Issue 19

Debating Women’s Rights Against Marital Rape

In the wake of the recent hearings at the Delhi High Court, the question of criminalizing marital rape is once again revived in the public sphere. Currently, exception 2 under section 375 of the Indian Penal Code protects the sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife provided the wife is not under eighteen years of age (this age was earlier fifteen years but was modified to eighteen years by Supreme Court in Independent Thought versus Union of India). The exception presumes that marital consent is equivalent to sexual consent, the latter being a legitimate legal defence against the offence of rape. Consent in law refers to an unequivocal voluntary agreement when the woman by words, gestures or any form of verbal or non-verbal communication, communicates a willingness to participate in the specific sexual act. By doing away with the condition of sexual consent between husband and wife, the law and the society are inclined to believe that sex is central to conjugal relations and married men have a right to it regardless of their wife’s choice. To deny women this choice, the law ensures that the fictive institution of marriage and the men in it are protected at the expense of the life and dignity of women, for whom the law was supposedly enacted in the first place.

Holy matrimony has been accorded protection in both religious personal laws as well as laws codified since colonial times. The common law doctrine of coverture while explicitly obsolete in the twenty-first century, still covertly influences the rationale of many judgments passed in matters of conjugality. The doctrine states that the husband and wife are one person after marriage. As romantic as it may sound, it has resulted in the legal existence of women being suspended during the marriage, or at least consolidated into that of the husband: under whose protection, and cover, she performs everything. As recently as the early 2000s, this doctrine prevented daughters from becoming successors in their ancestral assets as they were legally considered the property of their husbands after marriage. Similarly, several women welfare legislations such as the Domestic Violence Act were passed only a few decades ago even though women have been abused in their matrimonial homes for centuries through well-known practices like sati.

Following suit, the insensitivity of the laws on rape is an obvious repercussion of a highly patriarchal society. Arbitrary punitive standards set for the offence of rape disregard the very personhood of a woman. The sentence for punishment of a convicted rapist is not dependent on the physical and mental injury of the woman but instead relies on the status of the woman – single, married, separated or minor. A woman in a live-in relationship can file charges of rape against her male partner while a wife cannot claim any relief against marital rape. Similarly, a seventeen-year-old wife can allege rape though a wife of age eighteen years cannot. To add to this inconsistency, a larger sentence of punishment (seven or more years) is awarded in case of the rape of an unmarried woman as opposed to the rape of a separated wife by her husband (two to seven years).

The law not only demeans the autonomy of women within matrimony, it also bifurcates desires into those that are acceptable in our society and those that aren’t acceptable. The boundaries of the laws on rape, sexual harassment and other sexual abuses demarcate good versus bad, pleasurable versus disgusting and right versus wrong desires. Ironically, the good, pleasurable and right desires that require no interference from the law are almost always heterosexual, matrimonial and endogamous in nature. With such a legal and social framework, alleging marital rape is deemed to be as good as conjuring an impossible event that serves no social good but destroys the divine contours of matrimony.

Those blinded by their faith in marriage seldom concern themselves with the idea that the act of rape in general, is a severe violation of the bodily agency and dignity of a woman. Several judgments have upheld the offence of rape as an infringement upon a woman’s right to live with personal liberty and dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Privacy Judgment of 2017 also affirmed the view that refusing to participate in sexual activity is a part of the right to personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. Undermining the gravity of the physical and psychological harm in rape, men’s rights organizations are instead panicked that criminalizing marital rape may open the floodgate of false charges against husbands. An argument like this holds little legal value when separate provisions already exist to deal with false criminal charges. Moreover, in Indira Jaising v. Supreme Court of India, the Supreme Court has observed that “the possibility of misuse cannot be a ground for holding a provision of the Statute to be constitutionally fragile”. Several government surveys publicly released over the years have also highlighted how abysmally low percentages of women report any form of domestic violence, let alone sexual violence by the husband. It will be a feat of its own if women muster the courage against societal shame and stigma to report marital rape when it is criminalized. A hue and cry over misuse of the law is indicative of the fears that stem from a woman being able to make use of the law in the first place. At present, married women have access to alternative reliefs in the form of compensation or grounds for divorce in instances of marital rape. However, the remedies are not only inadequate punishments for marital rape, they also conflate the several types of oppressions that different marginalized married women face in our patriarchal society. As long as the fiction of matrimony is revered at the expense of women, their lives, their choices and their desires, no women welfare legislation would achieve the justice it claims to. We must strive to make laws in legislature, in courts and in societies that serve women as they are beyond their societal and marital roles of wives, daughters, mothers and sisters.

