Indeed the idols I’ve loved so long
Have done my credit in this World much wrong:
Have drowned my Glory in a shallow Cup,
And sold my Reputation for a song
Now that our brand ambassador got cheated of his crown by lack of twenty one lakh rupees, Meghalaya, the brand, needs a new USP. My suggestion is based on the survey published in last week’s India Today called State of the States. Because the opinion makers/media and magnates of quick fix solutions were busy engineering good news and placing Shillong beneath the lens of Indian masses, the survey sank without a trace. Let me fish it out for you. Meghalaya has an unenviable distinction of being the Most Backward State of India, four years in a row. Within this crazy category called the North East too, we are scraping the bottom of the barrel. If Kerala can advertise itself as God’s own country, we can also say Meghalaya – Backwardness Beckons or what about Meghalaya – Consistently Backward or Meghalaya – Future Clouded. Maybe we can also have a jingle to the tune of ‘Knocking, knocking at the Basement Door’ performed by a record breaking musical concert, with our (not quite there) Indian Idol leading the chorus and very many ‘have been’ international bands and singers providing the backup.
With all the rallies and sponsored telephone lines, when Meghalaya has amitted its troublesome sub national isolationist past – can we now nitpick at the clawing celebratory clichés fashioned by media and unravel the naïve progressive prose of the academicians? Can we deconstruct the toothpaste branded as Amit Paul? If that seems offensive, then replace toothpaste by that abstraction called commodity. Commodity, which a dead bearded man saw as appearing “at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” Pity me but let me locate subtleties and niceties of this trivial phenomenon. In search of its origins, mapping its various journeys, I will also look for ways to exorcise its mysterious powers.
Unlike the popularly pedalled line, the origins of this phenomenon do not lie in the vocal chords of Mr. Paul, or his boy next-door-middle class-humble-lover boy demeanour or even Shillong’s disgust with its small town anonymity. Its origins have to be traced to the overheated machineries of the Culture Industry. Although organised as an industry, to survive profitably this industry does not produce useful goods and services but manufactures aspirations and dreams of ‘the people’ to fit them more easily with the culture of the powerful. Bah Sony Entertainment Television manufactured Amit Paul into an idol to rally for. Mr. Amit Paul’s own self with its contradictions and weaknesses were meticulously erased to a smooth perfection. But all of this effort would have been commercial and ideological failure if the Idol remained as unreal as a fantasy, fantasy that all of us could conjure at will. So, prompted by the ‘objective journalism’ or ‘professorial analysis’ or also known as the PR apparatus of the Culture Industry, we were called upon to suspend our disbelief and cede our abilities to be active producers of our own imagination. We were to be worshipful passive consumers for this industry and nation. How effectively this suspension of disbelief was engineered will now translate into how powerful the Idol and its Ideal will be in the life of ‘the people’?
But these attempts are not without their challenges. Cultural power cannot be exercised unilaterally in a vacuum. It functions in a relationship of domination and subordination, resistance and consent of the people. This is a battlefield, a continuing battle for meaning where the dominant culture attempts to reorganize and redefine popular culture. This war over meaning is a war for our rightful freedoms. Our weapons to locate these freedoms have been our scepticism and doubt, our ability to cut out the crap. Therefore, the first point of attack for the powerful is to co-opt our doubt, pervert our ability to make fun and laugh at their myths. Co-optation ensures that we affirmatively grant the legitimacy to the lie masquerading as the only truth. Amit Paul then can masquerade for everyone. He can ventriloquise Pehla Nasha while holding a Khasi Sword in his Khasi dress worn over his jeans, transforming poignant historicity of traditions and identities into some kind of a fancy dress party. But like the manipulated photoshoped posters with Amit as sniper, Amit as a Garo Dancer, Amit in front of Nartiang monoliths, Amit sitting on a plush couch, all this is a carefully plotted masquerade, where everyone can become everybody else and therefore finally remain nobodies in their Ri swadesh.
Idols of the past engineered their legitimacy through coercion and banishment. If you questioned their legitimacy, you were an apostate, a heretic to be burnt at the stake. But the times have changed. Now this legitimacy is constructed through a ‘democratic consensus’. It is by our supposed ‘choice’ the commodity called toothpaste is transformed into a meta–commodity called ‘People’s toothpaste’. And if they can ensure that this ‘democratic’ choice can also be known as national or Indian choice, the idol becomes patriotically holy enough to visit the Air Marshal’s house with his security clad in comic commando uniforms defending the aura of Indian nation followed by a cavalcade of 1000(?) cars.
