Issue 20

The Economic Cost of Putin’s March Towards Kyiv

Tense security reports had been trickling in for months that Russia’s autocrat President, Vladimir Putin, was growing alarmingly restless about Ukraine’s affinity to the West. As early as November 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Russia of “costs” if long-standing peace on the European continent was disturbed.

The talk surrounding this conflict, which took its full form on February 24, has often hinged around economic terms like ‘costs’. That’s no surprise since the coming of war in any part of the world induces sudden and potentially deep bruises on economies. After a draining pandemic, world leaders and economic institutions have been flurrying to balance tough economic war efforts and save national economies from being hurt. 

Joseph Borrell, the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, heralded on the eve of Russia’s march towards Kyiv that the bloc would impose the strictest economic sanctions it ever has against Russia. It was clear, that economic sanctions–actions by countries to hurt the economic interests of belligerent countries–would be the prime bargaining token against Putin. Though, critics have always pointed out that sanctions also hurt the economies of countries imposing them–sometimes considerably more. In our hyperconnected and intricately interdependent world, the ‘hurt’ brought on by sanctions is felt across regions and borders. How has this Catch-22 impacted lives? 

First, let’s put Russia’s place in the world economy into perspective. The largest country on Earth also harbours the largest natural gas reserves in the world, second largest coal reserves and eighth-largest oil reserves. According to OECD data, trade counts for more than 25% of Russia’s nominal GDP and energy accounts for half of that trade. In short, the world is heavily dependent on Russian energy to fuel its economy.

This is why European leaders like German Economy Minister Robert Habeck have resisted sanctions on Russian energy. Other sanctions have already caused a “big impact” on all sectors of the German economy, he said. Despite the German caution, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s February 6 announcement that embargoes on Russian oil were being considered drove up oil prices to historic highs. 

Crude oil is crucial. We not only use its products in our private cars and homes, but almost all other goods need it as production fuel. Each good also needs transportation. This means that as oil prices skyrocket, prices for almost everything also rise. Indian Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed her concerns that such flaring oil prices could impact the provisions in the Union Budget presented last month. 

In the short term, consumers have largely been sheltered from rising prices. Domestic prices for oil have remained unchanged. Though, worries about the long-term effect of the conflict on India’s growth are abounding with some economists projecting a growth rate of less than 8% in FY23. Jayanth R Varma, Economist and member of India’s Monetary Policy Committee, has also called attention to inflation rates in light of the unpredictable conflict. 

Key industries in India also depend upon trading goods with Russia and Ukraine. In the last financial year, Bilateral imports and exports between India and Russia amounted to $9.4 Billion and with Ukraine, to $2.3 Billion. A slowdown in trade with the affected States due to sanctions has increased the domestic prices of automobile components, pharmaceuticals, engineering goods, agricultural products, and telecom equipment since the outbreak of the war. The exclusion of Russia from SWIFT, a system used by most major international banks to coordinate cross-border transactions, has also led to insecurity for Indian exporters about the $400 million currently stuck in the system. The uncertainty of Putin’s next moves and the subsequent retaliation by Western powers has also spooked the financial markets with value of the Rupee plunging to historic lows

The bridle that economists and leaders have been trying to put on a frenzying economy after a devastating pandemic has been greatly disrupted by the unpredictability of the war. While Ukrainians face the military might and imperialist dreams of Vladimir Putin, officials at home now have the task to control inflation, secure alternative routes to trading while walking a diplomatic tightrope and hope for a soothed financial market. 

Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: Reuters

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 20

Living Art on the Streets of Assam: Interview With Street Artist Neelim Mahanta

In October 2020, the most popular Assamese singer, Zubeen Garg released a song on YouTube called “SILAA”. A surprising cast in the video of the song was a lesser-known street artist from Guwahati, Neelim Mahanta, whose work Garg’s song appeared to celebrate. Mahanta’s paintings on the walls of public spaces have become a common sight for residents of Guwahati, and many other small towns and villages of Assam. Speaking to us over a call from the riverine island of Majuli where he was celebrating  the ‘Aali-Aye-Ligang’ festivities of the Mishing community, Mahanta opened up about his beginnings, his work, and his thoughts on art and life.

“I was connected to art from a very young age. I was always painting things, and ideas were developing within me subconsciously. My interests would vary but painting was always a constant,” the 30-year old artist claimed.  

He created his first street art in 2012 on the wall of a neighbourhood grocery called ‘Rajkhowa’s store’, a place where he would participate in “adda”, a colloquial term for long outdoor hang-out sessions with friends. Friends and community have always been integral to his art  “I would just buy some paint and start painting on my own. And my friends and people around would pick paint brushes too and something would come out of it.”

After completing his schooling Mahanta joined the Guwahati College of Architecture for three years, after which he took admission in the Delhi College of Arts in 2013. “Studying architecture taught me how to look at space in different ways. In Delhi I learned the finer technical aspects, and was exposed to artistic creations of other people,” he recalls.

