might still change. 

The charm of any great dining out experience in India, whether it’s a highway dhaba or a high-end restaurant, is found in a deep sense of hospitality. Granted, this is what makes any restaurant go from good to great as delicious food on its own is no longer enough. However, it’s not a bonus but often a thumb of rule here—even more so in most local street food joints. These places run on loyalty, word of mouth, and old friendships as much as they do on relatively meagre earnings. Anthony Bourdain, chef and writer, said of his visit to Punjab for his show ‘Parts Unknown’: “A traveller tip for India is to get used to people being really nice to you, it may take some time.” If this is true for most restaurants, then it’s especially true in the tucked-away corners of private and public universities alike. 

Order Up! From the Kitchen to the Students

For students, their favorite outlets go above and beyond food. It’s about tearing through buttered naan in internal joy and external frustration over some deadline, and about lugging yourself the short walk back to your dorm room in a welcomed food coma. It’s also a source of socialization, of bonding over midday coffee habits or a go-to dinner spot. This is unsurprising given a 2011 study which found that the effects of comfort food as a social surrogate, or a way to fulfill the need to belong, were especially high among the college-aged sample. 

To be fair, going to college can be a moment of pivotal change for many leaving home for the first time. Although comfort food might seem like an obvious resolution, a 2010 study found that dynamic environmental changes can “break habitual cues” prompting consumers to step out of their comfort food zone. As students slowly return to campus, it’s possible that they take similar food risks to when they might’ve first arrived on campus bright-eyed and hungry for more. However, risk-taking can only go so far when the menu is full of student favourites anyway. The aim of campus food is not necessarily to revolutionise or innovate at the cost of student loyalty. 

Standard dhaba fair. Credits: @deepz1207 on Instagram

Depending on the outlet, it also works as an antidote to the classroom. Professor-student relations can stay formal and syllabus driven, but some professors also try to get to know who their students are outside the classroom. Conversations then flow with the same academic rigour, only softened by comfort food and emanating laughter from the other tables. Many students will also eat with the outlet owners, digging through a new repository of stories each time. 

Behind the Scenes and Inside the Kitchen

The outlet is a well-oiled machine with many distinct components. Sandeep Rathee, known better as Sandeep Bhaiya on the Ashoka University campus, talks about what makes an outlet work: 

“A good administration is the main thing for an outlet. Without one, the outlet can make do with a bribe, some money but then the students will face the brunt of that.” 

This is especially true in a pandemic. An outlet is only as good as the way its staff is treated not only when the going is good, but when it comes to a financial standstill. It determines not just the quality of service, but its longevity in the face of constantly volatile circumstances. To this, Sandeep Bhaiya says that based on what he’s heard from others, a good administration and thereby fair access to medical facilities and the fulfillment of staff rights can’t be taken for granted. He went on to add that he finds the administration at Ashoka is “one of the best” in this regard. 

Sandeep Bhaiya at his outlet, Fuelzone. Credits: @_officialhumansofdelhi_ on Instagram

In any restaurant, Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential calls cooking a “seriously focused waltz” or a kind of “hard-checking mosh pit slam-dancing”. Coordination is crucial, but so is fun. In my experience, at certain times of the night you can hear loud Bollywood music blaring from the dhaba kitchen. This kind of good cheer follows the food out of the kitchen doors and onto your plate, always bringing you back for more. 

Great outlets have something else in common: they offer great food and coffee, alongside good conversation. Sandeep Bhaiya fondly recalls bonding with the founding batches of Ashoka, when there were less students and more downtime for him. This looks like your standard tired, dark circles-ridden student rushing up to the campus coffee store only to find that the staff already knows their usual order. With every year, student batches get larger and present a precarious balance. While it’s good for business, Sandeep Bhaiya says that interactions now condense down to just a “hello” or a “kaise ho” here and there. 

