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Issue 8

Queering Valentine’s Day: Navigating singlehood and ‘compulsory heterosexuality’

It is inevitable for people to feel choked during February, with all the hype around love and the joys of coupledom. It is an important month to analyse how ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (in Adrienne Rich’s terms) has hijacked our understanding of love, desire, and sexuality in our society. Valentine’s day takes me back to my teenage years. As a queer person, I remember having to force myself to fit into the idea of love that is constructed by this notion of ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ A concept coined by Adrienne Rich, ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ expounds on the way heterosexuality becomes a political institution having the privilege to limit our understanding and expression of ‘other’ desires. This heterosexual compulsion feeds the popular cultural metanarratives of greeting cards, and other media to celebrate love, desire, and sex as heterosexual. 

Love and desire are understood as heterosexual in our society which leads to the alienation of ‘other’ identities and sexualities on valentine’s day. This raises questions like: Why is it that we have a special day to celebrate one kind of love, but not others? Do such celebrations reflect (and reproduce) a kind of hierarchy of love that is present in our culture? And how might such hierarchies be problematic, both for those who are excluded from them and for those who are included?

The problems of exclusions are more obvious than those of inclusion. Who is really included or excluded on Valentine’s day? Is it necessary that a ‘heterosexual’ couple is included, and queer couples and single folks irrespective of their gender and sexuality are excluded? 

Singledom is not the only exclusion. Valentine’s day reminds us that the romantic love that is accepted is hetero. Most cards portray pictures of heterosexual couples, or male and female animal soft toys, etc. Similarly, commemoration cards are generally intended to be from a wife/girlfriend to a husband/boyfriend and vice-versa. Sitting with a ‘same-sex’ partner in a café on Valentine’s night feels different. While most outlets—after the decriminalisation of section 377—are now welcoming, there surely is a difference to the experience of a queer couple. There may well be a similar feeling for others whose relationships aren’t considered quite as acceptable: mixed-race couples, couples where either one or both partners don’t meet the ideals of conventional attractiveness, those with an age-gap, or people who want to celebrate with multiple partners on a night where every table is set out for two.

Romantic love is intrinsically linked to sexual love, and popular Valentine’s gifts include both the sentimental gifts (such as flowers, chocolates, and soft toys) and the sexy gifts(underwear, sex toys, and erotic games). For this reason, other exclusions may include those who are assumed not to be sexual (by virtue of being too young, too old, or disabled, for example), and those who are assumed to be sexual but in fact are not. A person who is asexual and romantic, or a couple whose relationship started out as sexual in nature but is no longer so, may feel painfully aware of assumptions and expectations around Valentine’s night.

Turning to those who are included in Valentine’s day, there are difficulties here as well – although they may not be so obvious.

If a person wants to include their friends on Valentine’s day, it is deemed questionable. But then the question is: Why should the partner be considered more important than those other people that we are probably closer to? Isolating ourselves from friendship can be daunting in a relationship. It can make a person feel lonely despite being in the company of their partner, regardless of how much they love them. There is a sense of privacy around the couple whereby we aren’t meant to share what is going on with anyone outside of it. As well as exacerbating the sense of exclusion of our single friends, this can be damaging for those in the relationship as they come to rely upon each other for everything and feel unable to get support from outside when they are struggling. Hence, Valentine’s Day and an overtly heterosexual understanding of love can limit our growth as individuals. 

Valentine’s day can add to the pressure for those who are going through a tough period in their intimate relationship. There are expectations and assumptions about how we must feel on Valentine’s Day and the kinds of declarations that we must want to make to each other. Two common responses to such pressure are to either assume that the relationship must be wrong and to bolt from it, or to focus on presenting an outside image which seems appropriate whilst denying (to others and to oneself) that we are struggling, until it has reached a critical point.

One way to release the pressure is by expanding the meaning of love; it does not have to be ‘romantic’ in a very heterosexual way, but rather in a queer way. Knowing what we want to feel as opposed to knowing what to feel or what we are expected to feel can narrow down our understanding of desire, love and intimacy. This kind of re-evaluation can also expand our understanding of what might be included in romantic love, friendship, and in the blurry space in between (the friends-with-benefits arrangement, the romantic relationship which has developed into friendship over time, the friendship that has all the intimacy, passion and challenge of a romantic relationship).

So instead of ignoring Valentine’s week or the fourteenth of February, we should ‘queer it’. Make it unconventional, challenge the heterosexual ground that it is built on and re-work/re-model it to fit our identity. Prescribing a way to do it would be going against the argument of queering it. So, it is important to decide for ourselves what we want, rather than what they would conventionally want us to feel. Just remember love is not one thing or one kind of feeling; it can hold myriad feelings or meanings. Love begins when you are truly yourself. 

Artwork by Muskaan Kanodia.

Roshan Roy is a senior student of English Literature at Ashoka University. He can usually be found reading anything non-fiction, listening to John Mayer or contemplating life while listening to and singing along with Passenger’s songs. His areas of research and writing include sexuality and gender. He navigates life by writing performance poetry and non-fiction.

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).

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Issue 8

Whose language is it anyway? A critique of linguistic imposition by the NEP

The Government of India in 2020 rolled out the National Education Policy with much fanfare, claiming that the reforms would revive the nation’s flagging education system. The need for reforms cannot be denied. An article in The Economist this week, noted, “Only about 55% of the country’s ten-year-olds can read and understand a simple story, reckons the World Bank. The last time India’s children participated in internationally comparable tests, they ranked almost last out of 74 countries.” The NEP seeks to introduce changes at all levels of education, and one way it proposes to improve the level of Education and literacy in India is by stating that “the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother-tongue/local language/regional language”. As someone who was only educated in English, I was, at first, rather optimistic about such a shift. I had often resented the lack of exposure to the literature of the language most of my family spoke, Hindi. English education meant that I knew neither English nor Hindi very well. To not have to do one, the language that seemed most alien felt like a decent escape from having to struggle through both. But in almost no time, optimism gave way to scepticism, and soon after, to worry. 

