Interpreting Cultural Politics through the Act of Performative Communication

Urmi Bhattacharyya

Culture, understood as encompassing material, symbolic and ideological elements and processes that constitute the sociocultural domain of both everyday life and spectacular moments, is remarkably performative in nature and communicative in intention. Extending the interpretation of the performative as involving discursive as well as non-discursive acts (p. 8), this volume provides a detailed insight into the performative and communicative insinuations of culture and politics in South Asia. Recognizing the political implications of the performative and its fundamental association with communication enables in deciphering the domain of cultural politics beyond the borders of discursive practices in contemporary society. Revoking the assumptions concerning differences in power and culture, the text thus binds performance, history, culture and power, expanding the disciplinary boundaries of performance and communication to subsume various cultural activities ranging from everyday mundane events to those which are spectacular and extraordinary.

Harping on the need to go beyond monolithic definitions of performance and communication, this remarkable volume edited by Dev Nath Pathak and Sasanka Perera presents different contexts for the discussion and interpretation of the idea of the performative, as observed in individual behavior and institutional processes, in order to make way for a reconsideration of our understanding of cultural politics. Containing 17 chapters and an elaborate introduction, this text sheds light on a variety of experiences across cultural, social and political contexts to show how performativity not only entails the communication of acts of conformity, but also that of resistance and defiance. The profound introduction by the editors sets the stage for enriching discussions not with the purpose of arriving at a conclusive and delimiting definition of performative communication, but to provoke the readers to acknowledge the multilayered meanings that underlie the concept of performance across public and private spaces, and in hegemonic or alternative discourses. Deeply rooted in cultural politics, these multiple interpretations can either be seen as being connected with each other or in contradiction to one another. The articles in the book, arranged in four parts, cover a wide range of contexts from acts of terror, elections, issues of ethnicity and identity, to photographs, religious iconography, cinema, television news, folk songs, and public space.

The first section titled ‘Unfolding the discursive terrain’ establishes the framework for elucidating the political implications of performative communication. Perera’s interesting chapter, exploring the intellectual and ethical concerns surrounding the interpretation of terror as performance, sets up the structure of the volume for other discussions to follow. Built through the responses of terror resulting from political imperatives, such performances as Perera puts forth, emanate from scripted frameworks that are part of ancient ideologies and discourses. Following this, the chapter by Stephen McDowell, Barbara Robinson, and Azmat Rasul on contemporary power, politics and media in India and the United States explains how performance and identity is defined by larger political discourses, along with discipline and a sense of consistency, which helps in conveying the underlying meaning.

In the second section titled ‘Implications of performative politics’, one finds a continuation of the idea of performative politics through discussions on discursive practices, gender, violence, and civil society. Rachel Seoighe’s chapter on political struggles in post-War Sri Lanka throws light on the discursive practices entailed in the production of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, understood in terms of the performative practices undertaken by the state to maintain the hegemony of the dominant ideology, also reflected in the appropriation of space. The next chapter, by Sanjeev Uprety explores the performative production of dominant versions of Nepali masculinity in the contemporary political discourses in Nepal. Centering on the notion of third gender and the word dalal as represented in the English and Nepali print media and weekly magazines This work shows how such discursive practices generated in a space dominated by the performance of hegemonic masculinity leave little opportunity for alternative politics or foreign collaborations to emerge. Harping on the images of violence in the context of the Armed Forces Special Power Act in Manipur, as repeatedly circulated in the local and national media, Jayanta Vishnu Das’s work highlights on how violence can also be read as a performative act of resistance carried out by women by using their body as a site of protest. This performance of violence, as represented repeatedly in the media then allows for the conditions of the conflict-ridden state to be laid bare. Following this, Rashi Bhargava’s contribution on the performed ethnic identity of Naga in contemporary Nagaland provides an illustration to draw attention to the processes of constant becoming and being that are involved in the construction of Naga identity, and the role played by the organized civil society in maintaining social relationships as well as ethnic identity. Highlighting on the participation of the marginalized sections in the local elections in Tezpur, Assam, one that regularly confirms their citizenship, Das’s article looks at the performative power of elections and how in the course of the event the social space is transformed into an atypical site, which claims repercussions on citizenship and identity.