Shreyashi Sharma works as an Assistant Manager at Centre for Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Ashoka University. She is trained as a lawyer with litigation experience on issues of gender violence. Alongside other things at the CSGS, she is enthusiastic to focus on the questions raised by the entanglements of law with gender and sexuality. You can find her on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

Picture Credits: Tom Chen / Unsplash

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 19

The Forces Behind Amazon’s Decision to Shut-Shop on Westland

When Amazon Inc, the global e-commerce behemoth which also owns a book-publishing arm named Amazon Publishing announced on February 1, 2022, it was closing down Westland Books in India, a company it had acquired fully in 2016, there was a concerted wail of despair across the English language publishing industry in general and among many of the authors published by Westland. 

Two weeks later, author Sharanya Mannivannan, whose graphic novels have been published by Westland tweeted: ‘Exactly 2 weeks ago today, everyone at Westland found out the company was being shut down & our books would go out of print. Too soon, the date for distributors to place their last orders for most of the catalogue has come. From now, our books will begin to disappear from the market.’ 

Almost immediately, the publishers wrote to all those who have published with it, promising to return their rights—acquired over the preceding five years—on April 1, 2022, if Westland were not acquired by then. This, of course, begged the question of why Amazon had chosen to close down the company instead of selling it in the first place?

There was also the additional question of whether, for a company the size of Amazon, the losses of a small company it owned in India could really prompt such a drastic measure. According to a report in Mint, Westland ran up losses of Rs 46.3 crore, Rs 33.8 crore, and Rs 19.2 crore, respectively, in 2019, 2020, and 2021. While these figures are not small, they also showed a trajectory of narrowing losses, which is perhaps even more noteworthy, considering most of 2020 and all of 2021 were pandemic years. 

According to the same report, the Indian operations of the multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House also posted losses in 2021—of Rs 36.2 crore and Rs 4.6 crore, respectively. Westland, HarperCollins and Penguin Random House—possibly following an industry-wide trend in the face of many bookshops shutting down and book distributors shrinking their operations—saw their revenues slip in 2021. Westland went from Rs 31.2 crore in 2020 to Rs 25.1 crore in 2021; HarperCollins, from Rs 139.9 crore to Rs 137.5 crore; and Penguin Random House, from Rs 260.6 crore to Rs 245.6 crore.

So, it wasn’t as though Westland was doing particularly badly while the rest of the English language trade publishing (non-textbook) industry was thriving. Moreover, for multinationals HarperCollins and Penguin Random House, the lion’s share of sales comes from imported books—from their British and American lists. In contrast, Westland’s entire list was homegrown, which would, by industry estimates, not put it very far behind the Indian lists of other companies in terms of sales.

There was also speculation that Amazon had decided to close down the firm under pressure from the Indian government, for publishing books that speak up against the current dispensation. While it is true that Westland has published books critical of the Narendra Modi administration, the BJP and the RSS, by writers like Aporvaanand, Aakar Patel, Christophe Jaffrelot, Dhirendra K Jha, Sanjay Jha, K.S. Komireddi and Saba Naqvi, among others, it has also published narratives supporting the right-wing in India, by Ram Madhav and Sanjeev Sanyal, for instance, besides Nalin Mehta’s sympathetic account of the BJP’s growth. 

But this is extremely unlikely, given that English language books barely move the needle on public opinion. They only serve to consolidate currently held views by providing evidence. Moreover, the Indian government has so far shown no inclination to catalyse such extreme steps as closing down a company because of the books it publishes.

That leaves financial performance as the key factor. And while Amazon itself is perhaps too big to be dented by Westland’s losses, its publishing arm is a much smaller business, which needs to be successful in every market it operates in. Five years ago, there were expectations of quick expansion in the publishing market in India—this has not materialised. And the decision may be on those grounds alone. However, Amazon officials familiar with the matter have not commented on the subject.

But why did Westland run into financial trouble despite having two of India’s top-selling authors—Chetan Bhagat and Amish—on its list? Back in 2018, Bhagat signed a six-book deal—not with Westland but with Amazon—for, reportedly, a combined advance of Rs 36 crore. Of course, such advances are never paid out entirely upfront, they are calibrated with the delivery of manuscripts and the publication of the books. At that time, Amazon must have bet on the success of these authors, which Westland would benefit from. Those expectations have probably not been met by the sales of works by these authors. Nor has Westland’s considerable depth in categories like spirituality and self-help—which usually rack up large numbers in terms of sales in India—helped its financial performance sufficiently. All of which points to the problems of the industry as a whole.

