Archive for the 'India' Category

09
Jan
09

In Memory of Dr. Roi Kwabena

Today is the first anniversary of the death of Dr. Roi Kwabena, someone whose presence in my own work and evolution was fundamental, a mentor and guide, a great example of a publicly engaged anthropologist — completely public, in the sense of not being tied to any academic position, and inspiring some to call themselves and see themselves as “cultural anthropologists” even without the formal “disciplining” meted out by a university program. I will not write another eulogy. I will instead quote his own words from one of his great spoken word pieces, Whether or Not: “We still thinkin’ ’bout yuh.” And by we, I mean we, since today we collaborated to set up a special ring of commemoration, between myself, Blackgirl on Mars, and Guanaguanare (and on Guacara Dreamtime), all of our lives having been touched directly by you Roi, each of us remembering you in our own way on our respective blogs. As some already know, this blog is dedicated to your memory.

The video below is an animation I made many months ago of one of Roi’s longer hybrid productions as featured on his Y42K album, part spoken word poem, part story, part melody. I was reserving featuring this video on this blog until I was ready for the next installment of (Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora, which I began and then interrupted several months ago (see here, here, and here). Not to delay further, and to have something to commemorate Roi’s work, I present it now.

This is Sour Chutney, a story whose content is sadly like many that were told of the pains suffered personally and communally as part of the social ruptures of Indian indentureship in Trinidad. It is a story of the ardent defense of tradition and male domination in face of new realities, and the violence that is visited upon one “unlucky” young bride. Most chilling for me was the appearance of the “sin eater,” and the whole piece raised the many hairs on my back.

On this day last year, Dr. Roi Kwabena passed away from lung cancer, just one day after it was diagnosed. He had been hospitalized for suspected pneumonia. His loss weighed deeply on me, but today we celebrate his work, we don’t mourn his passing. Thank you so much Roi, for all you have done, and all you have inspired to be done in the future. You live on!

These are some surviving links to his work, still online:

Also see, Dr. Roi Kwabena: Indigenous & African Heritages, when I first had the pleasure to introduce our friendship to readers online.

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14
Jul
08

Monday Morning “Mor Tor”: Wine it up just so…for the Video Notes from the Indian Diaspora, Part 2

I need this video as background for at least two coming posts, especially for readers unfamiliar with Trinidadian or Indo-Caribbean cultures, with their dances, and some of the terminology that is used. This post follows the previous (Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora.

This video, featuring Rikki Jai, begins with an Indian wedding. The idea of teaching a bride how to “wine,” shown in this video, comes up later. So what is “wining”? It is not connected with dining, nor is it a misspelling of “whining.” It is a way of gyrating the hips, and more than that, the bottom, or what some Trinidadians call a “boomsie.” The really good winer is the one who can virtually unhinge her boomsie — showing that the boomsie is working it up, as if all on its own, can be emphasized by dancing with a bottle on one’s head. The bottle stays in place, the boomsie does not. Wining of the kind you see here is dancing reserved for women only. Women who do this professionally and regularly appear in commercial venues may be known as “winer girls.”

Some will claim, in the cultural politics of inter-group competition, that wining originates with East Indians. That may or may not have some truth, but let’s put it this way: if they are not monopolists the video shows they can be specialists. There is also a very thin girl in a mid riff and bright green shorts in the video — that is an example of a “tiny winy,” that will come up again. Many chutney soca performances are accompanied by expert “winer girls,” and in a cultural milieu where women’s bottoms are highly valued, their motions count.

There are different wining motions, and even speeds, but one of the classic motions involves doing a (sideways figure eight) motion with one’s bottom, as if washing windows. I will leave viewers to detect other motions in the video. And one more hint, “show me your motion” will be the centrepiece of another coming post.

Finally, note that this example of chutney soca is sung in both English and Hindi, which shows, to some extent, the success of the revitalization of Indian culture. Even those of us on the outside get to learn some Hindi thanks to these musical productions, the way I recently learned from youtubing my way through Bollywood that “bindiya chamke” means “glittering dot,” as one example.

