Made it to the front page of the Pune Mirror a few days ago! The article doesn’t really reflect much of what my dissertation explores, but I’m still very glad it happened 😀
Made it to the front page of the Pune Mirror a few days ago! The article doesn’t really reflect much of what my dissertation explores, but I’m still very glad it happened 😀
Pune, with a burgeoning population of over 3 million and Mumbai’s closest neighbouring metropolis, is home to an eclectic mix of people. Owing to a large number of higher education institutes that attract thousands of students from all over the nation as well as from abroad (The Hindu newspaper stated that around 40% of international students coming to India go to study in Pune), it has been christened “Oxford of the East” by many. Moreover, the International Osho Meditation Resort, the official Iyengar yoga institute, as well as the mushrooming of multinational IT and automobile industries have further added to the multicultural nature of Pune society, resulting in an array of intellectual and artistic tastes intermingling with the rich heritage of Marathi theatre, literature, dance and music present in the city. Consequently, the large population of young urban adults has created a big appetite for a vibrant nightlife; pubs, lounges and clubs, where they can drink, socialize and even enjoy some live music. The NH7 Weekender, India’s biggest independent music festival, established Pune as a stronghold for Independent music when it was launched in the city in 2010, and continues to draw more crowds with every passing year. The more regular demand for live music, however, is satiated for the most part by High Spirits Cafe.
With indie gigs taking place every Friday and Sunday, Khodu Irani, the young zealous owner of High Spirits, has successfully managed to establish a space conducive to the development and appreciation of both Indian and international Independent music. High Spirits prides itself in providing a platform for both established bands like Pentagram and Mumford and Sons), as well as new acts, such as Big City Harmonics, still in their growing stages. The rest of the week is packed with an itinerary of other events, which include “Baraoke”, or karaoke nights on Tuesdays and “Freakin’ Highlarious Nights” on Wednesdays, stand-upcomedy featuring mainly Indian but also some international comedians. On Thursdays you have both “The Local Scene”, Electronic music produced and played by local electronic artists in Pune, as well as “Bladderburst”, where, for a charge of Rs.500. you get five vodka shots and unlimited beers, but only until you go use the loo, or as High Spirits patrons put it, ‘your bladder bursts’. Saturday nights are retro music nights, and Sunday afternoons, apart from having a live gig, High Spirits has its “Legendary Cookout”, unlimited beer, sangria, and food for 850 rupees. This weekly itinerary, combined with its spacious and green outdoors space, as well as being located in the popular Koregaon Park area of Pune makes it an attractive choice for both college students as well as young working adults with a certain amount of disposable income looking either to simply unwind with a couple of beers or indulge in a heavy night of drinking and partying.
Despite High Spirits attracting hundreds of people every night of the week, the law in Pune isn’t conducive to promoting a vibrant nightlife.
“Most of the laws are problematic for me. Basically they’re ancient laws, they haven’t been changed since British times, and they just don’t work for us today.” – Khodu Irani, owner of High Spirits
Some of these include exorbitant taxes levied on live music venues, ranging anywhere from Rs.50,000 to Rs.2,50,000 (£496 to £2489) per month depending on their size, part of the Bombay Entertainment Duty Act of 1923, and another, under the Bombay Prohibition Act of 1949, which specifies that one must have a drinking permit for purchase, possession, transport, and even consumption of liquor, or face a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 and a possible jail term of up to five years, incidentally the same jail sentence as that of getting caught for molesting a child (Kilachand for Wall Street Journal, January 2012). The Maharashtra State Government has also amended old laws in recent years that add to the further stifling of nightlife: In 2011, as part of its ‘de-addiction policy’, it raised the legal drinking age for hard liquor in the state from 21 to 25, making it one of the highest legal drinking ages in the world (Times of India, June 2011). The legal age for consuming beer and wine was subsequently raised from 18 to 21. Raids are carried out frequently by police who slap charges of overcrowding, selling liquor to minors and other illegal acts on venues, causing their owners to be extra cautious when it comes to having the right permits etc. Assistant Commissioner of Police, Vasant Dhoble, nicknamed the ‘Taliban Cop’ by many, went on a raid rampage in Mumbai in 2012, raiding establishments from discotheques, pubs, restaurants, and even juice centers, citing ancient laws that still existed and getting venue owners to pay excessively high fines. Although these raids took place in Mumbai, fears of the same happening in Pune gained strength, especially when a rumour was leaked through social media that Dhoble would be transferred to Pune (MidDay July 2012).
