Bant Singh can still sing

Curator's Note

Posted on YouTube, this unforgettable video-letter by Sanjay Kak and Anurag Singh sears the brain. Here, Bant Singh, a lower-caste peasant activist, sings of rebellion from a hospital bed where he is recovering from a brutal attack. An image such as this, which does not fit mainstream celebrations of India’s “globalization,” might, without context, reinforce its Otherness and the need for even greater “globalization.” Bant Singh, however, speaks of being part of the same struggle as Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary, who was executed by the British Empire. In claiming that the struggle has remained the same after six decades of India’s independence, Bant Singh, exposes the deep antagonisms that run through the nation as its leaders embrace neo-liberalism. The free association of images on the web leads, perhaps, to a certain degree of ahistoricity; one reinforced by the isolated viewer. But it is also a means to end that isolation, part of a globalization in reverse. I learnt of this video through a South-Asian list-serve and Bant Singh’s songs, firm gaze, and fearless gestures have stayed with me as I teach, write, and stand in my town’s weekly anti-war protest. Like the political songs he sings, this video belongs to a collective project and so circulates freely without worries about copyright, finding a home wherever needed. At the very least, from which ever degree of isolation you saw this clip, you witnessed an act of criticism. And, as Brecht put it in his usual succinct way:

Give criticism arms And states can be abolished by it.


But does placing it on the Internet lead to this "reverse globalization" or place his voice as one of several de-contextualized (and thus further isolated) exotic Other? Under what conditions would the sharing of such a digitally mediated presence be productive to the cause/struggle he is engaged in?

And why is his speech and mediated presence NOT protected by copyright or other systems developed to monitor representational practices and circulation of voice and image... Is the so-called free circulation of this any different from the ways in which National Geographic captures and circulates "natives"? I look fwd to discussion. radhika

Hi, Thanks for your note. Your apprehensions about the image are entirely right if focussed only on the image and on the possibilities of re-editing it towards a reactionary politics. However, Bant Singh's words, the way the video is narrated, my caption on the side do make it difficult. I also tried in the note to build connections to other websites--e.g., on Bhagat Singh, on a meeting of solidarity for Bant Singh. In the end, the power of this image lies with the strength of the social movement on the ground. Of course, the image can be appropriated by a national geograhic kind of exoticized Other if there is no alternative challenge. Such a political challenge is the best protection for this image not privatized copyright. The free circulation of this image is part of building that alternative challenge.

I think that this is a very powerful use of digital technology and non-traditional distribution methods to make the local global and potentially build transnational alliances, but I also agree with both Jyotsna and Radhika's concerns over de-contextualized reception simply reproducing a fetishized "otherness". Jyotsna's comment on the MediaCommons site, for instance, situates Bant Singh's poem far more within discourses of social justice and colonial and post-colonial oppression than does the Youtube poster, who simply describes the video as: "Bant Singh is a revolutionary singer in Punjab, India, whose 2 years old daughter was raped by upper caste men. When he sought justice, they cut of his limbs. But he can still sing, and in this video letter he expresses no self-pity." Despite the mention of his revolutionary status, the Youtube description seems to largely reframe the video for Western palettes, simultaneously reifying the power of individualism and calling attention to the lurid crimes committed to Bant Singh and his daughter. The Related videos field places Bant Singh's powerful, articulate, culturally and trans-historically astute message amongst a hodgepodge of "Indianness" including Bollywood film clips and Bhangra music, but also other videos addressing the Dalit situation that generally frame their experiences through more stereotypical "wretched of the earth" type imagery.

I guess my question is can Bant Singh's video letter -- available free of charge through Youtube -- provide the Dalit with a global voice, or will its meanings become lost amidst the sheer abundance of materials available for viewing on Youtube and constrained by Youtube's viewing and networking design structures?

