Sarai (www.sarai.net), a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi initiated in 2000, encompasses an inter-disciplinary research programme, a platform for critical reflection, a screening space, a convivial context for online and offline conversations and a media lab.
Sarai (the space and the programme) takes its name from the ‘caravan-sarais’ for which medieval Delhi was well known. These were places where travelers could find shelter, sustenance, and companionship; places to rest in the middle of a journey.
The Sarai initiative interprets this sense of the word ”sarai” to mean a very public space, where different intellectual, creative, and activist energies can intersect in an open and dynamic manner.
Our effort at Sarai in these past five years, since we began is to create an ongoing context for intellectual and critical engagement with the contemporary urban moment in South Asia. This necessarily includes an investment in thinking about, researching and actively practising e-Culture.
e-Culture has been seen as the “integration of information and communication technologies into the primary processes of production, presentation, preservation and (re) utilisation of cultural expression”. (From ICT to e-Culture: Advisory Report on the Digitalisation of Culture and the Implications for Cultural Policy, Netherlands Council for Culture, The Hague, August 2004)
Since, the middle of the 19th century the cities of South Asia set up social laboratories for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Here, we mean ICT to be the technological means, which facilitate information exchange and dispersal – a domain much wider than a mere clubbing together of computers and other digital media. New mechanical printing technologies, photography, cinema, and the parallel histories of telegraphy and the radio, and later, television – all of these ‘technocultures’ created new forms of communication.
Consequently, urban spaces in India have for long been spaces of high information density.
At Sarai, other than an investment in researching and reflecting on informal and improvisational e-Culture, we are also deeply investing in FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) initiatives. Sarai has an active and ongoing FLOSS research programme that is interested above all in localisation, pedagogy and crticial social usage of FLOSS products and processes. (http://www.sarai.net/freesoftware/freesoftware.net)
When we founded Sarai, the challenge before us was to cohere a philosophy where research and media practice could flow into each other. We were interested in the way in which we could see the urban space we were located in, begin to reveal itself to us as a dense communicative network. As a matrix (as crowded as the streets of the old quarters of our city) within which, new and old technologies and practices of communication, ranging from print to photography to film and the Internet were able to constantly renew a dynamic media ecology.
This imperative to understand contested meanings and transmission within the spaces opened out by e-Culture has taken several inter-related forms. It has first of all, taken the shape of an intensive research project called ‘Publics and Practices in the History of the Present’ (PPHP) which studies how different media spaces, networks and markets (cinema, cable, telephony, assembled computers and informal software markets) mark and shape the urban fabric. (http://www.sarai.net/citylives/citylives. htm and www.sarai.net/mediacity/mediacity/htm)
Further, since 2001, it supported more than a hundred independent research and practice projects proposed by artists, media practitioners, researchers and academia from all over India. These have included support for India’s first published graphic novel, an audio-novella about growing up in depressed industrial suburbs, a cluster of new media art projects, oral histories of popular music, reflections on the public life of cities besieged by violence and research into the histories of free software, radio, early cinema, popular music, photography, printmaking. (http://www.sarai.net/community/fellow.htm)
We have also invested greatly in creating resources to enable a vibrant digital culture in Hindi and other Indian languages. This has meant not only content generation, but also working on creating open source support structures for the localisation of desktops and support to the creation of fonts and keymaps for Indian languages. (http://www.sarai.net/language/language.htm)
All of these activities take place within the framework of an express commitment to enrich the public domain, and contributing to the ‘commons’ of contemporary intellectual and cultural life. The research projects feed into an evolving archiving impetus, and the reflective energies are channeled into a series of regular and occasional publications in English and Hindi. These include the Sarai Reader Series, which by now have acquired an international reputation for their foregrounding of key debates and discussions on themes such as – ‘The Public Domain’, ‘The Cities of Everyday Life’, ‘Shaping Technologies’ and ‘Crisis/Media’, by a large body of international scholars and writers. These publications, which are produced and designed inhouse at the Sarai Media Lab, are all available for free access and download from the Sarai website. (http://www.sarai.net/journal/journal.htm)
The discursive field around Sarai also includes a family of lists, including the Reader List and the Commons Law List, which are vibrant communities of discussion and debate. (http://www.sarai.net/community/lists_info.htm)
The research processes, reflections and investigations into contemporary realities animated by Sarai are complemented and echoed by a series of community based interventions and creative processes. An instance of this resonance is the Cybermohalla Project. This project generates a long term creative and interpretative context for digital reflection on the urban condition through a sustained engagement with working class young people associated with media labs seeded by us in collaboration with an NGO, Ankur. The labs are equipped with free software enabled computers and situated in underserved areas of Delhi.
The practitioners associated with the Cybermohalla (Cyber-Neighbourhood) project – many of whom are school dropouts, some of them work in factories, and all live in conflict ridden, tough neighbourhoods – create digital works, animations and installation, write texts, publish wall magazines and edit books and maintain discussion lists and blogs – in partnership with practitioners and interlocutors in Sarai. This practice embodies the creation and sustenance of a specific form of self reflexive and highly articulate urban e-Cultural practice that the Sarai initiative has given rise to.
The expressions that have emerged from the Cybermohalla project as books, print objects, installations and performances are testaments to the creative vitality of a group of young people living in circumstances of extreme inequality and systematic violence.
Today, the Cybermohalla project is an inspiration for a growing number of groups and initiatives in different parts of the world working in media, information and communication technology projects within a social dimension. (http://www.sarai.net/cybermohalla/cybermohalla.htm)
An environment animated by the presence of e-Culture can find fruition through continuous public engagement. In the end, any form of cultural practice, be it analog or electronic, requires the rendition of ideas, interactions, discourses and processes into public forms. The Media Lab at Sarai is the conduit through which all the various processes at Sarai find public rendition. Here, a team of practitioners create new media works, design web and print content, produce installations, books, and CDs and animate the design/media processes of different Sarai projects. The Sarai Media Lab is a space that has enabled the production of works that have travelled to prestigious international contemporary art venues such as Documenta 11, the Walker Art Centre, the Generali Gallerty in Vienna, Ars Electronica in Linz, the Itau Cultural Centre in Brazil, and the Venice, Liverpool and Taipei Biennales. At the same time, the Sarai Media Lab remains attentive to the design of low cost such as stickers, posters, broadsheets, magazines and radio programmes that are situated in local and community contexts. It is also a site for experimental testing and research into usage conditions of various free and open source software dedicated to media and communications practice. (www.sarai.net/aboutus/spaces.htm )
Recently, the Sarai Media Lab produced ‘The Network of No_Des’ – an interpretative hypertext collage that grew out of collaborations between the practitioners of the Sarai Media Lab and the researchers of the PPHP project at Sarai. The Sarai Media Lab was awarded the UNESCO Digital Art Award for 2004. ( http://www.isea2004.net/mainframe.php?id=latestnews,)