Having all the right permits, however, sometimes isn’t enough. Despite claiming to have “done everything by the book”, Khodu told me that High Spirits has been raided quite a few times, and whenever other clubs get raided, they have to be extremely cautious for a couple of days. “In the beginning, there used to be a cop who would raid me every night… I got taken to the chowki (police station), slapped… they gave me khatlas (warnings). I had to shut down for 15 days at one point.”
The term ‘culture’ is commonly thrown about in various sections of Indian society when referring to a varied but unspecified set of traditions, values and morals that are believed to be followed, or at least believed to be in the best interests of, people who live in India, and conversely those values and morals (or lack of) believed to be followed by citizens of other nations. Often, religious rituals, classical Indian music like Hindustani or Carnatic, traditional clothing worn by men and women from different communities of the country, and even notions of endless respect and a sense of duty towards one’s parents and no pre-marital sex are clubbed under what is perceived as ‘Indian culture’. ‘Western culture’, on the other hand, is recognized as what Khodu termed ‘bad culture’, and refers to individualistic, hedonistic attitudes associated with the West, coupled with acts such as young urban youth and adults drinking, smoking, and dancing at nightclubs, and women wearing dresses and skirts, seen as ‘vulgar’, and thereby suggesting loose morals and ‘un-Indian’ values (Ghosal 2011).
Because they are usually responsible for carrying out raids, members of the police force are amongst the first to be equated with conservatism and orthodoxy in the minds of liberal Indians. But they are not alone in regarding ‘Western culture’ as negative and immoral. In popular Indian cinema, nightclubs are often portrayed as spaces where men take advantage of women under the influence of alcohol and engage in illicit sexual activity (films like Fashion, or Cocktail). The hero of the film almost always rejects the woman who smokes, drinks, wears revealing clothes, and enjoys going out at night, or else his true love for her transforms her into a traditional homely woman fit to marry, like in Agneepath; her rejection or transformation ‘illuminates the right path for a true Indian woman to follow’ (Ghosal, 2011). Although there are films that also demonise men who engage in similar activities, for the most part the burden of conserving Indian tradition is assumed to fall on women, not men (Pinney 1997, Mankekar 1998, Sharpe 2012). Caucasians are also stereotyped heavily in Bollywood; while white men are often portrayed as evil, lustful and physically weak compared to the Indian hero, white women are depicted as attractive but dim-witted, wearing short dresses that signify their ‘loose morals’ (Menon, 2013).
Playing on the ‘imaginative agency’ (Pinney 2008: S42) of people by using the ‘performative indexicality’ (ibid) that is perceived to be present, i.e., if film audiences see women wearing revealing clothes being mistreated or punished for doing so, or Caucasians as evil and lustful, they might begin to recognise these as reflective of the truth, amongst Indian film and television viewers, many local news broadcasting television channels like TV9 have covered incidences on raids taking place at entertainment venues, and have highlighted things like the ages of the women and men attending the party(usually of college-going age), the clothes that the women were wearing, as well as the fact that they were socialising with the opposite sex. Images of these women, though their faces are often blurred, keep getting repeated during the news story, which are usually concerned with how youth are getting negatively influenced by western styles of partying, even if they are as banal as some women in dresses walking to her car.
While public discourse surrounding issues of violence against women has heightened since the horrific gang rape in Delhi last year, a number of offensive remarks have been made by both strong political and religious figures, who have laid the blame not so much on the attackers themselves but on ‘Western culture’. Soon after the incident, right wing group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Mohan Bhagwat as well as Swami Saraswati of Puri openly blamed western values for the increase of rape in the country, calling on their countrymen to strengthen their ‘ancient values’ which supposedly curbed ‘sex-crimes’ (Tehelka, 2013).
