By Revathi Nair
If you, like me, have spent a considerable part of lockdown distracting yourself with social media, you are likely to have stumbled upon pictures and videos of poorly lit cafes, bookshelves adorned with worn-out hardcovers, long corridors of old universities, and messy candle-lit desks. You have likely been enchanted by their moody, old-school charm, and perhaps even felt a yearning for such a world.
This is the world of Dark Academia.
The Dark Academia subculture has existed in the nooks and crannies of the internet for several years now. According to the website aesthetics.fandom.com, the term refers to “an aesthetic that revolves around classic literature, the pursuit of self-discovery, and a general passion for knowledge and learning.” In essence, people partaking in this aesthetic romanticize the act of learning, the arts, and places of learning, from universities to museums.
The subculture was brought into the mainstream this past year by creators on TikTok and Instagram. Looking up the content under the hashtag #darkacademia will reveal to you towering buildings of old, prestigious Universities, gorgeous libraries, classic literature by the likes of Shakespeare and Blake and Tolstoy, and a lot of black coffee. The individuals seen in these posts or videos are often found dressed in dark tones and a lot of plaid, giving them the appearance your professor, but with a good sense of style.
“Dark academia turns an everyday activity like reading on the sofa with a cup of tea into a performance for an online audience, amped up with piano music, non-prescription spectacles, and sepia-toned filters.”
There’s an element of fantasy here, to imagine yourself walking down the grounds of lovely old buildings, getting lost amongst the endless shelves of beautiful libraries, and drinking coffee at a quiet little café with a book of poetry before you. It’s easy to fall in love with this aesthetic.
If this subculture has existed for some years, why is it only now entering the mainstream?
Many suspect that the sudden popularity of the academia aesthetic may have something to do with the pandemic. With the student population around the globe stuck at home, forced to replace their vibrant school or college-going experiences with an electronic screen, these young individuals are forced to dream of a better world.
Think about it. Wouldn’t you rather whip out your leather-bound notebooks, a vanilla-scented candle and wear your turtleneck while studying, pretending that you are living within this beautiful autumnal-toned, beige, and brown world of old books and gloomy skies and Greek statues than just sit before your computer everyday day for months in the name of education?
Engaging in this aesthetic is likely a form of escapism for them, to pretend to be in this parallel world where being in one’s room and studying is not a compulsion, but a choice, a preference, that fits in perfectly with an appealing aesthetic.
While this moody and dark world of Dark Academia has captured the hearts of many, within its shadows lurks problems of racism and classism. The subculture, unsurprisingly then, has begun to face some criticism.
These criticisms focus on the Eurocentric roots of the subculture. Look at the Dark Academia content online and you will find that the aesthetic predominantly features European Universities like Oxford and Cambridge, European cities, English and American authors and poets, Western art, and so on. The mainstream Dark Academia subculture glorifies white authors and painters and poets and has little to no POC representation.
Despite its Eurocentric roots, Dark Academia is not a subculture restricted to this demographic. You will find plenty of creators who are people of color, who come from different backgrounds, whether culturally or economically, and who enjoy partaking in this trend as much as any other. Therefore, I do not think the subculture should be shunned as being racist. But the problem, in my opinion, arises when the literature, arts, and poetry being glorified by the community largely happen to be European or American. While POC content creators are not missing from this community, their cultural representation is.
Finding Traces Of DA In Indian Culture
In the pursuit of diverse representation in the Dark Academia subculture, I browsed the internet and tried out different hashtags, hoping to find one that would lead me to a treasure trove of Indian, or simply non-white academia content. The results, however, were quite sparse. In the process, I did stumble upon two Instagram pages, thelitnerd, and desi.aesthetic, that host diverse Dark Academia content on their respective pages, especially Indian content that falls under this aesthetic.
The admin of desi.aesthetic was motivated to start his own academia page when he realized that many of the academia pages he had come across were run by Indians. Despite this, the content that these pages created, which was rare, touched upon the richness of Indian philosophy, poetry, prose, and history. As a result, he was driven to start this page, and decided to embody ‘an unabashed desi aesthetic.’