The policy advocates for the use of the “mother tongue,” or a regional language, as a medium of instruction wherever possible. In a diverse nation such as ours, the lack of specificity of the term ‘mother tongue’ only leads to confusion. Is ‘mother tongue’ the tongue of a student, or the tongue of a region? Won’t there be situations where the tongue of the student may not be the language of the region? Had the policy been around when I was in junior school, for instance, I would have been educated (‘if possible,’ as the policy notes) in the Kumaoni dialect, since I live in the Kumaon region. However, the composition of my district is nearly entirely native Punjabi speakers, resettled to what we now called Uttarakhand. The languages spoken within 30 kilometres of my home are Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English, each understood by a separate demographic. And my village is not an exception to the rest of India, but it is the rule. Most of India is polyphonic, and like the poet Walt Whitman, can boast of containing multitudes. In the situation that the recognised regional language becomes the official medium of education in a particular school, its usage will only mirror the imposition of English. That is, the hegemony of English will be replaced by the hegemony of another regional language, whichever may be dominant in the area, or in the vogue with a particular government. For a policy aiming to make education more accessible and inclusive, the NEP seems to achieve the opposite.

For the masses, school is where several students are exposed to a new language, especially one like English. For many, learning English is the sole aim of starting school. And whether we like it or not, English does open doors. Most of the vocabulary of Science and Technology is in the language. It has, since the national movement, been a language that has allowed non-Hindi speakers to communicate further. Wouldn’t such a policy end up making opportunities less accessible for the students in government schools? And I stress on government schools here, because for private schools, bypassing such a policy is easy, and the ‘English Medium’ is emphasised. This could widen the gap in the education received at public and private institutions and reinforce class hierarchies amongst those who attend them. For most students, their exposure to their regional languages is through social interactions largely outside the classroom. English is taught to many only in schools. 

What also complicates the NEP is that it does not list English as an Indian language, even though English is constitutionally recognized as a national language. While many Indians may not speak English, it cannot be denied that English is a widely spoken Indian language. Indian writers have made English their own, Indian films and television use English liberally. In an op-ed in the Hindu, K Chidambaram argued that English is an Indian Language and that it is aspirational, useful, and should not be done away with in such a manner. The Poet and translator, Ranjit Hoskote, too, views English as a language that has become Indian, and does not see it as a borrowed tongue. 

Even if everything with the policy is ironed out and every region is given as inclusive a language as possible, the logistics remain complicated. Education is a concurrent subject, legislated upon by both Central and the State governments. Even in college student governments, the shifting of responsibility between hierarchies prevents much work from being done. Between disparate regimes at the Center and states, this may be a recipe for disaster. 

While the importance of including more regional languages in syllabi cannot be denied, we must be mindful of how the Indian languages are taught, and that they are not taught at the cost of one another. The way to promote the regional languages is not to replace English as a medium of education and entirely disregarding its utility, but rather, to include the practice of communication and appreciation of regional languages and literature, to encourage students to be critical by employing the languages they are taught in, and to teach them in a way that the process of education does not make learning more difficult and stressful. This means that for students whose homes are not familiar with English, there is a greater responsibility with their teachers to communicate material with their students in the language they understand. 

To change subject material without altering the pedagogical approach will continue to limit students in one way or another. It may be more freeing to consider ways to incorporate the thinking of Paulo Friere and restructure education or “men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation”. This could be done by training teachers to adapt to the needs of polyphonic classrooms, by introducing practices of translation, or by making conversation a greater part of the experience of learning. 

Swati Singh is a student of English Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. They are a member of Sandhi, the languages society at Ashoka University, and are interested in translation. 

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).

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Issue 8

Translation As Preservation: Understanding the Worlds Within Languages

Translation, for both of us has been an act of transgression. In our pristine Anglophone academic life, it has been a way to discuss and express in other languages, and marvel at the art of expression. We therefore talk about the process and politics of translation between Bangla and English, and think about the idea of preservation in various ways. What is lost in translation? What is gained?

Through months of trying to transport emotions, idioms and punctuation from Bangla to English, we’ve grown closer to our mother language than we’ve ever been. Alongside that familiarity has come the sense of inhabiting a world held only within the cadences and curlicues of this language. But this isn’t a sensation peculiar to Bangla. In every translation session, our classmates have brought metaphors and phrases from their languages that pose annoying, yet delightful, problems of translation. Working through those doubts has always felt like dipping our toes into the waters of a separate, thriving world. Something about these colourful phrases feels very private and intimate. Yet we’re pursued by the need to share the wonderful literature in the languages of the Indian subcontinent; to share the array of emotions each one of these narrative worlds make you feel.

Each language has its own perspective of time and place. These aspects come together to knit the sense of inhabiting a separate world. Both of us have primarily translated from Bangla into English, and can, therefore, only speak of Bangla. It is an experience that comes with doubts at every turn. By the end, we’re always left with two questions: have we done justice to the source text? Does it sound well in English? It’s always hard to reconcile both of them. The conflict mainly comes from the differing nature of both languages. English comes from a family of languages quite different from those spoken in the Indian subcontinent. Naturally, the rules of its grammar, its idioms and banter provide a distinctive way of understanding time and space, which might not always be compatible with those of Indian languages. Underlying this conflict is a colonial history that makes English widely accessible, but also necessitates promoting indigenuous languages. How then do we convey to a wider population what inhabiting the worlds of Indian languages feels like?