Negative stereotypes of western culture have also been attributed to western music styles. In 2009, the BJP produced a manifesto for Haryana that included a promise to ban western music and obscenity in the name of culture. When asked to clarify what it meant by ‘western music’, however, party leaders failed to respond adequately (Tehelka, 2009). In 2010, independent Indian music too fell into the prejudiced category of ‘Western culture’, when the Ladakh Confluence, an independent music festival set in North India was shut down just days before its second edition because of the opposition of local religious associations. Their reasons for opposing the festival were the presence of ‘Drugs, Western Culture, and Rocking Music’. Although festival organizers fought against the allegations of drug use at the festival, simultaneously stressing that it promoted Ladakhi music and culture, they had to give in to the demands of the associations due to potential danger to their lives (Helter Skelter Magazine, 2010).
The Indian independent music scene has mushroomed in the last 15 years with the rapid spread of the Internet. Until then, Channel V and Mtv were the main sources of listening to international music in India, but they too shifted their focus to popular film music (Manuel, 1993). The Internet created exciting avenues to listen to new music from around the world, consequently ‘bombarding indie kids with a stream of fresh influences’ (Ravi, 2011). With the combined efforts of musicians, fans and bloggers, Indian indie music gathered a strong following amongst youth and young adults so much so that live music venues like High Spirits Café thrive on catering to indie musicians and their fans.
Unlike the west, where indie music is often referred to as a genre by itself (Matsue 2009:33), Indian indie music includes genres ranging from heavy metal, jazz, electronica, and reggae to folk-influenced bands, and encompasses established acts run by big management labels as well as ‘genuine indie outfits’ (Border Movement 2012) who manage themselves. Most of these genres popular in Indian indie originate from the West. This element, along with the fact that it is largely distributed through the Internet and performed predominantly at music festivals and venues that cost between 400 and 4000 rupees, make it not only seem alien to traditional Indian and popular film music listeners, but also inaccessible to a majority of the Indian populace due to its expense. Due to this gap, I believe that it becomes relatively easy for conservative elements of Indian society to disassociate with Indian indie music and compartmentalise it within ‘Western culture’, carrying with it all its negative connotations, as it did with the Ladakh Confluence.
High Spirits Café, if looked at from a conservative point of view, then, represents many facets of “bad” or “Western culture”. Its patrons are mainly young Indians and foreigners in their late teens or twenties who drink and/or smoke, and around half of its clientele are women, owing to its ‘couples only’ policy, often seen wearing dresses, skirts and other non-traditional attire. The music played at High Spirits includes Indian indie music as well as what’s in vogue in contemporary global pop culture, and it intentionally rejects playing Bollywood or classical Indian music. Many outsiders (including the police), as both High Spirits patrons as well as some members of staff informed me during my fieldwork, see the place as a ‘Dance Bar’, an establishment with women dancing to popular Bollywood songs and often being showered by money from mostly all-male clientele. Dance bars were banned in 2005 by the Maharashtra state government, which claimed ‘they corrupted young people and were a front for crime and prostitution’ (BBC, July 2013). Although the ban was overturned by the Supreme Court in July this year, the reputation of Dance Bars still remains negative amongst both seemingly open-minded people such as what High Spirits customers believe themselves to be and who consequently wish to dissociate themselves with the notion of High Spirits as a Dance Bar, as well as more conservative members of society who stereotype High Spirits as one.
