Cinema and the Bad New Times
(Foundation Day Lecture at Gauhati Cine Club. 26 April, 2013)
The title of my talk is adapted from a maxim of Bertolt Brecht’s. In an entry dated 25 August, 1938, Walter Benjamin records in his ‘Conversations with Brecht’: ‘Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones’ (Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, tr. Anna Bostock, NLB, 1973). Brecht’s maxim is a reminder of the grim reality faced by the people of Europe at the time: the rise of fascism and the imminence of World War II, caused by the conflict among competing imperialist powers. Peace and justice and democracy lay in ruins, presaging worse times to come. We are not much better off in the second decade of the 21st century, though our crisis is of a different kind. The grim global reality has a bearing on India’s current plight, and we have to take on board what is going on in the economic and political spheres, but my main focus is naturally on a particular range of cultural issues, and I shall talk, in due course, about the bad new things which cinema and the film society movement face at the moment in our own country. But since this is a commemorative occasion there should be some words spoken about the good old things and some exploration of the theoretical and historical issues concerned. I want to start with the late Dr. Bhupen Hazarika and his times; he was among a small number of people who had founded the Gauhati Cine Club in 1965.
It is well-known that the fifties and the sixties were the time when film societies sprang up all over India, mainly in the cities and mainly through the agency of people from the educated middle class, some of whom were professional intellectuals. All of them were interested in ‘good’ cinema, as opposed to the ‘basket of entertainment’ offered by Indian films, and wanted opportunities for viewing both classic and modern films from all corners of the globe. A small section of them had been bitten by the film bug and wanted to make films some day; a few had actual experience of film-making. Bhupen Hazarika belonged to that small section. By 1964 he had made 5 films, and between 1956 and 1988, Dr. Hazarika had directed or co-directed 15 films, some of them documentaries. That makes him a major film personality in Assam, not just a singer and composer known all over India. The legendaryJyoti Prasad Agarwala, who had made the first Assamese feature film, Joymati, in 1935,along with another stalwart Bishnu Prasad Rabha, had discovered the young Bhupen, and his first contact with films was made when sang two songs for Agarwal’s Indramalati in 1939, when he was just fourteen years old.
But the point to note is that films were just one element in the larger story of Assamese culture, and of Indian culture, in the age of the struggle forfreedom; and the story continues subsequently in the early years after Independence. Jyoti Prasad and Bishnu Prasad were geniuses of the first order; they gave shape to the performative part of modern Assamese culture just as literature was transformed byLakshminathBezbarua, Hem Goswami, Bholanath Das and others, and fiction took new directions withPadmanathGohainBarua and Rajani Kanta Bardoloi. The performative part was particularly important when the need of the hour was to represent the masses, many of them illiterate in the formal sense, but culturally and intellectually enriched by the satriya traditions and the folk and tribal ways of life. The people, both rural and urban, were ready for the new politics of culture in the era of movements and struggles; the elite and the modernist had to respond to their needs and desires and talk their language before the people would join. That is why the new consciousness of the avant-garde, shaped by aspirations for political, intellectual and cultural modernity, sought to express itself particularly in music, dance, drama and cinema, all of which could be accessed easily by the people, and most of which could spread messages by word of mouth at incredible speed. This is the reason why the left-wing movement in culture, which started in the 1930s and spread to all parts of India in no time, took up the performing arts in a big way. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), founded in these turbulent times, had writers and painters in their ranks, but music, dance and theatre were in the core of their repertoire, and most of their epoch-making innovations were in those areas. Cinema was important, but ‘poor’ cinema was not sustainable under the circumstances. Jyoti Prasad and Bishnu Prasad gravitated towards the left-wing by the sheer logic of their radical thought and practice. Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika followed in their footsteps. When the Assam IPTA comes into being, its programme had already been inscribed in movements and performances. The culture of Assam before and after the World War had been indelibly marked by left-wing politics.
I hope I may be permitted to move briefly into my own culture, since I am much more familiar with the Bengal story. If you look back on the years marked by the vital presence of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in Bengal – the nineteen forties and fifties in particular, though the movement started earlier and lasted longer – you may find that the mental map of culture you have prepared needs considerable revision. I have purposefully included the fifties and sixties because though the movement had ebbed by then, the moment had survived, and creativity was in many ways at its peak. Therefore what looms large in my mapping happen to be Nabanna of Bijan Bhattacharya, Raktakarabi of Shombhu Mitra, Angar and TinerTalwar of UtpalDutt, EbangIndrajit of BadalSircar, the novels of Manik Bandyopadhyay, SatinathBhaduri, Samaresh Basu, SulekhaSanyal and NaniBhowmik, the poetry of Bishnu Dey, Arun Mitra, Samar Sen, Subhash Mukhopadhyay and Sukanto Bhattacharya, the music of Ravi Shankar, JyotirindraMaitra, Hemango Biswas, Binay Ray and Salil Chowdhury --and the incomparable Harindranath Chattopadhyay who composed largely in Hindi -- the choreography ofUday Shankar, Shanti Bardhan and Shombhu Bhattacharya, the paintings and sketches of SomenathHore, JainulAbedin and Chitta Prasad, the photography of Sunil Jana, the graphics of KhaledChowdhury, the cinema of Nimai Ghosh, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, and the like. Much of what I have listed has endured and a good many of the texts have achieved the status of modern classics. The ideological projection of my mapping is obvious; most of the texts had deep links with the organized cultural movement inspired, aided and propagated by the Communist Party of India. This movement was variously known at the time and afterwards: the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Marxist Cultural Movement or simply the IPTA Movement.