One can argue that after several years of being spoken and written in the subcontinent, English has become an Indian language, where the grammar is tweaked and several Indian catchphrases are fondly used in English sentences. This liberty to mould an imported language into something homegrown might simplify the problems of translation. But if this form of English is indeed an Indian version, how wide will be the readership that can understand it? It is a question we’ve argued over to no end.. Often, we’ve stubbornly wanted to retain the roughness and peculiarities of our source languages in our translated texts, protesting that some words are untranslatable, and English readers must work through the difficulties to enter this new world. But does that practice make the text more accessible, or does it further obscure its essence by producing puzzling sentences? 

Along the way, we’ve arrived at a compromise for Bangla. We try to make the translated text sound like a naturally English one, but use sentences that are the closest options for the source text. But the sense of time and space are located further within the structure of Bangla. The time the text is located in is denoted by the tense of the narration. In English, there is a clear demarcation between present and past tense however, in Bangla there is a slippage between both. Narratives are often written in between past and present, and jumps between these two time frames are not uncommon. The sense of time is, therefore, one that we carefully thread as translators of Bangla-English-Bangla.

But time and place aren’t just located in the tense of a text. They are embodied by the characters who live in that environment, and in some ways, that environment lives within them. How, for example, can we translate the banter of two boys living in an ashram in ancient India? Which is the more important question—preserving the archaism of their context, or making them sound like young and defiant adolescents?  

The act of translation is also an act of historical preservation. Translating Bangla texts into English opens up new audiences and new possibilities. A new kind of readership emerges. Translating texts whose publication dates back several decades helps revive its readership, and foster conversations between the changing tastes of readers. But with these possibilities comes the responsibility of representation. A work of literature can become the voice of a people through its language. It is always intimately twined with the emotions and experiences of a community which might be as mundane as lone words and phrases, but hold political undercurrents and the history of a language within them.

The seamless juxtaposition of both is fairly easy to glean for us as Bangalis. But the task of its reproduction inevitably becomes a personal one. Dissatisfaction over translated works probably arises from the intersection of the personal and the political. As translators starting out, we’re far from mastering the rules of the game. But for now, we rely on this intersection to guide us, to help us preserve what the work of literature makes us feel. While we fear losing much along the way, the gains have often been insightful. It is a long process, and often a frustrating one, but one that is exhilarating, leading us down new avenues.

Pratiti and Ipsa are members of Sandhi, an ever-evolving society at Ashoka engaging with language both academically and  otherwise. We are not dedicated to any specific language(s), or only to tangible languages at all. We think about language at various levels— the idea of language itself, the interplay between languages, the nuances within a language and much more. Currently, they are holding the 2021 edition of their flagship event, Bhasha Mash.

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).

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Issue 8

The Economy Of Stories

‘Any story you can come up with has already been written in the Mahabharata;’ by popular consensus, this is often heralded as the truth in India. The Mahabharata, with its intricacies in plot, characterisation, details, off-shoot narratives and adaptations, could easily be considered as the mother of fiction. Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots argues that any given story is bound to fall within one of his seven major plot structures. If we were to consider this true and assume that the Mahabharata encompasses all major plotlines, then every single work written in the world today would simply be an adaptation or a rewriting of an existing story.

Why then do we bother writing, re-writing, adapting and recirculating existing stories? Are we simply enabling the production of another economy, where stories, like currency, exchange hands only to be drawn on or crumpled in one’s pocket before being handed to its next owner? This brings me to a theory that I have decided to call ‘the currency of fiction’.

What happens to the currency we use on an everyday basis? The notes either exchange hands till they are torn/worn, at which point they are replaced by crisp, new ones that everyone loves to get their hands on; or, they become old enough to be worth preserving for their collectable value. I see something similar happening in the economy of stories—the basic plot is the monetary value, and the currency or the stories are the means to access this value. New notes are the rebirth of these existing stories, in the form of adaptations or re-imaginations. The stories that gain age, wisdom and stand out in some sense, then become Classics, or collectables. Any subsequent note with significant resemblance or reproduction of thought of these Classics are the ones that are the most desirable, i.e., the ones with the most exchange-value.

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Be it Enola Holmes, Maria Dahvana Headley’s feminist translation of the classic Beowulf, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments – the tale of Sita from the Indian epic Ramayana (the Sitayan), Kamila Shamsie’s novel adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone into present-day Britain and Pakistan—Home Fire, or even a spin-off of Hindi soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai to the new Yeh Rishtey Hain Pyaar Ke with the stories of the children, and grandchildren (or was it great grandchildren?…I lose count) of the previous leads, recent times see no dearth of the return of our beloved characters.

Why? Why reimagine Juliet in 2020, as opposed to creating a new Desdemona or Laila or Heer? What about these particular characters makes us want to bring them to life again, albeit in a new socio-political scenario, or a reimagined world? I argue that it is our need for familiarity.

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“Desi tadka with a fusion twist” | “Chai tea latte.”

What do you see common to both these ‘fusions’? I see the need for familiarity wrestle the desire to explore – the ‘certainty’ component of your personality in a heated debate with the ‘uncertainty’ percentage. Both these notions do just what an Enola Holmes does—brings you something you know that you like and that you trust is good, while adding some spice to it. The need to watch it, buy it, or consume it, is motivated by the same need to check your phone when a notification pops up with “Your friend ShortAttentionSpan has updated her profile,” you know the existing story is good, and you believe that if something new has been added to it, it ought to be good too.

