As promised in the podcast a few days ago, here is the interview Suna Dasi of Steampunk India was kind enough to give me.
It turned out to be even more of an education than I expected and hoped for. So it is with great pleasure I present the interview:
Is Gita Rohini your Steampunk persona?
Gita Rohini was a haphazard accident. She emerged almost fully fledged during a three day Steampunk event I helped organise for some very dear friends and I realised she had a story to tell.
If you have read about Gan’s misadventures, you have already met her.
I would happily depict, and identify with, most of the female characters which are about to emerge in my fiction in some way, but Captain Rohini was a character who made herself known in my imagination very early on and quite pressingly demanded to be fleshed out. She’s a high-spirited individual…!
As to the Airship Devadasi’s backstory, she certainly has one. Some of it will feature in Makara Wakes.
What got you into steampunk?
One day a whole swathe of folk looked up and found that the world had kindly amalgamated most of their lifelong interests and pursuits into one convenient genre. I was one of them. I was always fascinated by all things Victorian and have always loved Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H.R. Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to name but a few. One of my favourite books is Michael Moorcock’sDancers at the End of Time. In retrospect you could certainly call this early modern Steampunk. I have had a lifelong love affair with science fiction and the macabre; mixed with a continuous gravitation towards alternative modes of thought and living. Steampunk is a marvellous platform for expressing all of the above and aesthetically the most pleasing genre to express it in.
How long have you been in the scene?
I consider myself a writer first and foremost and I can’t say I’ve been in ‘the scene’, as such, if I take your meaning right.
I don’t have an overly prolific or diverse Internet presence for instance, though I am a member of S.W.A.G and Steampunk India has a Facebook page.
How old is the idea of “Steampunk India”? Is this something you wanted to do ever since you first had contact with steampunk?
Steampunk India became a burning desire to carry out over the course of two years or so. I have always written and the alternate Indian fiction is what I wished to do first and foremost. I did some research as I was curious to see what was already out there. At this time, there was very little imagery of Indian based Steampunk to be found. There are some lovely Pinterest boards with great images to peruse if you Google ‘Steampunk India’ , but imagery of actual characters combining Steampunk and Indian culture were few and far between.
The exceptions are to be found below and the two first ones clearly grapple with reconciling a sense of politically correct dread about touching the multicultural subject in the first place:
The last link is an illustration by an Indian writer I admire, among much other work she has a featured story in The Mammoth Book of Steampunk)
These days, projects like The Clockwork Watch have a strong Indian storyline to their universe, but two years ago I came away disappointed.
It truly all started for me with Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 1999. I absolutely adored the comic, its satirical tone, its irreverence and the morally ambivalent characters. Moore and O’Neill’s take on Nemo is a fictional triumph and I couldn’t have been more pleased when a daughter emerged in LOEG:1910.
But it became gradually apparent when I looked into the actual fictional genre of Steampunk quite a few years later, that there weren’t many other characters to be found.
I continually found myself wishing for more diversely native Indian characters, especially women, as the possibilities seemed endless to me. The more this wish grew the more I started to consider possible storylines, characters and costumes I would like to see, until I inexorably fell into doing something about it.
Do you think “glossy colonialism” (i.e. focusing exclusively on the glamour parts of the British Empire) is prevalent in the UK Steampunk scene?
I don’t actually think many people emulate a truly one-sided ‘glamour version’ of the British Empire. Most Steampunks appear to be educated, switched on people who have a well rounded perception of the world around them and are already in some way used to thinking alternatively. Though there does seem to be a proclivity for classism in the choice of alter ego among white Westerners, even there most people who pick a type of upper class character tend to also give him or her a personal twist. They are ‘rogue’ in some way that makes them stand out from the standard society damsel, foppish lordling or elitist Nabob.
Having said that, I personally have nothing against anyone who would choose to be the latter, as long one follows through and embodies the persona to the absolute hilt!
The whole beauty of Steampunk is that there is room for all of it, with the addendum that each and every one of us envisions that little something extra. In Steampunk’s recent upsurge into the mainstream, there will inevitably be folk who have a less three-dimensional approach, but I perceive there exists enough awareness in the movement itself to deter a racist, homophobic ignoramus who simply wants to prance about wearing a pith helmet.