There are some exceptions, though.Raktakarabi and EbangIndrajit and Pather Panchali and a few others had no manifest links with the Party or the movement. But the organizational absence does not negate strong immanent links. That is something one has to take into account.
But one important matter just leaps to the eye as one looks back. In a fair attempt at mapping one must also look at the texts which lie outside this listing, and many of those were more popular than the ones I have mentioned. We must remember that most of the people of the day, in the countryside in particular, were formally illiterate and had no access to the texts which comprised high culture and mass culture. But their own culture, textually rich and geographically diverse, was pulsating with life throughout this period, largely unaffected by metropolitan movements. Looking at the city of Kolkata and other towns, one sees a variety of cultural texts which gave satisfaction to the ranks of middle-class readers and viewers. For instance, Pasher Bari and Shyamalee ran for months and months on the professional stage, compared to the brief lives of the progressive dramatic texts;Shapmochan andLukochurioutgrossedPather Panchali and Meghe Dhaka Tara by miles. It is true that marketing and established conventions often win out against innovative texts and radical ideas, but instituted values may not explain everything. Popular taste had demands which could not be met by the new cultural texts.
There is also a radical moment in culture which is not linked to left-wing realism and modernism. Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay and BibhutiBhushan Bandyopadhyay were innovators; Ashapurna Devi and Bimal Mitra were middle-brow and enormously popular; Jibanananda Das, AmiyaChakravarty, SudhindranathDatta and Buddhadeva Bose were the leading poets, experimenting with the possible shapes and meanings of poetic language; there were artists and musicians who did landmark work outside the sphere of influence of the progressive movement. There was the most important repertoire of classical music which some of the greatest artists of the age explored. Many authors and their readers were indifferent or even hostile to left-wing politics and its cultural values. But above all, there was the looming presence of Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941, but whose oeuvre was both a frame of reference and an inspiration for successive generations, left, right and centre. His voice of protest against what he saw as the murderous greed of imperialism was one of the most radical in his late years, and this aspect of his work fitted in with the deep humanism of his earlier fiction and poetry. The centenary of his year of birth in 1961 created a stir which made you wonder who would've thought the old man had so much blood in him. His work and thought were simply the biggest chunk of what the literate Bengali of the day would enjoy and cherish and meditate upon. It can be no one's position that the best or the most of what happened in Bengali culture from the thirties to the sixties of the last century were directly inspired or propagated by the organized Leftist movement.
The story of the music of the day illustrates the point further. Take Salil Chowdhury, who was arguably the most versatile and innovative composer on the star-studded musical scene of the day. His initial move was in the radical direction, composing one memorable song after another for the cause of the worker and the peasant. But, at the same time, he was composing modern Bengali 'pop', bringing in a variety of styles and modes which simply took the listening community by storm. Soon afterwards he would be composing wonderful songs for Hindi films like Madhumati (scripted by Ritwik Ghatak) and captivate an all-India audience. Debabrata Biswas and Suchitra Mitra sang for the leftist cause, but they were essentially exponents of Rabindra-Sangeet, in which genre they were to become legends. HemantaMukhopadhyay straddled the musical spheres of progressive songs, Rabindra Sangeet, modern pop and Hindi film music. One could go on in the same vein about other cultural areas. If you look at the biographical order of the progressive artists concerned, you will find that at some point their lives meshed with the ongoing movement of history, and that they saw the need for marching with the people and representing them in their respective spheres of work. The times were very difficult. War and Famine and Partition and Riots and Refugees marked the turbulent forties and fifties. The resistance to exploitation and oppression grew among all classes of people. The anti-colonial struggle took on new meanings and new dimensions. The Communist movement gathered momentum as Bengal lurched from one crisis to another. Many of the best minds of the times stood up for the distressed, the downtrodden and the exploited. It does seem to be the case that the radical moment often enters culture from the movement which sees participation from large masses of the working people. But in most cases that is neither the beginning of the story nor the end.
There is in fact no easy passage from strongly felt unease and anger with the existing scheme of things to solidarity with the most oppressed and/or the most vocal, and then on to a viable and workable means of constructing a cultural text adequate for the representational job. Then there is the business, much discussed in Marxism, of catching the movement of history in your text, something that Marx and Engels had discerned in Balzac and Lenin in Tolstoy. This links up with Marx's profound idea of class struggle as the principal motive force in history, and the corollary that the great artist -- just as the great thinker -- sees the birth of a new society in the womb of the old. The large story of determination of consciousness by the relations of production is indeed just that, a large story which demands an enormous amount of gloss in specific cases. There are two determinations at work in cultural history, which is actually a history of consciousness, both at the writerly and the readerly ends. Something happens in the mind of the author to make them aware of things happening in history, just as something happens in the mind of the reader. But to explain just what happens when this awareness takes shape in the work of art, you have to traverse the story of the relations of material production to arrive at the available means of mental and artistic production. This is what Walter Benjamin had pointed out a long time back. He had also introduced the notion of an artistic break in this area of text-making, just as Louis Althusser postulated an epistemic break in philosophy. This is the terrain of over-determination, an idea taken over from Freud by Jacques Lacan and used fruitfully by other Marxists in philosophy and cultural history. Lacan talks about the worker who agitates for higher wages and the one who realises that the movement for higher wages is part of the class struggle for the destruction of Capitalism. This overdetermination may happen to both authors and readers. Often in history this takes place when a movement is on, and there is passage from the movement to the moment, at which texts are constructed by authors and reconstructed by readers. The Progressive Cultural Movement is a major exemplar of this passage. But this is not the only way in which radical texts are written and read.
There is a strong sense of determination and overdetermination which has marked Marxist thought for a very long time. This position is often more normative than historical, in the sense that the movement is supposed to generate just one exclusive moment, as the Soviet Writers' Congress of 1936 vigorously legislated, declaring Socialist Realism, whatever it may be, to be the only creative principle for the committed artist. In the event, this disastrous piece of prescription generated a great deal of trash; it also caused untold misery to the conscientious artist and the theoretician. The best novelist of the Soviet era, Mikhail Bulgakov, the best poet, Vladimir Mayakovski, the best film-maker, Sergei Eisenstein and the best theoretician, Mikhail Bakhtin, did their job not because of the prescription, but in spite of it. It is important therefore to propose a weaker sense of determination which allows for a measure of realism in the picture, assuming that a multiplicity of voices and positions can mark the cultural scene both at the creative and the reading end. People do a great many things, singly or together, to respond to a moment. In cultural work, there is a separate trajectory of spiritual production, involving themes and conventions and techniques, which meshes with the history of material production at particular points of time. It might be useful look at one example from the period we are considering.
More than fifty years ago, a single film ushered in a new age in the cultural universe of India. The claim is neither immodest nor exaggerated. Nearly everyone will agree that Pather Panchali, released 26 August, 1955, marked not only the emergence of a cinematic genius, but also the beginning of a new era in film-making. There has been a great deal of discussion on the newness of Pather Panchali. Internationally, its authenticity and realism were hailed, critic and ordinary viewer equally moved by the fresh look it provided into the landscape of ordinary lives in the Indian countryside. Its lyrical quality, harder to define, was equally valued. People noted the relaxed but complex rhythm of the narrative, the spatial configuration of man-nature relationship, the deep sympathy for the underdog, the unvarnished portrayal of meanness as well as joys of living, the subtle historical meta-narrative, the deep insight into the arc of desire and fear which marks the child’s entry into the world. International recognition is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for judging a film’s worth, but it does provide an index to thresholds and breaks. Apart from friendly gestures from the Soviet Union and parts of the communist camp, consequent upon independent India’s leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, hardly any notice was taken of Indian cinema at the time. It was a curiosity, because it was one of the largest entertainment industries in the world, but in terms of the world scene, it was one of those national cinemas which dotted the landscape and hardly mattered. This was the view from Hollywood, which was of no value or consequence because Indian cinema was financially as well as culturally autonomous; but what did matter was the studied indifference of the film-making and film-reading avant-garde, in the west as well as elsewhere, towards what was on offer from the melodramatic repertoire of Indian cinema. Pather Panchali made the international fraternity of cinema to sit up and take notice. The pathetic gloating which is in evidence in the globalized middle-class of today whenever recognition comes from the metropolis was much less in evidence in the newly emerging nation, just into its eighth year of independence. There was a sense that something of a break had taken place in the humdrum round of ‘mythologicals’ and ‘socials’ and that one could share one’s joy and pride with the rest of the world.
The world was generous in its praise: Cannes, Edinburgh, Manila and the Vatican in 1956; San Francisco and Berlin in 1957; the roll of honour continued. But the most important thing about the reception of Pather Panchali was the response of Bengal, and later on, the rest of India. The President’s Award for the best feature film of 1955 merely recognized what the film-going public had already decided for itself in the very first week after release. Those who lived through the momentous months from August, 1955, onwards will remember the sense of excitement and fulfillment which the film generated. There were rounds of reception and open seminar and discussion- group session; reviews, interviews, newspaper articles and leaders appeared all over the place. It became a talking point at university tea-rooms and coffee houses. Much prestige attached to those who had gone and seen Pather Panchali at its first run. Mind you, one is talking probably of a small fragment of the articulate middle class, primarily based in the huge sprawling city of Kolkata, perhaps predominantly Hindu, but this fragment contained the intellectually active avant-garde who took the lead in expressing the wonder and pleasure of viewing the film. And the viewing was not confined to the elite. Large numbers of ordinary people went to see the film and were moved by it. In a sense the international elite and the Bengali common viewer had congruous as well as differing reasons for admiring Pather Panchali. The realism, the humanism, the lyricism appealed to everyone. But the Indian, particularly the Bengali, viewer had special reasons for feeling that the film addressed some of the deepest concerns and values of one’s existence. People were living in very difficult times in the partitioned Bengal of the fifties. Poverty, joblessness, scarcity, disease, hunger, injustice and oppression stalked this part of the country in particular. Ray had not intended to mirror the contemporary in the evocation of the not-so-lost historical past. But he sensed the turmoil of the times in the story of a small family in a small village around the turn of the century. He was proposing that it was important to look at the conditions for the production of anxiety and despair, pleasure and hope, solidarity and division. He placed the ordinary man and woman at the centre of his narrative and brought children to the fore; the girl-child fulfills her destiny by dying, but the boy survives to carry on the grim struggle with the mother by his side. The contemporary audience had a great deal to find in this film, and though one or two of the later films failed initially, the Bengali viewer can be said to have stood by their foremost artist in the second half of the century.
The artistic and technical conditions for the production of Pather Panchali, stark at one end and startling on the other, have been documented with great good humour by Ray himself. The camera of Subrata Mitra and the sets of Bansi Chandragupta, mavericks of enormous innovative talent, came up with technical solutions to the rigorous demands of Ray’s imagination. He was charting an artistic path untrodden by any Indian film-maker so far. Lighting up an old broken-down house, for instance, or getting complete novices to face the camera, needed formidable ingenuity and aplomb. Ray’s job was to think up ways of forging a new consensus on the protocols of realism with his projected audience. He had no hero or heroine or villain or fighting or melodrama or clowning or sexy dances or lilting songs or lavish sets on offer. Therefore he had to persuade the viewer to adjust her sights and her narrative desire to the new representational regime. This was done by offering a richness of detail – both natural and social – which the film-goer had seldom seen represented. Ray was teaching us how to discover our own world which we had lost to the conventions of studio melodrama. A kind of defamiliarization was taking place in the process of watching the film-text in 1955: the available conventions of film-making had been abandoned and something rich and strange had taken their place. This meant that the older ways of seeing had to be jettisoned. Ray, in fact, prepared the Bengali audience to be ready for the new Indian cinema. The history of subsequent decades would bear this out.
The international context of this new artistic break is pretty well-known; Ray himself repeatedly acknowledges his debt to the modern masters like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Renoir, De Sica, Ford, Orson Welles and others. He was generous, perhaps too generous, to old Hollywood, because most of his work flatly contradicted the standard Hollywood procedures. It is also recognized that that Ray’s cinema, like Mrinal Sen’s and Ritwik Ghatak’s, is a major contribution to cultural modernity in India. The cinema comes of age in their hands. What is not very often kept in mind is the trajectory of cultural modernity in Bengal, which describes a rather separate curve from most of the rest of India. One even sees fairly ludicrous attempts to link the state-convened modernization of the Nehruvian era to the cultural goals of modern Bengal. In fact, Ray was engaged in bringing cinema in line with the revolutionary developments in Bengali culture from the nineteenth century onwards. Consider the single example of Ray’s own family. The grandfather came to settle in Kolkata and immediately started several modern enterprises in education and culture: printing, publishing, children’s literature, scientific and technical work, photography, women’s education, social and religious reform. The father was a genius who extended the possibilities of children’s literature in radically new directions. The elite – largely the educated middle class and predominantly Hindu – were extremely innovative in these areas, and what happened was not because of British rule, but in spite of it. The first modern novel, Durgeshnandini of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, was published in 1865 and became an immediate trend-setter. The lyric poetry of Tagore – as also his fiction, drama, music and painting – set the standards of cultural modernity in the twentieth century. The best modern novelist, Manik Bandyopadhyay, and the best modern poet, Jibanananda Das, had lived till the fifties. The political turmoils of the freedom movement, itself an index to modernity, had generated vigorous cultural activities, and this was true of the later leftist movements which emerged out of the armed freedom struggles and workers’ and peasants’ movements. It is not possible to separate Ray and Pather Panchali from this history. He was, in fact, the latest pioneer in a prolonged struggle to achieve an Indian version of modernity. That he had chosen the tenth muse was a bit of luck for the world of cinema.