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Stories are thought to have been born as a form of relief or a doorway to a world beyond. Be it by way of murals on cave walls that showed horses racing through the clouds to greener grass, or by way of an ‘ajji’s’ (grandmother’s) stories to her grandchild of a crow placing rocks into a thin-necked vase in order to able to drink the water inside.  All of these stories, while allowing for this momentary escape from reality, most definitely contain a component of the ‘real’ encompassed within themselves. The horses could be human beings rushing towards something and ignoring the metaphorical clouds around them; the crow could be ‘Sharma Ji’s beta’ (the ideal neighbour’s son, a prodigy who every Indian child is asked to be more like) who manages to do smart work and reap the best results.

What all of these stories do is play with the distance between you, and the world you are reading/watching/accessing. By making it appear sufficiently afar, the stories allow for a commentary on the real world, enabling you to access it without winning the assured eye-roll a moral lecture would otherwise merit.

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During theatre club meetings, we would play a game called ‘You!’ 3 characters would take their place in the centre, surrounded by a circle consisting of the other participants, or the spectators in this case. They would proceed to enact a scene—a short one, only a few minutes long. After the first performance, they would enact it a second time; the spectators were then free to clap their hands, at that  point the actors would freeze within the circle, point to one character, and yell, “you!” They would therein, take the place of said character and proceed with the scene in their stead, with one crucial change.

The aim of the game was to first understand how a single action contributes to the larger plot. The second aim was to help people understand what a good move, and a bad move, was —if the change elicited a story worse than the original, it was a bad move. And third, the real-life connotation—to be able to understand when and how your actions impact other people, and how you can think before doing something.

This game, while our little self-creation, is one that had been played on a much larger scale, a long time before us. Forum Theatre, a creation of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal is motivated by similar goals, with the only difference being that the scene performed would be one of oppression, or societal harm, that could be averted through the tiniest of actions – one single action, that could contribute to, or help stop oppression.

In a similar manner, the economy of stories, in its distancing and temporary suspension of reality allows you to re-think the actions of a character, while also giving you the chance to step in with the whole, “why didn’t Rose simply move over and give Jack some space on the plank?” criticism. Stories provide us with an alternate space where we can think about the actions of characters, their motivations and aspirations, without directly realising that while so doing, we are also questioning and tugging at the loose ends of similar questions that arise around us on a daily basis. Stories thereby become powerful tools for critique, for questioning, for dialogue, and thus, for civic action.

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In the economy of stories, as we recycle tales making a few crucial changes, we ‘adapt’ them to suit our present conditions. We play with the ‘distance’ of the story from its consumer, awarding the latter either the discomfort of reading about something too close to home, or the pleasure of an imaginary universe with a hidden resemblance to reality. We bring the reader/watcher/consumer to the right distance from our story in order to be able to comment on reality in the manner of our choosing. All of this while preserving the familiarity of existing characters, broad plot design, and the ambit of criticism that the root story fell under, in case of direct adaptations.

This ‘replaying of the same scene’, or ‘recycling of currency’, with a few crucial changes, shows the reader the light of the world of Forum Theatre, or ‘You!’ The potential to affect some real-world outcome; some civic change. The paranoia of ruling bodies about seditious fiction, crowd-exciting theatre, anti-establishment fictional narratives, suddenly makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Imagine a large puzzle, with each piece being a currency note—the economy of stories produces a larger picture. The notes are connected by strings. That, if you sufficiently step back to look at, make up a compelling image. It is up to you to be able to decipher this image, make changes, provide new decisive shapes to the notes in order to elicit a different picture.

The economy of stories has immense power. As does art. Be it with a single currency note, the larger narrative, or the need for relief from reality, stories rule our world, as they should. The economy of stories is here to stay, and you are a part of it, either as a spectator or a motivated spect-actor. All you need to do is choose. And choose wisely, as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, at the beginning of the Great War, a.k.a., the Mahabharata.

Varsha Ramachandran is currently an Editorial Associate at Agents of Ishq. She graduated from Ashoka University in 2018 with a degree in English Literature. 

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Issue 8

A Monochromatic Tug of War: A semiotic analysis of black and white in Black Swan

The use of colour in film allows for multilayered cinematic representation, beyond what is shown at face value on the screen. We associate emotions with every colour—for example, pink is used to convey femininity, yellow for warmth, green for growth or nature, red for danger, passion or violence; the list goes on. We also encounter binary oppositions extensively in the arena of film and literature—in tropes of good versus evil, black versus white, young versus old and more. I will be looking into the use of colour in cinema in alignment with binary opposition. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses black and white to convey this opposition in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan. The film is about duality, both allegorically through its premise in Swan Lake, and literally through the protagonist’s breakdown. Libatique makes use of costume and set design to portray this duality through the colours black and white.

On the surface, the story is about Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, who is a ballerina at a company that is planning to put up a showcase of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. The story of the ballet is as follows: Princess Odette has a spell cast on her that makes her a white swan, which can only be broken by true love. She falls in love with a prince, but before the spell can be broken, her evil sister, the black swan, swoops in and seduces him. The white swan, devastated, kills herself and finds her freedom in death. As the film progresses, we see that Nina’s life in some way starts to mirror the story of Swan Lake. After being cast as the Swan Queen for the ballet, the film traverses her internal conflict in trying to embody both the white and black swan for the sake of her art. She is threatened by Lily, another dancer in the company, who fully epitomizes the turbulence of the black swan. As the film progresses, her internal struggle, drive for perfection and threat of replacement triggers Nina’s descent into madness, which takes the form of her “doubles”. As her madness peaks, there is a conflation of Nina’s alter ego with Lily, which shows that in Nina’s mind, Lily is the black swan that she herself is trying to become. 

The story is premised on the dynamic between the innocent white swan and her dark and seductive counterpart, which is conveyed effectively through the pervasive monochromatic tug of war throughout the film. White is a colour that generally connotes purity, goodness and innocence. Black, being its binary opposite, comes to symbolize sin, rebellion and evil. The binary that the narrative creates between Nina and Lily is translated on screen, using costume, through the binary that already exists between black and white—Nina is consistently shown wearing white clothes at the beginning of the film, whereas Lily is shown chiefly in black. The instructor, Tomas’ demand for the balance between artistic perfection and daring passion is indicated through costume as well; he is always shown wearing either grey or both black and white. 