10
Jul
08

(Video) Notes from the Indian Diaspora, Part 1: Responding to Modernity and the Tyranny of Tradition


I have to begin by thanking Guanaguanare, one of the Trinidadian bloggers I admire most, for having already done such an excellent job discussing the popular Trinidadian music video below, Sumintra. I will distill some of those notes and add a few comments and sources of my own. So, yes, this is a “derivative” work (or collaboration by relay) that hopefully does as much justice to Sumintra.

“Sumintra” is the title of a well known song in Trinidad performed by the chutney soca artist, Rikki Jai, written by Gregory Ballantyne. I mentioned Rikki Jai at the start of this week, and as I said then, he is brilliance on two legs. There is an important point behind my gushing praises — both Rikki Jai/Ballantyne and Guanaguanare are doing their own engaged anthropology concerning cultural transformations in their home society, with Jai devising a tool, a response, the song Sumintra itself, for dealing with those transformations, and Guanaguanare producing a public commentary on her respected blog. Neither he nor she respectively call themselves anthropologists as far as I know, even though I am aware of some cultural activists in the UK who choose to label themselves “cultural anthropologists” without necessarily suggesting that they have any degree in that field.

•••••••

Before beginning the description/translation and discussion (along with some recommended sources for further reading) let’s look at the video of a young Rikki Jai, with scenes of dancing on top of Naparima Hill overlooking San Fernando (the hill also happens to be a sacred site of the Warao in the nearby Orinoco Delta of Venezuela).

Here are some of the key passages from the text of the video:

Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha
Tickle me with a lavway, soca me till I sesay
But hold de Lata Mangeshkar, give me soca, aha aha.

Lata Mangeshkar (लता मंगेशकर) is a famous singer in India who has starred in countless Bollywood movies and even sings classic bhajans and ghazals (I am lucky enough to have one of her sets of tapes). For modern traditionalist Indians in Trinidad, respecting much of what comes from the Indian motherland and sourcing it as part of their impressive cultural revitalization in Trinidad which has lasted for generations, a figure such as Mangeshkar is revered. And, as I said, she is also a tremendous singer, and more than just a symbolic figure.

(Trinidad’s Indian cultural revitalization was a subject of interest to Morton Klass, anthropologist at Columbia University who passed away in 2001. His first book on Indians in Trinidad titled East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural Persistence and published in 1961, really brought the subject of Indian revitalization to the fore, even to the point that he was publicly castigated by the historian and independence leader of Trinidad, Eric Williams, for lending legitimacy to the divisive ethnic claims of what Williams called a “hostile and recalcitrant minority.”)

Sumintra is not hostile and recalcitrant. She is what the traditionalists dread, a defector. She pledges allegiance to a “Trinbagonian” identity (the word is a composite of Trinidadian and Tobagonian). She tells Rikki to hold the Lata Mangeshkar, she wants soca music instead. And there is a silent, or muffled story of cultural creolization right there, since many doubt that soca developed without the input of East Indian musical influences. Even if the creolization theme had been made obvious at this point, it would not lessen the dread for the traditionalists/purists, some of whom have famously gone on record in protesting that creolization is tantamount to genocide.

Sumintra is explicitly against ethnic politics, making this video quite subversive in the Trinidadian context of political antagonism and sometimes even residential segregation dividing those of East Indian ancestry from those of African ancestry, with both forming roughly equal portions of the overall national population. Sumintra has the courage to say:

Sumintra charge me [Rikki Jai] for being racist
And tell mi doh take dem chance wid she
Doh let mih catch you in dat foolishness
Trying to reach de Indian in me
Like you into politics, boy, you comin on dem tricks
Boy, I’m Trinbagonian, I like soca action
Take your Mohammed Rafi and bring Scrunter [soca star] or Bally [Gregory Ballantyne, the author of this very song]
Only then you’d be talkin to me. Yes, Rikki

Sumintra charges Rikki with racism! Why? For trying to maintain her within the fold, for trying to capture her for tradition, for trying to “reach the Indian” inside her. He’s speaking like any of the other ethno-political boys of what is now known as the United National Congress. She will have none of it. Sumintra wants “soca action”. “Tickle me with a lavway” she says — lavway is a creolized version of two French words, most likely “la voix” (the voice), a reference to the call and response form of early calypso music, the progenitor of soca. (I never found anyone who could tell me what “sesay” means.) “Bindiya chamkegi” is the title of one of Mangeshkar’s songs (which you can see and hear, here). You can view Mangeshkar performing here. Incidentally, one can find Mangeshkar’s voice singing for this beautifully nationalistic video, Vande Mataram, the Indian national anthem. I warmly recommend it for the imagery alone, parts of which I think are inspired by epic moments of American nationalism, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.

(Sumintra would have no time for me either, as I believe that Mangeshkar is a deity, and I am presently busy building an altar in her honour in my study. It is right next to the one for Amitabh Bachchan of course.)

Sumintra is also cast as a woman who has experienced modernity and multiple cultures, far from her birthplace, a shack in the Trinidadian village of Debe, mostly populated by Indians. Rikki Jai says of her:

Must be University or dem trips to Miami
That make she draw a border between roots and culture
She’s a liberated soul, Trinbago in she passport

University. Foreign travel. Her roots are distinct from her culture, just as the tree is larger and broader than the roots from which it sprang. It’s explicit here, she is “liberated,” a “Trinbagonian.” Rikki feels small now, and she even tells him, “Sport, you come short.” (Excuse me miss, please let that be the last time you belittle my beloved little Rikki.)

Rikki is not about to roll over and die. He comes up with a plan. He wants Indian, she wants soca. In comes chutney soca, a partial reindianization, and a creolized reinidanization at that, of something that emerged in part from Indian influences to begin with. He says:

I still believe the best gift is music
’Cause music is the food of love
But now I had to come up with new tricks
For Sumintra to get involve

Is soca yuh want eh?
I go give you what you want.
Lavway! Sesay!

•••••••

Guanaguanare is right (see “A Note from the Gull” midway down that page), this is a song one heard in the background of everyday life in Trinidad, and some of us were late in realizing the genius of the song. Guanaguanare also has a love for Mangeshkar, but understands Sumintra’s desire to transcend the binding bonds of the past and experience freedom. In a powerful paragraph, Guanaguanare writes:

While this speaking to difference may be excused or even essential in less open societies, here in Trinbago, it is often quickly seen for what it is – a ploy and often a divisive one that pits one “group” against another, whether these be distinguished by religion, ethnicity, gender, class, political affiliation. We identify the trickery by recognizing that we are being flattened, simplified, categorized, reduced to one dimensionality. We defend our multi-dimensionality by asking ourselves the questions, “Why am I not being addressed as an individual and a human being and a man or woman or child and a Trinbagonian? What aspect or aspects of my being and my life in this country am I expected to neglect, to betray? Why are these artificial distinctions being solidified?” Whether the object(s) of these strategies choose, like Sumintra, to protest, or to play along, depends on if there is the perception of benefits to be received. We are entitiled always it would seem, to sell ourselves to the highest bidder.

Do I detect some bitterness in that instrumentalist view of personal strategies? I may not be following Guanaguanare, and perhaps she will offer a clarification either here or at new collaborative blog some of us are planning (more later).

My questions about the video/song are:

Does the song preach against ethno-political divisions, or does it in fact practice division? Notice that Sumintra is to be the role model of the dominant, national, creolized identity, one that apparently leaves little room for East Indians except perhaps as background influence that is rarely acknowledged.

Does the song obscure the Indian origins of soca, and buy into the traditionalist and purist fears of creolization?

Were Indians in Trinidad ever so marginalized and alienated as some of their most prominent political leaders (for example, former Prime Minister Basdeo Panday) have claimed?

•••••••

Readers who wish to read more along this line of discussion should see these works by Viranjini Munasinghe, anthropologist at Cornell University:

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2003). Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Munasinghe, Viranjini. (2002). “Nationalism in Hybrid Spaces: The Production of Impurity out of Purity.” American Ethnologist, August 29 (3): 663-692.

Speaking in an interview, Munasinghe identifies some of the leading food metaphors in the politics of national identity in Trinidad. Callaloo is a stew made from dasheen. Tossed salad requires no explanation, unless the reader has been on a meat-only diet since birth. Munasinghe says:

many Indo-Trinidadian cultural and political activists I spoke with during my fieldwork in 1999 and 2000 took exception to this metaphor for the Trinidad nation. They argued that since the ingredients making up the “callaloo” are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one homogeneous taste. They disapproved of this metaphor because it represented an extreme level of blending or “mixture.” Instead they opted for the metaphor of the “tossed salad“–an image which also signified diversity but one where, unlike the callaloo, each diverse ingredient maintained its originally distinct and unique identity. Thus the food metaphors of the callaloo and the tossed salad for the nation of Trinidad and Tobago convey very different ideas of mixture — callaloo depicting a process of mixture that produces homogeneity and tossed salad signifying the co-existence of diverse elements in pluralism.

Munasinghe does a great job of condensing discussion of India-Trinidad exchange and the emergence of an Indian cultural revitalization movement in Trinidad:

Identification with India heightened in the 1930s when the independence movement in India added vigor to the Indo-Trinidadian consciousness. As early as the 1930s, young Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals began staging island-wide demonstrations in support of India’s demand for freedom. Public meetings held in Indo-Trinidadian majority areas opened and closed with Indian patriotic songs and “Vande Matram,” the Indian national anthem. Many of the Indo-Trinidadian organizations formed during this period, like the India Club, were intent on spreading knowledge about India and things Indian. Wealthy Indo-Trinidadians visited India and contributed generously to famine relief funds. Visits from a host of Indian missionaries and cultural leaders generated new interest, especially among the Indo-Trinidadian middle class, in the language and culture of their “mother country.” The first Indian movie, “Bala Joban” was shown to enthralled audiences in Trinidad in 1935.

The role of the Indian mass media, especially its powerful film and music industry has been critical, and this is the backdrop against which Rikki Jai must define himself in the video above.

Munasinghe continues in that interview by discussing creolization, colonialism and racism, and contemporary ethnic politics. It is a good synopsis of the range of material she dicusses in her book listed above. With respect to creolization, and the dominant metaphor of creolization has been the callaloo, she says that this historically worked to exclude East Indians:

Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words “criar” (to create, to imagine) and “colon” (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements, thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is significant for Indo-Trinidadians.

Munasinghe does not explain how a cultural process, which certainly did include Indians, as in the case of soca, and moreso chutney soca, excluded them. What she is leaving out of the discussion is that political representations of creolization can and have emphasized the figure of the “Afro-Saxon” as representative of creole society, but she also should add that, like the people Sumintra rejects, some Indian nationalists are self-excluding, and disavow any ownership of the creole cultural forms that they themselves helped to create.

Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all persons and things “Creole” signified native status in Trinidad, and by extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.

Here is the “hostile and recalcitrant” notion at work again. This is largely true, but let us also remember self-exclusion as well, where mixture was equated with genocide by Indo-Trinidadian political and religious leaders (the process known as “douglarization” — a dougla being the offspring of one Indian and one African parent). Even more contentious have been the occasional claims by some Indo-Trinidadian politicians that black men come to central Trinidad, where most Indians reside, in order to rape Indian women. Suddenly, the discussion has become quite ugly.

Munasinghe also explains how colonial policies of racial division continue into the present, in ways that echoe with what we saw in the video above:

Colonial policies and racial theories continue to influence contemporary politics on the island. The division between the two major ethnic groups comprising Trinidad’s population, the Afro-Trinidadian and the Indo-Trinidadian, which is marked and reproduced by race rhetoric and ethnic stereotypes with both groups jealously guarding what they believe to be their legitimate terrain, can be traced to colonial policy. East Indians were brought to Trinidad as “scab labor” to drive down the bargaining power of the Afro-Trinidadians. Thus, East Indians from the beginning occupied a structurally antagonistic position to Afro-Trinidadians.