As a Pune resident, I’ve been visiting High Spirits on and off since 2008, from the age of 17. Therefore, unlike many ethnographies where the ethnographer is often a ‘outsider’ or ‘at an extreme, a cultural alien’ (Emerson 1995:2) not only have I been familiar with my field of research but also a participant in it for the last six years. I first started going to High Spirits specifically for Karaoke nights on Tuesdays to indulge in some public performances and drunken enthusiasm from the rest of the crowd. However, as my mother was quite conservative when it came to the issue of me going out at night, I only visited the venue once every few months or so. Many of my friends then, particularly the girls, were in a similar position, coming from families who issued strict curfew times of 10 or 11 p.m. At 19 I began hanging out with someone who spent around a couple of nights each week at High Spirits; a High Spirits regular, and because of him I too began frequenting the place (despite my mother’s reservations). The first time we went together I distinctly remember telling him I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it because I was a bit broke. He chuckled and said, “Don’t be silly, you’re walking in with me. You won’t need to pay!” I had always had to pay the regular 300 rupees cover charge before, and was quite nervous even while walking in with him. A mental image of the bouncer stopping me and asking me to pay up or leave just as I was about to enter the gate kept repeating itself in my head. How embarrassing that would be. That didn’t actually take place, luckily, and as I gradually began to familiarise myself with the space and other customers, particularly other regulars, I too began feeling like a regular. I soon got to know Khodu, the owner of High Spirits, who would walk around socialising with customers almost every night. He gave me the title ‘High Hippie’, because of the cotton pyjamas I often wore to the pub. We became friends on Facebook, I was invited to join the High Spirits group on Facebook, and consequently began receiving a flood of personal online and telephonic invites from Khodu and other staff for events taking place at High.
Right from the very first day of my fieldwork, the moment customers saw me taking pictures of the space they would often ask to have one of them taken too. This allowed me to experience first hand what patrons’ relationship with photography was, how their behaviour, facial expressions and postures changed almost instinctively when they were aware of somebody photographing them.
After I had taken their picture, I was almost always instantaneously asked, “When will you be uploading it on Facebook?”
The High Spirits crowd could be seen as comprising mainly young middle-class residents of the city. However, it does have, as Grazian (2009) calls it, quite discernible ‘microheirarchies’ formed within it. Microheirarchies refer to the internal stratifications in urban night scenes that are created by participants in order to evaluate one another (pg.914-915). I identified three sections that High Spirits could be distinguished into: College students and young professionals, the original patrons, aged between 30 and 40, who were Khodu’s personal friends, as well as expats and travelling foreigners. The most prominent and strongest microheirarchy, however, is one that is promoted and nurtured by the staff itself, that between the regulars and the non-regulars.
“I like how familiar it is and how well I’m treated. Elite is a word that can easily describe the sentiment. Who doesn’t like to feel special? Right from the gate to the counter, it’s all an exercise of elitism when you’re being made an exception to their seemingly rigid rules of ‘no stags’ or ‘only cover entry’ on certain days, depending on the size of the crowd or the full-ness of the parking or maybe even the bouncer’s mood.” – Varun Mukerji, 24-year-old male regular
Although the notion of ‘regulars’ at clubs and bars is common all over the world (Ibid, pg.914), High Spirits is particularly generous when it comes to treating its regulars. High regulars are spread across all the other categories of microheirarchy, and, if corresponded with their exclusive Facebook group, ‘High Homies’, it consists of a hefty 334 members. According to Varun, an individual usually becomes a regular by about the tenth time he or she visits the venue. Thus, though regulars seem to be exclusive, they are growing in number all the time. Because many of them come so often, regulars often get to know each other personally or at least by face, and this creates a strong sense of familiarity about the space. As Bruce Dunn, another regular, told me, “Today I just came here alone, because I knew there’d be at least a few people who I know over here. And it’s been a great night so far, I’ve met a ton of my friends, which was expected.” This familiarity is coupled with a sense of elitism that Varun mentions above; High regulars are usually exempted from paying cover charge to enter, and male regulars don’t have to abide by the otherwise strict ‘no stags allowed’ (no single men allowed) rule. Other perks include being given an occasional free beer or shots by Khodu, as well as invitations to exclusive parties at the venue, such as the High Spirits Anniversary, the Halloween Masquerade Ball, and Desi Night.
Khodu Irani, the owner of High Spirits, is the man in charge of promoting the notion of regulars, and their perks, in the venue. Khodu could be seen as an extension of the club itself, reflecting and symbolising the blend of individualism and community that exists in High Spirits itself. Eight years ago, his uncle, a wealthy Parsi entrepreneur and property owner, put him in charge of one of his old bungalows in Koregaon Park. Khodu, a recent Business Management graduate, decided to convert the bungalow into a bar that played the kind of music that he liked at the time, Retro. Slowly and steadily, according to the changing tastes of people around him and in order to diversify his clientele, Khodu began to reinvent High Spirits and introduce live gigs, karaoke, comedy nights, and electronica DJ sets.