By 2016 Mahanta admits to having become bored of academics. He dropped out in the third year of the four-year course at Delhi College of Arts. “Not getting a degree did not matter much to me. I started painting on my own and in fact, began to learn better.” Mahanta stayed back in Delhi for another year, exploring spaces and painting wherever he could. After that, he worked with an organisation named “Street Art India Foundation” in Hyderabad. By the end of 2016, he had decided to return to Guwahati.

“When I returned to Guwahati there was no mainstream street art here. We had dirty public walls with paan stains, and no one imagined art in public spaces. I started painting and some others joined in my efforts. Soon we started travelling to rural areas and painting on public walls, especially schools.” Mahanta and fellow artists who assisted him decided to collaborate under the banner of “Living Art”, envisioned as a creative movement of independent artists. Living Art emerged both as a creative philosophy and an attempt to organise artists. It evolved as an idea that explored the possibility of art beyond paint and walls.

“We envision Living Art as a journey of life. The idea is to connect art as much as possible to the process of living. Through art, we want to give life to all things that exist. We want to offer new perspectives, such that every wall that we paint on, every space we explore will demand different artistic expressions. For us, the process is to comprehend a space or an object and analyse its experiences and surroundings. An artwork and our creative expressions emerge after that,” Mahanta explains.

For Mahanta painting is a universal language. He believes that in a world where different languages are spoken, painting and visual art are vital for global communication. Explaining the themes that he likes to explore in his work, Mahanta said; “My main subject of analysis is light. Light is a natural phenomenon that we represent in art through colours. Through colours, our expressions change depending on time and space. I do not wish to be bound by one concept but I am bounded by colours, lines, and shapes. Through colours, lines, and shapes, I want to connect with everyone. Be it a professor, or a boatman, be it in a city or a village, I want my art to assimilate with everything and everyone.”

Growing up, Neelim Mahanta’s greatest inspiration was Albert Einstein. It was not Einstein’s scientific genius, but it was the simplistic ways in which the Nobel Laureate used to communicate complex concepts is where admiration arose. “Einstein might have been a physicist, but he had an extremely creative way of expressing himself,” Mahanta says. Apart from Einstein, Mahanta claims to be greatly influenced by impressionism, an artistic movement of 19th century Europe. However, he did not believe art could serve its purpose by being inaccessible, a reason why he was attracted to street art.

“Why should paintings be confined to galleries? Why should only a class of rich people have access to it?” Mahanta asks emphatically. “The answer was to bring art to the streets. Across the world, artists started painting on the walls and streets of urban spaces. But we questioned why the same couldn’t happen in villages too? Hence through Living Art started travelling to rural Assam to create street paintings and promote art,” Mahanta says.

Mahanta’s painting of the then jailed anti-CAA activist Akhil Gogoi

In December of 2019, many parts of Assam erupted in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Like many other artists, Mahanta registered his protest through street art. By the virtue of being a visual language, Mahanta believes art is inseparable from politics. “After all we are all political beings, and creative protests can never be suppressed. I believe protests should always be creative. It should be a mobilisation of ideas, of poetry, of colour. Collective power always comes from creative expressions. Creative protests are also the only way to prevent violence in protests,” Mahanta believes.  

Mahanta’s work is now recognised by people across the state. Apart from Zubeen Garg’s song, in 2021 the Government of Assam reached out to Mahanta and the Living Art group to paint the walls of the newly constructed flyover in Dispur. Lakhs of commuters daily pass by that flyover, driving through Mahanta’s paintings. However, he believes it was a painting of Zubeen Garg in Lakhimpur which remains his most popular work.

“People started taking selfies around the painting, and it became really popular on social media. People started recognising the beauty of street art after that. I was also able to connect with Zubeen Garg after that, and SILAA happened subsequently. Now the area around that painting has become a recreational spot, people come to take photographs, and meet friends. A Dhaba has also come up nearby,” says Mahanta.

Over the past few years, Neelim Mahanta’s paintings have gained considerable attention in the creative landscape of Assam. His street art has contributed to a re-imagination of public spaces in the state with many more young artists exploring public walls. “Artists have to keep their eyes open and keep their mind free. An artists’ talent may know no bounds, but unless it is utilised for some social good, it is of no use. The attempt should always be to connect art and life,” Mahanta says. 

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics.

Picture Credits: Instagram: mahanta_livingart, Facebook: Neelim Mahanta 

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 20

Hindutva Beyond Politics: The Rise of an Alternate Pop-Culture in India

The rise of Hindutva, especially in the past seven years, has proved that it is not only a political or electoral phenomenon. The ideology of Hindutva, a blend of creating a purely Hindu nation-state while othering non-Hindus, has today penetrated all levels of our social systems and democratic setup. It has infused exclusionary values of religious nationalism in our bureaucratic institutions, bent large parts of the judicial system in its favour, has completely encapsulated the media ecosystem to propagate its ideology, and is working towards saffronising Indian academia. However, nothing represents Hindutva’s deep dive into shaking the foundations of an imagined liberal and secular India more than the evolution of popular culture in the past seven years. 