The next section, on ‘Myriad mediums and multiple metaphors’, emphasizes on various contexts of political and technological intervention to interpret their consequences on the performative reconstruction of identity, ideology, resistance or tradition. Emphasizing on photography as a significant medium of representation in early 20th century India, Lisa Trivedi’s work explores the reform organizations in Gujarat and how the photographs of ordinary women at social work in such organizations facilitated their representational visibility and how the women captured in the images can be said to have participated in a performance of their labour. It is thus through their ability to communicate that visuals exercise their performative power. Tracing the performative politics implicit in the Gita press, Ritu Sinha’s work reveals how visuals published through such presses in the colonial period and even later, played a significant role in the communication and the reassertion of Hindu religious politics. The next two chapters in this section deal with how genres function as spaces of transgression and cultural possibilities in the light of an arranged structure and the presence of different forms of stratification. While Chandrani Chatterjee’s article underlines the need to interpret literary forms as involving transformations and reconsider genres as containing the performative ability to transform and transgress structures in society, Asha Singh’s work on Bhojpuri songs sung by women traces the different genres of songs narrating conjugal relationships in the absence of husbands and thus questions the actual gendered divisions existing in society. This is followed by Vaishali Raghuvanshi and Sanjeev Kumar H. M.’s chapter on the performative power of cinema, which elucidates on how a negative representation of Pakistan in Hindi cinema is seen as being fundamental to the construction and shaping of the nation’s image and also a sense of national identity. Providing an insight into the performative potential of block-printed clothing as found in Bagru, Rajasthan, Ektaa Jai’s contribution facilitates in arriving at its symbolic interpretation and in uncovering its relation to the production of identity that takes place through its creation and adornment.

The last section of the volume, titled ‘Socio-cultural public sphere(s)’ depicts the intricate connection between culture, politics and public space, and how their interaction can be understood as highly performative in nature. Exploring the Shahbag movement in Bangladesh as represented through social media and cultural programmes, as a symbolic act of performance involving communicative functions, Ratan Kumar Roy’s work reveals the complex and significant connection that exists between the political and the cultural. Relooking at the structure of news as a performative practice, the chapter by Abhijit Roy provides an interesting understanding of how television news can be reconsidered as a performance, where the communicative codes and content of the news, as drawn from modern political institutions, makes possible a theatrical presentation of democracy. The last chapter, by Pathak and Avanti Chhatre, recapitulates the essential idea of the text concerning performative communication, by highlighting on the field of cultural production as a possible site for the expression of diversity and dissent through the study of two plays that underscore their contradiction and conflict with hegemonic ideology, and bringing to light the necessity of recognizing conflicting moralities.

Elucidating the various contexts and spaces of culture and politics in South Asia, this volume thus brings together novel possibilities of reconsidering the inter-workings of culture and politics as being performative in nature, contributing to the representation of hegemonic ideologies or their creative reconstruction. Its strength lies in the presentation of the multifarious meanings rendering a fluid concept of performance, beyond its space-bound meanings, to convey a wider understanding of its presentation beyond the front stage of the theatre to the offstage of everyday life. By presenting discussions on diverse sociopolitical spheres and fields of cultural production, the volume reveals how the element of performance not only remains central to theatrical presentations onstage but is imperative in the observation of everyday life, of personal as well as public space and in the interpretation of human and institutional behavior, ideological dominance and resistance. Such an interpretation of performance allows the concept to be appreciated beyond the confines of narrow disciplinary definitions, as a multifarious one whose form remains open to situations and whose meanings remain homologous, and thus providing scope for it to be considered as being indispensable for the understanding of human behavior as well as sociopolitical institutions. Highlighting on the process of communication as being imperative for the understanding of performance, this text underscores the task of making and unmaking that is involved in the performance of culture and politics in society, and on cultural manipulations and political strategies that are entailed in the construction and presentation of performance, thereby throwing light on the aspect of human agency and on the interaction between structures of domination and voices of resistance. By deliberating on different aspects of performative communication, it invites the readers to an engaged rumination on the manifold possibilities concerning the apprehension of cultural politics. Illustrating the nuances of performative communication, this insightful and comprehensive volume therefore contributes to meaningful interpretations and acknowledgment of the numerous ways in which culture and politics are entangled in interaction, constructing and transforming spaces, ideologies and identities in South Asia.