The costume changes for Portman throughout the film trace Nina’s journey of maturation as it starts to take the form of her madness. As she starts to give in to her darker impulses, the transition is shown through her wearing grey, symbolizing that she is arriving at a middle ground between the white and the black in her life. Her defining act of rebellion—going out to the club with Lily—sets in motion the big change. The scene at the club in which she pulls over a black top over her white top illustrates her conscious decision to suppress the brand of her innocence to unleash her more reckless urges. In the events that follow, Nina experiences true sexual liberation for the first time, which finally allows her to surrender her old self and embody the black swan. This shift is conveyed through a switch to black costume for Portman in every scene from that point on.

In the days leading up to the final show, Nina’s madness crescendos and her hallucinations take the form of her literally turning into a black swan. She starts to pull out black feathers from her body, symbolising her internalization of the black swan. In the penultimate scenes of the film, in Nina’s performance as the Swan Queen, her struggle to play the part of the white swan convincingly shows that she has finally let go of her childlike inhibitions. The dressing room scene following the first act shows the climax of Nina’s deliration. Her violent physical altercation with Lily has sudden camera switches where we see her fight—not Lily, but herself. The juxtaposition of black and white in this scene shows the last scuffle between Nina’s alter egos in order for her to finally embody the black swan. The scene ends with her stabbing her counterpart, followed by an artistically perfect performance as the black swan. These scenes hold immense connotative value; her literal transformation into the black swan while dancing represents the act of her casting away the last shred of childlike innocence and inhibition in order to let the darkness take over. The act of stabbing Lily—or so she thinks, we later find out that she was hallucinating and actually stabbed herself—symbolizes the need for Nina to kill that part of herself in order to embody a darker persona.

In the final scene, as the white swan leaps to her death, Nina’s bloodstain from the stab wound grows, making this the fall to her actual death. In the closing shot, instead of a traditional fade to black, a blinding white light fills the screen as Nina utters her dying words of “finally feeling perfect”, which symbolizes her finally being set free from her misery, just like the white swan. 

Colour’s link with emotion can be wielded as a tool to make a film more profound, owing to the added layer of meaning that colour can impart to a scene. Once the significance of colour has been established in a film, it allows its viewers to make subconscious, emotional connections with its usage on the screen. Black Swan is a subjective character study, and the costumes, production design and Libatique’s mastery of light and shadows work together brilliantly to depict the tumultuous trajectory of an obsessed artist who is willing to go as far as it takes to achieve perfection.

Nidhi Munot is a second-year Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

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

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Issue 8

Racy Raj Tales: Miscegenation in British India

Despite all romantic notions about love and desire, the choice of a sexual partner has seldom remained just a matter of mutual agreement between two partners. Governments and regimes have, through different time-periods, attempted to control, and channelize people’s sexualities, in the name of ‘social order’. Relationships that do not subscribe to the cultural codes of behaviour, and threaten the patrilineal descent of the race or community, are regarded as aberrations. Such relations do not receive social sanction, as they challenge socially constructed rules, and are thereby labelled as forbidden or ‘illicit’. 

The British Raj in India witnessed several such ‘forbidden liaisons’. The British East Indian Company was particularly preoccupied with the issues of love, sex, and marriage with regard to the sexual health of the sahibs and memsahibs, because of various ‘risks’ that were associated with uncontrolled space of the ‘exotic east’. Victorian codes of conduct were directly antithetical to the unrestricted native morality, and the Indian society was understood to have a more relaxed notion of bodily shame (reflected in the traditional gossamer cotton clothing that barely seemed to cover their bodies), which the British believed indicated at the absence of moral order. According to them, this could lead to the breakdown of the British society stationed in India by encouraging similar patterns of behaviour amongst the sahibs and memsahibs. Moreover, the tropical climate could lead to moral laxity, and ultimately jeopardise the imperial enterprise.  

Before the arrival of the memsahibs in the nineteenth century, the ICS officers of the Company married catholic women of the Portuguese descent. The sahibs also kept bibis, and maintained zenanas, which was far more economical than taking on the expenses of maintaining a European wife. Such arrangements could end if the officer left a particular regiment. If there were children, the sahib was not bound to provide for them. However, even though such alliances were not binding because they were interracial in nature, they had the same status as that of a legally formalised matrimony. Moreover, Bibis were not simply for utilitarian purposes, and the officers often praised the tender and loyal bibis they consorted with. Moreover, such forms of cohabitations were not known as ‘forbidden liaisons’ until the nineteenth century, when they became stigmatised due to the increasing concerns over miscegenation in the Raj. 

Sexual practices in the Raj were quite lenient up until the rise of venereal disease outbreaks amongst British officers, after which the Company was forced to amend the rules regarding sexual health of the white officers. Prostitution was widespread at the time, and while the Company understood the importance of brothels for maintaining order amongst the often-lonely ranks of sahibs, they understood the need to curb infections. Brothel houses came to be closely monitored and regulated to prevent diseases, as the idea of contagion came to be linked with anything related to the ‘Other’, or native. Prostitution was not banned because an active sexual life could ensure the physical robustness of the sahibs and prevent pent up desires and frustrations that could possibly result in under-productiveness. Regiments even had European madams manage brothel houses for their officers. With the nineteenth century, when batches of young women called the ‘fishing fleet’ came in looking for husbands in the Raj, interracial couplings gradually became condemnable, as the Company wanted to prevent the dilution of the white race in India. 

