Culture podcasts: From clueless to connoisseur

Amrita V Nair | Updated on January 08, 2020 Published on January 08, 2020

More than just a frame: The Lonely Palette podcast breaks down the significance of an artwork and its impact on culture   -  ISTOCK.COM

For those who have been out of touch with the arts, here is a selection of podcasts to start with

The world of art and culture is often seen as esoteric and inaccessible to the masses. In India, especially, where the educational system places much more importance on “practical” and utilitarian subjects, few can lay claim to a strong understanding of various forms and works of art, their provenance or their role in shaping the world we live in. Even those who are curious or interested in learning more may feel intimidated about where to start. Fortunately, there are numerous excellent podcasts out there, many of them created by artists, creators and other insiders with the depth and breadth of knowledge to turn the clueless into connoisseurs. Here are a few to get you started.

99% Invisible

Roman Mars, the creator and host of 99% Invisible, is something of a rockstar in the podcasting realm. The podcast had humble roots — Mars began recording the show in 2010 from his home studio — but it quickly skyrocketed to the top of numerous podcast lists. Today, it is estimated that more than a million listeners tune into each episode. The podcast, as best described by Mars himself, is “an examination of the design and architecture of our shared urban environs, featuring stories behind overlooked places and things we take for granted”. The podcast has over 350 episodes thus far and the creators themselves have segmented them on its website under eight categories — Architecture, Infrastructure, Cities, Objects, Sounds, Visuals, Technology and History. While you can’t go wrong with picking an episode that looks interesting from any of these listed categories, if you are still daunted by this array of choices, I recommend starting with Episode 66, which focusses on Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City.

Listen at

The Lonely Palette

I cannot draw to save my life. Even today, as an adult, the extent of my artistic talents is firmly at the level of a kindergartener, and the finest painting I can conjure up with considerable effort remains that fabled triangle-atop-a-rectangle house and three flower pots for a garden landscape. As such, I have immense respect for artists because their talent is a few steps shy of sorcery, as far as I am concerned. However, I am also woefully ignorant about art and art history — something that The Lonely Palette is remedying, one painting at a time. Hosted by art historian Tamar Avishai, the podcast starts off with interviews (often hilarious) with museum visitors in front of the painting under discussion and then explains in detail the historical context of the work and the artist, the symbolism or plausible interpretations of the painting, as well as its impact on arts and culture. Listen at

The Sporkful

With the rise and rise of celebrity chefs, cooking shows and foodstagram, there is no disputing that the culinary arts are now taken more seriously than ever. However, few pause to think about the cultural import of what we eat. If you want to bridge this gap, The Sporkful is the podcast to tune into. Hosted by Dan Pashman, the podcast describes itself as one that obsesses about food to learn more about people. The episodes have focussed on topics as varied as the food history of native Americans and the profusion of songs about jelly. The podcast is immensely popular — so much so that Pashman has hosted it live to sold-out audiences across the US. It has also won a slew of awards, including the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Food Podcast, which is presented by the James Beard Foundation for excellence in the culinary arts and related fields. Listen at

Song Exploder

How high would your expectations be for a podcast that has been described as “probably the best use of the podcast format ever” and as “everything a podcast should be”? Astronomically high, you say, dear reader? Well, prepare to have those stratospheric expectations met, maybe even exceeded, by Song Exploder. In each episode of the podcast, creator Hrishikesh Hirway interviews some of the greatest musicians of our time about a single song from their oeuvre. The artistes are encouraged to delve deep into the minutiae of their songwriting process as well. The podcast has been around since 2014 and has been hosted primarily by Hirway, who is himself a musician. In 2019, folk rock artiste Thao Nguyen signed on as guest host for a year, with Hirway staying on as executive producer. The interviewees span a wide variety of musical genres, with episodes featuring classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, film composer John Carpenter, as well as megabands such as U2 and Metallica. If you have ever listened to a song and wondered about the particular stylistic choices that led to its final form, this podcast is for you. Listen at

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer, public policy specialist and podcast enthusiast

Published on January 08, 2020
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