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Not by language alone

The creation of Telangana underlines the importance of artistic and cultural production in reinforcing political mobilisation.

Written by S V Srinivas |
August 9, 2013 4:42:29 am

The creation of Telangana underlines the importance of artistic and cultural production in reinforcing political mobilisation

An important learning from the pro-statehood mobilisation for political scientists and policymakers alike is that language,like religion,is not a natural or stable ground for the creation of political communities in the 21st century. Statehood demands in Andhra Pradesh have a long history. The three regions of Andhra,namely Coastal Andhra,Rayalaseema and Telangana have distinct dialects of Telugu. With a population of over 84 million (Census 2011),diversity and cultural differences can only be a given. The question is,how does culture matter in contemporary political movements? The answer does not lie in the fact of cultural differences — which will no doubt characterise even the smallest states of India — but the manner

in which differences reinforce or drive political mobilisations.

Responding to the imminent creation of Uttarakhand,Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh,a political commentator wrote: “With the passage of time,sentiment for language and culture has given way to the urge for speedier economic development.” (Pradeep Kumar,“Demand for New States: Cultural Identity Loses Ground to Urge for Development”,Economic and Political Weekly,August 26-September 2,2000). The movement for the creation of Telangana indicates that the linguistic state’s demise may not be so easily attributed to the “urge for development” alone. Indeed,the rising popularity of the statehood demand in Telangana was accompanied by a definitive cultural turn,which enabled the movement to acquire a mass base.

Modern political mobilisations are often accompanied by cultural production and also drive the consumption of media and cultural commodities. This is evident in the case of Telangana too,where large-scale political mobilisations and artistic and cultural production have reinforced each other.

The cultural turn in Telangana manifests itself in two related but distinct developments. The first is more reactive,in that its primary focus was media representation and prevailing stereotypes of the region,its people and their distinct dialect. For example,objections have been raised to the film industry’s practice of making screen villains and gangsters speak in the Telangana dialect in popular Telugu films.

A second,and more interesting,development is the burgeoning of a whole creative industry in the wake of the statehood agitation. The cultural turn of the agitation more or less coincides with the formation of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in 2001. However,the propaganda model does not explain the relationship between culture and politics,because no party or ideology has any real control over what is being produced,and how.

While the demand for statehood cuts across party lines,over the past decade or so,the demand was strongly supported by intellectuals and creative people like artists,poets,singers and stage performers. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the long-drawn agitation was sustained by the cultural effloresce that accompanied it. Some important cultural figures,like the legendary poet and singer Gaddar (Gummadi Vithal Rao),had supported the statehood demand in the late 1960s. The agitation was also able to draw on the cultural icons and resources of the Communist,Naxal and Dalit movements that had a strong presence in the region. An archive of music,which was already popular in the region and beyond,now became available for the supporters of statehood. Gaddar had a long association with the CPI(ML) People’s War. He was the face of the party’s cultural wing,Jana Natya Mandali,for decades. In the early 1990s,he sang and performed at public meetings that attracted thousands of people. In 2010,he established the Telangana Praja Front as an alternative to TRS. Other poets and singers of the Naxal and Dalit movements of the region,like Goreti Venkanna,also lent their support to Telangana. Gaddar’s individual contribution,significant as it is,was overshadowed by what we might call in his honour the “Gaddar effect”. Maoist propaganda and radical counterculture that drew on folk forms to create emotionally charged agitprop music and stage performance became mass culture. This was in part due to the Telugu film industry,which borrowed liberally from ultra-left songs in the genre locally known as the red or Naxalite film. In the last few years,scores of singers adopting Gaddar’s idiom and costume began to give pro-Telangana performances across the region.

An important catalyst for this fascinating turn was Telangana Dhoom Dham,which brings together pro-Telangana singers and performers. It began as a rather modest event in 2003 in artist Laxman Aelay’s Hyderabad studio. In the decade since,it has been organised every year to larger audiences and television coverage. Dhoom Dhams have been attended by major pro-Telangana political leaders. Non-resident supporters of Telangana organised their own Dhoom Dhams abroad.

While pro-Telangana papers and television channels were established by politicians and entrepreneurs with deep pockets,smaller players ensured the widespread distribution of books,CDs of songs,stage performances and even political speeches of TRS chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR). The sheer scale of cultural production is impressive.

It is not as if irreconcilable regional cultural differences have led to the demand for a separate state. It is not even as if timeless regional practices have been revived in the past decade. As with classic nationalist movements,traditions have been invented and icons made in Telangana. The new goddess for the region,Telangana Talli (Mother Telangana),who was created as a replacement for Telugu Talli (Mother Telugu),alerts us to the continuities with both Indian and Telugu nationalisms of 20th century vintage. We are reminded,all over again,that culture does not simply exist,but is produced by people. It is popular will,and not cultural differences per se,that creates new states and nations.

Srinivas,senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society,Bangalore and coordinator of Culture: Industries and Diversity in Asia (CIDASIA) programme,is the author of ‘Politics as Performance’

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