Due to the expansionist nature of the empire, British women’s sexuality was closely governed. Memsahibs were understood to be vulnerable in the native space, due to their susceptibility to tropical illnesses, and due to the added fear of sexual violation. Racist stereotypes surrounding the native man’s carnality buttressed such suspicions, especially in light of the accounts of abuse and violence against British women during the revolt of 1857. Recent feminist historiography has revealed that such rumours stemmed from biases and prejudices rather than actual realities, and were meant to perpetuate the fear of the ‘Other’ among the British officers/community/etc. in India. However, such notions served to deepen the prejudice against interracial marriages. The issue of miscegenation deeply concerned the British administration also because the children of mixed couplings came to be tabooed. The presence of the Anglo-Indian race was a rude reminder of the racial crossings, and the resultant dilution of the white race in India. 

Nonetheless, a number of interracial relationships were borne out of the Raj. Not only did sahibs have children with native women, there are several cases of European women falling in love with and marrying Indian men. Unlike popular perception, the men who courted and wed white women were not licentious natives who fetishized white skin, but devoted husbands who deeply cared for the women they married. Some of the stories of such unlikely matches are extremely tender and romantic, and allow us an insight into fulfilling mixed unions that dispel stereotypes. Yet, the postcolonial imagination continues to fetishize such relationships. A good example is Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard. 

It must be said that during the colonial period, the so-called ‘transgressive’ marriages and subversive liaisons occurred despite the political and social repercussions. Such instances become testament to the fragility of social conventions and orthodox belief systems that attempt to negate sexual agency of the people. While it is difficult to draw direct parallels between the ‘forbidden liaisons’ of the Raj, and what constitutes as forbidden today, in the current political climate, it is not altogether impossible to locate similarity in the regimentalisation of love and desire in contemporary times. The idea of ‘forbidden’ remains rooted in the social divisions, be it class, caste, race, cultures, etc. and relationships that attempt to transcend these boundaries automatically are labelled as taboo or criminal. Interracial marriages during the Raj provoked as much backlash as inter-caste and interfaith marriages do today. 

Indeed, governments since time immemorial have attempted to curtail sexual and romantic desires, to maintain ‘social order’. However, history and literature demonstrate the sheer subversive quality of love as transgressive amours not only take place in spite of societal and political restrictions, but also are also consistently idealised and romanticised. The ultimate ineffectuality of the State or governments in the matters of the heart and soul can serve as a heady reminder of the potency of love and desire across time and culture.

Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at University of Delhi. She is currently a doctoral candidate with Jamia Millia Islamia, and wrote her thesis on postcolonial representations of memsahibs in Indian literature. Her book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, was published by Simon & Schuster India, in March 2020.

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Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

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Issue 8

Wages for Housework: Giving Wives Their Due?

What do Kamal Haasan, Charlize Theron and Julianne Moore have in common? One proposes salary for housewives in India and the other two support a Marshall Plan for Moms in the US. Very similar ideas, prima facie laudable and progressive.

First of all, in India, several women who get counted as “not working” actually contribute substantially to household economic activities (farming, livestock, kirana shops, workshops etc): work that is unrecognized and unpaid. For this work, women need to be recognized legitimately as workers. They need to be seen as equal partners whose labour allows the household to earn a livelihood. 

Turning to domestic chores, everywhere in the world, the burden falls disproportionately on women, regardless of whether they are “housewives” or not. The enormous weight of endless and repetitive housework leads women to either drop out of paid employment altogether (or temporarily), or to seek part-time work. Women who manage to re-enter paid employment after a childcare break typically enter as juniors of, and earn less than, men comparable to them in age, education and qualifications. In other words, collectively as a society we want children, for which mothers pay a penalty, but not fathers.  

Feminists have highlighted the sexual division of “reproductive labour”, where women disproportionately bear the load of domestic chores, care and nurturing responsibilities, which eases male participation in “productive labour” and allows the productive economy to continue running smoothly. A typical picture of a standard early 20th century family, where the man is the breadwinner and the woman the housekeeper and caregiver. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened this divide: women did more housework than men before the pandemic; they do even more now. Even though the sheer volume of this work is enormous, it is undervalued, invisible and completely taken for granted. Globally, the monetary value of this work (calculated at minimum wage) is estimated to be USD 10.9 trillion

Then what is wrong with explicitly recognizing this and paying women for their massive contribution to the household? The short answer is: everything

The salary-for-housewives proposal takes the “male breadwinner” heteronormative family structure as a given. It completely solidifies the boundaries and divisions that have kept women in the kitchen and/or taking care of the kids, and/or caring for the elderly, and/or maintaining the house, and/or be responsible for nurture of family members. 

Over the last 70 years, all over the world, these boundaries have gradually begun to blur as the movement towards greater sharing of the reproductive labour has gained momentum and voice. While the division is far from fair or equal anywhere in the world, there are green shoots of gender equality that, until Covid-19 hit, were gaining strength, albeit not fast enough. 

Covid-19 hit and those lucky enough to have jobs to work from home found themselves stuck with demands of both domestic work and their paid jobs. The immense pressure of childcare and home schooling has led to women dropping out of the workforce in greater numbers than men.

The gender gap in paid employment has markedly worsened due to the pandemic. To fix this, women need enabling conditions to get back to work. Instead, the pay-the-moms/wives proposal is arguing for the exact opposite. It has nothing to say about sharing the load. 

South Asia in general, India and Pakistan in particular, have among the most unequal division of domestic chores, where women spend as much as 10 times more hours compared to men. In India, this is the key social norm that hinders women’s participation in the labour force. The lack of economic independence also lowers women’s position within the household in terms of decision making and mobility. Often even women who work outside and earn a salary have limited control over their hard-earned money.