Khodu belongs to the Parsi community, a people who were heralded as colonial elite during the British Raj. The Parsis were put in an advantageous position on arrival of the colonisers in the 17th century. The British were known to liken the Parsis to themselves, seeing in them traits like that of being “diligent”, “conscientious”, and “skilful” in their work (Mandelso, 1638 as cited in Wikipedia), and “more truthful, more pure, more charitable, more progressive, more rational, and more gentlemanly than the Hindu” (Luhrmann 1996:349). This gave them an upper hand in matters of entrepreneurship and gaining education, as the British were willing to trade and work with them more than with other native Indians. As a result, their community became famous as pioneers of modern Indian industry and the first modern Indian entrepreneurs.
Although the Parsis lost their status as colonial elite with the independence of India, their socio-economic status still stays strong. Most Parsis in Pune are large property owners and entrepreneurs, and are spoken about almost with an air of nobility. Khodu’s status in High Spirits as well as outside it is a combined result of both his spirit of individualism and entrepreneurship as well as that of his community history and legacy.
“Khodu definitely has his inner circle, but it’s also a very inclusive one. Take you, for example (points at me). You didn’t meet him somewhere else, you met him when you visited High, and now you’re part of the inner circle too. He’s going to listen to you, take your opinions on stuff he does (at High) seriously, and basically he’s a friend now, isn’t he? That’s how he is with a lot of people at High. Not all of them, but a lot. He’s very welcoming.” – Zal Cursetji, 31 year old male regular and childhood friend of Khodu
Although High’s tagline “Come Home to the High” could be viewed as a marketing tool alone, Khodu takes this phrase very seriously. Within the venue, he spends a large part of every night socialising with customers. Being quite young (in his early thirties) and forthcoming, patrons find him easy and approachable, someone who they can easily be friends with. Topics of conversation range from sharing opinions about the show/gig currently happening at High to personal relationships or even financial issues. Getting to know Khodu is the most important step to becoming a regular, and as the above quote by Zal indicates, it isn’t too difficult to get into Khodu’s “inner circle”. There is an emphasis on the number of times one visits High, which points towards a sustained relationship with other High Spirits patrons as well as with Khodu that he values and promotes amongst his customers; one of feeling at home at High, and consequently wanting to return.
Another way that Khodu has made High Spirits patrons feel more ‘at home’ in the venue is by hiring a large number of young Pune residents, both college students as well as recent graduates, for jobs that are largely focused on customer-interaction. In order to give them a separate identity from other members of staff, I have named this group of employees ‘Faces of High Spirits’, particularly because of their constant engagement with customers, and consequently representing, for patrons, what High Spirits stands for. The ‘Faces of High Spirits’ consist of six core members, permanent employees of High Spirits, and their job titles range from ‘Public Relations Assistant’, ‘Resident DJ’, ‘General Manager’, ‘Artist Relations Manager’, as well as ‘Social Media Manager’. In addition to these six core ‘Faces of High’, there are about five others, all college students, who work as official photographers and videographers for High Spirits. Every one of the ‘Faces’, prior to getting a job at High Spirits, has been a regular at the venue, and is, therefore, familiar with a large number of people who frequent the space. They are instructed to take full advantage of this status and mingle with the crowd as much as possible when they take a break from work, ensuring not only that patrons are enjoying themselves and the night is sailing smoothly, but also to assure customers that those who run the place are similar to them in terms of both age as well as interests.