The vandalisation of the sets of Padmaavat, protests against the release of the film Sexy Durga and its eventual ban, protests against the film PK, are only a few examples of the intolerant and reactionary attitude of Hindutva organisations towards art and artists. However, the attempt to influence popular culture has gone beyond mere mob reactions. There is a concerted effort to demand a nationalistic and often Hindutva narrative from the cultural industries. 

For instance, the number of nationalistic movies that were released in the years 2018 and 2019 is insightful, especially given that was the election year and the BJP government was at the peak of its popularity. Aiyaary, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, Satyameva Jayate, Kesari, Uri – The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi are the most notable ones. Each of these movies either portrays the Indian army’s valour or represent a version of India’s past that espoused religious nationalistic pride. 

Whether or not these films had any impact on the results of the 2019 General Elections, where BJP expanded its majority in the parliament, is debatable. But the fact that there was an overflow of superhit nationalistic movies in 2018 and 2019, reflects that Bollywood producers are seeing opportunity in the film market where there is commercial benefit in making nationalistic films. Furthermore, the rise of actors like Kangana Ranaut, who minces no words in expressing her love for Hindutva, has to be seen in the context of the expanding influence of Hindutva in the cultural industry. Both these phenomenons; a rise in the number of nationalistic movies, and the emergence of Hindutva superstars, indicate the extent to which the ideology has been infused in our cultural trends and media discourse. To top this all, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has declared that a film city will be created in Noida, possibly a sign that Hindutva is willing to challenge Bollywood’s hegemony over Indian culture.

Hindutva’s ascendance in popular culture is also visible in the most prominent cultural wars that have emerged in the past few years. Take for example the entire debate on nepotism and the alleged drug mafia in Bollywood. A debate that emerged in the backdrop of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, this debate soon transformed into a slugfest of targeting specific superstars who may have been perceived to be against Hindutva. Similarly, the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, can also be understood in the same context. It is not only its attempt to shape the narrative of popular culture, but Hindutva has also succeeded in creating a civil society in its favour that is willing to aid them in manufacturing cultural wars on the pretext of cultural issues, such as the nepotism debate. While it is indeed true that Bollywood as an industry remains extremely inaccessible to most of the country, and the art it produces continues to lack diversity, it is also important to note that Bollywood’s failure itself offers an opportunity for Hindutva to expand its cultural agenda.

Hindutva civil society is also moving towards the production of an alternate popular culture that is committed to its ideology. Consider the rising popularity of Hindutva pop music for instance. Laxmi Dubey is a singer from Madhya Pradesh whose songs have lyrics that espouse Hindu nationalist ideas. Some of her most popular songs are titled Fir Modi Ko Lana Hai, Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, Yogi Aditya Nath Gatha. Each of these songs amassed at least 2 million views on YouTube. Another singer, Sanjay Faizabadi, is equally popular, with some of his most popular songs on YouTube being; Pakistan Hila Denge (16 million views), Har Hindustani Chahe Pure Pakistan Ko (10 million views), Lehrayenge Tiranga Lahore Mein (4.5 million views). The videos of their songs are filled with visual effects of saffron pride, the Indian army bombing its enemies, and often feature BJP leaders like Modi, Shah, and Adityanath. Apart from artists like Dubey and Faizabadi, there are numerous lesser-known artists and content creators who produce music, videos, and memes, in relatively low quality but follow a firm pattern of propagating Hindutva ideas. The scale of production of such xenophobic, bigoted, and chauvinistic music or art, and the popularity it has gained is unprecedented. 

That there is a concerted attempt by Hindu nationalist organisations to take over popular culture is amply clear. However, the disconcerting fact is the pace at which the production of an alternate popular culture is emerging. While an industry like Bollywood is relatively inaccessible for artists and production companies prioritise profit over any ideology, platforms such as YouTube and Spotify give artists like Dubey and Faizabadi an opportunity to share their music and gain a following, not to mention the inordinate amount of Hindutva content that is produced in Instagram and Facebook daily by other Hindu nationalists accounts. 

In India, however, cultural clout has a catch named diversity. The sheer diversity in our country, and internal diversity in each state, render an attempt to homogenise and dominate culture almost impossible. Cultural identities are so ingrained in every Indian community or social group, that it is hard to imagine Hindutva pop-culture dominating national culture on its own. Unlike Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia’s success in dominating culture through propaganda, similar projects in India may yet again be saved by the sheer strength of our cultural diversity. 

While Bollywood has largely surrendered itself to the pressures of a Hindu nationalist government, film and music industries of other languages across different states may provide suitable resistance to Hindutva. The solution to such an onslaught on popular culture is in diversifying the output in our popular culture. After all, culture persists only when it connects to people.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture. 

