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Panel 3: Beyond the Desirable: Critical Perspectives on Media-Modernity

Chairs: Britta Ohm, Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Switzerland, Per Ståhlberg, Department of Media and Communication Studies, Södertörn University, Sweden & Vibodh Parthasarathi, Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Milia Islamia, India.

VENUE: Edilrummet, Akademiska Föreningen (AF), Sandgatan 2, Lund


Three sessions:

1. Tuesday 20 Sept, 14.30–16.30
2. Wednesday 21 Sept, 10.00–12.00
3. Wednesday 21 Sept, 15.30–17.30

Session 1. Participation

Chair Britta Ohm

Ananda Mitra: The Emerging Role of Digital Networks in India: Voices

There is an increasing presence of the connected devices among large numbers of people in India where the users of the devices are able to seamlessly connect to the Internet and use applications that become available on the Internet.  One of the key such resources is the ability to create micro-blogs using the Twitter service that results in the production of tweets.  In this paper we suggest that these tweets offer a moment of empowerment where an individual, who has often been silenced for a lack of a varieties of capitals to find a voice in the public sphere, is now able to find that voice through the tweets.  Further, we argue that these tweets can be considered, in sum, to tell a narrative in the voice of the individual where each tweet becomes a “narrative bit (narb)” that encapsulate a specific story that the individual, or a group of people want to narrate.  Consequently, an analysis of the narbs can offer a glimpse into the World of the people who are narbing on a specific topic.  In this paper we offer the analysis of narbs collected prior to the national elections in India in 2014.  In the narrative analysis of the tweets we offer a description of the way in which myriad voices coalesce to tell a story of Indian politics around specific narrative elements.  Using techniques of Natural Language Processing and narrative analysis based on narrative theories, we visualize specific narrative maps that summarize the contents of thousands of tweets representing the emerging voices of people in India who are now able to use the digital networks to find their voices in spaces that could not have been accessed by these speakers in the past. 

Kazimuddin Ahmed: "Mediating Identity and Conflict: Private Commercial News Television in Assam

Assam, in India’s northeast, is witnessing a pronounced increase in the 24x7 private commercial news television regime. From the first satellite channel set up in 2004, there are now six that are operational, with two more that are about to be established. In addition to an “objective” reading of the news, as seen in state run channel Doordarshan, these channels have additional meanings for Assam’s social and political lives. News television has taken on responsibilities as moral police, vehicle for democracy and justice, and mediator of conflict. In a context characterised by decades of complex political processes such as identity movements, armed secessionism and struggles for autonomy, as well as countless episodes of identity/ethnicity related violence, television in Assam plays a further role that is of significant consequence to the state and its peoples. It actively influences, creates and mediates notions of identity, ethnicity and conflict. As part of an ongoing doctoral research on the themes of participatory media, power and conflict in the context of a commercial news television regime, this paper illustrates how an influential commercial television media in Assam interacts with sub national political agendas and aspirations. Based on interviews I will also explore how the audience - who is the subject of the rhetoric of rights, citizenship and democracy that television uses - views this phenomenon and what expectations does it have for the self appointed arbitrator of democracy and justice.


This paper proposes to work on contemporary incidents of violence that have created a rupture in the idea of citizenship, law, reportage, citizen journalism and their popular imaginations in the Indian sub-continent. There is in display an ugly modernity, by which I mean the enmeshing of the liberal regime of the rule-of-law with the constant and repetitive pornographized telegenic display of its aberrant citizens.  This mass circulation has been made possible through the proliferation of mobile phones with camera which are often high resolution and not very expensive. Some of the cases I would like to engage with in this paper are the images of the hanging bodies of two cattle traders in Jharkhand in 2016 one of whom was a child, the brutalized dead body of Syed Sharif Khan who was lynched by a mob in Dimapur in 2015 etc. In the past few months there has been a larger circulation of such violated bodies and especially those of Dalit bodies or Muslim bodies in India. The photograph is a meta-archive as argued by David Bate and it assists in the ‘grammatization of memory’. Thus, it is crucial to look into the space of memory itself and its place in history vis-à-vis these photos. One important thing to note here is that these photographs have circulated in the domain of the digital. Mobile phone footage or images create an embodied authenticity as argued by Bolette Blaagaard and in this process we are the post-human viewers of knowledge in a scenario where ‘subject-object-knowledge’ distinction is blurred. The camera and especially the mobile phone camera also act as the facilitator for the event of violence.  So how is the citizen’s body being constructed through these dialectics of the violent image – who is the ideal citizen and who is the aberrant, are some of the questions that this paper will engage with.