What lies ahead for Westland and its list of published books and authors? On the one hand, after the news broke of the closure, several companies directly or indirectly connected with publishers are believed to be considering purchasing the company. On the other hand, rival publishers have already begun making informal offers to some of the writers to acquire their titles, if rights are given back to the authors and translators. 

What will a potential purchaser be buying, though? If it is a company already in publishing and wants to expand both its list of books and its distribution and marketing network, the acquisition will offer a quick route to expansion. However, for a multinational, this would mean adding redundant capacities. All it might be interested in are the books themselves, and, perhaps, the editors. It can easily hire the latter, and pick up the former once the rights go back to the respective authors.

For the Westland list to go out of print would be a tragic outcome. But, equally—or more—important, this episode points to the structural problems in the English language trade publishing business in India. The number of readers isn’t growing, streaming platforms are a huge challenge to books, bookshops are dwindling, distributors have cash flow problems. Unless the sector is reinvented with new technology, new financial structures, and new ways to get books into the hands of a much larger number of people than at present, these problems will only get worse.

Arunava Sinha is a translator, a professor of Creative Writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat, and co-director of the Ashoka Centre for Translation.  

Picture Credits

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 19

The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window

What made me watch Kristen Bell’s latest mini-series on Netflix was the eye-catching title itself – full of complexities and curiosity. As you watch the trailer you are left with tons of unanswered questions and a thirst to find out did Anna (Kristen Bell) really know?

As you traverse across these 8 episodes you see how each one gets more twisted than before, almost leaving you in a blur as bad as Anna’s hallucinations. As she copes with the tragedy of losing her daughter we see her often knowingly gulping wine with medication. The show vividly portrays the impact of grief and loss. Her conscious choices and ways to cope lend insight into the disturbing corners of her mind. The eerie soundtrack by Nami Melumad truly enhances the thrill and suspense. 

Through the series, a very vulnerable Anna is drawn to her next-door neighbour Neil, shortly before she witnesses his girlfriend Lisa being murdered. Anna’s emotional and psychological condition makes her a negligible witness, but she doesn’t stop there. Her faith in what she saw overpowers everything and she takes solving the murder into her own hands. 

The attitudes and reactions of the community and the police really bring to the light how easily one is labelled crazy. It depicts how crazy is often deemed equivalent to guilty and in this case murderer. Anna, although experiencing self-induced hallucinations, faces this wrath of societal impressions. A jarring contrast in behaviour is seen when Anna attends support group sessions where she candidly shares her life with them. The core of this show thus lies in the complexities of Anna’s character.

Each episode brings forth a new suspect, a new perspective but only gets you more tangled than before. This satirical thriller takes you on an outrageous journey full of twists and turns. It carefully tiptoes on the line between unsettling and funny.

Maahira Jain is a third-year student at Ashoka University studying Psychology and Media studies. She is a movie buff and is extremely passionate about writing and travelling.

Picture Credits: Netflix

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 19

Lata Mangeshkar: The Sweet Sound of Indian Unity

Lata Mangeshkar, our very own Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light), the Indian Malika-e-Tarannum (queen of melody), will always be one of the brightest jewels in the crown that adorns India’s rich and varied cultural landscape. She lent her voice to generations of actors over a brilliant and magnificent career spanning over six decades. Her repertoire traversed virtually every genre of Indian music, every major Indian language and all possible human emotions.

Lata Mangeshkar’s singing is typically described in hyperbolic terms, but the remarkable feature of her singing abilities is that no number of hyperbolic adjectives seem to adequately capture her musical virtuosity and genius. This is not to be dismissed as a manifestation of adoring, uncritical fandom: this is as true for the millions of her fans as for the connoisseurs. Hindustani classical music maestros have commented on the perfection of her sur (pitch and tone), mastery over laya (rhythm) and her ability to produce very subtle and minute, utterly gorgeous harkats and murkis (quick small variations) that lifted the melody to heights possibly beyond what the music director envisaged. As singers who have attempted to reproduce even a fraction of those subtle touches would know, these movements that sound so easy and effortless in her voice are impossibly difficult. The only singer who matches this talent is her sister Asha Bhosle.

