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This article accompanies a short film COOL TECH, which was produced as part of the Cool Infrastructures research project. Shot over ten days of summer in Delhi, India, COOL TECH looks at how weather and technology come together to configure life and labor in the city, particularly from the perspective of people who make, sell, or repair cooling technologies.

In Delhi, temperatures have been rising for consecutive summers, reaching highs of 49°C (120°F) in 2022. India has also been identified as one of the countries most vulnerable to heat stress, the consequences of which are readily visible through statistics on the increased incidence of wildfire and heat-related morbidity. However, while such representations of heat alert us to the urgency of climate change, they don’t adequately capture how it is managed and lived with in the everyday, particularly in regions like South Asia, where the need to manage heat is not new but has been long been embedded in cultural practices, techniques, and technologies. In making COOL TECH, we wanted to capture some of the more mundane ways in which heat is experienced and understood, particularly in a time of “strange weather,” where rising temperatures are also accompanied by unpredictable rainfall patterns. Rather than using film to communicate a set of preconfigured ideas, we primarily relied on it as a tool for research and a method for setting up encounters in the field. In what follows, I reflect on some of the learnings through the process. 

In Hindi, the word garmi describes not only a thermal condition but also a season. Garmi means both “heat” and “summer”; the same is true for sardi, which is both “cold” and “winter.” Initially, Pranav Jain and I planned to shoot a film focusing on heat in the capital, tentatively titled Dilli ki Garmi (Summer of Delhi). However, we quickly realized that garmi was either too abstract (conversations about how hot it is only go so far) or too direct (given how it corresponds to the social organization of class and caste). In contrast to the English term for summer, which denotes a more collective or generalizable experience, garmi is a much more localized phenomenon, differing from place to place as well as across forms of livelihood. On one hand, people often speak about Delhi’s garmi in the same breath as they speak of pollution, cars, crowds, and the proliferation of heat-generating technologies—as a distinctly urban experience. At the same time, garmi is often used to stand in for the idea of hardship. In being intimately tied to the conditions of life and labor in the city, garmi is seen as something that certain people have no choice but to endure.

To speak about technology, then, offers a different scope for engagement. Rather than focusing on exposure to heat or one’s inability to escape it, technology directs our attention to the concrete ways in which people attempt to manage, regulate, and respond to changing thermal conditions, as well as the economic spheres through which this is negotiated. In conceptualizing the film, Pranav and I began with the understanding that cooling technologies are ubiquitous—all people rely on them in some form or another, whether through the use of “modern” cooling systems, such as air conditioners and desert coolers, or more long-standing, manual technologies such as ice and earthenware. Working with a more expanded notion of technology allowed us to perceive the varied strategies people employ to keep cool and the wider breadth of ways in which objects, elements, and infrastructures in the city are reconfigured in times of heat. It also revealed how technology can inform ideas of heat, since explanations of why something “works” also correspond to particular notions of comfort and discomfort, weather and health. 

In discussing technology, we arrived at new and surprising understandings of weather. Conversely, paying attention to how weather emerged in these conversations also led us to rethink ideas of technology. The method of making a film and the kind of immediacy it affords (in terms of image and sound) facilitated this process in particular ways. For instance, recognizing the centrality of water in relation to cooling was guided by the fact that it appeared as a recurring motif in the environments we were filming. While shooting, we also became attuned to the sensory atmospheres created through the functioning (and breakdown) of technologies, often simply for the fact that these disrupted or made it harder to film—owing to the noise of machinery, lack of light during a cut in power supply, or the periodic shutdown of our cameras in spaces more exposed to sunlight. Such “technical challenges” also constitute anthropological encounters with weather and technology. They may not be directly visible in the film but have informed stylistic decisions in the editing process—for example, cutting between thermal, spatial, and sonic environments in order to accentuate their differences.

In his writings on visual anthropology, David MacDougall suggests that audiovisual mediums are particularly suited to the study of “sensory” knowledge—“that is, how people perceive their material environment and interact with it, in both its natural and cultural forms.” In researching something as abstract as heat, the audiovisual medium certainly aided the work of noticing, sensing, and “attuning” to its particularities in Delhi. It allowed us to observe the ubiquity of technologies around us, drawing out a more complex picture of technology than the one present in popular discourses of climate. Rather than viewing technology as a “fix” for environmental problems or, conversely, responsible for them, we were led to appreciate the very material ways in which technology mediates everyday human interactions with the environment and its connections to work, housing, and infrastructure in the city. This, in turn, was useful for revealing how heat, as phenomenon/risk that is intensifying globally, is also negotiated alongside the mundane economic circuits of a city and the less-perceptible risks arising for people who contend with it as an everyday challenge.


Chitra Sangtani

Chitra Sangtani is an anthropologist and visual artist. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and is studying the politics of fire and flammability in Delhi.

Cite as

Sangtani, Chitra. 2024. “COOL TECH.” Anthropology News website, February 7, 2024.