Has the Indian Street Culture Met its End?
I look down the long stretch of the street and this is what I see.
A tea and pan stall stands surrounded by men, smoking and speaking animatedly. A walk past them and for one moment, the passerby is privy to the political argument taking place amongst them. Women in sarees sit in a group, watching the life that unfolds before them. A passerby here is treated to a second of their gossip, the kind that only their observant eyes can pick up. There are street vendors along the length of the stretch, declaring the worth of their goods at the top of their voice.
The street sits alive from the crack of dawn, layered by a multitude of people. Constructed as a body to be fully occupied, the street is the first space every pair of feet headed to from home.
I blink out of my imagination and take in what the streets actually look like now.
A targeted advertisement plays for 20 seconds before a music video while the street ahead sits as a blurry background. A finger scrolls down a colorful Instagram feed and pauses at a celebrity performing her morning workout routine. Another post sits right below of a public figure voicing their opinion on the latest government undertaking. One IGTV video later, I had passed through the street.
In the urban cities of today that boast of skyscrapers and modernity stuffed into every inch, the streets have lost what they used to be. I look at the street constructed years before I was born and for a moment, I am convinced that the dust on the side of the streets is a fragment of the history we have abandoned. The streets aren’t relics; they continue to be thronged by people, but often only as a means to get somewhere else.
It used to be that anybody could walk in and claim a spot of their own in the long stretch. For a species drawn to connection, the accessibility of the streets was magnetic. However, the digital era swooped in and displaced the culture right out of the streets and into our screens. The digital medium isn’t just accessible, it is immediate and universal. I know much beyond the news and gossip from my local circle. I can participate in discussions halfway across the world.
In January 2021, there were 448 million social media users in India. The streets that once thrived, have lost their participants. While I can see how the streets have been affected, how has this loss changed us?
When I now exit my home, my phone, charger, and earphones are necessary accompaniments. I walk out and I no longer engage with my physical environment. When I look up from my phone and at the strangers milling about, I see other faces similarly lit up by digital devices. I can barely hear the sounds of the street; it is blocked out with my chosen playlist.
I walk down the Bandstand promenade and I’m treated to the familiar sight of a crowd outside Shahrukh Khan’s house. Mannat is a home, not a cultural landmark or tourist attraction. And yet it represents just that for many of us. We have been invited so intimately into the virtual lives of public figures, that their personal lives are linked to our own. This needn’t have been a bad thing but it appears that the consistent interaction has caused us to dehumanize them and in turn, ourselves.
I can be whoever I want to be on the internet. This anonymity that the internet provides sees many of us living vicariously through our distinct, digital personas. While the streets allowed us to be our most human, the digital street turns us into faces and fingers dependent on screens.
As we fully occupy the digital world, I wonder- can the streets be revived to what they once used to be? I look up from my phone where I write this thought to see a crowd at a public charging point near the end of the street, faces turned to their phones. Down the middle of the street, I see a foreigner stop to take pictures of an old tea and pan stall. It is with a start that the realization comes to me; the streets are mere roads. It is we who have the responsibility to keep them alive.