Her individual life story resembles the script of many of the movies she sang for. The tragic and untimely death of her father led her to start working at the age of 13 when most girls are still playing with dolls. She did not attend regular school but learnt to read and write at home. Her attention to language and her perfectionism can be seen in the way she enunciates the lyrics of the language she sang in. She initially tried her hand at acting but did not succeed, possibly because her looks did not fit the standards of conventional feminine beauty of the time. Despite her prodigious talent, her entry into playback singing was not a cakewalk. But after the 1949 super-success of Mahal (for which she sang “aayega aanewala”), there was no looking back. There have been excellent obituaries that capture various aspects of her life and career as it hit stratospheric heights.

Lata understood the exact emotion behind each song and transmitted that very precise sensation to her listeners, who felt as if that song was being sung for them individually, narrating their personal story: the first heady sensation of being in love, the exhilaration of the first kiss, the longing, the waiting, the desire, the romantic banter, rebellion against authority, the heartbreak, the dizzy heights of happiness, the depths of despair, patriotic pride, spiritualism and appeal to the divine, love for nature, philosophical musings, rejecting inequality and injustice – there is a Lata song that expresses all these emotions and states of being.

Her life has been subject to intense scrutiny both during her lifetime and after her death. The internet is rife with all kinds of half-truths and misinformation. She busted many of those myths in her conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir. Many commentaries after her death were truly bizarre both because they had nothing to do with her music (her most defining characteristic), and because of their extreme self-righteousness that substituted for factual correctness. She was attacked for epitomising Brahmanical privilege, which was odd to say the least, since she didn’t come from a Brahmin family.

Much ink has been spilled over her monopoly power. She was a superstar whose career intersected that of all the male movie superstars, some of whom she outlived: from Raj Kapoor to Dilip Kumar to Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan. Can anyone seriously argue that her superlative musical talent did not play a role in making their films super successful?

So many of us adore our male superstars but are quick to run Lata down. During her active years, she stood tall like a colossus in a male-dominated world. If we are determined not to discuss her music but other aspects of her personality, why not discuss how she managed to negotiate the very harsh and difficult world of Bombay cinema?

She, like other superstars from sports, industry and Bombay cinema, was friendly with the fiery right-wing Shiv Sena chief, Bal Thackeray. One can (and should) discuss factors that made Shiv Sena so powerful in Mumbai and Maharashtra that it ended up developing alliances with a host of very prominent individuals. Coming to Lata, the question to ask would be this. Did her proximity to the Shiv Sena prevent her from forming deep friendships and bonds with Muslims? Some of her best output has been in collaboration with Muslim artists – actors, music directors, lyricists and poets. For her, they were artists, human beings and her natural collaborators, whom she deeply respected. She never shied away from expressing her respect and love for them publicly. They were as much a part of her personal life as she was of theirs and their families’.

Her universal appeal was evident in the collective outpouring of grief and mourning that the nation plunged into as she left this earth. It didn’t matter that her death was foretold by her recent ill-health; when it actually happened the shock was heartfelt and palpable. It wasn’t just Indians who were grieving as if they had lost a family member. The grief transcended national boundaries.

Lata Mangeshkar sang of harmony and love, and her persona united India across divides — class, caste, religion, gender, linguistic. The despicable attempt to stir up controversy over Shah Rukh Khan’s dua at her funeral was massively rejected. This shows that there is an enormous number of people who refuse Lata’s memory to be tarnished by cheap and ugly gimmicks, and I daresay, by uninformed analyses. As we bow our heads collectively in her memory, we would do well to revive and strengthen the inclusive India which is defined by the sweet sound of her music.

Ashwini Deshpande is Professor of Economics and Founding Director, Centre of Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University. She is passionate about Hindi film music and has written occasionally about it, including a long essay on Lata Mangeshkar as part of a debate.  

Picture Credits : Maharashtra Times

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 19

The Pegasus Controversy: Locking the Stable Door

Born of the gorgon Medusa, Pegasus was a winged horse so powerful and valiant that the god Zeus turned him into a constellation, sharing the sky with Leo, Draco, Gemini, Orion, and the like. The flying white horse is a compelling emblem: the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group clearly found it so, naming one of their deadliest systems after it. Their Pegasus was a chimeric attack software, capable of infiltrating the latest and most expensive smartphones. Critically, unlike many others, it did not require a target to make a mistake: you didn’t have to click a dodgy link or download a file to get infected. These were “zero click” attacks, which leveraged vulnerabilities in common software, like Apple’s iMessage.