Session 2. Producing meaning:

Chair: Vibodh Parthasarathi


Ravinder Kaur: The Second Liberation. Spectacular Capital and the Making of the Common Man

This paper examines the mediation of the political category of ‘aam aadmi’ in postreform India. Through a visual archive of popular campaigns sponsored by the Times of India, I show how and when the category of ‘the people’ is displaced by the ‘aam aadmi’ as a central figure in Indian politics. While most studies locate the emergence of aam aadmi as a political category in the anti-corruption movement, I trace its genealogy to a prior moment in the liberalization of Indian economy when private capital began playing a larger role in shaping the political landscape. In this formative moment we can witness how the linkages between India’s desires for open markets, aspiration of upward class mobility, and deep anxiety of losing the race to become a global player forms the background against which the common man makes its appearance as a political figure. I consider the nature of the political that this shift indicates within the wider currents of 1990s economic liberalization.


Sunitha Chitrapu: Should you listen to your wife? Tamil language television debates on modernity


Television programming on festival holidays in Tamil Nadu includes a show in the literary ‘high’ Tamil language called a pattimandram (literary debate) featuring two teams of about three speakers each and a moderator called a naduvar. Speakers and moderators frequently include professors and authors. The best-known pattimandram moderator is undoubtedly Solomon Pappaiah, a former professor of the Tamil department at the American College, Madurai. While debating college professors may not at first glance appear to be primetime entertainment television programming, leave alone festival special programming, this format is quite popular with Tamil-language television viewers and  racks up hundreds of thousands of views when posted online.

The topics of the debates include statements such as Thaya Tharama (Mother or wife?) and Vidumurai Thirunal,Sugama, Sumaya (Festival holidays—Joy or burden?) and give us a clue to the intended audience demographic. Topics such as ‘Kalakalappana kudumbathirkku peridhum karam yaar: Aangale, Pengale’ (Who is responsible for a joyful family? Men! Women!)  sometimes pit all-women’s teams against all-men’s teams (Moderators though appear to only be males). The discussion included provocative statements such as women’s lack of a sense of humour and vociferous rebuttals to them. Dressed in their traditional clothing—spotless, white veshtis for men and shiny silk sarees with jasmine in the hair for women— these passionate debators offer a glimpse of an empowering vision of dissent, in a Tamilian flavour.

Female speakers like Bharathi Bhaskar, who holds a day-job as a vice-president at Citibank, Chennai, give voice to the enormous burden that women, especially working women, carry in families. While some of these arguments use stereotypical tropes of women as martyrs to the cause of their families, they offer a space where primarily unspoken cultural codes are stated and questioned with great enthusiasm, by both men and women.

For its Diwali edition in 2015, a television channel featured a collaboration with the Madurai Kamban Kazhagam (Madurai Kambar Society. Kambar is a revered thirteenth century Tamil poet who wrote a Tamil version of the Ramayana). The topic was ‘Should one listen to one’s wife or not, as revealed in Kambar’s Ramayanam.’ If you stop for a moment to consider that every one of the six speakers and the moderator was familiar with a thirteenth-century epic and was quoting from it frequently, and that the studio audience was delightedly following an undoubtedly feminist discussion, you will recognise how unique the pattimandram is when compared to the other programming on Tamil television which includes films, game shows, and soap operas.

The pattimandram appears to be a unique traditional cultural form that promotes debate and allows dissenting views to be stated and heard, not just in rarefied-elite circles, but in the larger public sphere provided by both cable and terrestrial television that reach large numbers of Tamil language speakers, in Tamil Nadu and around the world.

I propose to do a textual analysis of pattimandram shows from the last five years that are available online to examine the pattimandram in the context of ‘alternative modernities’ (Taylor,1999), multiple modernities’ (Eisenstadt, 2000),‘vernacular modernity’ (Neyazi, 2010),  ‘vernacular nationalisms’ (Moorti, 2004),  and ‘cultural revival within the horizon  of a global modernity’ (Ståhlberg, 2002). I would also like to include interviews with producers, speakers, moderators and fans to understand the beliefs and aspirations that motivate the production and reception of this cultural form in the 21st century.

