Toward a History of Media Assemblages

Posted: April 7, 2008 in Bollywood, Ecology of Sensation, India, Race

Let’s begin with Helen!

What is a history of media assemblages/ecologies? Helen from the \

Take the example of race and colorism in Hindi-Urdu Cinema. This is a draft of a paper I delivered at the Duke University Public Policy Institute in a “Work in Progress” conference held jointly with UNC.              

The analysis of cinema becoming media suggests to us a method of diagramming mutations of perception. I argue, then, that first and foremost Bollywood has been a mode of mutation for everyday life in India and its diaspora. This would be to think Ashish Nandy’s notion of popular film as the slum’s eye view of the world with Brian Massumi’s notion of perception before experience. Habits come in populations, media come in events. Posed another way: Film media mutate perceptions through representations and habits of consumption across diverse populations. In India, these representations and habits have contributed to the formation of what we might call borders and interfaces between populations, technologies, and transnational spaces. In other words, Bollywood has itself been a racializing technology, in its representations, themes, images, dances, and songs, and, as importantly, in its habits of consumption, its technologies of presentation, exhibition, and circulation, or what I call more broadly Hindi-Urdu media’s ecology of sensation. Second, I contextualize the questions of race and colorism in terms of a few broad historical transformations. The first is the fairly rapid dissolution of the Nehru-era hegemony of the Congress centered on secularism, socialism, and nationalism. This refers to the rise of liberalization as state industrial and agricultural policy in the 1980s, and globalization as cultural practices centered on the consumption patterns of a growing middle class since the mid-1990s. So the sense of what India’s borders are in terms of a national imagining has shifted over the past thirty years as transnational capital has transformed India’s relationship to the modernities of globalization, which is to say simply that race and racialization today is inseparable from practices of consumption. There were many causes and historical conjunctures that led to the dissolution of the Nehru-Gandhi hegemony. For instance, the green revolution which gave rural-based populism new political and economic power, and which also had repurcussions in terms of the financial structure of popular cinema.
(More soon.)
There are a number of Helen clips on YouTube. One describes her thus: “This is a shortened version of the interesting 40 minute Merchant Ivory documentary “Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls”.  Helen (born October 21, 1939) is one of the most popular classical Bollywood actresses, best known for playing vamps and vixens in Bollywood movies of the 1960’s and 70’s. She was famous for her performances in flamboyant dance sequences and cabaret numbers.” 
I am interested in Helen, the biracial cabaret dancer, the nautch girl/bazaari aurat, because she seems to have brought together a number of forms of movement together. As we shall see in subsequent posts, Helen brought together the dance with the chase, and her cabaret numbers take their ecology from this convergence of cinematic motifs. More, Helen brought the ethnic/racial other into a multisensorial communication channel with a “camp” sexuality. The performativity of her identity interests me little if at all, but what I am going to suggest is that performativity, as gridded but repetitive practice, is constituted by the ensemble of movements, the mixtures of duration, that I am calling an ecology of sensation. What needs to be specified and argued concretely is the particular resonant unity that emerges in the Helen assemblage. We will develop this point in subsequent posts. I have taken this clip from the Merchant Ivory film; I have wanted to focus specifically on Helen’s dance and racial/ethnic otherness.  

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