View from the Dhaba at Ashoka University. Credits: @ishitaasinghh on Instagram

Even so, word of mouth is unfazed by the passage of time as older students traditionally fill in freshmen on where to go for the best coffee or food. When it comes to favorites, Sandeep Bhaiya says that as soon as it’s summertime, students start asking after his famous Mango Shake. In fact, he posted a video of him making it on Facebook so students could follow his recipe from home this time last year. In a 2016 study on the psychology of comfort food, it was found that food items can become associated with people, and so serve as reminders of them. On his recipes, Sandeep Bhaiya says that “you can find food anywhere, you give some money and you can buy it but for our customers, or the students, it’s important that they remember us”. 

Graduating From Campus Outlets

When students are about to graduate, Sandeep Bhaiya invites them into the kitchen to learn how to make their favourite cold coffee or mango shake. That is to say, the influence of something as simple as sugary coffee, butter maggi or aloo parathe transcends the timeline of college, and so remains undeterred by the pandemic. Longlasting success for a campus food outlet is a function of its food, its interactions, loyalty, comfort and the community it creates. This is why a vibrant network of campus outlets is a measure of wellbeing for any university and its students. 

Devika Goswami is a second-year Economics and Media Studies major, an aspiring coffee-snob and always on the hunt for a new addition to her already overflowing to-be-read list.

Picture Credits: Anjana Ramesh

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

India’s Fight Against a Pandemic Leads to an ‘Infodemic’ Targeting Minorities and the Poor

The tackling of the Coronavirus pandemic in India — book-ended by the announcement of a stringent lockdown in March 2020, and now an ambitious nationwide vaccination plan in January 2021 — has laid bare social, economic, religious, and cultural fault-lines across the country. Fears and restrictions compounded pre-existing challenges in a country where an estimated 70 million people live in congested slums with little access to water, sanitation, and healthcare. For half of India’s population, ‘social distancing’ was a luxury they simply couldn’t afford. As a result, rumors and misinformation around their hygiene levels swirled in both real and virtual communities, feeding the vast Indian middle class’s apparent need for an enemy in the ‘war’ against COVID-19. Structural inequalities and institutional, inherent class biases fueled fear and stigma in India’s middle class against an ‘underclass.’

The number of domestic workers in India ranges from official estimates of 4.2 million people to unofficial figures of over 50 million, most of whom are women and girls. Largely illiterate, uneducated, and unskilled, domestic workers are completely dependent upon their employers and have no legal protections as workers under India’s labor laws. The National Domestic Workers Trust estimated that approximately 24 percent of Mumbai’s domestic workers lost their jobs permanently due to middle class India’s paranoia around their congested living conditions and assumptions around both hygiene standards and the rate of infection in their neighborhoods.   

Under quarantine, as fears of COVID-19 skyrocketed, Mumbai’s sky-high apartment complexes and Delhi’s bungalowed neighborhoods shut their gates. Messages circulated in such wealthier communities on WhatsApp groups, questioning hygiene levels of domestic workers living in such slums – many of which were declared ‘containment zones’ and COVID-19 hotspots. Even kitchen appliance manufacturers added to the fear mongering. One such firm advertised a dough kneading machine on Instagram, suggesting that it could replace domestic workers who typically do this manually since their hands ‘may be infected.’ Public pressure forced the manufacturer to pull down the advertisement and apologize.

In the first serological surveys conducted to assess the spread of the Coronavirus in India, two facts emerged. First, even though COVID-19 arrived in India by airplane via wealthier Indians who could travel abroad, those who worked for them suffered the most. The second was that nearly 60% of slum populations had developed antibodies, and that most of the infected were younger, had little or no symptoms, and suffered significantly fewer fatalities than their wealthier employers. This actually brought down overall death rates from COVID-19 in cities like Mumbai.