Pegasus clients could get access to phone data in many ways: if a targeted “spearphishing” email with a link worked, fine. If it didn’t, then they’d use zero-click attacks or other means, including physically getting access to a device and infecting it. The latter was necessary in some cases where the target had reduced their vulnerability to attack by having separate devices which they did not otherwise use. Once installed, it could intercept phone calls, chats, and emails, access photos and videos, grab location data, and even activate the microphone or camera remotely. Finally, it could erase itself, practically without a trace, once access was no longer required.

While the tool has been around for over a decade, it came to public attention in mid-2021, due to a data leak (the irony!). This leak comprised around 50,000 phone numbers that were allegedly targeted by Pegasus. What alarmed the group of journalists analysing the leak was the fact that the numbers included many journalists and activists. In other words, a military-grade cyberattack tool, intended to target terrorists and the like, was being used against innocent citizens.

There are three questions we must tackle: (1) How bad is this? (2) Clearly, some bad things have happened, so who is to blame? (3) What can we do this fix things in the long term, so that such incidents do not occur in the future?

The answer to the first question isn’t as obvious as it first appears, especially in the backdrop of planetary-scale mass surveillance by the US government and many others. The level of utter betrayal involved in things like the Belgacom scandal (where the British government infiltrated a government-controlled Belgian telecom giant) or the Gemalto hack (where the US and the UK together broke into a Dutch company’s systems to obviate the new security systems it was installing on SIM cards) might make this particular case seem banal. It is critically different, however: this is a private company producing military-grade products and should be treated like a missile producer. Worse, unlike a missile, code can be replicated with ease. If Lockheed-Martin sells one Hellfire missile to the wrong client, it is still practically impossible for that client to make more. Not so with this (though, of course, this kind of attack software needs to be constantly updated in a cat-and-mouse game with companies patching their defences). Clearly, there needs to be strong, international regulation of the sale of such systems, with sufficient sanctions built in to prevent misuse.

When it comes to blame, there is a lot to go around. It is important to note that the sale of NSO’s cyberattack software is regulated by the Israeli defence minister, who grants individual export licences, presumably making sure that only vetted, “good” nations get access to it. The leaked data and subsequent forensic analysis, however, indicate that the majority of these vetted nations swiftly reneged on their promises (to use this power to target criminals) and started targeting journalists and activists. This is not to say that the blame lies only with these nations: it beggars belief that NSO and the Israeli defence ministry, both supremely competent institutions, were unaware that their vetted clients were doing bad things. It would appear that they decided to look the other way. In India’s case, we have neither a strong data protection bill nor real public pressure around data security and privacy (along with outdated laws and oversight in this area). Misuse is practically inevitable, especially given that it would be almost impossible to prove in court.

What can be done? Here, I strongly agree with many other experts: laws, technical defences, and good cyber hygiene are all necessary but not sufficient. At the end of the day, the main thing that will stop this from happening in the future is strong and steady public awareness, and anger at such incidents: a government must know that this is an issue that can lose it an election. We do not have anything of the sort in India today: outrage at a privacy breach is a coffee table conversation, and, frankly, not even a heated one. If Shark Tank produces more emotion than Pegasus, don’t expect privacy breaches to be taken seriously. Until that time, the Indian government, among others, will pay only lip service to protecting privacy and security. After all, the government represents its citizens – and we, clearly, don’t seem to care.

Debayan Gupta is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Ashoka University. He is also a visiting professor and research affiliate at MIT and MIT-Sloan. Debayan’s primary areas of interest include secure computation, cryptography, and privacy.

Picture Credits: Kaspersky Daily

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 19

Downton Abbey: A Must Watch Regal Drama

Let’s be honest, who doesn’t like period dramas? Bridgerton swayed us all away, and we cannot wait for Season 2 to drop. There are, however, many more period dramas out there and one such is Downton Abbey – the regal, elegant, and disciplined house of the Crawley Family, headed by The Earl of Grantham (well actually The Dowager Countess is the one who rules the show). The story spans over six series and fifty-two episodes and a movie, Downton Abbey is a phenomenal work of art. It deals with the stories of characters ranging from the earl’s daughter to maids and chauffeurs. The depth of characters, plot twists, deaths, and Maggie Smith will leave an everlasting impact on anyone who watches it. The series is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Thank me later.

Lakshya Sharma is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. He is an economics and media studies student. Apart from his academic interests, he has a keen interest in writing and fashion.