Britta Ohm: Communicating Exclusion: Media Engagement, Ambivalence, Avoidance and Resistance among Muslims and Dalits in North India

Taken together, Muslims and Dalits and Muslim Dalits (Pasmandas) account for almost a third of India's population. Over the past two decades, there has been increasing research on the systematic and often violent discrimination, precarious socio-economic and cultural conditions and the complex political struggles of these groups in India's constitutional democracy. They have, however, remained nearly completely absent from the growing body of scholarship on the Indian media landscape and the related various transformations since the liberalisation policies of the early 1990s.                   Research has so far remained focussed on electronic mainstream media, the Hindi language press and evolved middle class media practises and patterns of aspiration and consumption. Marginalised both in professional media production as well as in mainstream media representations, Muslims and Dalits rarely appear here other than as excluded, victimsed or as potential terrorists. Remarkably, though, despite their various, partly long-standing socio-political movements and their well- increased media exposure and access, scholarship so far does not conceive of Muslims and Dalits in terms of counter-publics either. This discrepancy in research on their socio-cultural conditions and political agency on the one hand and large ignorance of their relationship with media on the other seems to imply two presumptions: Firstly, Muslims' and Dalits' exclusion from social, economic and political options generates engagement and opposition, while their exclusion from mainstream media does not. Secondly, as long as they do not perceivably figure and practise in these media, their agency and debates remain disconnected from them and hence do not warrant a media approach.                         My approach contends these suggestions. Exclusion from media is intrinsically related to socio-economic exclusion and political discrimination and can, in times of increasing diffusion of media technology and contents in ever larger sections of society, not be understood as disconnected from this process but has to be seen as a communicative sphere in itself. I thus argue for broadening the understanding of “media discourse” by focussing on Dalit and Muslim discourses about media, which they experience mostly from a subject position. I will look at this “alternative” media discourse in close relation with the two crucial discourses that link Dalits and Muslims – on the politics of reservation and on the politics of violence – in three urban contexts. Delhi, Patna (Bihar) and Ahmedabad (Gujarat) show somewhat “graded” conditions with regard to these politics, which my research sets in context with the 'graded inequality' (Ambedkar) amongst Dalits and Muslims.



Session 3. Histories and concepts:

Chair: Per Ståhlberg

Vibodh Parthasarathi: Diversity on Mute? The Shifting Presence of Media Diversity in Press Policy, c.1947-1990

This paper provides a methodological pathway to engage with the making of the enabling environment of our news media. The central interest is to illustrate how media diversity, unlike media freedom and media autonomy that are also modern values, failed to become a core concern in debates on press policy. The paper begins by laying out the interests and compulsions shaping policy perspectives on the press in its formative years to emphasise a historicism, often lacking in the high-positivism shaping the field of policy studies. The paper then scrutinises debates around press policy during the first four decades after independence (1950-90) to reveal the trajectory of contests between dominant strands of liberal and progressive propositions on the press. Our approach is akin to that characterized as being reconstructive, implying both the present-ness and the theoretical disposition of the paper. Thus, the ways in which the inheritance of regulatory thinking pre-determined the perimeters of policy options during media deregulation of the 1990s, may be worth exploring as a separate endeavour.


Musab Iqbal: Rationalization of cyclical violence: The role of Urdu and English newspapers in creating semantic fields to mediate and communicate memory

The historical category of 'immigrant' introduced during the colonial regime has transcended the time and borders of nationalistic imagination to legitimate the sporadic violence in northeastern state of India, Assam. The cyclical violence has unfolded in the complex demography of region and other sub-national aspirations have found a potential ‘other’ to continue the movement. The violence operates at multiple levels creating a complex semantic field tied to historical time. Urdu newspaper, Akhbar e Mashriq, already seen as ‘minoritized’ press for oppressed minority (Indian Muslims) mediates into the cycle of violence with a ‘memory of victim’. With minimum resource at disposal the Urdu press then turn the ‘immigrant’ discourse, in the absence of substantial ground report, into a discourse of minority oppression, ignoring the linguistic diversity and category within Muslims and deploying categories of ‘Ummah and ‘Qaom’ while Assam Tribune, one of the oldest English newspaper sees bare immigrant and rationalize violence. The disparity and semantic tension between these two newspapers reveals a complex sociology and historical situation. The modern history of people and their mobility is then strategically adjusted along historical, linguistic, and religious borders by media while borrowing the colonial historical conceptual categories and freeze the history of these people mired in violence. The memory of communities finds the medium to interpret the routine violence and culturally locate itself through media. The paper will look at this complex time-space fabric stabilized/de-stabilized through historical-semantic field drawing from work of Reinhart Koselleck more closely.  