The profligate “Negro” and the thrifty Indian are caricatures that survive to this day and inform some of the “outrage” that surrounds some of the music videos will shall be seeing:

Caricatures of the luxury-loving, lazy, immoral Negro and of the docile, hardworking and cunning Indian abound in planter discourses of the period soon after emancipation. Many of these derogatory racial stereotypes continue to this day as the two groups use these same caricatures to undermine one another. Unfortunately, as is the case with ethnic/racial stereotypes, these negative racial traits are thought to signify natural characteristics of the respective groups and the specific colonial history that led to the creation of such discourse is forgotten or remains unacknowledged.


In Part 2 of this series, I will continue by discussing, and showing, “wining”. See you then.

07
Jul
08

Stockholm Bollywood: “Jumma chumma de de” and Memories of a Cultural Shock

I found my captor and tormentor! I found my captor and tormentor who subjected me to an afternoon of torture, appearing in noisy, nauseating technicolour dreams for long afterwards, until I learned to love him and all those like him. I am referring not only to the supreme Amitabh Bachchan (see this biography as well), but to Bollywood in general. Of course I knew of Bollywood music well before that nightmarish afternoon of delayed ecstasy — it was the sound of women, sounding like shrill mosquitoes, and men who resembled doll-like versions of Elvis. I never cared for the music, that is, until one afternoon in 1992. This is my little story of Stockholm Syndrome, Bollywood-Trinidad style, and the blessed psychosis that is called “cultural shock”, sometimes experienced on the way to “going native.” The hostage-taking unfolded in Monarch Cinema at 49 Eastern Main Road in Tunapuna.

On a dry, hot, bright Wednesday afternoon in 1992 I sought a means of escaping Trinidad, at least in fantasy. It was a bad period, and I had a recurring dream of running through a jungle with a group of bedraggled East Indian men, where we would come to an abandoned airstrip carved out of the jungle, and a huge gleaming Boeing 747 hidden under layers of palms, and how we would climb in and figure out how to fly out of the green hell. (Incidentally, I was in Trinidad as a graduate student in International Relations, an appropriately imperialist field of study taught by technocrats and out-party ex-ministers of this postcolony — yes, Hans Morgenthau and “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power” and other Cold Warriors like James Rosenau and George Keenan.)

I rarely went to the cinema alone, but I could find no one who would come with me to see David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” “Twin Peaks” had come to Trinidad a few months before, when it was shown late on Sunday nights on the then new CCN-TV6 channel, an exciting change for one-station Trinidad. Few people would stay up late to see this bizarre program, and some who caught a glimpse of it would screw up their faces at it (as they did when telling me what they thought about it), unable to comprehend the bizarre surrealism of an evil midget doing the twist on a couch, or the guiding wisdom of a giant who appears in dreams, or the “log lady” and the colonel in the coffee shop, and FBI Agent Cooper who uses dreams to hunt down paranormal crimes. It was too strange, which in itself is strange since Trinidadians can be so very strange in their own tales. And so I went, excited to continue indulging my North American Twin Peaks fantasy.

I reached Monarch Cinema, and it was a Wednesday, as I mentioned. I saw hand painted posters for Indian films plastered on the exterior. One said “Ek ladka, ek ladki.” Given the symmetry and sound, I wondered if this was the Hindi title for the film, “Glengarry Glen Ross.” “Twin Peaks,” and both of the two films just mentioned, all appeared in 1992.

I went to the tiny window of the box office and asked for a ticket. The Indian man looked at me and said, “You mean for now?” Odd question. I got my ticket, bought a few squares of guava cheese, and went to sit down.

After a while, people start coming into the cinema, but very few, and all of them Indian, without a single exception. All of them also glanced at me as they passed, some twice, as if there was something unusual about my being there. I thought that maybe it was just because I looked foreign, or Syrian (back then I was frequently mistaken in public for Anthony “Zoom” Saloom, a Syrian calypsonian — “Syrian” in Trinidad is amorphous, used to describe any person of Middle Eastern origin, and they can be Christians, Jews, and Muslims). I thought that only Indians came to the film the same way that the majority of heavy metal concert goers in Trinidad are also Indian, and that “Twin Peaks” might have been more to their tastes? Whatever, I was desperate for a plausible explanation.

