3 years


In Search of the Indian Hipster

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What is it?

Udayan Chakravarty, a 29-year-old creative director with ad-agency JWT, is sipping his second glass of beer on a Saturday afternoon to cope with a hangover from the previous night’s party that got “out of control”. The party was at his one-bedroom apartment overlooking the ruins and lake of Delhi’s Hauz Khas village. He is trying to explain what a hipster is, but it is easier to say what a hipster is not. “No hipster would classify themselves as one. If they did, they would be some South Delhi pricks trying to streamline themselves,” he says. Among other things, what makes Chakravarty a hipster is that he wouldn’t walk down to the nearest grocery shop to pick up something as routine as eggs and bread for breakfast. He has an inherent distaste for anything to do with the normal, the mainstream. “What’s the point of being and doing everything like everybody else? One has to keep looking and graft oneself to new cultures,” he says.

When he was a student, Shardul Sharma, now 33 years old, would go to Delhi’s Chor Bazaar to buy T-shirts for Rs 20 from a pile of clothes. They had been sent over as charity all the way from the United States and had somehow found their way to the markets of Old Delhi. When the internet was still young, he would often log on to Pitchfork, a website that some consider the last word on independent music. It introduced him to bands such as The Stooges, The Kinks and The Fall. The last of which led him to read The Fall by Albert Camus–a novel about a man’s fall from grace. Sharma hadn’t realised all this made him a hipster until he visited the Wikipedia page for ‘Hipster’. He figures his stock market job would’ve disqualified him for the label. But he seems to fit the bill. He has a room full of LPs and wears band T-shirts with skinny pants, vintage Adidas sneakers and big geeky glasses. He likes what he calls ‘alternative’ music and movies.

Amit Malhotra, a 26-year-old visualiser, is so averse to technology that he hand-writes all his documents. He also has the geek glasses and satchel that are the staple of hipsters. He is obsessed with vintage art and fashion; most of his clothes are from thrift shops. He wore a dhoti to the London Fashion Week. He doesn’t label himself a hipster because he doesn’t want to align himself with the majority. “The hipsters here follow trends like their life depends on it and that is completely wrong. You can’t be a hipster if you have to make a conscious effort,” he says.

None of those who use the term ‘hipster’ seem entirely clear about what it means. According to the aggregate wisdom of Wikipedia, to which Sharma turned for clarity, ‘hipster’ refers to ‘a subculture of young, urban middle class adults and older teenagers that appeared in the 1990s… associated with independent music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, progressive or independent political views, alternative spirituality or atheism/agnosticism, and alternative lifestyles’. This is such a wide definition, it sounds like a complicated way to say ‘non-conformist’.

The hipster emerged as a cross-subcultural figure in the late 1990s out of ‘neo bohemia’ which was defined by sociologist Richard Lyod as a culture of artists who primarily work in bars, coffee shops and rock clubs while providing an unintentional milieu for ‘late capitalist’ commerce in design, marketing, web development and the so-called ‘experience economy’. It has now turned into a movement influenced by a range of subcultures—from hippie to punk to beatnik to grunge.

In his essay What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, Mark Greif, professor of literary studies at New School university and founder-editor of the magazine n+1, writes that the contemporary hipster ‘emerges out of a thwarted tradition of youth subcultures, subcultures which had tried to remain independent of consumer culture, alternative to it, and had been integrated, humiliated and destroyed.’

Books have been written about this phenomenon in the West, but based on observation, a hipster is a person who sneers at Dan Brown, wears vintage clothing, doesn’t care who forms the government, doesn’t care if God exists, who eats organic food and drinks chamomile tea. Hipsters read Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and Oscar Wilde, watch films by Wes Anderson, Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap, and listen to bands most people wouldn’t have heard of.

Or they might not do any of these things, and find other ways of not being part of the mainstream. The 26-year-old stylist Jill D’Souza, for instance—who used to live in Mumbai and now lives in Varkala, Kerala—starts her day picking flowers for a surf and yoga resort, and gets free surfing and yoga lessons in return. She listens to vinyl records and likes typing on a typewriter instead of using a computer. She mainly listens to Indie bands like Of Monsters and Men and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. She has just finished reading Osho’s The Essence of Yoga. You would usually find her dressed in skinny jeans, a faded vintage tee and maybe a flower in her hair. She isn’t religious, she says, but believes in the Universe as a Whole. “I don’t ever read the newspaper or watch the news.”