I do not wish to continue with the subsequent story of Indian cinema. Most of its regional versions are well-known, including the Assamese and Bengali segments. What I would like to point out, though, is the common, almost universal, consensus on what constituted the modern and the radical in the world of culture in these years. Throughout the ‘Golden Era’ of Capitalism in the West, the fifties and the sixties and the early seventies, there was a commonality of oppositional voices against the Cold War, the Monroe Doctrine, the Military-Industrial Complex, the war on Vietnam, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the Israeli attacks on its Arab neighbours and other atrocities committed by the global north on the global south. There was also something like a vision, often a bit tarnished, of what socialism could achieve for the people, a vision based on the actually existing regimes in the Soviet Union and China and other nations in the anti-imperialist camp. Intellectual and cultural work in large parts of the world was motivated by these polarities. To be with the people was a viable and valid political option, and it often shaped the cultural text, forging a link between the author and the reader. The world was knowable, the adversaries known, the ideas and the imaginaries and the techniques could be discovered and invented; the task of creating a text could start with a rejection of the old and could take off in new and unexplored directions. Realism was the key; modernity was the goal. It was assumed that the artist and her audience inhabited a common world of voices, and that communication was possible in a common language, often interrogative or fractious, but based on a consensus on what is knowable.
But much has happened in the intervening years. Post-structuralism came into fashion in the wake of the new dispensation in the economic management of the western world. Neo-liberalism became the official doctrine of the Washington managers of world capitalism, the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and the like. The free movement of finance capital, emanating from dominant transnational corporations and merchant bankers, was supposed to rectify the limitations of Keynesian demand-management; what it ended up doing was a disaster for the common people and a bonanza for the rich. The prescription did the same thing for the nations in the global south. Despite a series of dire economic crises, the latest of which happened in 2008-09, the doctrine is still thedesperate mantra of ruling classes everywhere. With the overturning of socialism and the conversion of former advocates of planned economy to laissez-faireism, there is little principled opposition to this consensus. This dominance has generated congruous discourses in other areas. Theoretical Post-structuralism and its cultural corollary, Post-modernism, continue to dominate intellectual discourse and mass-produced entertainment and information.
There is, therefore, a new dominant view of the matter of truth and pleasure. The continuity of the Common World of the real and the knowable is called in question or ignored by many current strands of thought. The truth, many hold, is always in jeopardy; voices are forever under pressure. The idea that voices will subvert official versions of the real is now contested by the post-modern picture of a teeming world of representations which completely engross consciousness in its self-reflexive web. Emile Durkheim had earlier analysed the 'mechanical solidarity' of pre-industrial society as opposed to the 'organic solidarity' of the modern, both imposing a gag-order on deviant expressions. Foucault's famous formulations on discipline and control carry on in the same vein. The more recent proposals of Baudrillard, Debray, Debord and others appear to be based on the relatively simple idea that since the media obliterates all indices to reference from the life of the masses, the world gets lost in an infinitely revolving loop of signs. The universe of representations has expanded enormously through the media, extending further and further beyond your direct experience. You can't be subjectively present at all places at all times, seeing and hearing things at first hand, but you have access to 24-hour television, and radio and the internet, possibly, and you are therefore surrounded by a second-order reality brought to you by images and texts which build up an alternative world. The building blocks of that order become the master-code for your world-view, subsuming earlier codes. Whatever you see and hear directly, whatever you think of the things around you, whatever seems good or bad to you, have now become so many functions of the simulated universe being constantly constructed and reconstructed for you. Direct experience is willingly filtered and reassembled to fit into the tutor code of the simulacrum. This media-driven hyperreality will only have pseudo-references, just as a mirrored folder on a computer (possibly hacked by an expert) does, substituting a doctored copy for the original. Even meta-data will be manufactured. The mirror version will generate texts and images and sounds just like the original, but its source code would be the hacker's programming, subverting the foundational directive of the original. It sets up therefore a virtual world, possessing all the representational properties of common-sense experience or sensory deductions or hermeneutic schemata. What would formerly be accessed from word of mouth or family talk or local gossip or religious doctrines or cultural texts or school lessons or political judgments or academic discourses is now restricted only to media sources, particularly television, the earlier authorities having been absorbed and integrated into the mediotic universe.