The lights dimmed and then went off … and the nightmare began. I tried to convince myself, “No, it must be just a preview.” When the “preview” went on for longer than 10 minutes, I told myself, “Stay calm, it must be a double feature, and Twin Peaks will come after this.” After two hours nothing changed! The air conditioning was so cold that I got stiff. I did not want to just get out of my chair and storm out — it might be read as offensive by the other patrons, and the man who sold me the ticket would say, “You see he, what an ass, he don’t know what movie he come to see.” So I felt constrained, to stay there, my eyes wide open like saucers in sheer terror at the sight of this oversized, brick-headed cross between Elvis Presley and Frankenstein, doing big pelvic thrusts on stage in a concert in London. If I had the ability, then, to stand outside myself I would have appreciated that I was still getting a Twin Peaks-like experience of a different kind.

The title of that “shocker” was “Jumma chumma in London.” I even found a clip from the very film that subjected me to such anguish resulting from the conflict between confusion over a film not shown, and a desire to flee, and a sense of socially constrained stillness:

The song that had such a lasting impact on me, the feature song of the film, is titled Jumma chumma de de, and is sung by the superhero/superstar Amitabh Bachchan. The full video of what one youtuber calls a “monumental song” is available here, and monumental might really be right … wait until you reach precisely 1:00 into the song, the Nazi point as I call it, stirring rallying cries and demanding summons … and if it makes you suffer, then suffer through the whole blasted thing! This is anthropology here, and anthropology is pain and self-change:

What I had completely forgotten is that for this cinema all Wednesdays were devoted to showing Indian films only, with the scheduled film of the week shown every other day. I returned to my apartment in St. Augustine that afternoon, quiet and brow beaten. I went to lie down on a bed that felt like hot bread just out of the oven, and all I could hear was Jumma chumma and see Bachchan thrusting, thrusting away, with his huge hands and massive head. I told people about this experience, hoping they would say something that would help to cure me, and instead they just doubled over laughing. And yet, the video has a disturbing quality for me: the images suggest that this is a giant gang rape, accompanied with a massive sperm hose, to subjugate the naughty bimbette who presumably asks to become the star Abusiña.

Years later, Trinidadian Chutney Soca sensation, Rikki Jai, would do a memorable remake of this same song, so it was never going to go away. Rikki Jai is brilliance on legs. In fact, I think it was his version that finally converted me to the strength and monumentality of Bachchan’s song, which now rang in my head forever after. I found the Bachchan original by first looking for Jai’s remake. And it was thanks to Rikki Jai that I was eventually turned on to all forms of Indian music, not just Chutney Soca, but also classic bhajans and ghazals. Having the right friends to recommend material to me also made a lasting difference.

To this day I do not know what is said in the Jumma Chumma song, and it does not matter. I am a devoted convert to a sound and to images. I dreamt of this song for months afterwards. And now after 16 years I finally found it, on YouTube, where I realized how I was first called to Bollywood, precisely when and where, and through which song.

Now in Trinidad, on lazy, peaceful, warm Sunday afternoons with long golden, orange rays and tall shadows, a car with two massive megaphones on it will pass, blaring Bollywood music as it leads an Indian wedding party. The Doppler shift is impressive, and in slow motion. And whenever I hear one of these wedding parties approach I feel like I am transported to Heaven and I beg: “God, never take me away from this place.” And when I think about it, my prayers have really been answered.

Note 1: When I mentioned “the Nazi point” I did not mean to suggest anything about Bachchan’s politics, but rather to aesthetics alone, viewed through my lens. Bachchan successfully ran for a seat with the India Congress Party, and was a personal friend of Rajiv Gandhi and his mother, Indira.

Note 2: I am using this post to kick off a new series on this blog, that I will call “Notes from the Indian Diaspora.” Chutney Soca, and the mutual communication and interrelationships between Indians in India, Indians in Trinidad, and the role of anthropologists with roots in the Indian subcontinent, will be the centrepieces of the series. Afterwards, I will go back to the militarization of anthropology, through the work of David Price mostly.

11
Jun
08

Indiana Jones and the Colonial World

So far the best treatment I have read online of the colonialist themes in the Indiana Jones films is Gary Dauphin’s “Does Indy Diss the Developing World?” published in The Root. Dauphin criticizes the ways the Indiana Jones films have commonly been discussed, in terms of box office sales, action, and so forth, and some seem to want to comment more on whether it was fun, a romp, whether the plot made sense, and look for obscure hints about the history of archaeology in the film.

