The anatomy of a mob

Published: Dec 18, 2011, 08:04 IST | Dhamini Ratnam |

A successful performance at a Mumbai local train station, followed by traffic-stopping acts in an anti-corruption rally, an aborted attempt in a crowded Delhi market, a Hip Hop-laced 'fundoo' session in a Hyderabad mall, and a tribute to Rajnikanth in Chennai -- these are only the latest in a spate of synchronised dance performances, erroneously referred to as 'flash mobs' that have taken urban India by storm

A successful performance at a Mumbai local train station, followed by traffic-stopping acts in an anti-corruption rally, an aborted attempt in a crowded Delhi market, a Hip Hop-laced 'fundoo' session in a Hyderabad mall, and a tribute to Rajnikanth in Chennai -- these are only the latest in a spate of synchronised dance performances, erroneously referred to as 'flash mobs' that have taken urban India by storm

November 27, 2011, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, 4.52 and 5.33 pm: Over 200 people emerge from the crowds and begin to dance to a patriotic tune from a movie popular among urban yuppies for its angst-ridden patriotism.

Some of the participants in the IAC synchronised dance
performance including (from left to right) Sumit Bhamri (20),
Manan Gandhi (21), Komal Shah (19), Jay Shah (19) and 
Krishnateja Vunnava (23). pic/ Bipin Kokate

The occasion? The third anniversary of the 26/11 terror attacks that shook the city in 2008, where a shoot-out at CST station left 58 dead and over a 100 injured. After their act, the performers, who had practised their moves for a month, melt into the stunned crowd, all flash mob-like.

As the video of the synchronised dance at CST, the brainchild of Peddar Road-based 23 year-old Shonan Kothari, caught on over YouTube and Facebook, people around the country woke up to the possibilities offered by what they thought of as 'flash mobs' but were actually 'smart mobs' or synchronised dance performances.
By definition, a flash mob is an unrehearsed act by a group of strangers, who have come together only for the purpose and duration of the act. A smart mob, on the other hand, is a group of strangers, who work towards a common goal over a sustained period of time using digital technology.

Multiple mob acts
On December 3, barely a week after the CST act, a group of people in New Delhi tried to do something similar. But lack of punctuality, a bad sound system and an irate cop soon put paid to their efforts, and the 'mob' had to be disbanded.

Meanwhile, Airtel had organised a flash mob-like promotion campaign in a mall in Ahmedabad in September and Nokia launched its latest handset, the Lumia 800, by organising seemingly-impromptu dance performances in malls in Thane, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad on December 10.

Last Sunday, the 'flash mob' also found place in a rally organised by India Against Corruption (IAC). A group of 60 to 70 youngsters performed a two minute sequence to a Bollywood patriotic number, no less than eight times, at different points in the rally, including in front of the BDD Chawl in Worli and at the Haji Ali signal. The same day, on December 11, Zumba fitness instructor Jegatha Muralidharan and choreographer Vijaya Tupurani put together a mob act at GVKOne Mall in Hyderabad.

In Chennai, Suhasini Mani Ratnam organised a mob act to commemorate Rajnikanth's birthday on December 12, and promote the Chennai International Film Festival that would begin two days later.

So, what's the point, really?
"I saw the Mumbai CST video and posted on Facebook that I too, wanted to be part of such an event. Then, I decided to just go ahead and do it," says 33 year-old Tupurani. "Instead of performing at a market or an airport, where police permissions and security arrangements would be needed, we decided to do it at a mall, since it was easier  to pull off. The idea was simply to celebrate the joy of dancing."

However, Tupurani admits that she didn't want the act to look rehearsed, and was more than happy when onlookers began to join in and dance with the 15 'mobsters', who had practised their hip-hop dance routine for a week.

The synchronised dance performance organised at GVKOne Mall
in Hyderabad by Zumba fitness instructor Jegatha Muralidharan
(with headband) and choreographer Vijaya Tupurani on December
11. Pic Courtesy:

That's how long 23 year-old Krishnateja Vunnava and 25 year Khushvi Gandhi had, when the bug to "do something different and new" bit them, while they were planning the IAC rally held on December 11. Together with the Thane-based choreographer Casber (who goes by one name only), they shot a video of the dance steps to Chale Chalo (from Lagaan) and put it up on YouTube, four days before the rally. Later that day, 10 young volunteers even performed an impromptu dance in Mithibai and Sathaye Colleges in Vile Parle, to recruit college-goers.

"No one stopped to give us a second look in the colleges," laughs Vunnava, "but that's probably because they thought we were part of a dance club rehearsing for a performance." And that, says Nishant Shah, director of Research, Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, is the point of it all.

Location, location, location
"Flash mobs happen at places that are already well regulated in what can and cannot happen there. They take the everyday, mundane, mechanical spaces of consumption and gathering, and for a brief period of time, turn them into spaces of enchantment, subverting the authoritarian logic of that space," says Shah.

Which is probably why people at CST were stunned to see the mob dance to Rang De Basanti on November 27, and pedestrians smiled at seeing 60-70 youngsters dance on the roads during the anti-corruption rally, but the collegegoers weren't too shocked by the IAC volunteers dancing in front of the canteen.