Image Credits: Amazon Prime

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 19

Art Is Personal, the Personal Is Political, They Are Social and to Most Ephemeral

The solar system known to man has one sun. All the planets in spite of being individual entities, revolve around this fireball, and it dictates when days start and end, where, when and why shadows fall if at all, across these planets. The world of art too works along similar lines.  Though marked by various ‘isms’, it finds itself in a state of the ‘contemporary’ unregulated by any one visible entity but regulated by many that aren’t visible to the layman. The art that is visible on the hallowed walls of institutions committed to ‘encouraging’, ‘preserving’,  ‘promoting’ and ‘teaching’ art, function as peepholes. They cease to be passive observatories,  for these institutions are functioning within a community that lets very few cross from the fringes to the inner world.  

Art, often understood as the application or expression of human creative skill and/or imagination, would lead us to question whether imagination works within the defined, or does it instead navigate its way around what is known and negotiate a new understanding by creating something that isn’t. While art has been written about through the lens of practises and periodisation in abundance, it continues to remain a phenomena that eludes many. By virtue of its scope to permeate the various categories we live within to compartmentalise life,  it is personal, the personal is political, they are social and to most ephemeral. If art in itself conjures up this thesaurus marked by subjectivity, then what is contemporary art? How is it connected and altered to the larger idea of economics, and where do institutions come into this large network of connections, while attempting to decode this phenomena? 

Contemporary Art refers to specific conditions of artistic production that have flourished under the latest phase of global capitalism, also known as Neo-Liberalism in some areas. This segment of artistic production insofar is maintained by a global network of art institutions. 

Contemporary Art, thus as we know it today can be seen as a product of post-socialist transition. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1991, was seen as the fall of one of the superpowers,  the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but more importantly the failure of the ideology it represented, Socialism. This political event rooted in history becomes an important place to find the initial beginnings of Contemporary Art, in the margins of the Western World. The manifestation of the institutionalisation of contemporary art took place at its own pace in the  Western world, but did so more clearly in Eastern Europe, where the transition of political regimes were taking place from socialist to capitalist. This has also been dubbed as  ‘Capitalism by Design’

It is thus visible, how the inception of contemporary art, one that altered artistic behaviours across an entire region, modelled after the Western world was heavily rooted in the idea of capitalism, thus being directly related to economics, and politics. 

Museums, both privately and publicly funded, galleries, university departments etc present an image of ‘art’ to the viewer with a sense of authority. An educated gaze might raise questions, but more often than not, the layman will absorb this as the definition of what art is in present times. Thus, altering the present narrative of this world, and its functions. After jumping down this rabbit hole, I further started linking these institutions to the larger understanding of economics. The art world too is affected by it, as can be seen by what we know as the ‘boom’ periods, when art sales sky-rocketed, this too cannot be devoid of the collectors and their collections, for they fall at the heart of this economic marriage, but how big a role does economics have, is a question I am nurturing. The Soros Centre for  Contemporary Art network (SCCA) for example, played a huge role in establishing what contemporary art was in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This was a philanthropic model 

which was implemented throughout the 1990s’ in eighteen post-socialist countries. Its activities created a series of changes that led to a managerial revolution in the arts. The main outcome of this revolution was the eclipse of the patron, and the rise of philanthropic initiatives. 

This can be seen as one of the many ways institutions that ‘facilitate’ art, alter the artistic behaviours and the language of contemporary art on a whole. One of the manifestations that represents the poignancy of how the period of ‘transition’ for these nation-states affected art can be seen with the help of Documenta as an example. The history and the name of  Documenta – a or perhaps one of the most influential spaces for contemporary art. Its history is connected to the ‘transition’ period as well as the institutionalisation that took place in the aftermath of World War II, in West Germany. Its early artistic objectives were intricately related to documenting the advance of democracy and the spread of the ‘free market’  ideology, it in a way mapped West Germany’s break with its authoritarian past. 7 

In light of how the change of political and economic ideologies changed the nature of these institutions, it is important to note the interaction they have with the world at large. While the role of ‘contemporary art’ has been influenced by larger forces, it has shaped these forces in turn. Contemporary Art and its supporting structures thus become important tools in cultural diplomacy. They have the ability to represent through the means of an artwork or an artist’s concern, alternatives to a larger question. 

These linkages thus hold merit in my eyes, as an artist and academic. In light of the connections one makes, it gives Barthes’ analogy of the ‘Death of the Author’ a new meaning. It questions the free will and the choices that exist behind these manifestations and decisions, is the artist being created, or is the artist creating out of free will? The very conception of contemporary art was political, and its growth ever since has only intensified its ties to the forces of economics and the politics of the globe. It would not be premature to recognise art as something that goes beyond the idea of a vocation, but as powerful collateral to negotiate and mediate the world at large. 