In this scenario, what would payment to women – most likely controlled by the husband — for domestic chores result in? Greater respect? More equality? Greater decision-making abilities? Higher mobility? More control over their own lives and choices? 

None of the above. 

It would result in greater dependence, reduced status, enhanced burden, with a shift to paid employment even more difficult than earlier. We can only imagine how many Indian families might sack their domestic maids and nannies if they had to pay their wives for the same work. (PS: How would this work in families with same-sex couples?)

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that women’s unpaid reproductive labour is the biggest social safety net that allows the wheels of the paid economy to continue moving. This work has to be shared equally within the household, instead of pushing women back into the 1950s-style traditional stereotypes. 

Since the suggestion is about valuing women’s work in India, a good starting point would be to explicitly recognize their contribution to household enterprises as workers, on the same footing as the men, and share the earnings from the household enterprise fairly. 

And stop thinking of domestic chores as women’s work. 

Ashwini Deshpande is an Indian economist who specially works with topics concerning poverty, inequality, regional disparities and gender discrimination. She is currently an Economics professor at Ashoka University.

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Issue 8

Budget 2021 and Fiscal Deficit: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for Financial Year 2021-22 on 1st of February 2021. Announcements regarding privatization and asset monetization attracted attention while the accounting treatment of fiscal deficit raised eyebrows even as it found approval from experts.

Fiscal deficit is the difference between the government’s total income and total expenditure. More accurately, fiscal deficit occurs when the government’s expenditure exceeds its income. In the Revised Estimates for FY 2020-21, the headline fiscal deficit number was announced as 9.5 percent of GDP. In the previous budget (for FY 2020-21), the fiscal deficit was targeted at 3.5 percent. This steep revision in fiscal deficit estimates for the current financial year (2020-21) as one of the highlights of the Budget. If we take a closer look at fiscal deficit revision and the path the government wants to take in the future, we find three important points to underline.

The Good

The Revised Estimate for fiscal deficit for 2020-21 actually found approval from experts. Why was it so? This was because of the FM’s announcement regarding how food subsidies are accounted for. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) procures wheat and rice from farmers at Minimum Support Price (MSP) and then sells them at a loss through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The loss that the FCI suffers is on account of the food subsidy that the government provides. Ideally, the Union government is required to allocate funds for this shortfall in the budget, but this was not the case so far. For example, while the FCI suffered losses of over Rs 3 lakh crore in 2019-20, the budget only allocated Rs 75,000 cr. The FCI was forced to borrow the difference from other sources like the National Small Savings Fund. This helped the government exclude the actual food subsidy numbers from its accounts and this shored up the fiscal deficit number. However, the problem was that this made the fiscal deficit numbers suspect. With the announcement this year, the FM has made budgetary provisions for payments to FCI for this financial year on account of food subsidy. In return, the actual subsidy numbers are now reflected in the accounts and this is one of the reasons (but hardly the only reason) for the sharp jump in fiscal deficit for 2020-21 in Revised Estimate. This transparency in accounting is a refreshing change and can be called a good thing in Budget 2021.

The Bad

The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM Act), 2003 was introduced to bring transparency and discipline to India’s fiscal policy. The Act stipulated that the Union government will reduce its fiscal deficit to 3 percent of GDP by the end of FY2020-21. Abiding by FRBM rules that have helped the governments over the years burnish their credibility among rating agencies. FRBM Act also provided the government exemptions on account of national security, calamity, etc. While announcing the Union Budget for 2020-21, the FM had invoked one of the clauses in FRBM Act to raise the fiscal deficit target for 2020-21 by 0.5 percentage points to 3.5 percent of GDP. This has now been revised to 9.5% in RE 2020-21. As pointed out by Vivek Kaul, the fiscal deficit as a percentage of government expenditure will be at 53.6% in 2020-21. The budgetary provisions for payments to FCI explain only a part of this sharp jump in fiscal deficit in this financial year. The other reasons are a shortfall in tax collection, much lower than expected receipts from disinvestment, and a shortfall in non-tax revenue. While the transparency in budgetary accounting is good, it does not hide the fact that the fiscal deficit is way above the FRBM target.

The Ugly

The FRBM Act, 2003 did not just have a fiscal deficit as its target. One of the foremost targets of the Act was the reduction and eventual elimination of the revenue deficit. This meant that the 3% target for fiscal deficit would be used to fund capital expenditure only. Revenue deficit is when the government’s total revenue expenditure exceeds its total revenue receipts. Expenditure incurred on payments of salaries, pensions etc. is classified as revenue expenditure while expenditure on building assets like roads, waterways, rail lines, factories, etc. is classified as capital expenditure. 
FRBM Act sought to eliminate revenue deficit so that any deficit would be on account of capital expenditure only. This is because capital expenditure has a 2.5 multiplier effect on the economy while the multiplier effect for revenue expenditure is only 1 (Sukanya Bose and N.R.Bhanumurthy – NIPFP). FRBM Act thus encourages the government to switch from revenue expenditure to capital expenditure. In 2018, the government stopped targeting revenue deficit. Instead of eliminating revenue deficit, the government squeezed capital expenditure to meet the fiscal deficit targets. For example, in BE 2020-21, the Union government’s capital expenditure for FY2020-21 was Rs 4,12,085 crore (Gross Budgetary Support) while the in RE 2020-21, this figure has actually gone up to Rs 4,39,163 crore (Budget at a Glance, Page 8). In RE 2020-21, the revenue deficit is projected to climb to 7.5%. For FY 2021-22 (according to Budget Estimates 2021-22), capital expenditure (Gross Budgetary Support) is projected to increase by 26.2%.

Source: Union Budget 2021

This squeeze on capital expenditure while not targeting revenue deficit as laid down in the FRBM Act is the ugly part of how fiscal deficit numbers have played out over the last few years.