The space makes all the difference
By that measure, while the performances by the CST mob and the IAC rally-goers were more flash mob-like in their choice of space, the ones that took place in malls were more 'exclusive', as malls are spaces of urban consumption and entertainment, and keep out a certain class of people.

Last Independence Day, a group of over 100 persons dressed in the colours of the Indian flag, sang the national anthem in the courtyard of Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel. What was interesting is that many onlookers joined in too. The group of singers then dispersed. Like all the other mob acts, the word for this one too, was spread using the help of social media. But because it took place within a mall, the audience was limited to a group of urban middle and upper class consumers. Nor was it subversive in intent.

According to Shah, a flash mob needn't always be subversive. However, depending upon the location and intent of a flash mob, it could serve to challenge authority and expectations of 'proper' social behaviour -- this can be gauged from the first flash mob that took place, both in the world, and in the city.

The first ever flash mob
The first recorded flash mob took place in Manhattan in 2003 and was organised by Bill Wasik, a senior editor of Harper's Magazine. Says Shah, Wasik's aim was to conduct an experiment -- if you posited something as cool, anyone will do it whether it makes sense to them or not.

Turns out that's true. Over a 100 people congregated at the Macy's department store at Wasik's behest and pretended to shop for an expensive 'love rug' for their shared apartment. Soon after, Mumbai experienced it's own flash mob.

On October 4, 2003, 68 persons congregated in front of the erstwhile Crossroads mall in Tardeo at 5.02 pm (all of them had synchronised their watches to a website) and began to talk loudly on their phones, pretending to be stockbrokers. Then, abruptly, they began to dance. Some did garba steps, others chose bhangra, disco and the Visarjan dance. A few moments later, they froze. The mob then flashed open their umbrellas and dispersed. The crowd that had gathered around them were too stunned to react.

Says 33 year-old Rohit Tikmany, who had organised that flash mob, "The intent, if any, was to have fun. There's no point in a flash mob, it simply delights in pointlessness. The first flash mob in the world had occurred three months before and I was intrigued by what could happen if we did the same thing here."

However, by his own admission, the choice of venue � the road outside the city's first mall that, when it opened in 1999, had an entry fee of Rs 50, and only allowed patrons who carried cellphones -- was a subversive one.

"Our flash mob was a quiet gesture to question authority. The most basic difference between our flash mob and the one organised in CST was that in our case, the joke was on the authorities, not the audience. All we wanted to say was, 'We're ordinary citizens and well within our rights to organise something that is fun and pointless, so if you don't mind, please don't stop us from doing something that is fun, and perfectly legitimate'."
However, the mob organised by Kothari at CST had the complicity of the authorities," says Tikmany, a senior executive in an MNC. "We left the mall guard and the onlookers dumbfounded," agrees Bijoy Venugopal, a journalist who had participated in that flash mob. (see it on YouTube:

True to the style of a flash mob, none of the participants knew each other or interacted with each other, before, during or after the act. "To participate in this mob, we were required to sign up on a website and leave our contact details. We were then called by certain volunteers who told us that they'll keep in touch.

A day before the mob was scheduled to meet, we were called and told where to turn up. We were also asked to synchronise our watches to a certain website, so that we could be on time," recalls 37 year-old Venugopal.
Tikmany had handpicked 10 volunteers with whom he shared the details of 'flash sites', where they should meet the rest of the participants, 15 minutes before the act. In an email sent in the evening before the day of the event, he shared the details of what was going to happen. No one had met him, and no one knew his entire name.

"We didn't get anyone to videotape or photograph the flash mob. The mystique and anonymity was maintained throughout," says Tikmany. That is, till the cops cracked down on him. Tikmany was asked to come out to the media and reveal his identity, and the cops told him to never organise a flash mob in the city again. "They cited security reasons, and said flash mobs had the potential of being misused for terrorist activities," says Venugopal, who reported about the incident for a website.

A question of authority
"We weren't really allowed to hold up the traffic, yet we performed our dance eight times," says 21 year-old Manan Gandhi, who was part of the IAC rally. "Our purpose was to attract the youth and get them interested in our rally. This was just the spark. We plan to have flash freezes in an upcoming gathering," he adds.

When Tupurani organised the dance at GVKOne in Hyderabad, she consciously chose to do so in order to avoid a run-in with the authorities.  Kothari had also told Sunday MiD DAY that she had to take several rounds of the Central Railways offices in CST to get permissions in place. Vunnava and Gandhi organised their dance as part of a rally, which had already received police permissions. The corporate events sponsored by Nokia and Airtel were part of a promotional campaign.

Which is why, Shah and Tikmany are keen to make a distinction between the flash mob and what is trending now. "What happened at the CST was not really a flash mob. It was a performance done by a close-knit set of people (the homogeneity of class, bodies, lifestyles etc.) who practised together to perform at the train station. Authorities were assuaged, permissions were taken, and it was more akin to street theatre rather than a flash mob," says Shah.

At the same time however, for those who had seen CST transform on that bloody night in 2008, it was a welcome surprise to see it reclaimed by citizens, who chose to showcase their patriotism and celebration of life through a song and dance. Even if it was well-rehearsed.

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