Picture Credits: YouTube

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 20

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

In the late 1950s, Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s life takes on a new course when her previously seemingly perfect life comes crashing down to reality. Driven by Midge’s love for stand-up comedy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is first and foremost a period comedy-drama show. Nonetheless, woven within and outside the hysterical jokes are significant messages about feminism, family, and love. A slight spoiler for one of the many hilarious moments in the show, in S2Ep8 Midge asks, “Walk a mile in a man’s shoes? Well, I took it to heart, put on a pair of my husband’s shoes, and my God were they comfortable. I get it now, why men rule the world: no high heels”. If you love stand-up comedy, boisterous and loving female protagonists, and vintage 1950s theme, then this show is perfect for you.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 4 premiered on February 18, 2022, with two episodes released weekly. Watch it now on Prime Video. 

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

Picture Credits: The Guardian

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 20

Issue XX: Editor’s Note

The 20th issue of Open Axis explores popular culture. We question how popular culture is framed, why it is both dynamic and malleable. Almost everything that we do – friends we make, conversations that we have, places that we travel to, media that we consume – is predicated upon the prevailing cultural trends around us. This issue will attempt to understand how culture is framed and made to interact with society, politics, and technology. Further, this issue will also encompass our designated theme to respond to the biggest headline in the world right now. 

In the early hours of 24th February, the world woke up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war against Ukraine. Heroic tales of Ukrainian defiance began to be shared through social media. Meanwhile, diplomatic and geopolitical experts took over television panels and editorial pages. The world moved on almost in suspended disbelief, with a new war to discuss. In doom and in calm, Open Axis persists in analyzing the world around us.

Following our theme of popular culture, Reya Deya is in conversation with her mother and grandmother as they react to the newly released Gehraiyaan, and talk about on-screen sex, sexuality, and sensationalism. 

Continuing the conversation around intimacy, Maahira Jain and Lakshya Sharma interview Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India and intimacy director behind Gehraiyaan. In an insightful podcast, she talks about her journey and the importance of her work in today’s world. 

In a day and age where attention is few and fleeting, art and popular culture remains that which unites and creates. Shree Bhattacharyya explores whether originality is present in popular culture today, and how the act of plagiarism has taken on a new and confusing role.

With Ashoka University starting offline classes on campus again after two years, OpenAxis asks the Ashoka student body what they will miss about online classes.

In this issue, we also explore how the pandemic transformed how we occupy space around us, as Jaidev Pant writes about how the pandemic altered our relationship with the outdoors.

Maahira Jain writes about hybrid work culture in the pandemic brought well being and employee development to the forefront of organisational policies

Studying another aspect of popular culture, Biplob Kumar Das writes about how Hindu Nationalism is influencing popular culture in India since 2014. 

In a photo essay, acclaimed filmmaker and photojournalist Kalyan Verma journeys through the ancient rocks and rainforests of Southern India’s Western Ghat range to document the spectacular Macaques.

Lakshya Sharma explores the case of Chitra Ramakrishna, CEO of the National Stock Exchange, who got tricked by a Himalayan sage and writes about how people have faith in such self-proclaimed sages, but how blind faith can lead to catastrophic consequences for people.

Neelim Mahanta’s street art is recognised widely in Assam. In an interview with him, conducted by Biplob Kumar Das, he opens up about his work, his beginnings, and his thoughts on art and life. 

On the Russia Ukraine crisis, Saaransh Mishra, Research Associate in Observer Research Foundation, writes about what are the options that Ukraine has in responding to an invasion by their militarily superior Russia.

– Lakshya Sharma, Shree Bhattacharyya, Jaidev Pant, Maahira Jain, Rutuparna Deshpande, Reya Daya & Biplob Kumar Das

Illustrator of cover image: Rutuparna Deshpande

Issue 20

Documenting the Knights of the Western Ghats

“Along the west coast of India lies a range of mountains known as the Western Ghats. Far more ancient than the larger and better-known Himalayas in the north, the Ghats harbours a diverse and extensive range of habitats from the thorn-scrub in the drier plains to shola-grasslands in the upper reaches. These ranges are also home to many species of endangered and endemic plants and animals. As exploration continues, new species are being discovered even today, giving us an opportunity to better understand the evolutionary and ecological history of this ancient mountain range.

The rainforests of Western Ghats are home to some of the most wonderful creatures which are found only in these forests and nowhere else on the earth. The Lion-tailed Macaque Macaca silenus is the symbol of this endemic diversity of this biodiversity hotspot. Less than 4000 of these survive today making it one of the most endangered primates in the world.

Since these primates have evolved in the rainforests, they have very simple stomachs which can easily digest fruits, seeds and insects. This adaptation has helped them be a habitat specialist of the tropical rainforest, where these are available throughout the year. The other endemic primate is the Nilgiri Langur which is a purely leaf-eating primate. They do not compete with each other directly.