Baudrillard's favourite instance is the Iraq invasion, be it the Papa Bush massacre or the Baby Bush genocide. Since the CNN was the only official witness to what went on in Iraq, its carefully structured texts, visual and auditory, became the virtual authority for what had happened in that part of the world. Night-time bombings were pictured as virtual fireworks, brilliant streaks of silver and gold piercing the dark nightscape on the TV screen. The consequent devastation on the ground was carefully edited to suit the image of the mighty US punishing aberrant Arabs, 'collateral damage' notwithstanding. A small rag-tag crowd in Baghdad pulling on Army-issue ropes to topple the Saddam statue is made to represent the entire Iraqi people. With such ubiquitous son-e-lumiere shows covering the spectrum of representation, the viewer is caught in a web of virtuality and becomes a function in a complex algebra of disciplinary fables. Any discussion of what went on in Iraq is therefore a derivative of what may be called 'mediotic' programming. Discovery procedures are guided by the agenda-setting of the source-code. The particular case of the Iraq invasion is just an example, perhaps a big example, of the mediospheric discipline imposed on human consciousness. But the disciplinary pressure is on day in day out in the advanced capitalist world. The relentless stream of image and sound from Fox News, for instance, charms most of the American public into accepting that greed is good and that rule by corporate capital is the only 'natural' system in the world. The media happens to be the only source of knowledge and ideas and entertainment in the post-modern world, and so its infinitely regenerative universe of signs swallows up any residual appurtenances of older cognitive tools and more traditional knowledge-systems.
The post-modernists are not unduly bothered by the power equations of the source-code, nor disturbed by the economic foundations of the mediosphere. The all-encompassing media or the overarching discourse of power is a given for them and cannot be overcome. Therefore the best you can do is to wallow in your despair or work up a collective jouissance over the mass-produced ingredients of pleasure. But the basic building-blocks of the system can be investigated and uncovered for the people. One can see, for instance, that with the processes of globalization, that is, the neo-liberal imperial order of finance capital, there has been a remarkable spate of synergy and convergence in the mediosphere all over the world. Financial power came from mergers aided and abetted by the advanced capitalist states.
For example, the 1989 merger of Time and Warner created the largest media group in the world with a market capitalization of $ 25 billion. This was followed in 1995 by Time-Warner's acquisition of Turner Broadcasting (CNN). In late 1993 the merger of Paramount communications and Viacom, owner of MTV, saw the emergence of a $17 billion company, making it the fifth largest media group behind Time-Warner, News Corporation, Bertelsmann and Walt Disney. ... ...
The acquisition by News Corporation of the Hong Kong-based Star TV for $ 525 million has given (Rupert) Murdoch a satellite television footprint over Asia and the Middle East with a potential audience of 45 billion viewers. When allied to his other television interests ... his organization (has) a global reach of some two-thirds of the planet.
(Chris Barker, Television, Globalization and Cultural Identities, 1999, pp.47-48.)
This story is usually hidden from the ordinary viewer, with the result that news and entertainment come to them in waves of a 'natural' order of things, potentially acceptable as a valid picture of the world.
Moving therefore from the traditional traffic of ideas and texts to an analogous but more arcane kind of transmission, the mechanics of which are largely beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, one finds that the sphere of mass-produced culture and entertainment involves a very large-scale and very complex apparatus which appears to work without involving people in direct relationships. There is one kind of traffic in which the main player is the state; in another kind the role goes to the market. The case of English education in colonial and post-colonial India would be a case in point. The institution of English schools and colleges served mainly imperial interests; a very small fraction of the Hindu elite and the Hindu middle class responded to the opportunity of upward mobility this provided. This was education by fiat and to order. But pretty soon a larger fraction of the same elite and sometimes people from outside its confines realised the importance of English as a tool of enlightenment and voluntarily propagated and encouraged its use. In our own day again it is being thrust on a class of learners by the state and the market in an attempt to create a distinct elite of servers of corporate capital and consumers of its products. Ideas and desires travel often by persuasion and coercion emanating from powerful groups. Nationalism as an idea of many different hues and as a programme of various agendas had often spread in a similar fashion, as Rabindranath's gharebaire graphically illustrates. Hitler and his Nazi party banked on patriotism. The Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 through the careful manipulation of popular Hindu passion through incessant propaganda. These are examples of planned propagation of ideas and texts.