You don’t have to be some political science professor to understand that democracy is not just a ‘procedure’ of vote to elect ki lei san snem – gods of five years, but is an existential search for self-determination. It is a way to determine the freedoms we need. But the powerful, who have always been uncomfortable with the idea of democracy, try to emphasise only the procedural aspect of democracy. Elections, choice, vote or sms are highlighted over the existential, substantive and deliberative. A democracy where my scheme eating, party hopping MLAs and their clamouring challengers sponsor phone booths, bulk purchase pre-paid cards while meditating on the true nature of vote – buy as much as you can and clog the telephone lines or let the wallet replace the ballot…
If I asked you to accept as your representative, a person who could buy more votes, stuff more ballot boxes, or coerce your choice through bribes, you would be disgusted with me for even having had such a thought. Now that Amit Paul has lost the race of corruption, will the cabal of respectable elite opinion makers, intellectual deliberators and development peddlers cynically express their disgust for One Crore for Prashant versus Two Crores for Amit? I predict that now with no idol to manufacture, this cynical elite would quickly start manufacturing stale and predictable quickfix schemes to fix our endemic backwardness.
Last Autumn ended with one faction of this elite proudly inviting the pirate cement companies to sponsor record breaking drum thumping to attract tourists to enjoy our pristine environment before it was destroyed by the very same manufacturers of ‘foreign earth’ – diewbilat. This Autumn began with an exciting hunt for sponsoring MLAs/Contractors/Government to buy votes for the Idol. Is sponsored crookery the only way to achieve our dreams? Maybe, I have been spending too much time with the stories gathered through Right to Information Act 2005 about accounts of MLAs and MPs, contracts stolen, PDS food grains diverted into open markets so as to not give any benefit of doubt to these largesse and think of them as money picked from my pocket.
Maybe I am being too harsh, too critical. Even if the means are dishonourable and commercial, but isn’t the end honourable? Hasn’t Shillong come together? Hasn’t Amit brought Amity between all ages, class, and ethnicities in Vote for Amit rallies and orchestrated feel good concerts? . Hasn’t the wild reputation of the place been tamed by the magical rhythms of Hindi Film music? Images of the wild fans from the ‘wild west’ of Shillong are patronisingly and endlessly flashed to drive home the point. People’s love for Hindi film music is being easily translated into their love for the latest toothpaste, and consequently into their secret love for Hindustan. All of this would have been laughable, if it was not coming from ‘respected’ academicians and journalists. This burom laden, ‘affirmation craving’ class of spin doctors of Shillong, which in itself exists in a relationship of inferiority to the national and international elite, always tries in its own inferior ways to enclose and confine popular cultural aspirations and forms within a more acceptable range of dominant forms and ideologies.
Prior to this idol making the genteel of the city wanted to disdainfully omit the working classes’ public fascination for Hindi film music. They felt culturally superior listening to their advertising jingles masquerading as classical in refined locales of local hotels. While they drowned their aural and cultural anxieties in feel good gospel and Robindroshongeet, raucousness of Shillongs’ metal crowd was a noise that they could do without. But even when the Shillong skies were irradiated with gunfire of ‘anti’ national variety from these very same patriotically tamed spaces, the cultural fix and mix of those untamed times still had a large portion of Bollywood blues. Most probably the cars from which the guns were being fired had aa dekhen zara, kisme kitna hai dum thumping as background track followed by Bullet In Your Head by Rage Against the Machine.
The meaning of any cultural form and its place or position in the cultural arena is not coded inside its form. Nor its position fixed forever. I may hum Hindi film music but that does not make me into a deshbhakt Hindustani who loves Hindi as a National Language. In Kashmir for instance, most Indian patriotic songs sung by Mahendra Kapoor (Apni Azadi ko hum hargiz mita sakte nahin) can be read as an anthem for their ongoing anti-colonial struggle for freedom rather than its intended Indianess. What cultural symbols mean depend on the nature of the struggle in and over culture. What is popular or what ‘the people’ want is characterised by the relationship, influence and antagonisms that exist between the dominating and dominated, between popular forces and powerful, between the riew don bor and the riew rit riew madan.
Culture of Mawlai (or Shillong) cannot be patronisingly tamed solely in its screaming chorus of ‘Pehla Nasha’. It’s chorus exists in a organic continuum with U. N. Sun’s Mama Kahan Hai, Snowwhite’s angst of U Rangdajied, violent cathartic growls of Marlyn Manson or the lost prophetic voices of The Ceremony’s album Scary Truth. While we, the people, are locked in a battle to define ourselves as the true drivers of history, the ‘Scary Truth’ is that the burom flashing elites also have a stake in defining and using the people as something else: ‘the people’ who need to be disciplined more, ruled better, more effectively policed, more efficiently nationalised, globalised and sold. The fact remains that ‘three stone blues’ has always been remixed. Sudden discovery of the cosmopolitanism and progressive inclusiveness of Mawlai by the privileged minority, is because now they can amit and control this brew of multiple lives and complex urges and harness it for programmes they see it fit. Programmes, where they are performing masters and we are the audience, politely clapping at the scripted cue.