Centre for Internet & Society
Gone in a flash

A flash mob exercises in the courtyard of Gurgaon's Heritage City.

Net-savvy crowds gather in public places for moments of wacky fun, then vanish. This article by Neha Thirani was published in the Times of India Crest Edition on April 16, 2011.

Gone in a flash

A flash mob exercises in the courtyard of Gurgaon's Heritage City.

It's an ordinary day at the MGF mall in Gurgaon, when a group of fifteen people suddenly appears carrying lanterns made from discarded plastic bottles and starts passing them along in relay fashion. Starting from the plaza in front of the mall, the crowd goes into the metro station nearby and back again, and then suddenly disperses, attracting amused stares from befuddled passersby. This lantern-wielding crowd is a flash mob, a global phenomenon that has now hit India. 

So is this part of a mass social experiment? Political movement? Performance art? Pointless fun? Malini Kochupillai and Kanishka Prasad, both professors at the Sushant School of Art and Architecture in Gurgaon who orchestrated the event, say it's an effort to add a modicum of vibrancy to otherwise ignored public places, reclaiming the space for public use. Along with their students, the duo has organised about a dozen such 'flash mobs'. 

For the uninitiated, a flash mob appears to be entirely random - a group of people, performing an unusual and seemingly pointless act and then dispersing. For those in the know, the flash mob is mobilised by an organiser, who brings together a crowd of people at a predefined location and time via social media, viral emails or mass texting. The crowd then carries out a scripted series of actions. The participants are typically strangers and the purpose is usually satire. Their actions transform a public place for the period of the performance, and engender discussion at the unexpected. 

This rather quirky social phenomenon, popular in the US and Europe, originated in 2003 when Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper's Magazine, organised the first successful flash mob in Macy's department store. Over a hundred people converged on the store, gathered over an expensive rug and pretended to be shopping for a 'love rug' for their shared apartment. Wasik's aim was apolitical. Through amusement, he wanted to question notions of conformity and the hipster culture of wanting to be a part of the 'next big thing'. Since then, there have been hugely successful flash mobs all over Europe and America. The biggest recorded flash mob has been the International Pillow Fight Day, which took place on March 22, 2008 in over 25 cities simultaneously. More recently, Egypt has seen a series of flash mobs who left security forces befuddled by their silent protests. 

While the word was officially coined in 2003, the phenomenon can be traced back to 18th century England where workers in an assembly line would stitch secret messages into garments to plan a congregation of strangers. 

Nishant Shah, research director for the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, says the growth in places of globalised consumption parallels the formation of flash mobs. "We can call malls places of public consumption, but at the back of our minds is the uneasy thought that the sign reads - rights of entry reserved. The mall, then, is only for certain public, " says Shah. "What flash mobs do is abuse the space - subverting the intention of the space that they are orchestrated in. "

This social experiment that has now made its way to metros across the country has been loosely related to locations of consumerism. The first ever flash mob in India took place on October 4, 2003 when a group of over 60 people swarmed the then newly built Crossroads mall in Mumbai. The flash mobbers shocked the malls security guards when they inexplicably starting screaming into their cellphones vague directions such as: "Infosys becho ek hazaar, and SBI gheun tak don she. " This was followed by some frenzied dancing, and a moment later, they were gone. 

New media professional Noel Braganza, 26, organised a flash mob in the main courtyard of Phoenix Mills, Mumbai on Independence Day last year. Along with his colleague Nicole, Braganza spread the message over social media entirely;"We didn't take any prior permission, and this was possible because we organised it around Independence Day - our concept was patriotic, not disruptive, " says Braganza. At 4 pm on August 15, 2010, a crowd of over one hundred people, dressed in tri-color, lined up in rows in the courtyard of Pheonix Mills, sang the national anthem and then dispersed. Though most were there by design, some of the shoppers present joined spontaneously. "There was a huge snaking queue outside Big Bazaar that stopped in its tracks and started singing. " 

The Urban Gorillaz - as the Gurgaon group is called - has organised its events with a particular focus on reclaiming spaces that have largely been ignored, or usurped by private developers. "Most public spaces in Delhi are decrepit and in desperate need of refurbishment, " says Kochupillai. "Perhaps increased use of these spaces will push the authorities to look beyond roads, flyovers and parking lots and give pedestrians an equally deserving space in the public realm. " The group encourages people to engage with the spaces available to them so that they do not become unused and unsafe. 
By studying what prevents or promotes the use of public space - such as movement patterns, active/ inactive zones and traffic interference in pedestrian areas - the group hopes to encourage architects and urban planners to create spaces where people can relax without feeling like they are trespassing or encroaching. "A flash mob says that you can create public spaces but we will decide how we will use them, " says Nishant Shah. "It gives a certain sense of power to the user who is no longer a consumer but an architect of the space. "
Started as an exercise in an architecture class at the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, the Urban Gorillaz facebook group has grown to over 400 members. 

Up until now, they have orchestrated over ten flash mobs doing a variety of random acts from exercising in the main courtyard of Heritage city, flying paper planes in an office complex, sketching people passing by in a mall, creating installations for passersby to paint and building a canopy on a sidewalk with rope and bamboo. The one which attracted the most attention was during the Commonwealth Games, where they organised the 'Common Man Games' at Nehru Place to entertain Delhi citizens who were sidelined during the games. The games included track and field and pitthu. 
"The first reaction of most people is what are you selling or promoting? And I reply that I am promoting public space, " says Kochupillai. "On occasions when guards have asked us to stop, we simply move into an area that is not under their jurisdiction. " The group has not encountered much antagonism, with most people amused rather than angry. Pragya Vig, 19, is a member of the group and a second year student at the college. "It set me thinking - why aren't we using the public spaces?" says Vig. 
In the coming month, the Urban Gorillaz are planning flash mobs in the metro to raise awareness for a women's right to personal space.
Not all flash mobs have any apparent rationale. In the week after the death of Michael Jackson, Bangalore saw a spontaneous flash mob. At every red light signal, whenever the traffic would stop, people would suddenly come together and perform popular Michael Jackson dance moves. When the light changed, they would be gone in a flash.
Read the article in the Times of India 
Filed under: