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The Culture of the Indian Street

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By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

In our concern for preservation of India’s cultural and national heritage we often tend to focus excessively on her arts and her crafts, her traditions of thought and her monuments. However, we often ignore some of India’s all too familiar cultural resources found in settings which do not fit our preconceived notions of high culture. The Indian street is one such feature of our everyday life whose cultural ambience is gradually undergoing change towards its decline. It is no exaggeration to remark that street culture is about to become an endangered resource.

Streets, and their culture, have been at the heart of public life in India since earliest times. We find street culture not on the great highways running through the country or on narrow lanes and byways in small towns but on intermediary spaces existing in the crowded urban and urbanizing settings of contemporary India. Since the highways are mostly dominated by the incessant movement of vehicles, big and small, they are no longer hospitable to negotiations of street culture. They are not marked by sufficient human interaction to meet the key requirement of street culture. In cities where urban housing is uncomfortably crowded and complex, and where the weather is never too cold, streets are where much of life is lived. It is the streets which intensify the cultural experience of urban life.

Yet the seeds of contemporary street cultures do lie in great thoroughfares of pre-modern India. The great highways of colonial India, such as the Grand Trunk Road, have always symbolized the romance of travel and adventure. They brought together travelers, officials of the state, brigands, itinerant pilgrims, and groups of men and women who would otherwise never encounter one another. Pilgrimage, of course, was one of the principal historical contexts for the emergence of the regional and national thoroughfares. It is in these settings that Indians, both wealthy and poor, are likely to have developed a taste for the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of places different from their own. It was in these small lanes that the commercial impulses of the wider world penetrated small markets, largely in the form of itinerant merchants, carrying fruits, vegetables, textiles, combs, bangles and prepared foods to householders in small urban neighborhoods and to villages. They also became sites for public festivities, both religious and secular.

Indian streets are a reminder that the sharp demarcation of the modernistic categories of public and private spheres is a recent addition to the Indian consciousness. The multifunctional structure of the street provides an admixture of overlapping spaces that merge public and private, work and leisure, and holy and profane activities. People use the streets in urban India for walking but they are also use these sites for numerous other activities such as working, cooking, talking, eating, sleeping, reading, for exchanging news, information and gossip. Barbers, ear-cleaners and fortune tellers conduct intimate transactions with their clientele on the street.

The street is above all a commercial space. The world of goods is a central part of the experience of street life. The billboard and flashing signs is an important device of capitalist economy in urban India, through which the icons and messages of consumerism are etched into the public imagination. The street is an emporium of commercial images and temptations, in which the causal stroller is exposed to the seductions of consumption.

The images of the billboards advertising latest lifestyle products and gadgets may be directed to the affluent, while the store fronts are targeted at the middle class, and the hawkers and vendors selling everything from food and ballpoint pens to aphrodisiacs and calendars target the working classes and the poor. Shops and their store fronts, especially in commercialized streets, dominate the texture of street culture, with their displays often spilling on to the pavements, pushing their way into the space of the street vendors and the roadside stroller. Shopping in these bazaar streets is a noisy affair, where the forces of supply and demand are couched in the human drama of bargaining, seducing, cheating and cajoling. But this should not suggest that Indian urban streets are simply marketplaces in disguise. For shoppers, and for many individuals who simply hang around, streets are also places for organized idleness. Hanging around can be a highly cultivated aspect of street culture, and here certain settings, such as the paan and cigarette shops, are key backdrops. While one stream of human activity is purposive, there is also an alternative stream of those who subvert the normative vision of ideal citizenry and are not driven by urgency, speed and order. Streets to them can provide leisure in the midst of all the hustle and bustle.

An essential ingredient that sustains street life is street food which provides much sustenance to India’s urban workforce. The corner food stalls or vendors operate on very low budget, without the encumbrances of a large staff, fancy equipment, or fussy clientele. They can therefore pass on benefits to their customers; all they have to assure is that they provide something that is cheap, tasty, and tempting. Cities are famous for their distinctive street foods. These foods may threaten the sensibilities of the upper or middle classes regarding hygiene and sanitation, but they constitute the key to the aroma and gastronomic delights of street culture. The street vendors are the vanguard of inter-regional culinary outreach and camaraderie. So we find the ubiquitous dosa in the north Indian cities and the Punjabi chhole bhature making inroads into the South.

Streets are also interesting auditory settings, in which popular songs emanating from various sound devices compete with the sounds of car engines and horns. The songs of street performers and the shouts of hawkers can be heard against a steady backdrop of human and vehicular noise. Yet for those who routinely navigate Indian streets, whether as consumers, as passerby or as businessmen, the noise of the street is not offending. These are the sounds of vitality, of spectacle and celebration of life.

Street dwellers who are often looked upon with irritation and contempt by civic authorities and by the affluent urban classes constitute the infrastructure of much that these dominant groups take for granted: the sweeping of public spaces, the provision of human services for the middle class and the working class, and the basic services rendered at the restaurants, stores and workshops whose existence is taken for granted by the affluent.

The sort of street culture that has been described above is not likely to last forever in India. As shopping becomes more ‘online,’ as entertainment moves from the street to indoors, as political pageants and speeches increasingly come through radio and TV, and as the middle class finds its pleasures increasingly ‘at home,’ street culture is likely to become steadily impoverished and less pluralistic. This process is part of the social and cultural changes occurring in contemporary India in the wake of modernization and the imperatives of globalization. The growth of glass and steel storefronts, the steady sharpening of the boundary between storefront and pavement, the decline in casual soliciting by shopkeepers of customers, the emergence of the air-conditioned shopping arcade, all diminish the commercial vitality of the public space of the street. The steady privatization and interiorization of entertainment is doing a good deal to impoverish the street as a setting for leisure since more spectacles are available on the television and in the virtual world of the cyberspace, the preferred haunt of those who are rich in technical resources and have the inclination for the indulgence.

The interiorization of key aspects of commerce, entertainment and family life in urban Indian also leads to making street a contested space especially during religious and political processions when the smallest provocation can ignite passions and sharpen community divisions. Streets then become the arena for lumpen violence. Though public violence in urban India can have many causes abdication of the social space by the genteel classes for the unruly is one of them. One of the messages of street violence is that we need to be cautious about putting our cultural life behind closed doors and moving ourselves into the gated settings of isolated enclaves (‘far from the Madding Crowd?’), for the streets may then become settings for public confrontation alone. We also need to ask ourselves how we are defining property and space so that scenes on the Indian street are increasingly turning violent.

Post – Covid we may witness significant changes in individual and social behavior. With ‘distancing’ becoming the norm, there may be conscious attempts to keep away from the crowds and in the process accentuate social hierarchies. However, the enforced disciplinary regime may not last for long so that, in not too distant future, people may still group together and recreate the carnivalesque spirit before it finally lapses into nostalgic imagination.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department
of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)