Both Khodu and the ‘Faces of High Spirits’ occupy an important role in the virtual High Spirits community. If Facebook is indeed a place where ‘you discover who you are by seeing a visible objectification of yourself’ (Miller), then Khodu’s Facebook profile indicates just how popular he is amongst his venue’s patrons. He has over 4000 friends on the social networking site, and an equally strong presence on other social networking sites such as Twitter and Instagram. His popularity is instantly shown through the number of ‘likes’ he gets on the numerous photographs taken of him that end up on Facebook, most of which are taken at High Spirits. “For Bourdieu, photography is above all socially regulated…what is photographed ‘is not…individuals in their capacity as individuals, but social roles, the husband, first communicant, soldier, or social relationship, the American uncle of the aunt from Sauvignon’.” (Pinney, 1997:178). Khodu’s photos, I believe, reveal a lot about his two social roles at High: that of the boss who runs the entire place, as well as the close friend who you catch up with every time you’re at High.
“We don’t really need to promote ourselves in any other way. We’ve already got ourselves a client-base, and they’re all online. Yeah we do advertise some gigs in the papers at times, but this mode alone will hardly get us any customers.”
Khodu has created a large online community for High Spirits, extending the venue beyond its geographical confines and, through the use of smartphones and laptops, placing it into the day-to-day lives of its patrons. He has created two Facebook groups, one simply called ‘High Spirits Café’, with over 4000 members, meant for anybody who has been to the venue or wishes to get up to date information about its events, and another called ‘High Homies’, with only 334 members, which represents Khodu’s ‘inner circle’. High Homies is made up exclusively of regulars, and is perhaps the only place where they are so clearly distinguished from the rest of the High Spirits crowd. In the High Homies group, regulars are encouraged, specifically through photography, to share their experiences at High Spirits with one another, and thereby sustain interaction with one another even without physically being at High Spirits.
Even though High Homies is a more exclusive group, both ‘High Spirits Café’ and ‘High Homies’ are ‘closed groups’, which means that they both give off the impression of being relatively exclusive. One can’t be a part of the group, or even see what is going on in the group unless one requests to join or is invited into the group by a High Spirits admin, which includes Khodu and the six core ‘Faces of High’. That one can’t be part of these groups unless they are granted access makes it all the more gratifying when they do ultimately get in.
Khodu spends almost every working afternoon on social networking sites, creating and advertising forthcoming Facebook events, as well as managing the online groups described above. The ‘Faces of High’ too, apart from their official jobs, devote a lot of time promoting High Spirits on social networks. As part of their marketing strategy they often tag regulars in High Spirits event posters as well as in messages crafted specifically for them, such as the ‘Thank You’ note that they wrote for the regulars for being with High Spirits for the past eight years. Additionally, they regularly write on customers’ walls, personally inviting them to a gig, and/or asking them why he hasn’t seen them at High lately. These acts allow them not only to keep constant relations with patrons but also publicise their events and their community on others’ profiles so that there is a large possibility that their friends might see them and wish to be part of it too.
Wearing fashionable clothes on a night out is a common thing to do perhaps across the world. The way that people dress at High Spirits, though, especially the regulars, is perceived to stand out from conventional ways of dressing up at night that may be found in other clubs or even by non-regulars at High, which includes “girls in their short dresses and guys in their shirts being very Blackberry. These new kids are just trying too hard.” as described by Nikita, a college student and High Spirits regular. Nikita’s clever correlation of the phone model Blackberry and people wearing certain types of clothes suggest that this crowd that tries too hard to impress is like Blackberry, which used to be a highly popular cell phone all over the world up till a few years ago (Blackberry controlled 43% of the phone market in 2011), but which has now been pushed over by Iphone and android devices (Jakarta Globe, July 2012), and therefore, is out-dated. Moreover, Nikita implied that one could notice the difference between a regular and a non-regular simply through styles of dressing.
Many regulars pride themselves on dressing not just differently, but also having an air of carelessness about what they wear because of the informal nature and familiarity within the club. However, disregarding what they wear to High Spirits could also be seen as an effort to stand out from the rest of the crowd. Alpesh, a male regular in his late 20s admitted this to me during a conversation I had with him.
“So for me it’s like, seriously, I can wear anything and I go there. But also somebody should notice you, you know, and say “Hey you look different than others!” because a lot of the time everybody’s all dressed up and I look like this! (points at himself)”
During this conversation, another regular, Abhishek, walked in. He had just had his hair cut short, and although his friends had just been talking about how nobody cared what somebody looked like or wore to High Spirits, he was immediately greeted with, “Oh my god dude, new haircut! Next High Spirits Cook Out, oh shit!”