Being native, the Lion-tailed Macaques feast on these Jackfruits. Only the males have the strong canines to rip open the thick outer shell of the jackfruits.
The Nilgiri Langur (Trachypithecus johnii), is one of the two endemic primates of the Western Ghats

Good fruiting trees are of great demand and sometimes rival groups fight with one another to have rights over these trees. It’s usually the alpha male of the group that engages in these fights, though other monkeys do join at times. Males have canines, mostly just to show them off to rival males. These large canines come into use when the macaques feast on fruits like Cullenia, which is one of the keystone species of the Western Ghats. Their flowers and fruits serve as food for many of the rainforest species including the Lion-tailed Macaque.

Males have canines, though mostly just to show them off to rival males. These large canines come in use when the macaques feast on fruits like jackfruits and Cullenia. Good fruiting trees are of great demand and sometimes rival groups fight with one another to have rights over these trees. It’s usually the alpha male of the group that engages in these fights, though other monkeys do join at times.

Only the males have canines, though mostly just to show them off to rival males. These large canines come in use when the macaques feast on fruits like jackfruits and Cullenia
Good fruiting trees are of great demand and sometimes rival groups fight with one another to have rights over these trees. Its usually the alpha male of the group that engages in these fights, though other monkeys do join at times.

Being more meat-eating than other macaques of the world, the Lion-tailed Macaque sometimes hunts and feeds on young ones of giant and flying squirrels.

A lot of roads go through these forests breaking them into isolated fragments. These primates which very rarely step on the ground in undisturbed forests are now forced to come down to cross these broken canopies. About 25% of the Lion-tailed Macaques are found in small isolated forest fragments. This often leads to tragic consequences further affecting populations of this endangered species.

Being macaques, they tend to explore a lot and sometimes discover easy ways of finding food.
A lot of roads go through these forests breaking them into isolated fragments. These primates which very rarely step on the ground, are now forced to come down to cross these broken canopies

The reproduction cycles of these macaques are very slow. A female gives birth only once in three years and only the dominant female gives birth. Because of the low birth rate and high age at first birth, it gives very little chance for these populations to bounce back.”

The dead fetus of a Lion-tailed Macaque

Kalyan Varma is an Emmy nominated filmmaker and nature photojournalist who has worked with National Geographic, BBC, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, Netflix and other publications. He was the BBC wildlife photographer of the year in 2013 and is the co-founder of Asia’s largest nature photography festival, Nature InFocus.

Photograph credits: Kalyan Varma

This article is republished under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. The original owner is Kalyan Varma.

Issue 20

What Will You Miss About Online Classes?

With Ashoka University starting offline classes on campus again after two years, OpenAxis asks the Ashoka student body what they will miss about online classes.

Interviewer & Videographer: Jaidev Pant

Video Editor: Shree Bhattacharyya

Issue 20

A Conversation on Intimacy With Aastha Khanna

OpenAxis had an insightful and inspiring conversation with Aastha Khanna, the first Intimacy Coordinator of India. In this conversation, she talks about her journey, her recent projects, and the core of Intimacy Direction. Head down to the audio below to listen to the podcast

To find excerpts of the talk and her answers, read below!


So how did you come about this career and how did people around you react to your decision to become an intimacy coordinator? 


I read an article about an intimacy coordinator in the west. That article hit home with me. It seemed like an incredibly pertinent job and something that I felt I would fit right in. But then the first COVID lockdown in 2020 happened. I was already in touch with a few intimacy directors in the west and had applied for a program and as luck would have it I got in.

The conversation was not very intense with my parents when I told them I’m doing it. I was not aware of what future it has in India. For my father, it was just a concern whether this is going to be a financially viable decision for me. I told him, I don’t know what’s gonna come of it, but I knew that it is something that I wanted to learn and I felt like there is use for it in our industry. My parents were supportive, they are big cheerleaders of the work I do. So, that’s been the journey.


I’m sure there were some difficulties in education in India like a lack of institutes or places to learn or people to talk to. So how do you navigate that space? 


There was almost nobody working in intimacy at the time in India and there aren’t any institutes even today that teach intimacy coordination, or any kind of intimacy work. In fact, the first course in India is also going to be launched by us at the Intimacy Lab in April this year. Did I have any difficulty in navigating the atmosphere in India? Not so much because I didn’t attempt it. I researched and I found that almost nobody was doing anything in this space. So for me to reach out to the people in the West and in other countries abroad was the most natural next step. I have studied abroad before, I did my undergrad there, so it wasn’t that difficult for me. I’ve always been somebody who travels a lot.


Will you be kind enough to tell us more about the Intimacy Collective that you started. 


So the collective basically happened to me because I realized that there wasn’t a community of people that were working in intimacy directly. I decided to bring them all together under one roof and that’s why the collective was formed. I got hold of somebody I knew who was working with minors right and someone who really wanted to pursue intimacy coordination. I was introduced to somebody who was working in sexual harassment as a freelancer for big corporate companies and was handling their POSH committees.​​ Then there were acting coaches and people who I have worked with.  I was searching for a community of people within our country who would understand where I was coming from when it came to cultural context and that’s why the collective happened.