The worst effects of COVID-19 were suffered by three specific layers of the population. Urban migrant workers were forced out of the city with the imposition of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns, sprayed with disinfectant as they tried to return home. Domestic workers – cleaners, cooks, and drivers living in congested urban slums who form the backbone of the informal employment sector – fell victim to community paranoia. Worst of all, deliberately crafted disinformation campaigns targeted India’s Muslim minorities, an already vulnerable group targeted by bigoted discourse on many levels in the state and community. Predominantly Hindu, upper caste, and upper class groups were largely insulated from these dynamics and able to take the necessary pandemic precautions without the same kinds of damage.

Referring to the residents of an upper middle class South Delhi neighborhood, Guddi, a domestic worker from Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj district, says “They are being careless themselves. They are going out, traveling around the country; they are calling guests home.” Taking in the capital city’s warm winter sun after a morning of cooking and cleaning, she says, “That’s how the disease is spreading.” Lifelong victims of class and caste-based oppression in Indian society, street cleaners hired by the local government, who are also considered essential workers, were made to stand outside the gates during the summer’s blazing heat, even though the government began easing the March 2020 lockdown in stages. Rinku, who sweeps the streets for a daily wage, says things have improved slowly since 2020’s harsh summer, but the discrimination still continues. “They say they will get the disease [COVID-19] because of us. Everyone in the neighborhood said this.” Several Residents Associations banned all ‘outsiders’ – e-commerce delivery agents, vendors, and domestic workers – from entering their communities. Yet, these restrictions did not apply to those driving through the gates in a car, a ubiquitous symbol of wealth and upward mobility. In spite of eased restrictions that allowed people to return to work in the first phase of India’s re-opening, such associations formalized their own layer of controls. Private security guards, usually empowered to record visitor details, unleashed their newfound authority upon a host of workers coming to earn a day’s wages. “The guards told me I am not allowed to walk down the streets here because I may spread disease. I pleaded with them, but they didn’t listen. Finally, I was forced to call my employer from her home to come and talk to them, and allow me to go back to work,” says Anita, another domestic worker from Karimganj in Uttar Pradesh who works in Delhi.

The worst hit, however, have been those who lie at the intersection of caste, class, and creed – the Indian Muslim community. While insidious caste and class divides dominated rumors and restrictions, there was an ‘infodemic’ accusing Muslims of deliberately spreading a ‘corona jihad’. The Delhi government’s decision to segregate COVID-19 cases in the general public from ones directly linked to a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat (a proselytizing Muslim religious group) in Delhi in early March 2020 fueled biased media coverage. It emerged that foreign participants from South East Asia were coronavirus carriers, and several other Indian delegates became infected and returned to their hometowns as carriers, unknowingly. Defying data, logic, and empathy all at once, right wing social media rhetoric and reportage around the so-called ‘super spreader’ event amplified the bigotry. Although the meeting had taken place with the knowledge of government and local law enforcement, Islamophobia fed generalizations blaming a single community for the spread of COVID-19.

Yasmin, from Uttar Pradesh’s Badayun district who cleans homes in Delhi, says even though her employers agreed to keep her on, her landlord protested when her poorer relatives came to live with her as the lockdown began. “He said there was no need for them to return. That they were spreading disease,” she says, lowering her voice. Similarly, Mohammed Shamim, a vegetable vendor in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba district, was forced to return money to his customers and flee after a group of men threatened him and accused him of deliberately spreading COVID-19 through the goods on his vegetable cart. In Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state governed by one of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s most strident leaders, the pandemic exacerbated everyday bigotry against Muslims. 

Police officers who tackle everyday misinformation have limited tools at their disposal. Senior Indian Police Services (IPS) officer Rema Rajeswhari in her district of Mahbubnagar in the southern state of Telangana has made a name for herself by actively conducting ‘awareness’ campaigns through ‘town criers’ who debunk myths and rumors, digital literacy workshops to help citizens question what they receive and share on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, and enabling her team of officers to intervene where they feel it will make a difference. People like her, as well as journalists who run fact checking websites, did their best to address misinformation from unrelated or manipulated videos about Muslim vendors spitting on their wares, which spread quickly on social media. Prominent news networks, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘IT Cell’ – which has often been accused of designing coordinated disinformation campaigns to target its critics – and many social media users were all complicit in the spread of such misinformation. Rajeshwari says her officers had no choice but to make their own videos to create awareness. Fuzail Ayubi, the Tablighi Jamaat’s lawyer, says things have improved since the summer, but the damage inflicted upon a community already under pressure to prove their patriotism and secularism is irreparable. Cases against hateful media reporting are being heard in India’s Supreme Court.