These incidents indicated that, even though many claimed not to care about dressing up to go to the venue, High Spirits is in fact a space where people are conscious about looks and fashion, not only towards themselves but also regarding those around them. This attentiveness may come in the form of rejecting wearing short dresses and heels that a girl might normally wear to a club, but it goes hand in hand with appreciating somebody looking ‘different’, as told by Alpesh.
Additionally, fashion also goes hand in hand with photography at High Spirits. Along with dressing up simply to go out, most patrons are also aware that they might be photographed, either by themselves (selfies), their friends, or by one of the photographers at High, and that the images produced will very likely end up on social media, where others from their social circle might notice them. I believe that this awareness and anticipation of being photographed is one of the strongest reasons to go looking and dressing a particular way to High.
“…Photography never seems to merely duplicate the everyday world, it is prized for its capacity to make traces of persons endure, and to construct the world in a more perfect form that is possible to achieve in the hectic flow of the everyday.” (Pinney 1997:142)
Almost everybody at High carries a smartphone with him or her, and they are often seen using them to take pictures of themselves and their friends enjoying a night out. A majority of these photos end up on Facebook or Instagram almost as soon as they are taken, often as a way of revealing to their online social circle what they’re doing and/or how they’re looking at that moment, thereby creating a direct link between their physical social life and their online life There are also a few photographers that High Spirits has hired to take pictures within the venue. These photographers, Monica and Saleena, are college students studying Media, and are also part of the ‘Faces of High’. Their focus while taking pictures is mostly on the customers than the performer. High customers mostly pose for their pictures, although, as Saleena told me, they also try to take ‘candid, artsy photos’ of the crowd. Monica and Saleena also upload their photos online. However, as they use SLR cameras instead of smartphones, and tend to edit their photographs using certain computer editing software afterwards, their photographs are usually displayed on Facebook a few days later, which they do so in albums named after the photographed event.
Once these photographs are uploaded onto Facebook communities, people in the pictures are tagged, and in this way tagged individuals’ friends are also able to see the photographs. ‘Likes’ and comments on the pictures then follow for the next few days, and are usually either to do with how good or how comical the individuals in it look. This ensures that patrons have continued association with High Spirits even after they have left it. In a couple of days another album is uploaded, and the cycle is repeated.
In his book ‘Camera Indica’ (1997), Pinney suggests that in photo studios in the town of Nagda, India, ‘swagger portraits’ came into full play through theatrically staged photographs of individuals accompanied by exaggerated gestures, props, and costumes (Ibid and Edwards, 1998). A swagger portrait, termed so by Andrew Wilton, refers to an image that ‘puts public display before the more private values of personality and domesticity’. (Wilton in Pinney 1997:74), and tends to exaggerate ‘the glamour and theatricality of the individuals’ it represents. I believe that in High Spirits too, the posed photographs of patrons depict ‘swagger portraits’ in their own right. Whereas in Nagda, Pinney explores a number of styles of posing in photo studios, as well as a range of editing styles that play with the spatial and temporal nature of the image (Ibid, pg.192), I found that a majority of High Spirits patrons only like to pose in a certain way for a photograph, something which I have chosen to call ‘the Facebook pose’. The Facebook pose is what somebody, in this case, a High Spirits customer, acquires when he or she is aware of being photographed. Its characteristics include two things in particular, a practiced smile and a change in one’s posture. Many High Spirits customers also seem to share very similar Facebook poses to one another. Although it is common amongst male patrons as well, I found it to be more exaggerated amongst women. The Facebook pose is seen throughout the High Spirits photo albums on Facebook, and I too managed to take a number of such pictures. In fact, almost every time a person noticed that my camera was pointed in their direction, they would turn to give me a Facebook pose. Their idea of their swagger portrait, therefore, was premeditated and practiced. Swagger portraits in Nagda were accompanied and enhanced by costumes and props, and High Spirits provides its patrons a chance to dress up and stand out not only every day that they visit the venue, but also through the range of theme parties it hosts. From Great Gatsby nights to Desi High and Halloween Balls, High Spirits regulars are treated to a theme party at least once every two months. HS Chandra, a photographer filmed by MacDougall in ‘Photowallahs’ claims that photography acts as a ‘psychological and scientific method to awaken desires’, where the photographed individual ‘assumes the character of the costume’ (cited in Pinney 1993). This is certainly visible to a certain extent on theme nights, and was apparent during Desi High when everybody wore Indian-styled clothing and consequently I noticed a lot more people speaking in Hindi as well as dancing ‘Bollywood style’.