How do you think we can teach the upcoming generations in India about the complexities of consent, sexuality, and intimacy so that we are able to create a more tolerant audience? 


I feel like consent is something that needs to be taught at an extremely young age. Just allowing people from a very young age to have agency over themselves is something that is a huge cultural shift for our community and we need to inoculate that within our younger generations. I think school has a big role to play here. The things that make you uncomfortable will stop, but the dynamic of where you are allowed to say no, and if it is acceptable is what we need to work towards. 

When it comes to sexuality, I feel again as a culture we are kind of growing towards a more knowledge-based approach towards the LGBTQIA+ world. I feel it’s very important for us to have more conversations around it and destigmatize the idea of having conversation about sex and sexuality from very young age. I think everyone needs to have a voice which is why I always say breed spaces where everyone has the agency to have a conversation that they feel that they want to have, and I think it’s very important for people who are from slightly older generations to address those questions, or those conversations with pertinent information. 


Do you think there is a difference in the ways intimacy is displayed by male and female actresses and the ways it is received by an audience? And why do you think this difference exists?


I think the audience is preconditioned. But to answer about heterosexual intimacy, what usually happens is that when intimacy is portrayed by a female, by intimacy I mean probably nudity, it would be considered aesthetic. When someone from the male gender usually portrays intimacy, socially, it’s considered aggressive. Predominantly using female nudity as a way to show intimacy is, in my opinion, slowly shifting to a more balanced and organic portrayal of intimacy, and rightly so. Intimacy is a part of the human experience, so audiences who watch intimacy and perceive in its most organic natural form will not become uncomfortable or feel like something vulgar is happening on the screen. It actually really depends on what the director really is trying to achieve. 


Several people within and outside the industry have had some criticisms or issues and referred to intimacy in various ways in which it probably isn’t portrayed; like ‘vulgar’ or ‘lewd. Do you think there has been a shift in terms of audiences being more accepting? Has there been some kind of a change or do you think the majority of the audience is still as skeptical as before?  


I think first thing is that none of us are wearing superhero capes. None of us are trying to change public opinion overnight over one film over one idea. I think Shakun was able to achieve what Shakunn wanted to achieve with the film. I think people have the right to their own opinions of whatever they see, which is why it’s been put out. It’s a story that we wanted to tell, and a story that we wanted would spark some form of conversation. . Yes, there could still be people that thought that it was overdone, or it was lewd or vulgar. So, for a relationship drama like Gehariyaan to completely avoid intimacy in the storytelling would have been very surfacal as intimacy is a huge part of that story. Whether it’s emotional or physical, it’s an extremely important part of being able to tell a story where any form of infidelity occurs, or any form of a relationship is being portrayed. I think the audiences are evolving. I think they are mature enough to take a story in its entirety and to understand that Intimacy is the part of it, and not just in Gehraiyaan.


What do you think is the core of Intimacy Direction?

I think the most important aspect of intimacy direction is trust building. You’re constantly working within an extremely vulnerable environment, with very vulnerable stories. I think for me the most important thing is that I require for my performers to trust that I am upholding their consent and that I am there for them, and that I am going to be supporting them throughout and also for production to trust that I am not a part of the actors’ entourage. I’m still going to be someone who’s going to support the director in his vision and work towards achieving it as best as we know how. 

I think empathy is also extremely important in this case because one can try and provide all kinds of support. But if you don’t fully understand your performers and the only way to do that is that they trust you. They will tell you their needs and unless you know what they need, you can’t support them. It’s actually not isolated just to intimacy. It stands true for any kind of creative collaboration.

Aastha Khanna, India’s first certified intimacy coordinator has always had a great passion for cinema. She graduated from the University of York in England with a Bachelor of Science Honors in Film and Television Production. She has been an assistant director on over half a dozen feature films in India. She hopes to share the much-needed knowledge and expertise of intimacy coordination across the different Indian film and television platforms.

Interviewers: Lakshya Sharma and Maahira Jain

Podcast Editor: Reya Daya

Picture Credits: The Hindu

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 20

In Deep Water: Three Generations React to the Intimacy in Gehraiyaan

Bollywood’s recent sensation ‘Gehraiyaan’ has caused quite a stir. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, I was forced to hear my parents and their friends discuss Deepika Padukone’s steaming hot body, and the movie’s risqué portrayal of a modern love affair. An Indian child’s worst nightmare is probably having to talk to their parents about sex but there was so much to talk about. Stemming from the movie’s themes of intergenerational trauma, I decided to have a conversation with my mother and grandmother about sex, sensuality, and sensationalism. 