Tabbasum Ruhi Khan: Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism: Indian Muslim Youth’s “Convoluted Modernities”

My ethnographic research among Indian Muslim populations examines alternative claims on the meaning of modernity made from the margins of society by populations deemed to be situated decidedly outside of modernity’s fold.  If modernity is defined as a flux, and if modern subjectivities are inclined to constant questioning of the present while continuously recreating themselves by experimenting with new knowledge systems and potentialities (Giddens, 1991; Hall, 1996a & 1996b; Appadurai, 1996), then Islamic subjectivities are perceived to be rallying around certainties of established cultures, religions, and ways of life, while rejecting the creative turbulence of modernity (Castells, 1997; Huntington, 1993). These non-reconciliatory divides are reflected in the opposition between modernity and Islam, wherein Islam is projected as inherently inimical to modernizing ideas and incapable of rationality or self-reflexivity, even as Islam’s emphasis on equality, fraternity, and justice are artfully deflected or erased (Gellner, 1994; Halpren, 1963; Lerner, 1964). It is also assumed that despite ubiquitous flows of technology, finance, and populations, and given the pervasive global connectivity enabled by omnipresent media, Islamic populations remain impervious to new ideas and lifestyle options.

However, on examining Indian Muslim youth’s emergent subjectivities as they unfold within a rapidly globalizing Indian economy engulfed by revolutions in communication technologies, I question the tenability of unresolvable rifts, and argue that dichotomous perspectives do not capture the dynamism of global modernities. Yet these views persist, because in dominant conceptualizations of modernity religion is considered to be necessarily separate from secular civil society. But in developing worlds religious thought and practices continue to inform everyday life, even as these societies organize around modern political-economic principles and bureaucratic-administrative structures, as in the world’s largest democracy, India. Calling for renewed investigation into modernity’s multiple ascriptions my research posits the idea of “convoluted modernities” which highlights the significance of creative dissonance in construction of life experiences. Defying binaries of tradition and modernity, my informants inhabit with equal ease potentially hostile spaces marking “global cool” (as in MTV) and global Islam (as in Islamic televangelist channel Peace TV broadcast from Dubai) to reflect their complex investment in materialism, individualism, along with a concomitant engagement with symbols and traditions of Islam. Indeed, I posit that the increased presence of Islamic symbology such as the veil, the hijab, in Indian democratic sphere represents an identity politics infused with ideas drawn from global politics (given the increased connectivity) as well as a greater awareness of their constitutional rights as citizens of democratic secular India.

Ankita Deb:  Bombay Cinemas Modern Marriages: 1970s and Couple Romance

The 1970s in Bombay cinema is an experience of modernity through the couple romance. The entry of the married couple as a key site of enquiry in the film culture erases the presence of the feudal family which existed as an antithesis to couple formation in the films of the yore. This new form of romance (primarily through marriage) creates a nuclear world of the couple replete with a new dimension of liberal consumerism. The home acquires an important space in marriage where two forms of desires intersect; the amorous and the material. The material notion of the couple creates the home bound wife and the executive class husband whose lives are intertwined by the allure of consumerism. The nuclear realm of their marriage also allows a new notion of intimacy, arising out of tactile bodies within an innate material relationship in the new filmi landscape. I would like to read the modernity of this moment as a revision of the couple histories in Bombay cinema, which situate the end of feudal family romance, or the intimate romance after the liberalization movement of the 1990s [Prasad: 1998, Gopal: 2011]. Situating traces of the global modern and the rupture in the aesthetics of romantic desire in the 70s the films initiate the entry of individual choice and romantic freedom in the public. This public form of modernity will be addressed in this paper through the mainstream Bombay films like Aap Ki Kasam (J Omprakash 1974), Ajnabee (Shakti Samanta; 1974), Phagun (Rajinder Singh Bedi; 1973), Pati Patni Aur Woh (B R Chopra; 1978), Kabhie Kabhi (Yash Chopra; 1976) and Daag (Yash Chopra; 1974). I will also draw largely from the other visual material like advertisements, posters, letters to the editors present in the film magazines and tabloid newspapers which paralleled the onscreen logic of romance.

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