AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 406

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Session 406: Communication and Popular Media in India

Organizer: Kama Maclean, University of New South Wales, Australia

Chair: Frank F. Conlon, University of Washington, USA

Discussant: Philip Lutgendorf, University of Iowa, USA

This panel will explore communications and popular media in India through a multidisciplinary lens. Drawing on history, political economy, media/cultural studies and anthropology we engage with new and old forms of communication technologies. We examine the effects of media, its circulation and appropriation at different critical junctures of history. The panel probes the way in which the image has circulated across time, as for example in the case of Bhagat Singh, one of India’s most celebrated freedom fighters. Indeed, Bhagat Singh’s continuing popularity is best reflected in the many wall papers widely available for download to mobile phones across the subcontinent and beyond. Such considerations lead us to further examine the recent mobile phone revolution, and the issues surrounding this new form of media, by investigating the myriad ways in which it has revolutionised India’s historical, cultural and political landscape. These ‘communication ecologies’, and the impact they have on ordinary lives of people, many of whom are illiterate or semi-literate is of special concern. By drawing on different case studies, this panel engages with wider issues relating to religion, economic liberalisation, and the interplay between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ forms of communication in contemporary Indian society.

Mobile Phones and Immorality
Assa Doron, Australian National University, Australia

In this paper I examine the way in which mobile phones have been incorporated into the everyday lives of people in India. More specifically, I examine the mobile phone as a site of continuity and change, blurring the boundaries between the culturally anchored concepts of ‘inside’ ‘outside’, ‘public’ and ‘private’ in Indian society. I investigate this blurring of boundaries by focusing on mobile phone screensavers/wallpaper of the deities, various caller tones/caller tunes, and the circulation of pornographic images and video-clips. This proliferation of the image has been popularized by the increasingly cheap (and illegal) multimedia phones known as ‘china mobiles’, with their digital camera, MMS and Bluetooth function among others, bridging the gap between the internet and mobile phones. Finally, I argue that the new possibilities for the flow of information and images can be located and understood within a wider framework of visual culture and practices of gift exchange and distinction. The analysis draws on both ethnographic data collected over several months in 2009/10, which is supported by previous long-term studies in north India and particularly the city of Banaras (Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh.

The Secret History of Bhagat Singh's Portrait: Image and Communication in Colonial India
Kama Maclean, University of New South Wales, Australia

This paper explores the utility of the image in the communication of nationalist resistance and the construction of martyrdom in 1930s India. Focusing on one of the most iconic images of the period, the paper traces how an original portrait of Bhagat Singh was devised as a tactic of political subversion and intended as revolutionary propaganda, although it became more widely interpreted as an icon of defiant nationalism and imperial injustice. The image quickly morphed from its original format, and was circulated in the form of paintings and drawings, on posters and badges, rapidly travelling beyond the confines of the literate domain, and made a decisive impact on the political landscape

Cell phones and politics: India’s first “mass mobile” election – Uttar Pradesh, 2007
Robin Jeffrey, National University of Singapore, Australia

This paper, co-authored with Assa Doron, argues that the 2007 state elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state, were the first “mass mobile phone” elections in India. The availability of cheap mobile telephony provided the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which won an outright majority in a 403-seat assembly, with an ideal tool to add to its impressive political organization. The paper documents the organizational strengths of the BSP, charts the spectacular growth of the cheap cell phone in UP and explains how a party once based on Dalit (ex-Untouchable) support was able to cooperate with Brahmins by devising and popularizing an appeal that made Dalit-Brahmin unity seem sensible and desirable. In these processes the mobile phone acted as a remarkable “force multiplier” to the existing BSP organization. The paper does not contend that the mobile phone won the 2007 elections; rather, it argues that the BSP, already having an effective organization based on dedicated workers, was able to exploit a potent new tool which was ideally suited to poor people who often were limited in their ability to travel. Similarly, the mobile phone enabled BSP workers to circumvent the general hostility of mainstream media. The paper points to similarities with the Obama campaigns of 2008 and notes that though other political groups in India attempt to imitate the methods, they often lack the essential organization and dedicated workers.