As Dauphin would say, “that is mighty white of someone”:

The Indy flicks have been accused of being, Seinfeld-like, about nothing, but that reading is, as they say, mighty white of someone. These movies may be mostly about rigorously-constructed action sequences and “fun,” but many of their excitements have been a highly specific, Tintin kind of fun. Indy is a likeable Anglo-American hero engaged in various forms of derring-do against colored, exotic backdrops.

Speaking of the Orientalism that informs the film series, Dauphin states:

The villains were cardboard cut-out Nazis and commies in three out of the four movies, but this is still a series that started out as an update of the “mummy” genre, with all the Orientalist blind spots and racism that implies. Spielberg may have rather brilliantly flipped that particular script in Raiders by moving the movie’s central artifact from ancient Egypt to ancient Israel, but the overall subject was still a lingering fantasy of a bygone British colonial world, albeit one lensed through the sensibilities of an American director. The world that Indiana inhabits and explores sits in the contested historical space between the colonial and post-colonial periods, but you’d never know it, the only struggle on screen exclusively between First World Axis and Allies, commies and capitalists.

Dauphin reminded me of the Temple of Doom film in the Indiana Jones series, something I wish I had continued to forget. That ridiculously racist trash flick is what kept me away from any further Indiana films, let alone rival rubbish such as Pirates of the Caribbean. Added to Apocalypto and perhaps Pocahontas and we seem to be continually exposed to colonial themes in cinema, as if we were still in the 1920s. Back to Doom, Dauphin reminds us:

It’s no accident then that the “worst” Indy film from both creative and financial standpoints is also the series’ most colored. Temple of Doom is a would-be horror film set in Northern India and focusing on the so-called “Thuggee cult,” groups of Indian highwaymen who populated the nightmares (and adventure stories) of the British colonial era. Temple of Doom went the extra mile by turning what many scholars view as the potentially overstated Thuggee threat into a blood-soaked ooga-booga orgy of human sacrifice and child-abduction, and for its trouble it was banned in India for many years.

Gary Dauphin’s writing can also be found on his blog.

And no, I have not and will not be paying money to see the latest Indiana inanity.

02
May
08

CNN’s “Mondo Cane”: Screaming Muslim Babies in India, and Gawking Journalists (updated)

CNN aired a piece on a “baby dropping ritual” in India in the Anderson Cooper segment last night, accompanied by Cooper’s wincing, and news reader Erica Hill’s raised voice exclaiming: “Look at that!“. The transcript on the CNN website is titled, in the mode of the gawker: “Villagers throw babies from temple roof“.

MONDO CANEGiven the lack of contextualizing, the almost complete absence of any explanation, and the continuous looping of the drop (which looked harmless to me), accompanied by shouts, squeals, and grimaces from the CNN “newsroom”, I realized that this scene was familiar to me, not so much the precise ritual itself, but the picture as a whole of a “bizarre” custom, the lack of ethnographic analysis, and the intent to shock, ending with a moralizing message that introduces “rationalism”. What the CNN piece looked like was something straight out of Mondo Cane, an Italian “skockumentary” in two volumes, from the 1960s, by two Italian fascist writers and directors (Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara). (I used their first film in a course about “Images of Self and Other” when I was still at Cape Breton University.) The leading line in the CNN segment–In a ritual that would terrify most mothers”–reminds me of the typical tagline for Mondo Cane stressing “shocking” and “astounding” acts, “real archive footage displaying mankind at its most depraved and perverse, displaying bizarre rituals, cruel behavior”, which also imitates the typical posters and bulletins of mid-nineteenth century European ethnographic festivals (see examples in Edwards, 1992). “Most mothers”, CNN says, but then immediately adds: “Indian villagers have cheered as screaming babies were dropped from a 50-foot temple tower”…so not Indian mothers, but most white, Western mothers, i.e., “viewers like you”.