It would be easy to argue that much of the discrimination was a result of rumors and misinformation that exacerbated the existing wedges within Indian society. Yet, if there is one thing 2020 has taught us, it is this: the prevalence and virality of misinformation is not just about the algorithm that may amplify it, but also the fear and division within society. Addressing the technology that fuels misinformation, without actively improving inter-communal relations and public messaging on the pandemic, is not even half a battle won.

Maya Mirchandani is a journalist, a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Maya Mirchandani

This piece was republished from The Soufan Center with permission of the author. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Democratizing Art: How the Pandemic Has Transformed Art Spaces

While excitingly going through the crown jewels in The Met Museum’s American Wing, I wonder if I could get a look at the souvenirs in the gift shop to take something back with me. I unfortunately cannot. I am met with the same experience while exploring the British Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The experience of looking at paintings and artefacts from my computer screen in pyjamas rather seems impersonal. The enthusiasm of dressing up to explore the majesty of Art Institutions gets lost when one has to do so sitting on their sofas at home. Things are near and yet so far.

For an industry that thrives on in-person connection and networking, the lockdown has been especially hard-hitting on both Artists and Institutions. Virtual Tours, prior to the lockdown were created by many Institutes to allow better in-person access and experience of the galleries. However, during the lockdown, virtual tours became the only means of experience that people could have access to. Several Institutions designed their own virtual tours, giving a 360° view of the most visited sections of their galleries, while smaller institutions relied upon Google’s Street View, to make their experience available virtually. These tours were considered far more useful than paper maps, during in-person experiences, however, with a worldwide pandemic, can virtual experience and tours replace the experience itself. 

Any analysis of whether the experience of galleries and museums would yield an affirmative response. The exploration of these spaces are sensory experiences that stimulate individuals’ hearing, sight and smell. For when one is exploring New York Botanical Garden’s Spring Bloom, they not only look at the flora but also smell it in the air, while hearing the chatter of the fauna it coexists with. The murmurs of the people make the whole event a collective one. However, with virtual tours in place, it is only the sight that gets to partake in the process, making it terribly one-dimensional. For an experience that was created to help people tackle the isolation of being at home, the Virtual Tours are dreadfully isolating and lonely, due to persisting images of empty halls of the galleries, corridors and gardens available to the visitors. They take away the intimacy of being in a space and experiencing its physicality. Moreover, the paintings, artwork, artefacts in a virtual tour, become mere objects that one gets to see or know about. You do not get to understand the intricacies of each and every artwork, like the purpose of the painting, the placement of it in a particular collection and so on.

The Louvre, Paris, France.

Virtual Tours and Experiences have made Museums and Galleries a more democratic space, opening doors to people all around the globe, to explore the history that they could not have done earlier due to economical, social and cultural gaps. However, simultaneously it has also raised questions about the ‘commodification’ of historical artwork and artefacts. Does art need to be confined to the four walls of the museum? Should some people have to pay to participate in the process of experiencing history, that should be equally accessible to everyone? 

It is rather the ‘fetishization’ of the exhibition that museums and galleries bank upon. The increasing tendency to sell the place, rather than to experience the artwork, has also allowed Institutions to charge a high entry fee. This is also exaggerated through aggressive marketing campaigns about the grandiosity of the collections that the places are exhibiting. With things going virtual, people from all walks of life are getting to participate in the experience, which has raised the question, whether the experience of art should be sold as commodities in exchange for monetary value when the intent behind these creations has never been, financial benefit. Art is considered to be an extension of the self, an expression of one’s emotions, desires and inhibitions. Thus, when these artworks are displayed in exhibitions for consumption especially against a price, they are reduced to mere objects. Most people do not visit the Louvre to learn about the history of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the mysteries that underlie the process of her creation, but rather to gain bragging rights of having seen and experienced the painting in person.