There is another kind of project the market initiates and implements. The feature film Titanic, released in 1997, was the result of a massive deployment of finance, manpower, technology and organization; it was released in hundreds of theatres across the United States, and thousands of prints were sent rapidly to all corners of the globe. The promotional campaign started long before the film was completed. This is what usually happens these days with a big production; a large part of the budget is earmarked for advertisement and promotion. Ancillary products -- T-shirts, toys, mementos -- appear on cue. The stars have an image build-up in print and electronic media. Stills, promos, news and gossip create a familiarity with the product long before it appears on the market. A need is thus created, a desire activated, a manufactured demand turns into a craze. Full movie-houses and brisk sale of cassettes and discs testify to the efficacy of the massive apparatus which is deployed in order to bring a text to the viewer. This is usually the story with films, television programmes, novels and topical books, magazines, popular music and so on. The market for such material is spread across the globe, and national boundaries as well as natural barriers do not really exist so far as the transmission of such texts is concerned. The power of the market mechanism ensures that the strongest players will always reach the targetted audience. The marketing of the Harry Potter novels is another instance of this process.[i] (cite internet) The same thing happens when ideas and discourses move from centres of power to intended recipients. The state is a major player in this arena and works through what has been called the ideological state apparatus (Althusser).[ii] Schools and universities play important roles in pushing ideology down the throats of learners. Power is the key in such transmissions. Organization and mobilization move ideas and programmes down the line in hierarchical order. Powerful classes and groups alone possess both the material and intellectual resources necessary to induct people into their agenda. This is true of situations where even state power is being challenged and opposed. Nationalism of the kind Tagore criticised so bitterly spread in just such a way, relying on machineries of persuasion and coercion. I have called this traffic, and its texts, Transordinal.
Against this kind of traffic, as I have indicated earlier, the people have put in place their own apparatus for the circulation of their truth and their culture. This is the CommonWorld of utterance and artistry, site of the people's own self-expression, which had existed for time immemorial, long before the Public Sphere came into existence. Perhaps one ought to say that the Common World of utterance, the vast space of production and circulation of meanings, encompasses the Public Sphere of policed semiosis, just as the teeming population in a big city like Kolkata or Cape Town surrounds the gated communities of the privileged, or the Third World surrounds the First. The Common Sphere is where voices ring out and texts are made. What I wish to do in this section of the paper is to explore how these voices move in space and time. Oral culture is a special use of utterance in a given society, and it has its own rules of construction, and its own genres and conventions and aesthetic markers, and there are sets of codes which mark off oral culture from the written and the recorded and the mediospheric and the publicised (that is, part of a 'public sphere' in the society concerned). Implicit in the distinction are other binaries: literate and illiterate, urban and rural, organised and unorganised, market-driven and informal, professional and amateur, rich and poor, high and low. We will take these distinctions as historically given and go on from there to consider the ways in which the second term of the binary, oral and rural and low and so on, is transmitted from person to person and group to group in space and time, and achieve a circulation over the longe duree.
The circulation and reception of cultural texts -- familiar in the world of high culture as integrally linked to operations of the market -- is not a mere matter of economic and political control when one considers the network of travelling texts in people's culture. These texts travel from people to people, never far from working lives and never separated from common speech and common performative conditions; these gather inflections as they move and invite creative incisions and plastic sculptings on the body of the text. There may even be surveillance and policing, but this would be done through the people's own network of consultations. There may be a great deal of ugliness and violence and oppression in the management of the Common Sphere, and there may be constant intrusions from the Public Sphere, but one ought to envisage a perpetually surging, incessantly productive world of verbal and non-verbal texts pushing against the limits set by the Power Pentad -- Gender, Race, Class, Caste and Colony. The hope of a new people's culture seen in the proliferation of the printed page and the moving image by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' (1935), has faded in the era of corporate media and finance capital. The Power Pentad has deepened its hold on the consciousness industry. But the Common Sphere, oldest of the social networks of human communication, is still very much there. Since the work coming from this world is open and free and anonymous and collective, it classes itself among similar texts in a world of movement away from established and ordained channels of communication in the official world of mechanically and electronically transmitted texts. Much of the movement is within a language community. A joke travels with incredible speed from community to community, country to country, continent to continent. Each of its readings is a performative gathering of creative voices, never far from authorial entitlements. Its mode of travel, therefore, has important bearings on the construction and reconstruction of the text itself.
The Ramayana story or ramkatha is available in a large number of Indian languages and in a great many versions, not necessarily derived from the Sanskrit text ascribed to Valmiki. A. K. Ramanujan had talked about 300 Ramayanas, an effort recently proscribed by the University of Delhi. There is a very powerful lobby in the Public Sphere, led by several large organisations including a political party, which would link a version of Hindutva with one or two central texts; these would serve its interest of political mobilization. These people are seeking the expunction of the divergent Ramkathas and trying to establish the undisputed supremacy of the ramcharit-manasand the hanuman-chalisha, and only remotely the Valmiki Ramayana. The sanctity of the accepted narrative becomes an instrument of hegemony; any divergence can be made into a doctrinal heresy and therefore punished. M.F. Husain and the image of Saraswati constitute a notorious example of this semi-fascist terror. There is a struggle here, first, between two contending groups in the Public Sphere, one trying to suppress a large body of oral and visual texts, and even any mention of such texts, and the other defending the right to their entry. The Ram-katha exists in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of versions, circulating in most of the Indian languages. It is also known and often quite popular in a large number of cultures outside India: Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Srilanka, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam.
