Categories
Issue 9

WhatsApp With India’s Travel Plan?


Share the pain

April 1 2020. Within days of India’s first national lockdown, my WhatsApp pinged an ‘RT Action Group’ invite. 

Soity Banerjee, travel journalist and long term lead at Outlook India’s Responsible Tourism Initiative, quickly brought together a pan-India group of hundred members on Whatsapp.  Most were tour operators, running or selling a multi-terrain niche travel business in India, with some attention to responsible travel. A few other invitees were from sectors travel people work with such as craft, heritage, artist collectives, social media influencers, conservation specialists and rural NGOs. Many were e-meeting each other for the first time. The Whatsapp group call was to, “please share any good ideas being tested to help small travel businesses and individuals: for the protection of communities & for the future (when the travellers come back and they will!).”

 After a pandemic announcement that made human touch life-threateningly infectious, this call tried to put a human touch back into this community – one that was not new to handling delays or crises with a smile. This time though, the travel vehicle had braked the hardest, with an all India STOP sign staring it in the face. 

Posts across April on the group tried to reverse that car in spirit, in two ways. All useful media links that eased our uncertainty were shared immediately. I tuned in, perhaps for the first time, to the immediacy of the business side of travel – stranded visitors were trying to head home through cancelled flights, inter-state borders, airports and trains were shutting overnight, varying quarantine and international travel advisories were being meted out. Whether you were a hotel in a mountain valley or a rural retreat, expenses had been hit hard and a hibernation mode had only just begun.

The group shared information from as far as Costa Rica, on how a particular Responsible Tourism initiative put out timely FAQs, using prepaid reservations to pay staff salaries in the short term and let the travellers who had paid know about it. Without displaying any panic, posts on the group also conveyed the stark scale of human and material resource crunch in their own region, both rural and urban.

Secondly, the group displayed an ‘all hands on deck’ energy to aid the people that travellers and tourists meet, but often forget. Singers, artists, camp hands, drivers, cooks, front desk managers, tour escorts were all people currently out of work. The response of the group was specifically to laud and encourage field effort and support them in their time of financial need. 

In the national capital, alongside several initiatives, the team running the popular Café Lota New Delhi ran a free community kitchen for migrants trying to leave Delhi and Gurgaon. On her Instagram, travel influencers like Lakshmi Sharath forefronted ten calls of help, every day. These initiatives were both spontaneous and coordinated, often which ordinary citizens could contribute to.

Building on the NGO Anahad Foundation’s idea to pay 300 statewide rural folk artists for daily live performances on YouTube, the Rajasthan state government started a similar scheme for artistes to upload phone performances from home and earn a one-time Rs 2500 grant.

Within days, Soity led her team in circulating an RT Covid 19 Action Plan document with immediate relief measures, travel-related initiatives and future plans, including perspectives on what post-Corona travel might look like. By now, hotel chains too had begun sharing CoVid 19 protocols and practices.

India’s Ministry of Tourism, in a reply to a Lok Sabha question, confirmed only in December 2020 that foreign tourist arrivals were down 97% from April to December 2020, compared to 2019. But within the first few days of April, the Responsible Tourism community grasped the toll this absence would take and stepped up to support the vulnerable through April itself. 

Adapt and act?

Could a scramble for survival lay the ground for another model of tourism to thrive?

 By May 1, posts began wondering aloud.  Would a tourist now fearful of human contact choose to detour to uncongested spaces? The viral success of Facebook groups like View from my window was reflecting a worldwide human longing to turn to an uncongested view, if not towards nature itself. Webinar meetups with community members from Ladakh to Lakshadweep spoke honestly of rethinking resilience. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum Forecast was beeping, ‘it could take 10 months for the industry to recover’.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, primed with promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, circulated a document Supporting jobs and economies through Covid 19. A World Bank blog post pointed indirectly to the outer circle of managed nature tourism when it suggested, ‘Restoring degraded forestlands and landscapes could create many jobs over the short term while also generating net benefits worth hundreds of billions of dollars from watershed protection, better crop yields, and forest products. In Ethiopia, for instance, the Humbo Assisted Natural Regeneration Project increased local incomes and helped restore 2,700 hectares of biodiverse native forest, boosting carbon sequestration benefits. More tree cover also reduced local drought vulnerability.’

Despite no ‘industry package’ by the Central Government for the travel sector, by mid-September, this RT Action Group had completed a feedback loop and submitted a recommendation to the Ministry of Tourism on its draft National Tourism Policy 2020. By New Year 2020, there was an uptick in self-driven holiday numbers, and for the first time the all India Stop signal was perhaps now on yellow. But was there any evidence that an Indian tourist, fresh from worry and work from home, had hit pause on older ways of travel?

P.S. It will be a year soon since this WhatsApp group came to be. I now habitually check its notification pings. As a media academic, I marvel at how fake-news-free a WhatsApp group can be. When I think of this year I think of the time when nature’s breathing space for species other than humans became too visible, the ongoing loss of human life became too acute, and the claustrophobia of the home-stuck too real. In these times one is reminded not of luxury travel, but of the fact that travel itself has been an unexamined luxury. And now to travel responsibly – luxury or not?

Tisha Srivastav teaches media studies 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).

Categories
Issue 9

Ancient Pandemic, Modern Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Credits: Eye Ubiquitous—Getty Images

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

Categories
Issue 9

Where Fashion Trends Come from and Why You Should Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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