My grandmother avoided the conversation for 3 days before I could dive right into the deep waters of ‘Gehraiyaan’. I asked what made them watch the movie and what they liked about it. My grandmother curiously said that the buzz had reached her circle. She was scared to answer my questions because with her house-help always around she had to forward through too many intimate scenes and didn’t grasp the plot. My mother’s reasons were similar, with the addition of social media hype. She liked the modernness and aesthetics of the movie, and more importantly Deepika Padukone’s acting, her real reason for watching it. The trailer piqued my curiosity for how dangerous it felt – a mainstream film about infidelity that isn’t a comedy? I was sold. There was a lot to like about Gehraiyaan, but perhaps my favourite thing was how much it left me to think about. I was expecting a film packed with sex and hadn’t anticipated the real conversations the film attempted to start. From intergenerational trauma to strained family dynamics to feeling stuck in the banality of life, there was something for everyone. 

My grandmother believed that Gehraiyaan’s portrayal of intimacy on screen strongly goes against Indian values. When asked why it’s okay for Hollywood to do the same thing she retorted “but we aren’t sitting in Hollywood”. What she meant was that the masses that don’t understand consent will not appreciate the movie for what it is but rather take the portrayal of sex in the mainstream as an excuse to do as they please. In some ways, she changed my opinion. At times I feel largely disconnected from the majority of the country. While I’m not saying that ‘Indian values’ are universally shared or should censor our media, I do believe we have to be cognizant of how this media will be received across all sectors of society. Yet I hope that normalising sex and intimacy will do more good than harm. The idea of watching two Indian adults embracing at will feels both freeing and unfathomable. Showing a live-in relationship in itself felt revolutionary in a country where arranged marriages take place without the bride and groom ever seeing each other. My mother agreed that the portrayal of intimacy is definitely a step forward but some things will just never fit in. While she is used to watching intimacy in western media, she acknowledged that the majority does not have access to the same information and resources as us when it comes to sex education.

My grandmother said that intimate scenes like these were never shown in the past. My mother instantly disagreed saying that from as early as the 50s and 60s, song and dance have been a stand-in for sexual acts. Whether it is the use of item songs, innuendos such as ‘choli ke peeche kya hain’ or rain and blossoming flowers to sanitise the portrayal of sexual desire, it has always been here. Only now it isn’t happening behind closed doors. My grandmother still felt that these examples were modern and compared them to the classical Indian music of Lata Mangeshkar. To her, Gehraiyaan felt more scandalous than a little bit of dancing in an item song or any sexual acts that were merely implied and not shown. I believe a large reason for disapproval amongst the Indian audience comes from the fact that Gehraiyaan didn’t simply have a palatable item song where the woman exists for the pleasure of men watching her. Here, Deepika’s character Alisha had agency and made decisions for her own pleasure. 

I could barely remember the sex scenes because of how nuanced the subplots were and because the West has desensitised me to portrayals of sex on screen. The internet also allows me to have all the answers I need right at my fingertips and the idea of watching a barely sexual scene just doesn’t feel as salacious. My mother has faced similar desensitisation but her media consumption begins and ends with what she watches on Netflix. The addition of a few odd sex scenes was enough to provide her a mild distraction from the rest of the movie. To my grandmother, it became a barrier in watching the movie entirely. 

The one thing we all could agree on was that sex sells, and hypersexualisation for the purpose of making a profit was not a great motive for portraying intimacy. My grandmother was convinced that just like item songs, all instances of sex in media are to sell more units. However, I didn’t believe that director Shakun Batra’s motives aligned with this complaint. The intimate scenes didn’t serve the singular purpose of shock value and were an integral part of the plot, without which certain storylines would not work. I do think that the trailer intentionally sensationalised the movie to generate public interest and it worked! The movie was a big risk and if that’s what we need to get an Indian audience to tune in then so be it.   

My grandmother thought that openly talking about sex to younger generations is very important. She also said that awareness is required but only of the ‘right things.’ I’m not entirely sure what falls within the boundaries of right and wrong, but I was surprised at her agreement. This is also a good time to mention that in our half an hour-long conversation, my grandmother never once used the word ‘sex’ and only referred to it as ‘those scenes.’ My mother asked her why she never gave her a sex talk and she replied that she was told all that was required and if her children ever had questions she would answer them. To be fair, my mother never had the talk with me either but as I get older it feels comforting knowing I can go to her to have these conversations. 

It’s ironic how Indians love a good romance but will squirm at the portrayal of intimacy. While shying away from sex in media will always feel like a safer option, at many levels, it feels like hindering progress. Luckily, OTT platforms are allowing creative freedom and more diverse narratives, including the portrayal of sex and intimacy, that traditional cinema would not have allowed. Given how influenced we are by Bollywood. I wonder if our country would be more progressive today if our censor board didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

Reya Daya is a third-year student, studying psychology and media studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include writing, photography and music.

