Foregrounding the Non-Diegetic: Questions of Identity and Resistance

Non Diegetic Identities Installation

NonDiegetic” is a terminology filmmakers are familiar with. I was introduced to this term when I read about a performance installation to be held in New Delhi on a late March evening this year. In literal terms non-diegetic sounds are forms of aural perception that remain outside of the occurrence presented on screen. Simply put, it is background music, sound effects, or commentary used to enhance visual perception. The installation entitled Non-Diegetic Identities was an innovative critique of dominant perceptions of “tribal” identity. It was put together by filmmaker Wanphrang Diengdoh and his Shillong based music project called Tarik along with members Valte Chongthu and Shaun Nonghulo. The installation was a provocative call to critical self-reflection on questions of tribal identity, representation, and stereotypes. The issues addressed in the performance are relevant to the current socio-political conditions both within the northeastern states like Meghalaya and in Indian cities where many students from the north-east live, work, and study.

Having been away from the country and my hometown Shillong for several years I was keen on attending this event, not only because of my academic and political interest in north-east India. Knowing that Tarik would perform was an incentive, and I was looking forward to catching up with friends. What I experienced that evening at the installation was far more gratifying and stimulating than I had anticipated. The installation was composed of pieces of interrelated sounds including bites from Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous speech at the “strike of the midnight hour” in 1947, signature tunes from state owned and private television channels, Tarik’s lyrics, and what Wanphrang describes as noise. The installation deconstructed the pervasive forms of representation of tribal as cultural artifact. Two historical conjunctures are seen as severely affecting the ways in which tribal identity has been constituted. One is the crucial moment of the birth of the Indian nation that created various grades of national subjects confined within old, new and shifting physical and social boundaries. The second moment is one of post economic liberalization in the1990s, which opened up consumption possibilities most strikingly through new media such as cable television and the Internet. The installation powerfully challenged the complicity of community members, largely the educated elite, and those who act as gatekeepers and custodians of tribal culture in reinforcing the dominant perceptions of who or what being tribal means.

The concept for this installation emerged out of Wanphrang’s and Valte’s experiences and observations living in Delhi where many north-east festivals highlighting the traditions and culture of this space take place. These festivals showcasing food, music, clothes, are driven by two imperatives according to these artists– the first, legitimacy through incorporation/inclusion within the ambit of a diverse nation state and second, commodification of tribal identity which relies on dominant tropes reducing the meanings of identity to culture. The performance not only addressed the complicit spectator but also put the onus on “tribal subjects”. Wanphrang explains the purpose and meaning when he says that historical forces have “shaped how we let the world understand us and how we wish to project ourselves at the cultural podium…”. He explicates his point by saying, “ There are so many north-east festivals happening in the capital and there are more to come as well. Similarly, there are as many state sponsored art festivals happening in Shillong, but what is unfortunate is that there is no discussion of serious issues that relate us to contemporary society. Sophisticated references to art and culture should also be firmly rooted in contemporary politics. There will be the token traditional dance, the rock and roll bands, and so-called ‘ethnic’ food and in this desire for us to be exclusive, we draw more and more borders around ourselves. In my opinion, this is dangerous because there is no discourse on traditional ideas of politics and their significance in neo-liberal globalised India.”

One of the most persuasive aspects of this installation was the transformation of the performance space into a microcosm of the larger phenomenon under study. Audience members were incorporated into the performance through the duality of the act itself. At one level the performance presented a breakdown of sources, methods and actors involved in making tribal a cultural artifact. At another, the performance forced the audience to assume critical awareness of their own gaze. This exercise in challenging stereotypes and representations and being confronted with one’s own complicity was revelatory and compelling.

Some of the questions I was compelled to think about during and after the installation included locating the means that produce stereotypes about tribals (such as a colonial anthropological gaze inherited by Indians in post colonial times), who and what those specific interests that reinforce these ideas are (for example, through methods of representation, and commodification), and in what ways spaces can be availed and created for discussion, debate, and dialogue on questions of political subjectivities of north-easterners, as well as the demystification of notions that all things tribal including violence is cultural. The broad spectrum of issues one has to grapple with in order to address these questions includes political, economic, and ideological bases of national integration in post independent India. Needless to say these aspects have undergone shifts and changes in the last sixty eighth years, and have affected different states in the north-east in varying ways. In Meghalaya, with Shillong as its epicenter a new wave of music, films, protest movements, and community organisations have been addressing imminent issues including workers’ rights such as minimum wage, gender and equity in local governing bodies and traditional institutions, and minority rights in the wake of nation wide spread of an oppressive Hindutva ideology.

This timely and provocative installation not only intervenes in existing debates, it generated a separate space for discussions on tribal identity and concomitant issues. This performance prompted a discussion not limited to local and parochial needs, expectations, and problems. As Wanphrang reiterated in a conversation I had with him recently, the issues facing Khasi youth need to be located in a global economic context and in relation to current national ideological currents. It throws up an important question – Where does our responsibility lie? Aren’t we, the reading public, those with class/caste/gender/majoritarian/educational/spatial privileges responsible for holding governing bodies, large and small, accountable? To start, lets revisit and revise our own bases of stereotyping, representation and self-representation.

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