However, I hold that the Facebook pose invariably finds its way in even during such events, and as a consequence, even though photography is a very significant part of most people’s nights at High Spirits, the practice of posing for photographs tends to cause a slight, but welcome, break between socializing and enjoying themselves.
Language, Memes, and Posters
The kind of language used in the High Spirits online community, be it on Facebook or Twitter, has been developed and honed by Khodu in such a way that it now represents both him and High Spirits. This includes the use of specific terms such as ‘da’ for ‘the’ (its tagline is ‘Come Home to Da High’), ‘killa’ for ‘killer’ (meaning ‘great’), and ‘homies’ and ‘peeps’ in place of ‘friends’. Another example of this is the online invitation created for ‘High Social Nights’, a new weekly event at the venue.
These expressions are part of urban slang originating mainly from the West, but, as a result of the fluid nature of the transnational public sphere, have become commonplace amongst middle-class Indian youth, and consequently have been appropriated into the High Spirits community in order to create, according to Khodu, a ‘young, chilled out and informal vibe’. Although a lot of the slightly older regulars, including some of the ‘Faces’, have admitted to me that they find using this sort of slang online feels ‘extremely cheesy’ to them, they also acknowledge that, just like Khodu, typing in this manner attracts many college students to the venue.
These expressions also include direct references from global pop culture, such as a meme of the Lord of the Rings, but switching the famous line ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ into ‘One does not simply miss da high cookout’, making it comical but also suggesting how important it is to attend the High Spirits Cookout. Another meme is one that has been circulating in various Internet forums for a while, and which the High Spirits page shared to all its fans because of its topic, drinking, and its comic appeal. These images work exactly like photographs, and are acknowledged by patrons through ‘likes’ and comments.
High Spirits also creates posters for all the events they host, and these posters, along with exciting graphics and designs, also use phrases relevant to contemporary pop culture today. For instance, High Spirits came up with its ‘Get Lucky’ nights after the Daft Punk song ‘Get Lucky’ became very popular around the world and in High Spirits.
The manner in which the High Spirits community, including its patrons, Khodu, and the ‘Faces’, reflects itself in Social Media through photographs, use of slang language, posters, and memes, I believe, is akin to the results that photo studios in Nagda produce that Pinney talks about in ‘Camera Indica’. Pinney believes that ‘…the inventive posing that characterizes much of the imagery produced within studios is concerned with the transcendence and parody of social roles.’(1997:178) He goes on to quote Keita, ‘With various props, accessories and backdrops, the photographer stylises the pictoral space, and through lighting, depth of field and framing, the gestures and expression thus reveal a ‘self’ not as he or she actually is, but ‘just a little more than what we really are’ (Ibid). In Nagda, photographers are asked by clients to make them look better in their photograph than they actually look in real life, which they attempt to do through ‘the adoption of gestures and the deployment of costume and props’ (179). Correspondingly, social media, by giving its user not only just the option of exhibiting certain things about his/her life, but also a choice of how to display these details, allows one the ability to ‘reveal a ‘self’ not as he or she actually is, but ‘just a little more than what we really are.’ The use of slang language, posters, the memes, as well as the photographs that High Spirits chooses to display are all slight exaggerations of what goes on in the venue (for example, the pictures are edited with sharper contrasts, and not many patrons use slang terms like ‘killa’ in real life) assume the role of gestures, props, and costumes in the photo studio that serve to primp up the venue’s image in the eyes of its online community as well as others who happen to come across it.