Vishnupriya Rajgarhia is a Levett Scholar from the University of Oxford, and represented the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is currently the youngest Assistant Professor at Anant National University, previously having taught at Ashoka University as Visiting Faculty.

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 19

Art on the Gram: 4 Art Pages We Love Right Now

  1. It’s Nice That

An editorial platform founded in 2007 that champions artists, photographers, and magazines. Consider the platform a one-stop-shop for everything creative and currently trending.

  1. Nancy Spector

A curator, art historian, and author, Nancy is the chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Her stunning Instagram is a perfect window into the galleries of America and other parts of the world. 

  1. Art Basel

An international fair staged across Miami, Hong Kong, and Basel, the fair’s official Instagram page is a treat to the eyes for all lovers of art and beauty. 

  1. KEIN magazine

A magazine based in Istanbul, KEIN’s Instagram page is perfect for fans of provocative art. From pop culture to photoshop, the magazine features a diverse blend of different art forms. 

(P.S: If you love political artwork, this account is for you!)

Jaidev Pant is a third-year student of Psychology and Media at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behaviour.

Picture Credits: Social Cut

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 19

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall… What Makes Wordle the Best of All?

Every day around three million people open Wordle and wrack their brains to think of a five-letter word that will turn the row of boxes green. Wordle is a wordplay game that gives its users six tries to come up with the correct five-letter word. Each guess may result in one or more boxes turning green, yellow, or black. Green indicates that the letter is correct, yellow shows that it is correct but is in the wrong place, and black means that the letter is not there in the word at all. 

The catchy moniker comes from a pun on the founder’s name, Josh Wardle, who invented it for his word-games loving partner. Wordle was released publicly in October 2021, after which the game catapulted into a viral sensation. In January, Wordle became the first Twitter trend of 2022, and it earned a monetary stamp of approval when New York Times (NYT) bought it from Josh Wardle. Wordle’s success is indisputable, but there is one question that everyone is asking (well, other than, can you just tell me the first letter of the word, please?) — what is it that makes Wordle stand out? 

On February 11, Wordle saved a life. A man broke into Denyse Holt’s home in Illinois, U.S.A., and locked her in the basement without any food and medication. Her eldest daughter got concerned when Denyse didn’t text her daily Wordle score, as was the routine. She was finally rescued after her daughter alarmed the neighbours. 

Wordle is now intrinsically tied to our habits and behaviour. Denyse plays the game every single day, much like millions around the world, so much so that a disruption in this pattern meant that something had gone wrong. Wordle is now an essential ritual amidst the pandemic, though its roots go back to the time-tested crossword. For those who grew up solving the crossword or saw their family solving it every day, Wordle has become a nostalgic reminder of previous habits and memories. A routine that is perhaps lost or belongs in the past is now being reinforced through Wordle, adding to its appeal. The sentimentality behind the game is probably why the New York Times rushed to acquire it, and many blame the NYT for infringing on this sentimentality that was – till then – unstained by capitalism. In a matter of few months, Wordle has found its place in our homes and has influenced family ties – as with Denyse Holt. 

In December 2021, Josh Wardle created a share button that generates a spoiler-free emoji grid because he realised that people enjoyed sharing their Wordle scores on social media. Every day, millions itch to share their scores with the entire world. However, a dopamine infused high after winning is something that all games provide, but what sets Wordle apart is that it restricts your chances to win — both in the number of tries and hours between each game. Perhaps it is this all-or-none approach that makes Wordle so addicting. Moreover, Josh Wardle made the sharing button “spoiler-free”: it doesn’t reveal the answer, only the score. It is surprising that there is an unspoken oath against revealing answers to Wordle. Given the current trend of live-tweeting every thought, other internet phenomena seem to be immune to this oath of secrecy. 

Claims that Woordle has become harder since the NYT took over were floated by users on February 17 after a particularly difficult puzzle. Some even raged at the WOTD (Wordle of the Day) with five-letter curse words. Though, even with emotions running high, no one disclosed the word. One tweet even emphasised it in caps,“NO SPOILERS OR BLOCK”. The NYT may be spoiling everyone’s fun by giving hard words, but fellow players never ruin it for each other. Maybe it is this secrecy and loyalty that keeps Wordle interesting – the idea of “we’re all in this together”. 