To be fair, the government has increased the budgetary support for capital expenditure for FY21-22 to Rs 5,54,236 crore (BE 2021-22). This would take total capital expenditure for 2021-22 to Rs 11,37,067 crore. To put things in perspective, the revenue deficit estimate (BE 2021-22) is Rs 11,40,576 crore and this situation can hardly be called comforting.

Ankur Bhardwaj is Editor, Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA.) Previously, he was Associate Editor – Web at Business Standard.

Picture Credits: Canva

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Issue 8

(Mis)leading Spotify Chart Toppers: What is India listening to?

A quick glance through Spotify India’s charts will leave you surprised. India’s Top 50, a compilation by Spotify based on the most streamed songs of the previous week features homegrown independent artists, global pop stars and Bollywood artists. “Brown Munde”, a Punjabi song by AP Dhillon, has been a chart topper for nearly three months now. Alongside homegrown artist AP Dhillon is The Weeknd, an American pop artist who is currently #1 in the world based on the number of monthly Spotify listeners, and Bollywood playback singer Arijit Singh. But is this what India is listening to?

What’s surprising is that regional, independent artists like AP Dhillon are finding their place amongst global chart toppers on Spotify even though their exposure and reach do not usually match that of American pop artists or Bollywood singers. Spotify’s editorial playlists which are curated by music experts and genre specialists around the globe provide independent artists a chance to pitch their music to Spotify directly, giving music producers like AP Dhillon a fighting chance against the dominance of Bollywood or globally popular music. The chance to pitch music to Spotify Playlist Editors coupled with Spotify’s algorithms, which assess a listener’s taste and preferences to recommend AI generated playlists to them, gives independent artists a chance to feature in these recommendations. So it would not be surprising to see upcoming RnB/Trap artists like AP Dhillon in a recommended playlist with global sensations like Drake, Post Malone and The Weeknd because of the similarity in genre.

However, Spotify’s algorithmic mechanisms tend to create a deluding image of what is actually trending on the ground. According to a report on Spotify usage by LiveMint, 25-55 year olds in Gujarat are only listening to Bollywood Music, but users in Goa across ages only listen to international music. On Spotify India’s charts, these varying tastes and preferences get compiled into a single playlist, without accounting for regional outliers like Goa and Gujarat. At this point, it is important to examine the role of Spotify’s algorithm, called BART (Bandits for Recommendations as Treatments). 

 BART first analyses the language, lyrics and content of the song that listeners are tuning into. In the second stage, it detects the “vibe” or “mood” of a song and decides whether it’s upbeat, chill, heavy, minimal, instrumental, and so on as part of a mechanism to recommend new music that is similar to the listener’s tastes and preferences. Based on these results, Spotify’s AI technology will curate a playlist for listeners on a daily basis called “Daily Mix”. These algorithms have the power to create a listener’s own musical universe that is solely based on the user’s taste and preferences in music as detected by a software. For instance, if a listener shows interest in Bollywood singer Arijit Singh, then Spotify will recommend artists like Atif Aslam and Armaan Malik in the listener’s daily mix. Which is why unlike other popular Indian streaming platform charts like Gaana and JioSaavn, Spotify India charts tend to be a misleading assortment of musical choices, which are largely influenced by Spotify algorithms. Unless a listener is curating their own playlists without relying on Spotify’s recommendations, there is a low chance that listeners will move out of this musical bubble that they have been pushed into by Spotify.

External factors like Spotify’s market share in India and how listeners in India access their music are also crucial in determining whether we can rely on Spotify India charts to reflect what India is listening to. In the period between 2014-2020, India saw a massive drop in data prices from 270 INR to 11 INR, paving way for India’s digital revolution. Global service providers like Spotify, Amazon Music and YouTube Music have used this opportunity to penetrate the music streaming markets in India which were previously being dominated by Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music. According to a report by INC42, as of September 2020, Spotify had amassed 42.1 million Monthly Active Users (MAU), overtaking Gaana which had 41.1m MAU. JioSaavn with 44.9m MAU was the market leader, followed by Wynk Music at 43.1m MAU. All these streaming platforms curate charts of their own, but they never seem to match. “Brown Munde” does not find itself on Gaana’s “Top Trending Hits”, or on JioSaavn’s “Trending Today” playlist. Even global hit songs like “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd and “Senorita” by Shawn Mendes, which featured on “Spotify India Top 50”, don’t make an appearance on Gaana or JioSaavn’s chart toppers. Bollywood and regional film music are much more prominent on Gaana, JioSaavn and Wynk Music charts in comparison to Spotify. This indicates that consumers remain largely divided on which streaming platforms they prefer, based on the music they prefer to listen to. Most listeners who prefer Bollywood music, are more likely to use Gaana and JioSaavn, and the reasons for this could be multiple. For instance, these platforms might offer a better collection of Bollywood music as opposed to competitors, or the price of these platforms could influence consumer preferences as well. Spotify, being a new entrant, might not have penetrated the market to its full potential, or users who have been long time users of other apps prefer familiarity as all streaming platforms have different user interfaces which are hard to get accustomed to at first. 

It would be wrong to assume that Spotify’s charts are an accurate representation of what India is listening to. While this might be true to Spotify, the music streaming market in India is still growing and largely nuanced in terms of consumption. Spotify however is a special case that still needs examination because it is run by algorithms which are much more advanced than other streaming platforms. This is simply because the app recommends music based on multiple factors through BART, a luxury that is uncommon amongst other platforms. At this point of time, it can be speculated that different factors affect the way in which songs place themselves in the charts across platforms. In the future, even when all these streaming platforms reach complete market potential, Spotify India charts are still likely to differ in their charts from other service providers. For this, only the algorithm can be blamed.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

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