The attitude of the majority of the people towards artwork is what has given Museums and Galleries a leeway into selling experiences as commodities. This has also facilitated some museums, with resources to climb up the ladder of popularity by conducting annual charity events with celebrities for advertisement. The virtual tours, therefore, are not only a threat to the revenue that these places generate but also to the exclusivity that these places create by including only economically and culturally niche groups of people.

Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Looking at the capitalist approach that Museums, Galleries and Art Institutes are taking, is there any scope for understanding the reason behind it. When analysing the financial position of these Museums during the pandemic, it is revealed that several museums have incurred heavy losses due to the lockdown. The Met Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Duomo, to name a few were expected to incur losses of over 150 million dollars in 2020. Money is required by these Institutions not only to maintain the space but also to pay a large number of employees, from restoration artists to museum guides to the general support staff that would otherwise be laid off. Moreover, since each painting and artefact is unique, they require special care and maintenance which require a huge financial investment. However, this cannot justify the expansive commodification of experiences. The need is to create a more inclusive and democratic space so that people get to experience the same things in person that they did sitting at their desktops in pyjamas. Virtual Tours have opened up the field of Art History to the larger population, however, what lies ahead this road is Museums’ efforts in continuing to do so.

Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

Where Fashion Trends Come from and Why You Should Care

My father, a physicist, once proudly told me that he doesn’t care about fashion. “I don’t think about these unimportant things,” he said. “My focus is on my work.” On most days he wears t-shirts or button downs with neutral tone pants, and he might add a jacket for special occasions. While not the most unusual, he still has a distinct sense of style and it has evolved over the years. I asked him why he didn’t wear the same thing all the time, or just throw on a potato sack and call it a day. He said, “Oh, because I like my clothes. I think they look nice.” Several others like him see fashion as a waste of time, but are involved in the fashion process nonetheless. No matter how far we may try to stay from fashion, due to the nature of the world we live in most of us are forced to make choices regarding clothing everyday. It is simply these choices that make us active participants in the fashion process, knowingly or not. 

Many choose to follow trends in order to fit in and feel a sense of belonging. While some may go out of their way to dress in un-trendy ways, and distance themselves from those they see as ‘imitators’, philosopher Georg Simmel saw these people as engaging in an inverse form of imitation, ultimately becoming part of a group of others like them. Then there are people like my dad, who don’t see themselves as part of the fashion world at all. Unfortunately for him, as a modern consumer he is just as affected by fashion trends as anyone else. Since all clothes retailers are influenced by the fashion world, when he buys their clothes he is adopting their interpretation of any given trend. 

As a multibillion dollar industry, fashion phenomena have attracted attention from sociologists, philosophers and market scientists. However, there is still no formalized theory of fashion, both due to a lack of research as well as the sheer volume of data and variables. After all, everyone wears clothes. Runway shows put on by designers provide an excellent jumping off point for learning about fashion, as the themes espoused by top brands both reflect and inform the choices of the larger fashion industry. 

September and February are usually the months where brands and fashion houses host fashion shows portraying their spring/summer and autumn/winter collections respectively, for the upcoming seasons. These shows take place in various “fashion weeks” around the world (one week per city), with London, Milan, Paris, and New York attracting the most attention. However, like everything else since last March, the Autumn/Winter 2021 shows were different this time. Most designers showcased their collections virtually, while some chose not to show at all. 

