Words: Nina Czegledy
Place: Sarai The New Media Initiative, Delhi
Time: February 23-25, 01
Image: Monica Narula
Website: www.sarai.net

Sarai The New Media Initiative, Delhi - a personal impression
Nina Czegledy

My journey to Sarai began in Toronto on the corner of Bloor and Yonge. While waiting for my tourist visa, I experienced more than a hint of all the colours, sounds, tumult and seeming pandemonium to be shortly encountered on another continent thousands of miles away. Nonetheless, the buzzing, contemporary, yet historically aware Sarai centre, situated in the vibrant chaos of Delhi, presented surprising revelations.

The word Sarai means a traveler's shelter, a place of refuge, a habitat in several Asian languages. The Sarai program intends to create such a reflective yet critical space for old and new media theorists, activists and practicioners. Sarai, India's first public access space in new media is an independent yet closely linked program of the well established (1964) Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi. CSDS generously provided space for Sarai in their building. A collaborative effort transformed this raw, ground floor space into a cool and tasteful setting for a public media lab, offices, library and a cafe. The lively cafe, -serving great cappuccinos-, was designed by a history professor from a nearby university and is operated by a youthful crew under his supervision. This cafe is a plain, non-technological but eminent example of the diverse collaborations at Sarai.

Sarai's new media initiative, true to its name, is focused on a public domain for media research and practice. The concept took shape in 1998 and the project was realized over the last two years by the nine "fellows" of the organization. Each and every member of Sarai merits a comprehensive introduction, alas this initiation as well as a detailed description of the important collaborations with international activists and media practitioners is beyond the scope of this short report. For interested parties, detailed information is available both on the Sarai website and in the Sarai Reader.

Most Sarai projects are deeply rooted in local culture and include: Ethnographies of the New Media; Mapping the City, Film and Consciousness; Language and the New Media: The Hindi Language Project and Social Justice and the City. Through its research program, Sarai intends to create a visual and aural archive of urban life - most of which will be accessible on-line. Sarai's Garage: Free Software Project is unique! Developed by the programming team (enthusiastic, very capable young hackers still in their teens) - Sarai utilizes GNU/Linux operating systems using a significant amount of open source software.

The Sarai Reader 01, an informative compilation of local and international texts, co-edited by Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Nerula, Shudhabrata Sengupta) together with Geert Lovink, was launched at the opening of the Center. "The Sarai Reader ... can be seen both as a navigation log of actual voyages and a map for possible journeys into a real and imagined territory that we provisionally called the "Public Domain" wrote Shuddha and Geert and concluded their introductory text with "Now we are an open space, eager for travelers. Welcome."

iThis welcoming spirit was evident throughout my Delhi days. The Sarai opening including the Public Domain conference, fully illustrated the interdisciplinary aims of the organization, bringing together scholars, activists, journalists, students, hackers, film theorists and the general public, to engage in lively debates including great food& drink filled breaks in the lovely garden. The plenary lectures such as "Lived City, Viewed City: Modern Delhi" by Narayani Gupta and 'The Cinematic Public" by Ravi Vasudevan were among my favorite local presentations. They provided invaluable insights into the distinct, richly textured Delhi culture. In addition, for three consecutive days we heard from a variety of speakers informative presentations on censorship, digital art practices, global media culture, software issues etc., International presenters came from Australia, Pakistan, Austria, UK, Canada and an especially large contingent from the Netherlands, representing the dedicated Dutch/Sarai collaborations.

The conference events filled our daily schedules, however a little time remained to wander among the narrow alleys lined by ancient buildings and gardens of old Delhi. A little time to sit and marvel at the ever changing crowds in the courtyard of the great mosque, to watch the spectacular wedding processions on the streets, eat great dinners together and most interestingly visit the electronic shops of the bazaar. This has to be seen to be believed. Active Surplus might be a Mecca for electronics aficionados in Toronto, but it surely pales in comparison with the thousands of incredible operators and amply stocked little shops in Delhi. The bazaar proved the words of the Sarai info sheet: "ground reality in India is that the vast majority of the urban population has access to new media space through small cable operators, hundreds of thousands of Public Call Offices, low cost popular music and videotapes, and inexpensive gray market computers."

The Sarai New Media Lab was established by funding support from the Daniel Langlois Foundation. In addition Sarai received a three year operational grant from the Economic and Cultural Development Fund of the Netherlands. A Waag/Sarai (Netherlands/India) project has been established and continues to thrive. The possibility of Canadian/Indian media artists exchanges, residencies as well as ISEA sponsored local events will be considered among future projects of Sarai.

The collective enthusiasm of the Sarai people has been a really great experience. They not only discuss outreach and interdisciplinary approaches, they really practice it. I feel truly honored by working with Sarai on their international advisory board and wish future success for this unique New Media Initiative.

Nina Czegledy 3.01