The usually accepted model for such transmissions -- not only for the Rama story, but generally for myths, legends and folktales, and arts and ideas in general -- is a set of people-to-people contacts over the longe duree, and the historical array of modes of contact involves trade relations, spread of religions, wars and conquests, migrations, scholarly exchanges, diplomatic and dynastic relations, and so on. All this happened in India over millennia. It is assumed that, in the pre-modern world and often in the modern, people will tell stories to other people whenever and wherever they meet, and will also pass on written texts and pictures as well as music, drama, dance, ritual, arts and crafts, magic, medicine, learned discourses, political ideas, programmes of action, religious doctrines, etc. as occasion arises. The institutional arrangements for such material as well as symbolic transmissions largely carried out by common people, often the labouring poor, and sometimes by specialists, are fairly well-known. The caravanserai would be a centre of gossip, a place where stories are told, news is exchanged, negotiations carried on, ideas are spread. The court of a potentate would attract artists, soldiers, scholars and other professionals. Patronage was an important instrument of exchange. The place of learning -- monastery, library, school or university -- would invite, train and send down large numbers of people who would be the bearers of various disciplinary traditions. The pilgrim routes would throw together vast numbers of people from many lands. Migrations and conquests would be powerful instruments of exchange and reconstruction of discursive material. The list need not be prolonged. The exchanges would occur within the borders of a country or empire and often across boundaries.
It is possible to envisage institutions and traditions -- most of them long-lasting and continuous -- in which common people participate as story-tellers, listeners, performers, viewers, messengers, experts, readers, artists, censors, craftsmen, philosophers, intellectuals, critics, activists, interpreters and so on. Such functions are not very often professionalized and demarcated. Roles would be swapped. The story-teller would also be a listener and possibly a critic. A poor peasant on a pilgrimage would pick up many narratives which he would adapt into his own stock and retell to his village. A young woman married into a distant community would carry her songs and stories and games and jokes with her and transmit them to her neighbours and her children. This is not an idyllic picture of the so-called ‘organic community’ or the ‘mir’. The poor peasant is ruthlessly oppressed and exploited; the young woman is uprooted, enslaved and confined. But the work of creativity goes on in the matter-of-fact way that characterizes the life of the labouring people, including the powerless, the downtrodden and the outcast. And this work is collective. The bulk of the cultural and intellectual transmission which takes place among the poorer people has a way of constructing, reconstructing, storing and circulating texts and ideas which are mostly without authorial signature. Folktales and socio-political ideas and activities are a particularly telling example of this surge of anonymous traffic across cultures and languages. Religious or political programmes would spread far and wide through the agency of selfless converts who would stand down while organic intellectuals are thrown up by the movement. Most of the popular revolts in colonial India spread among the people in this fashion. Buddhism and Christianity and Socialism and Feminism are cases in point. The cluster of ideas and programmes encapsulated in the term ganhibawa in SatinathBhaduri'sdhodaicharitmanas illustrates this kind of passage.
The story of Rama travels throughout a land and across frontiers because many people have liked and retained and retold this story in many versions over generations. This exchange may well be called a flow of alternative politics over millennia, because one other significant mark of this transmission is the large-scale obliteration of political/administrative boundaries. Natural barriers like mountains, oceans and deserts, and cultural divides like language, religion, values and customs and so on happen to be far more important than politically demarcated frontiers. The active agency of the people either ignores or defies the divisions marked by conquest and political accommodation, often no more than lines drawn on a map and transferred to arbitrary locations. The paths traversed by a story or song or drama may sometimes be lost to later generations, but only because there is no need for the community to remember the modes of transmission, which are always open and direct and person(s)-to-person(s). The people decide what and how and why ideas and stories and songs and dances should move in which directions and over which period. They accept and naturalize political ideas and programmes emanating from many quarters. The politics of anti-colonial struggles in India before and after the coming of Gandhi shows up how the people's participation changes the whole character of a movement. Ideas move when the people like the ideas and act on them. I have called this traffic, and its texts, transactival.
Gender, Race, Class, Caste and Colony, major determinants in the production and exchange of culture, ideas and information, play in and out of this binary traffic of texts. The history of the travelling text shows that the transordinal and the transactival are two moments in the construction and circulation of such material, with one text often sharing both moments in different points of time. Voices from the Common World decide what is to be done with texts which come their way, positioning its own understanding in the way of the operations of the Power Pentad. The voices are critical as well as creative, forever making new texts from the inexhaustible resources of people's intelligence and people’s imagination.
The bad new times are upon us, but we have both the tradition and the apparatus of criticism, discovery and invention in our collective possession. Cinema banks on this resource for its unceasing creative work.