While discussing their Menswear Autumn/Winter 21 collection, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons of Prada insisted that they wanted the collection to feel like an emotional response to everything the world has been through in the past year. Each look was built off the foundation of a bodysuit, to represent the body and symbolize vulnerability and a need for intimacy. Fashion has often been seen as a response to the events shaping society and the world outside. This ‘response’ attitude was evident in many of the fall/winter collections shown in February as well as the spring/summer shows from last September, when the mood was perhaps even more subdued. On the other hand the Prada womenswear collection that came out a month after the menswear show struck a more optimistic note, perhaps reflecting a turning point in the pandemic with the launch of vaccines and the tangible hope in the air. 

Prada and Simons’ descriptions of their collections would fit into the external or exogenous model of the fashion process presented by sociologists, which says that changes in clothing simply reflect changes in the cultural values of society at large. While designers might well be inspired by the world around them as well as their lived experience, this model falls short when discussing the adoption of certain trends by different social groups. Cultural changes might affect the popularity of certain trends, but they cannot explain the different times at which trends are adopted by different groups, thus failing to predict future trends. Internal models can address these questions while looking at the fashion process as a self-contained phenomenon, influenced more by internal changes than external, cultural events. Simmel suggests that changes in clothing styles are the result of a ‘trickle down effect’, with trends being steadily adopted by successive social classes, starting with the upper class. 

According to William Reynolds, a marketing professor from Chicago, trends may be either horizontal or vertical. A horizontal trend is one which spreads far, but does not change much during this time, while vertical trends remain restricted to a small group but change rapidly. Most fashion trends embody both these attributes to some degree. For example, low rise jeans in the 2000s became more popular as the waists got lower. When fashion trends die out or reach a turning point, it could be due to functional or cultural barriers to further movement in the same direction. In the late nineteenth century, hoop-skirts or crinolines were extremely popular and were made wider and wider until movement became virtually impossible. They then gave way to the smaller crinolette or bustle. 

Within a small time period trends also often show a strong resurgence, exemplified by the wild popularity of nineties trends in the past few years. Rachel Green from the nineties show Friends was a cultural icon then and still is to this day, with her style recently becoming the focus of dozens of fashion articles and blogs. Trends may exhibit this cyclical nature due to the same technological and cultural barriers, becoming more and more extreme in one direction, ultimately reaching a peak and moving to the other extreme. For example, the long ‘tunic’ tops that were popular in the late 2000s and the short crop tops that they were replaced by soon after.

In an eighteenth century essay on fashion, philosopher Christian Garve cited the innate human desire for change as one of the reasons for changing fashion trends. In all aspects of life, humans seek novelty and variation, sometimes even if it worsens their position. Whether fashion trends come from influential designers or cultural revolutions, or trickle down from the rich, they feed our desire for change and our craving for aesthetic beauty. Fashion remains an important way for human beings to define and express their identity, and to relate to those around them. 

Rujuta Singh is a student of political science, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are fashion, music and writing. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 9

All Bets Are Off: Trust and Antitrust Among Large-Scale Corporations

Despite the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic, large companies such as Amazon and Facebook have managed to make sizable profits despite ordinary employees having undergone immense financial suffering. These circumstances have increased public interest in the manner of operation of large firms – and the mechanisms by which they become so large in the first place. Emergent questions pertaining to monopoly problems within economic systems are not new – rather point towards a set of laws that lie at the core of the issue – called Antitrust Laws. What are Antitrust Laws – and why are they so important? 

Antitrust Laws were first introduced by the US Congress legislation in 1890 to reduce artificial barriers in economic competition. The idea behind the laws was to make monopolization of power illegal and to ensure free and open markets for trade. It serves to protect the country’s consumers and smaller companies, ensuring a level playing field for all without the dominance of a few or singular businesses in the market share. This is achieved by regulating how companies manage their operations, and preventing large scale profits being made by a handful firms. 

At its core, the enforcement  of  antitrust laws determines the agency that consumers and small businesses possess within an economic system . The stricter the laws, the more difficult will it be for a giant firm to merge and buy over smaller companies or purchase their  competition. Antitrust  laws, hence,  push companies  to depend on earning profits on the basis of their merit, which can only be done by offering consumers quality products at competitive prices. It changes the focus from a single firm dominating the market to research and development on creating better products and services which ultimately will benefit the economy for the whole. 