I think it’s foolish and damaging to be too extremist either way: One can’t fly into a blind panic anytime someone touches upon something culturally exotic in case it might hurt someone somewhere. Politically correct fears can kill joy and honest creativity faster than anything else. Neither can one be too callous in their choice of character, but if one has solidly thought out reasons anything should be possible and acceptable.
Common sense is something I’ll fly a banner for any day.
Which inventions and other scientific phenomena in Indian history go well with Steampunk?
I really like this question!
There are a few that instantly spring to mind:
- The art of navigation was developed India 6000 years ago. The words ‘navigation’ and ‘navy’ are derived from the Sanskrit words ‘navgath’ and ‘nau’ respectively.
- The Jantar Manta observatory in Jaipur (Rajasthan), which was built in the Mughal period (1700s). It is a set of huge astronomical instruments, such as giant sundials. I could easily see where such a thing might feature in an adventure story about some intrepid explorers needing to do some calculations, for instance.
- The late Victorian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan was self-taught, and worked out many proofs independently of the international mathematical community at the time. This meant he sometimes worked out things which were already widely known, but as recent as ten years, mathematicians uncovered functions worked out by Ramanujan to be completely correct, so he was ahead of his time in some ways, too. His life was very interesting and would lend itself well for some kind of Steampunk fictional homage.
- Tipu Sultan, who was the ruler of Mysore in South India and his father Hyder Ali, together developed the first iron cased and metal-cylinder rockets. I can see a use for such inventors in Steampunk fiction…
- India was foremost in many fields of science in ancient times: The first record of any kind of plastic surgery, for instance, was found in India and dates from 2000BC. The concept of indentity altering surgery and body modification would fit well with certain military bio-mechanical Steampunk tropes.
There are a great many examples of India’s inventions and innovations, including an early form of chess, but I shall not list them all here!
For those interested in exploring this further, there are books on the subject such as: A History of Science and Technology in Ancient India by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya.
Women in Science and invention had a harder time of it and only rose to prominence when higher education for women in India became more culturally acceptable. This in itself is something I am making use of in my fiction. The beauty of alternate worlds and histories is the freedom to create aspects of the society you are building on a more gender equal footing.
Wow! That was really enlightening, thank you very much!
What do you think is missing in the Steampunk scene in general?
In general, I think I’d like to see a bit more boldness in Steampunk: As I’ve said, I believe an overabundance of political correctness can be as socially crippling as being completely insensitive.
I believe that the space between these two extremes still leaves a wide enough margin in Steampunk for unbridled creativity and cultural interpretation that is colourful, empowering and truly alternative.
Can you give us a description of your vision of a steampunk India (be as brief or detailed as you like)?
I was recently asked in another interview what inspired me personally and I shall repeat my answer here: Imbalance, subversion, insolence and being a woman!
I consider myself a direct product of the British Empire as my great grandfather was shipped out of Madras by an East India Company ship in the 1800s to work as an indentured servant on a coconut plantation in the Caribbean. The convoluted story of the three generations that preceded mine played a very significant role in me specifically wanting to write Steampunk.
Translated to this project; I have created an alternate India where the issues that come into to play, if I choose to address them, are not the main point, but part of the spectrum that makes up the world as a whole. This isn’t a major campaign to absolve the historical, political and cultural failings of either nation, nor to view their history through a soft-focus lens. My primary object is to tell the story, to tell it well and to use all ingredients at my disposal.
Within that there is a lot of room for interesting social and political scrutiny without either integrity or enjoyment falling by the wayside, or becoming a polemical bore.
A basic aspect of my vision of Steampunk India is that in this world, the Mutiny has come and gone but has had a very different outcome from the one we are familiar with in our own history, resulting in a very different geographical division, a different role for the British depending on the region and deep repercussions for international trade.
Certain things in my alternate universe are a given, for instance in certain regions women are on a more equal footing in fields of study, can pursue professional careers and choose their relationships, including same-sex ones.
In the true spirit of independent atelier puttering and building a fictional universe, I have modified and bent things, yet there are still nasty British Ruling Classes and unpleasant patriarchal Indian modes of thought to be found here, as well as more liberated, bohemian and forward thinking characters.
It takes all kinds to make a world, after all.
Thank you so much for your time and effort to make this interview happen. It has been a real pleasure.