However, are we all in this together? Wordles of the World (on GitHub) has over 350 entries of Wordle in more than 91 languages, such as Cornish, Portuguese, Urdu, etc. Many have also copied the simplicity of Wordle to suit their niche interests, such as cricket or Taylor Swift. These can be seen as faux-Wordles, but their success still ties back to the craze of Wordle. Even those who were not playing the game were instead busy consuming memes about it. Tweets with coloured boxes that looked like the shared score had captions such as “not wordle, just a valentine’s chocolate” or “not wordle, just fried rice“. Wordle not only managed to rope in players but also meme-ers. Whether it be because of nostalgia, family, entertainment, faux-Wordles, or the simplicity of the game — Wordle makes us believe that we are all in this together. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Warner Bros.

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 19

Oops, I Got Influenced Again!

Who thought when Oscar Wilde talked about “immoral influence” or Shakespeare pressed on “heavenly influence” the word would one day change its meaning forever. For them, it meant concepts such as the effect of heavenly bodies on humans or invading someone’s thoughts. Etymologically, the word “influence” comes from the Latin word influere meaning in ‘into’ + fluere ‘to flow’, meaning inward flow. Today, the word is not just a verb but a career, a job description. Influencers have evaded every sphere of our life. Our decisions, choices, and style revolve around their Instagram grids. But who qualifies as an influencer? What does it mean to be an Influencer? 

We can always say that Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian are influencers because people adapt their style. But is that all there is to being an influencer, people adapting your style? Influencing today has evolved due to the emergence of social media, especially Instagram and TikTok. Small videos of people doing things that are not that exceptional or unique become hyper-popular within hours, earning them the label of “influencer.” Popularity, then, seems to be an indicator of being an influencer. Popularity, however, is a subjective concept. One can be famous in a particular area but completely unknown in another. In order to tackle this confusion, OpenAxis decided to have conversations with people who are doing the work of social media influencing. Shaina Ahuja (@shainace) is a Fashion Influencer who has worked with famous brands like L’Oreal and Daniel Wellington. She describes an influencer as a person with high-quality content, a decent following, and confidence among many things. Does it mean that anybody with these characteristics is an influencer? No. Shaina goes on to add that Influencing is a career, and not just anyone can turn up and call themselves an influencer. They need to be genuine, committed to their audience and have a positive impact. Influencing comes with a lot of responsibilities– one needs to stand for a cause, push for positive change and engage in brand promotions.

Hiten Noonwal, (@hiten.noonwal) is a gender-fluid performing artist known for their avant-garde style and for being a Fashion educator. They have worked for Ritu Kumar before becoming an independent artist, and for them, being an influencer means self-acceptance, commitment, and being fearless. “You have to love your art and be proud of your work” are their words. Popularity, for them, is not a parameter of being an influencer, instead, it is gaining the right audience. They go on to say that self-validation is the key, and if one cannot influence themselves, they cannot influence others. Influencer then does not have a standard definition. It has layers, levels, and fields. 

“Every new collaboration is an opportunity for me”

Shaina Ahuja 

Shaina tells us that she started her work back when she was in Grade 10 before Instagram was so popular, and TikTok never existed. She began on Facebook and today she can proudly say that her years of hard work has begun paying off.

For Hiten, the work was tougher because of their identity. Being a queer influencer in a heteronormative society is not only tough but dangerous for one’s mental and physical health. People don’t see your work or art, but your gender or sexuality first. They go on to assert, “Queer People are fierce”. To be an influencer one needs to be fierce. People will always criticize your work, art, and job, but you need to rise above those obstacles and emerge successfully. 

“Queer People are fierce”

Hiten Noonwal

Shaina and Hiten both agree on some common elements that one should have for being an influencer but those common elements are not as important as individuality. These common elements include commitment, consistency, quality, understanding (your audience) and above all love for your job. It is not a fairytale, and the amount of hard work required to reach the level one needs to be able to endorse brands and commercialize one’s work is breathtaking. 

The conversations with Shaina and Hiten show the complexities of being an influencer and how the understanding of the word starkly differs from person to person. They both agree that posting thousands of photos, reels, and Tiktoks does not make one an influencer. One needs to understand the marketing industry, have a certain sense of panache, have good taste, and have quality in their work. One must also be ready to accept the responsibilities that are on one’s shoulders once people start following them. Above all, one must be confident, positive, and driven to achieve their goals and have a positive impact on the world.

Lakshya Sharma is a first year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. He is an economics and media studies student. Apart from his academic interests, he has keen interest in writing and fashion.

Image Credits: Thom Bradley

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).