As I have argued elsewhere, what CNN is doing, like other media outlets, is not just displaying, harmlessly and without intention. The more ambitious aim is to train their audience in acquiring and applying certain values which support Western domination. Needless to say, CNN knows what it is doing when it selectively chooses to use a terror word in its opening line. Then we find out these villagers are Muslim (and Hindu, but CNN places them second, even if they outnumber Muslims in India) and they are opposed (despite the absence of any evidence of any harm done to babies) by Rationalist International and the Indian Rationalist Association which both “support secularism”, among other goals (and I do not intend to suggest that there is anything “shady” about these organizations).

It is not at all clear that the rationalists want the practice banned because it is “unsafe”–safety, like the hygiene trope, is one that CNN chooses to insert. It has a colonizing and exclusionary function as a practice of domination: next to the “unclean” other, the dirty savage, we now have the “unsafe” other…who after thousands of years of child rearing still has not learned the basics of how to treat babies.

This is not the most disturbing behaviour one can expect from CNN–after all this was the company that cheered the bloody invasion of Iraq in 2003, with its weeks of whipping up spectators with “countdown to a showdown” (cowboy style), and its glowing assessments of “shock and awe”, and its mild-mannered questions to generals about ballistics and ordnance, some memorable examples from Doha press conferences being: “Are you considering dropping some JDAMS, sir? How have the Cobras fared in the desert climate? Are we going to see the MOAB in action?”. CNN is an insider, at the top of the society it occupies.

It does give us one more example of what mass-mediated discourse looks like without ethnography, without intellectual curiosity, and without honesty. After all, CNN drags in a talking head for every little tid-bit of political gossip, but can’t be bothered to call in one of the thousands of anthropologists in the US to offer a little contextualization.

ADDENDA:
As I posted the item above, I did not realize that this “news story” was slowly beginning to spread from blog to blog, from news site to news site (almost absent is any Indian coverage, with most of the sites I have seen being exclusively Western). Rather than try to comment on each item, let me simply post some descriptive links below (by no means a complete list, nor necessarily representative either), and show two videos, one from CNN and the other from Reuters.

From other blogs:

Red Neck Riches Web 2.0: “When I seen this headline at Foxnews.com I was really afraid to read the whole story….The bizarre ritual of throwing newborn babies off a temple 50ft high….” — notes this as a Muslim practice.

BagOfNothing: “Babies thrown from tower for good luck”–“Worshippers at a Muslim shrine

Babylune: “Babies thrown off temple for good luck”–FoxNews.com is reporting about a tradition that is done every year in India, I’m not sure on the name but the basic idea is to drop babies off 50 ft from the roof of a temple and landing on a cloth sheet. Once the baby lands on the sheet they bounce, this is considered good luck or health. I have no clue how they think this would be good luck unless they consider the baby not making it to be the bad luck….”

From other news sites:

Fox News: “Indian Babies Dropped 50 Feet for Good Luck in Bizarre Ritual….A jaw-dropping ritual….”

Huffington Post: “India’s Baby Dropping Ritual….Muslims in western India have been observing a bizarre ritual…”

ITV.com: “Devotees drop babies 50ft for luck….Worshippers at a Muslim shrine in western India have been dropping babies from a tower for good luck…”

Reuters: “Apr 30 – Muslims in western India have been observing a bizarre ritual – they’ve been throwing their young children off a tall building to improve their health….”

NBC Zeitgeist: “…shouldn’t you be more shocked that a human baby has just been dropped five stories in front of you?….Stop throwing babies from the roofs of buildings.”

WBKO: “Muslim parents in Indian drop babies from tower….You won’t believe this video…”

Miscellaneous:

From Craigslist, Sacramento, 01 May, 2008: “Baby Drop Day in India”–“Drop the little naked sucker from the top of the temple….TOSS YOUR BRAT from the top of your temple.”

Daily Comedy: “Drop It Like a Tot–Worshippers at a Muslim shrine in western India have been dropping babies 50ft from a tower for good luck…. In other news, Michael Jackson has been named Father of the Year in India.”

From SodaHead: Indian Baby Drop–What do you think of this strange 500 year old ritual?…”This is footage from an actual CNN report…”

Videos:

From CNN

From REUTERS




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