According to the admin of thelitnerd, the problem of the lack of diversity in content is not confined to the Dark Academia community but is a symptom of a larger problem- the insufficient representation of non-western literature in European and American schools. A lot of the literature that students there are exposed to, such as Frankenstein and the works of William Shakespeare, fall perfectly into the Dark Academia aesthetic. Inevitably then, the content that primarily seeps into the subculture tends to be Eurocentric.
“If Dark Academia subculture is to be diversified, there needs to be a conscious shift in actual academia and school syllabi across the world. There need to be more translations made for non-western works, especially Asian and African literature, where there are thousands of languages.”
In her opinion, non-western literature is a long way from becoming mainstream, and to do so
would require a lot of effort and a lot of funds.
The admin of desi.aesthetic believes that the lack of non-western content within the community has little to do with disregard for such content. The interest in ancient civilizations of Egypt, China, and Japan are proof of it. Most people have learned about Greece, Rome, and Ptolemaic Egypt, but little is taught about their Indian equivalents. “The issue is a lack of awareness,” he adds. The community needs to be made aware of the abundance of multicultural academia content that is available
When it comes to the content on the thelitnerd Instagram page, the admin realised that the Indian DA content generally receives fewer likes and comments as compared to the European content. Recently, she shared a post about obscure ancient Irish alphabets and linguistics. The post received as many as 4000 likes, and grew further after the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier shared it on his Instagram story.
On the other hand, when she posts any Tamil content, she receives only about a thousand likes, despite having around 20k followers. “Now I don’t think everyone who enjoyed learning about Irish linguistics is Irish or have Irish heritage, but why isn’t it the same for other non-European cultures?” she adds.
Despite the disparity in the amount of engagement her western content receives as opposed to her Indian- particularly, Tamil- content, the thelitnerd admin is unfazed. She is determined to continue posting the Indian content.
“It takes a lot of work,” she says, “for Indian DAs to make their content more clear, make the context clear, explain the culture behind it, etc. I prepare and deliberate for at least 2 days for every Tamil DA content I post, because I have a lot of explaining to do about every text and translation. I believe if I don’t do that, those posts will get even lesser likes. The same cannot be said for when I post Western literature Content – most of the time I don’t write any caption at all, but they get 5k + likes. The amount of work I have to put in to post one Tamil DA content exhausts me mostly. They don’t get much recognition too, and it definitely has an impact on the frequency of my Tamil DA posts. But then once in a while, I get guilty and feel like my culture deserves a representation here too, and I research some Tamil content to
The content creators are of the general opinion that the lack of Indian content within the Dark Academia subculture, or even just the Academia subculture, in mainstream media is definitely not because of the lack of such material. In fact, there is a lot of material within Indian literature, poetry, and mythology that fit seamlessly into this aesthetic.
Some Indian Dark Academia Recommendations
According to the thelitnerd admin, who creates Tamil academia content, “writers Perumal Murugan and Salma can very well fit in Dark Academia if their works are more vividly translated and read. A lot of ancient Tamil literature, especially the ones from Bhakti literature, have a lot of yearning. With respect to films, I think some of Balu Mahendra and Mani Ratnam’s movies can fit in DA.”
The desi.aesthetic admin has a long list of things he believes fit perfectly into the Dark Academia aesthetic. “The epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kalidasa. South Indian poets. Temple architecture. Carnatic music?! Bronze work and wooden handicrafts. Indian philosophy- Stoicism and the Bhagavad Gita share many commonalities. Tanjore and Chera
paintings. Indo-Mughal stuff.”
The European roots are intrinsic in the Dark Academia subculture which is often defined within its context. While Tumblr has a considerable amount of diversity in its Dark Academia content, mainstream media in the form of Instagram and TikTok are yet to subvert from the Eurocentric definition of this subculture and to make its own multicultural mark within the community.
Revathi Nair is a psychology graduate and student writer with interests in neuropsychology and cognition.