A big part of the hipster lifestyle is to look like one. A 2009 article in Time offers this advice: ‘Take your grandmother’s sweater and Bob Dylan’s Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst [beer] and bam—hipster.’ Designer Ruchika Sachdev’s idea of hipster style is to “wear shoes that may be ugly. Or a T-shirt with Indian graffiti. To me, a hipster is a creative person who expresses themselves with their clothes,” she says. “I would wear high-waisted trousers, [or] a bomber jacket with a skirt, and that’s hipster to me. I don’t like to stereotype myself.”

The line between alternative and pop culture can get fuzzy, though, and hipsters may go back and forth. 24-year-old Tej, well known in Delhi’s underground music circuit, returned from Boston in 2011 and has been urbanising obscure locales and pubs for parties for the ‘underground’ scene ever since. “People don’t want to go to clubs; they’d rather go to obscure places and liven them up because what we are essentially doing is making it a community rather than a public space,” he says. The island-style parties he organises usually last till the early hours of the morning and are really just musical gigs by acts that play EDM (electronic dance music) or Dubstep. Neither of these music forms is generally associated with hipsters, but both are popular with the set, in Delhi as well as Mumbai. “These two cities are the leading markets for cool, so that [cool] becomes like a pendulum constantly swinging between the two,” says Tej.

Udayan Chakravarthy says it is natural that the mainstream looks at hipsters with aversion. “People are somehow frightened by people who know more about things,” he says, “It is a culture where the Gucci T-shirt you have spent your whole life trying to afford really amounts to nothing.”

Ankita Dash, 22, was the subject of much ridicule for her choice of clothes while she was studying at Delhi University’s Hindu College. “People had these vague perceptions about me, based just on the way I looked,” she says, “There is no place for people who are truly different. Mostly, people feel threatened by things that are not like them.”

A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling in North Carolina, USA, asked 571 voters ‘whether they thought hipsters made a positive cultural contribution to society or whether they just ‘soullessly appropriate cultural tropes from the past for their own ironic amusement,’ and found that ‘23% of voters said they made positive cultural contributions while nearly half—46%— went with soulless cultural appropriation… 27% of voters said they thought hipsters should be subjected to a special tax for being so annoying.’

What is stranger than pop culture’s disdain for them is the amount of irritation shown for hipsters by hipsters themselves. The whole point of being a hipster is to avoid classification, but if everyone starts doing the same ‘alternative’ things, they form a category. Someone who deliberately behaves like a hipster cannot, by definition, be a hipster. But an increasing number of young people in India are dressing the same and talking about the same things.

The last place you should see a hipster is in a mall, but if you walk into a Zara, you will find that it is a hipster refuge. “In Delhi, hipsters are basically rich kids, or people [who are] bored with their life and want to do different things. Almost like hippies, only, with an iPhone,” says 25-year-old software engineer Bhoomika Chabbra. Chabbra’s lifestyle involves a lot of yoga, an emphasis on organic food and a borderline obsession with spiritual healing. “I think my basic urge to declass myself stems from the fact that, on the outside, I have a very conformist life and am expected to toe the line. But I would never call myself a hipster. That is too juvenile.” What she calls an urge to ‘declass’ is a need to make choices starkly different from what she perceives as the largely conformist hand-to-mouth notions of how life ought to be.

Chakravarty says the hipster bubble has burst, “the main issue being that there is a lot of unintelligent kitsch doing the rounds. Everybody wants to be a hipster and nobody realises the irony of it.” So what should a non-hipster emulate in a hipster if not the look and tastes? “They should try and emulate free thought and realise that everything is not about materialism.” This is ironic coming from someone who works in advertising, owns a Macbook and has a seemingly consumerist lifestyle.

It is easy to spot a fake hipster, says copywriter Amish Sabharwal, as he adjusts his vintage batman T-shirt and sips coffee at Mocha Arthouse in the DLF Promenade Mall in Vasant Kunj. “I don’t try to be eccentric,” he says, “I am just that way, and it’s great when people give you importance just the way you are. Being eccentric is now a business— unless you endorse yourself as a cool, arty, trend-spotting kind of fellow, nobody is going to take you seriously.”