From the perspective of small companies, the absence of these laws can have three large scale impacts. Firstly, the large firms interfere in the competitive market by suppressing potential businesses by replicating their ideas. For example, Instagram’s integration of Snapchat’s stories and filters has pushed Snapchat to become a secondary app. Secondly, there is no market stability as the control of the industry becomes concentrated in the hands of a few. Thirdly, the smaller company has two ultimate ends: being bought over by the large firm or having no scope for individuality in the project. There is a loss of the patent ownership, which gave the company a creative edge in the market. But once they can no longer compete with the giant, they have to succumb to being bought over due to the losses or eventually die out. 

On the other hand for consumers, there are three major impacts. Firstly, there is a lack of choice. The parent company owning each and every type of brand presents a false sense of choice to the consumers. Secondly, if a single company controls most of the different avenues of the market, chances are that it also has information over the consumers’ data and creating advertising models that are specifically curated, leaving no room for the privacy of data. Thirdly, these companies have the potential of becoming a means for political agendas to be carried out. As the company becomes powerful  due to the concentration of wealth it has accumulated from every sector, it becomes a potential foundation contributing to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. This can lead to the company wielding political influence over crucial policies, which have a considerable impact on the nation’s progress and development. Extending the previous point of privacy, governments can also feel incentivized to involve private firms within its functioning in a manner that allows the use of this data of its citizens.

When it comes to examining the domestic field, India’s first antitrust law, called the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (MRTP), was established in 1969. It came into frequent use after the economy’s liberalisation in 1991 and has been amended since, being replaced by consolidated legislation known as the Competition Act (2002). There is also an established committee to oversee and enforce the Antitrust Laws known as the Competition Committee of India (CCI)  but it has been extremely ineffective since its inception.

Taking a look at India’s industries, a contemporary case in point is that of Reliance Industries Limited. Business Today states that the company has bought major stakes in almost every single avenue. From purchasing the stakes in the Rs. 27,000 crore valued Future Group, it has also invested in Urban Ladder, Milk Basket, Netmeds and Zivame, to name a few. With the coronavirus pandemic crossing bigger numbers everyday, smaller businesses in India have had to succumb to the economic damage due to lack of stability in the market. Moreover, consumption patterns in retail, technology, household products have been changing, making the consumers more reliant on the services provided by a few large scale companies. 

Reliance is planning on rebranding itself from a petrochemical and refining company to a technological consumer based brand. Having sold over 49% shares from its oil section to a British oil giant Petroleum Company, it plans on building a stronger hold in the digital world. This has been clear from its mammoth telecom project, Jio which launched in 2016. Moreover, the company is also planning on becoming a singular social media platform for India, including the functions of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google and Zoom. This is quite similar to Jack Ma’s Alibaba, which does the same for China. 

Reliance is acquiring additional companies on top of having several footholds in retail, social media, groceries, furniture, medicine, telecommunication, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, to name a few. This could be the final red flag for India’s laws regarding Antitrust since the company now holds interests virtually in every sector, leading to the creation of an ultimate monopoly in India. In addition, its political alignments have also been working in the background. When Jio was initially launched in 2016, it was endorsed by the Prime Minister, which played a role in its quick rise to 200 million subscribers. Moreover, the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, who was appointed by the government, changed the rules of what market power entailed when telecom companies objected against the competitive pricing. 

The Indian government with its recent ‘Atmanirbhar’ or ‘self-reliance’ policy is seeking to make Indian firms global players. But in the process of doing so, it should not neglect the rise of domestic monopolies being created. This will only have a negative impact on consumers and smaller firms, leading to a negative impact on long term economic development in the country. Ultimately, amendments to India’s Antitrust laws will determine whether the country’s consumers and small businesses will be protected. 

Gauri Bhawkar is a second year Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).