The Sarai Programme at CSDS

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Sarai is a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. CSDS is an independent social science and humanities research centre, with traditions of dissent and a commitment to public intellectual commitment going back four decades.

History and mission[edit]

The Sarai Programme at CSDS was initiated in 2000 by a group consisting of the Ravi S. Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram (both fellows at CSDS) and the members of the Raqs Media Collective, a Delhi based group of media practitioners, documentarists, artists and writers. Sarai's mission is to act as a platform for discursive and creative collaboration between theorists, researchers, practitioners and artists actively engaged in reflecting on contemporary urban spaces and cultures in South Asia.

Sarai’s areas of interests include media research and theory, the urban experience in South Asia: history, environment, culture, architecture and politics, new and established media practices, media history, cinema, contemporary art, digital culture, the history and politics of technology, visual/technological cultures, free and open source software, social usage of software, the politics of information and communication, online communities and web-based practices.

What does Sarai mean?[edit]

Arab Sarai or Arab Rest House, near Humayun's tomb, Delhi

The word sarai, or caravansarai, common to many Central Asian and Indian languages, refers to the shelters for travellers, sometimes large and extravagant, often modest and improvised, that traditionally dotted the cities and highways of that part of the world, facilitating travel, pilgrimage, commerce and adventure but also enabling the creation of rich, hybrid languages and cultures and the exchange of stories, concepts and ideas across large distances.

The Sarai programme at CSDS quotes this history of exchange and intersecting journeys to function, variously, as a research centre focusing on urban space, media practices, the politics of information, contemporary culture and the knowledge commons as well as a publishing and translation programme, cafe, modest screening space and archive, a venue for workshops, meetings and conferences, software laboratory and as an atelier for contemporary and digital & art design. Sarai is striking for its networked structure and the innovative and diverse content that it produces. Sarai also functions, through its annual programme of independent and associate fellowships and student stipends as a support structure for many different kinds of independent research and creative activities all over India.

Sarai: activities and processes[edit]

Through its institutional partnerships, the research fellowships it provides each year, its residencies for visiting artists, researchers and programmers and many informal collaborations, Sarai has developed a large network that allows it to accumulate a range of knowledge and opinion from across the world and to make it available in many forms. Sarai is especially noteworthy for its support for a free and open source ethic (both in terms of culture generally, as well as in terms of software - as exemplified in projects such as Opus, Apna Opus and Newsrack. Sarai has contributed substantially to the localization of free software in Indian languages, and has worked actively on projects such as Bolnagri in collaboration with Indlinux. Sarai works bilingually, in English and Hindustani, and regularly produces books, including the critically acclaimed Sarai Reader series in English and the Deewan-e-Sarai and Media Nagar series in Hindi/Hindustani. Mailing lists hosted by Sarai, particularly the Reader List (in English) and the Deewan List (in Hindi/Hindustani) are very active spaces for debate, discussion and critical public discourse.

Networks and local presence[edit]

Sarai has collaborated on several processes with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore, Waag Society in Amsterdam, Institute for New Culture Technologies-t0 in Vienna, and has active links with organizations and initiatives in São Paulo, Beirut, Bandung, Mexico City, Kolkata and Mumbai. Sarai has also been featured, for instance, as a collaborator in Documenta 11 and the Documenta 12 Magazine Projects in Kassel, Germany. However, despite these links it remains strongly located and embedded in the city of Delhi, evoking, by its hospitality to dissent, debate and new ideas and practices, the history and culture of the many sarais that dotted medieval Delhi (and whose traces are still apparent in many place names in Delhi).

The Sarai programme's close relationship to the city is evident in the activities of its research clusters, which attend, in different ways, to the ongoing transformation of the urban fabric of Delhi, the everyday realities of media and information processes in the city and especially through the activities of the Cybermohalla project


"Cybermohalla" (literally, 'Cyber-Neighbourhood') refers to a network of media laboratories established by Sarai in working-class neighbourhoods of Delhi (in collaboration with 'Ankur' an NGO active in the field of alternative pedagogy). The young practitioners who are associated with the Cybermohalla process write, conduct oral history investigations, document neighbourhoods and lives with digital image and sound technologies and interpret the urban condition with imagination, humour and a sharp critical edge. The collaboration between people working at Sarai, Ankur and ensembles of young writers, artists and thinkers associated with the Cybermohalla processes have led to the production of an impressive array of books, exhibitions, installations and sound works.

The impact of Sarai[edit]

Sarai's Impact on the intellectual and creative scene, especially in India, has been both deep and sustained. Issues such as the 'Public Domain', Intellectual Property and its Critics', 'Technology and its Cultures', 'Politics of Information', 'Surveillance and Censorship' and the transformation of urban spaces, which were either marginal or low on the agenda of discourse in the intellectual milieu have become fairly significant as a result of work at Sarai. Sarai's commitment to FLOSS (free, libre and open source software) has led to a wider public acceptance of alternatives to rigid intellectual property as the only model for cultural production, at least in India.

A new interdisciplinary ethic of practice has become much more significant as a result of Sarai's activities. There has been a modest increase in the level of publicly available support for independent artistic and research projects through fellowships, as the Sarai fellowships model has found takers in the case of other initiatives and organizations working within the South Asian context. Further, the support extended by Sarai through fellowships, residencies to practitioners and the work of the Sarai Media Lab have both brought forth dividends in terms of an increased international visibility for contemporary art from South Asia, as well as the emergence (within the Indian context) of new forms such as the graphic novel, media installations, sound art, tactical media forms, and collaborations between artists, media practitioners and software programmers. Initial criticism of Sarai's activities focused on its attention towards technology and urban issues, which were considered by some to be too 'elitist' in a developing country like India. Over time, this has given way to a more balanced assessment of the Sarai programmes strengths and weaknesses.

Notes and references[edit]

  • Social Science Research Capacity in South Asia : A Report, vol . 6

Partha Chatterjee et al., Published by the Social Science Research Council, New York, 2002 as part of the "SSRC Working paper series" on 'Building Intellectual Capacity for the 21st Century'.[1]

  • A new Sarai: New Media in Delhi, by Amanda McDonald Crowley in Real Time Arts.[2]
  • Nina Czegledy, director, Inter Society for the Electronic Arts 2002, Report on Sarai - in the Journal Year 2001.[3]
  • Lev Manovich, in a review of OPUS, produced at the Sarai Media Lab in "Welcome to the Multiplex", posted on Nettime, July 1, 2002.[4]
  • Blurb on Sarai Website in the Website of the Asia Society.[5]
  • Article on Sarai in I4D Journal.[6]
  • Digital Delhi (A Profile of Sarai) By Geert Lovink. Doors of Perception.Com.[7]
  • Sarai- A new Media Centre Opens in Delhi by Geert Lovink.[8]
  • A New Sarai: new media in Delhi by Amanda McDonald Crowley. Real Time Arts Magazine.[9]
  • Sarai: The New Media Initiative - A Personal Impression by Nina Czegledy.[10]
  • Sarai - One Year in the Public Domain by Monica Narula. Noema Arts.Com.[11]
  • Sarai: The New Media Initiative by Shuddhabrata Sengupta & Sarai Collective.[12]
  • Sarai - A Report. Mediachannel.Org.[13]
  • About Sarai - Context Weblog.[14]
  • About Sarai (Long Interview with Raqs Media Collective)[15]
  • Electronic Passage to India - A Profile of Sarai.[16]


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