‘These self-absorbed, attention-starved, talentless, pseudo-creative, wanna-be city types have sterilised, homogenised and erased any real culture,’ wrote the anonymous blogger behind Diehipster.com before he quit his blog because he ‘just couldn’t take it anymore’.

For Sharma, the true hipsters were arty kids in 1960s America who were poor but still stylish—they bought old clothes from thrift stores. He himself bought LPs because CDs were too expensive. “I listened to a few obscure bands thanks to the internet and my tastes developed out of that. It happened organically. Not like today, when people try to be hipster.” He adds wryly that LPs are now expensive, and that thrift clothing has become extravagant ‘vintage’ clothing. “You found the original Adidas shoes only at flea markets abroad. But then Adidas realised the market for it and started Adidas Originals…You now get the same shoes for Rs 5,000. Being a hipster has become a rich kid’s fancy. They buy the skinnies, listen to that music and call themselves hipster. It’s all become commercialised and that’s what the true hipster is against. They don’t use Apple products and [don’t] drink coffee at Starbucks. I can’t even be called a hipster, because I work in the share market! I am not arty.”

To be a true hipster in the world we live in, one would have to give up all the luxuries technology offers. Would you give up Instagramming that beautiful sunset? Most hipsters would not, and that somewhat defeats the whole premise of being one. Fashion columnist and brand consultant Sujata Assomull Sippy says giving up technology is impossible. She also says the hipster trend will never be mainstream in fashion because, “to be totally hipster you need to be androgynous and super fit, and most Indian women are pear shaped.” According to her, the only area where hipster fashion is really booming right now is Indian wear. “It makes you sexy without trying too hard. In order to follow that trend, you have to wear low-rise saris, lungis and dhotis.”

When we meet, Tanvi Bhatia is wearing green frog earrings that are literally leaping out of her ears. The 26-year-old graphic designer says all that comes to mind when she thinks of hipsters in Delhi are “whiny pseudo-intellectuals obsessed with themselves and trying to look cool.” She says her self-expression through clothes is the opposite of her shy personality. She doesn’t want to be called a hipster but admits her beatnik influences. “Yes, I read Kerouac, but I also read Murakami. I would classify myself as a cleaner hippie,” she says, playing with her pet cat in a design studio in Gurgaon, near Delhi.

There is one line of thought that even fake hipsters are not such a bad thing. That line is articulated by musician Mukul Deora. Deora has released two alternative music albums, Stray and What Heart, and is now producing a film based on Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger. Like many other hipsters, he too says a hipster does not want to be categorised as a hipster and feels that he, at 32, is too old to be one. He says the label is used by those who don’t understand what a hipster is, but also that there is nothing wrong with people terming themselves hipsters because it’s a good thing for Indian society. “The main problem is that we don’t have alternative cultures. So if we are diversifying and people are experimenting with alternative stuff, why is that a bad thing? Growth always comes from the fringe scene. How is one thinking differently, consuming differently? That’s what India needs. As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘All progress depends on the unreasonable man.’”

Imaad Shah and Saba Azad, who form the electro funk band Madboy/Mink and are also a couple, make a similar argument. They say that all counterculture eventually becomes mainstream culture, diluting it, and that words like ‘hipster’ are coined by outsiders looking in. “In India, especially, there is such a mix of people, thanks to our culture. I may like reading modernist poetry by Ezra Pound, but also Urdu and Marathi poetry,” says Imaad. “I don’t think there is anything called the Indian hipster,” says Saba, “Just wearing skinny jeans doesn’t cut it.” Their music, which is influenced by funk, swing and blues, is about making people dance. They listen to music on vinyl and spend their days working on obscure samples, always looking for that classic sound. Imaad is reading non-fiction on cinema right now, while Saba is reading Kerouac’s On the Road. Both agree that the book is pretentious. “It’s trying too hard,” says Saba, “I just read Tropic of Capricorn and I think [Henry] Miller is the original hipster writer. Kerouac’s just a cheap version.”