Picture Credits: Amazon Prime Video

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 20

Growing Pains: The Dynamics of Workplace Culture in 2022

Over the last two years, global unemployment has dropped to over 200 million. Adapting to the pandemic became extremely strenuous for employees who began to report low work satisfaction. This ultimately resulted in a phenomenon termed  the ‘Great resignation,’where attrition rates shot up globally. A recent Linkedin survey revealed that 82% of the people are choosing to change their job, and retaining employees is tougher than before. 

As organizations began adapting to working from home environments , what a ‘regular workday’ entailed began to evolve, right from employee training, recruitment strategy, to the workplace culture. With the Great resignation spreading across industries in India, particularly the IT sector, CEOs and human resources departments have changed their hiring practices. The question of  how to make the organization employee-centric and appealing is on every company’s mind.  While policies and plans change in an instant, how long will it take for a change in mindset?

The temporary shift to a hybrid and flexible workplace is seemingly here to stay. A Harvard Business School survey report shows around 81% of employees are still skeptical about returning to work full time, opting for a hybrid mode instead. Retaining and applying for jobs is now to a large extent based on the quality of organizational support. Employees are in constant exchanges with their workplaces, and hold certain expectations about the security, compensation and support they will receive. Mental and physical health, as well as reasonable work hours have gained top priority, with the current generation looking to seek true meaning, power, and responsibility from their work in an attempt to make a real difference. 

Globally, organizations have often lent support to their employees via schemes and benefits While monetary and technological support in the form of insurance, equipment,  and setups was standard procedure, employees now also demand health and well-being enablement. Work from home while initially providing employees the comfort of  working from one’s bedroom, eventually caused them to be overworked, by surpassing healthy work hours. Burnout has become increasingly common. A certain disconnect from organizations and colleagues arose among large sections of the working population.

However, the employees weren’t the only ones struggling. Hiring strikes and financial lows made the inflow of new talent scarce,  and a cut in paychecks became inevitable. These dreadful circumstances called for a global change in policies. Refined policies accounted for a shift in focus, by being supportive and adapting to accommodate individual employees’ varying needs. Firms began to steer away from applying a blanket solution approach to situations and became more personal.

The newly adopted policies became increasingly relevant as with the ceasing lockdowns in sight, employment is forecasted to  rise by about 31%, being facilitated by CEOs who are looking to hire tech savvy freshers and employees at every level. Diversity is now embedded in the organizational language and culture. A Levers report showed how diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)  policies are being revamped, by reducing the bias in hiring procedures and implementing fair promotional policies and compensation. Furthermore globally firms have initiated diversity awareness, management and professional growth programs, to account for differences in gender, sexual orietntation, ethnicity and more.

Certain trends have begun to be eminent in workplaces. Maintaining transparency and better recognition of employees has come to the forefront. Candidates today have voiced a preference for places that make them ‘feel good’, appearing to value it over brand name and salary.The last two years of relentless, mundane, and impersonal working days have created a need for a major morale boost, to combat the sky-rocketing attrition rate. A clear chain of communication and honest work environment has also become important to prevent internal hostility and to make the employees feel comfortable. 

Work cultures are now moving towards becoming more liberal with a core focus on giving the employees, and the firm a chance for growth and development. Firms are required to invest in both employee and technology upskilling. Upskilling opportunities help overcome redundancy in a workplace while promoting personal growth among employees. Owing to the pandemic, online platforms have made available a range of courses from Microsoft Word to Data Analytics all at our  fingertips. Training and re-training has become easier. Employees now expect their company to invest time and money into their development. Access to digital tools, software and applications which eases the working process, and creates a boost in productivity and employee satisfaction. 

The recent developments in workplaces prioritize personal and work time equally, and consequently raise questions about the role it plays in a firm’s work output. Is it possible that striving to give employees a certain quality of life impacts an organization’s quality of work? HR manager of Alkem Laboratories, Rajorishi Ganguli in an interview states how the demands of employees have migrated from work life balance to work life integration. This integration allows the employee to work and relax at their convenience without compromising on either. 

While a transformation of work culture has begun, there remains uncertainty on how organizations will navigate and monitor employee output in a hybrid setting. How will a manager ensure that the employee working from home creates an equivalent output compared to the one in office? While allowing the hybrid to take over workplaces has become the need of the hour, certain interpersonal interactions remain irreplaceable. Creating a seamless feedback chain and  employee deliverables system is becoming necessary and employee accountability is being tested everyday. 

The hybrid world comes with its own set of drawbacks, further complicating workers’ means to collaborate and communicate. With 50 percent of the employees attending meetings from home, it becomes hard to build cohesion in a team, and create a space where everyone is heard. With diminishing canteen breaks, and elevator conversations, employees’ interpersonal communication will depend purely on work based interactions, and finding innovative ways to make those fruitful.

With the shifting work culture comes several unanswered questions. While the shift has begun, there remains a need for new systems and professionals as firms tread this unchartered territory, and embracing the hybrid work culture is only the first step.

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 traveling.

Picture Credits: Getty Images

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