Sports, Writing

India live

At any IPL match, the spectators never stop cheering. Regardless of what happens in the game, who wins or loses, the cheering goes on. The slightest stimulus can set off a higher pitch of hysteria- the turn of a camera, a song played by the DJ, the sound of the vuvuzela-like bugle. The spectators come to the stadium to have fun, and by the powers vested in them by good golly, they get their way. The event is constructed by superimposing several screens on which stimulation is projected, and each layer adds to the excitement; we have the cheerleaders, the crowd itself, the roving camera that prowls around the ground like god’s eye, the music and dancing, the food and drink, the rich and beautiful people and the game itself.

The phenomenon of spectatorship is not confined to the IPL alone. Almost any event, provided it has the right mix of glamour, adrenaline and media coverage becomes a hyper-charged version of itself, with hysteria skulking around the thin periphery of the event, waiting to be unleashed. Increasingly, it is not even important that the content of the event be familiar or one that evokes any specific interest; the important thing is to be there and to be seen to be there. A rock concert, a performance by someone who is allegedly a world famous DJ, a literature festival, a Formula 1 race, a fashion show, sundry film and other awards nights- all of these elicit a broadly similar level of enthusiasm encased in a familiar canopy of sound. Marquee events become free of content; all that matters is the flash of cameras intent on devouring the sights.

The need to be part of the energy of the crowd is not a new feeling; in India all markets, no matter how spiffy descend into the chaos of a bazaar and all events, no matter how posh, take on the unmistakable air of a mela. Central to a mela is both the energetic crush of the crowd as well as the diversity of experience on offer. Fun in India has been synonymous with frenzy; it is only when the individual is able to immerse herself in the collective and become one with the crowd that the true satisfaction of being somewhere is extracted. The crowd in India does not threaten but comforts; we seek crowded hill stations and bustling bazaars and tend to distrust places that are too clean, quiet or lonely and offer experiences of only a singular note.

The idea of being a spectator too has always been an important part of life. Whether it was the act of standing by a window and watching the world do its business or sitting on the front patio for hours, absorbing the energy of other people’s activities, an entire generation grew up spending a large time passively watching other people.Seeing was doing; for otherwise there was not much to do.

What we are seeing today is something new. The spectator of today is no longer merely a passive watcher, a poor cousin of the doer, relegated to the sidelines. He is in many ways an equal performer, a sweat-drenched participant in the act of enacting a crowd. Becoming an audience is now a task of considerable effort, it involves physical exertion and emotional commitment, even if the emotion involved has exercises the lungs more than the heart. One can imagine the spectator at a concert or an IPL game coming back as tired as the performers themselves, drained by the energy expended on the act of watching other people do things.

The new spectatorship creates an illusion of agency on part of the individual watcher. The crowd performs like a single organism, making every individual believe that he somehow leads rather than follows the crowd. The sense is of having a master switch, of being able to infect the event with his excitement. The idea of the active spectator, one who prepares himself for the tasking of watching, and develops a set of skills over a period of time does not necessarily involve being interested in the activity being followed. To the uninformed eye, the IPL spectator, for instance would appear to be a committed fan, giving his all to the team that he supports. In reality, the intensity of excitement is self-limiting; the moment the event ends, the passion evaporates without any visible residue. Which is why it is so difficult to sell team merchandise outside the game, and so easy to sell it inside the stadium.

The codes of spectatorship are at work even when one is not physically present at the event. Significant events get screened at restaurants and pubs, where formals rituals of watching are enthusiastically enacted. A crowd is contrived, a large screen attempts to simulate the scale of the experience and alcohol provides incentive to drop one’s inhibitions. In some ways, media experiences tend to simulate live experiences while live experiences are played out with intense awareness of the media gaze. The energy generated at venues is in part performed for the benefit of the all seeing camera eye, whether visible or not.

Given the important of visual experiences, an event today is not a natural occurrence, but a deliberate enterprise that orchestrates participation and a particular kind of response. The urge to ‘make’ an event out of everything, to enshrine ideas of all kinds into a hyperkinetic form of activity can be seen in other areas too. A film release today is two separate events, one is the film and the other is the promotional package that precedes the film. In one sense, a film is released twice, for the events leading up to the release are sometimes more memorable than the film itself which can die ingloriously in a single weekend. Similarly when products are launched, or even when protests are organised, the need to create a place where things happen visibly is deemed to be increasingly important. The Anna Hazare movement lost steam when an event failed to materialise; months of effort disappeared in an instant because of the visibility of the embarrassment.

The advent of interactive and social media has considerably enhanced the practice of spectatorship. The idea of ‘not merely watching’ now takes on a more tangible form; one can text messages and leak non-stop reactions on twitter even as the event is unfolding. Social media provides a second order of spectatorship; we can watch other people watching and respond to their response. On social media sites, we are simultaneously voyeurs and supplicants; offering ourselves up for ceaseless visual scrutiny. By virtue of being embedded in real time, social media becomes a parallel event, where spectators are alive and energetic, spewing out reactions and contributing to the overall spectacle. Social media allows ownership of the event to pass from the performers to the spectators more visibly; it becomes more apparent that the spectacle is being enacted for the sole benefit of the watchers. It is instructive to think of the pressure on Sachin Tendulkar to get his hundredth century; the milestone was seen as a responsibility that needed to be discharged rather than an achievement to be personally savoured.

Increasingly, as the symbolic takes centre stage, sight replaces touch as the primary experience. The world, as WJT Mitchell puts it is taking a ‘pictorial turn’, where the visual experience defines our sense of who we are. Sight allows us to consume things selectively from a distance, while giving us a sense of direct participation. We are always ‘in the picture’ when we are able to see something, and are thus able to feel a presumptive sense of ownership without putting anything at risk. The act of seeing, becomes a richer, almost erotically charged experience- witness the interest in seeing celebrities or tigers, shooting everything once is a part of, sharing one’s visual experiences on social media sites, being seen at places that are ‘happening’ with people who matter and posing all one’s life for an invisible camera. Implicitly it would seem that we are spectators first and actors thereafter, often acting so that we can be seen.

TOI Crest 12 May 2012