Jyotsna, I understand what you are optimistic for - I am there sometimes myself. My attempt is to provide a problematization of the reading that suggests that this image and song (which when played by those that do not get the context even partially -as I am guessing you and I might - a bit.. - contributes to other sorts of discursive formations). Now is the solution NOT to have this go around - Perhaps not. I like that you brought it out for discussion. For in the academic framework of who speaks for who - it *looks* as if he is speaking for himself and his community. Not everyone will catch the nuances of his performative. Because I, for one, am sure he is much more savvy in his interaction with his audience than his audience might give him credit for. We need to problematize it in our discussions - and invite as many diverse viewpoints as possible. And yet again - on the Internet - what diversity of viewpoints exists? And will it reach this site, if it exists - perhaps the form and diction of those that are online and might provide multiply located reading will not lead them here - or to You tube? I look forward to discussion:)

Avi, Dalits have a presence online - and Rohit Chopra (see - the special issue of New Media and Society - on South Asian Digital Diasporas) and some others have done close readings of how the Dalit presence now negotiates Globalization discourses online... The nature of the struggle takes on a different tone when this "subaltern" speaks online... Once again - I am not saying he should or should not "Speak" online - but I am saying that our readings will be too simplistic if we do not pay attention to much larger issues. I myself do not understand Punjabi - but I recognize affectively his music and intonation - which evokes various multiple layers of history and struggle - and perhaps parody even. But the nuances in language, context and intonation will not be read by all audiences online - perhaps this is not the goal really. Some of what I myself place online (although not as sophisticated as Bant's expression) is meant to connect to very specific audience and to quote a participant in one of my email lists long long ago in internet time (she is quoted in my pubd work too): "who's to say whether western or indian i refuse to be either i dont dare laugh i might lose my balance ...but once in a while behind hands that strive to hide the nervousness i giggle a little giggle.. not at you or me but at the process of being scrutinised...observed...'understood' as we perform like monkeys producing hamlets.... or chicken littles muzzling wolves...." [quoted from the archives of sa-cyborgs list]

Thanks Radhika. I will check out the issue of New Media and Society you mention. My own research examines how Inuit identity is constructed/represented by Inuit for global audiences through on-line promotional and educational sites built around Inuit media productions, and inevitably, there is always an ambivalence surrounding the marketing of "authenticity" and "global humanism" in relation to the achievement of local cultural, economic, and political concerns. I do think, however, that your point about the Dalit already having a global voice on-line has to be situated within a kind of paradox of abundance that Siva Vaidhyanathan addresses. In other words, does on-line Dalit presence equal a "global voice" if the vast majority of people -- who are not already aware of their situation -- will likely never come across these websites amidst everything else already out there? Contrastingly, might sites like Youtube -- in spite of its often frustrating framing mechanisms -- actually provide a greater opportunity to get "noticed" even as this requires a certain loss of control over self-representation? Speaking only for myself, and knowing very little about the Dalit situation, I am far more likely to encounter -- indeed stumble upon -- probably through the very "related videos" mechanism I previously bemoaned -- the Bant Singh video on YouTube, than elsewhere on-line (unless, of course, I visit MediaCommons ;-) ). Will this effect my interpretation of the video? Will this likely be a simplified understanding of the Dalit cause? Of course. But participation in global discourse has always been structured by power imbalances and strategic choices over how to represent and for what purposes.

I agree with much of what you say. You write: "does on-line Dalit presence equal a “global voice” if the vast majority of people — who are not already aware of their situation — will likely never come across these websites amidst everything else already out there? " this is exactly what I am asking too. What does it mean to have "voice" online? What is driving the need to be "recognized" in these spaces? I still want to continue conversation on what's at stake in accessing this particular kind of globality? How might we subvert the hegemony of a particular kind of globalization and multiculturalism online? And does it matter - if so why does it matter? r

Thanks Radhika, I had a link built to the Tehlka story in my note--"Bant Singh" is a link, so is "Bhagat Singh" and the word "needed"--the last one links to a news report on a solidarity meeting for Bant Singh where this video letter was also presented. The report has an address where Bant Singh can be reached. All these hyperlinks are mediated ways to access local points towards a global politics. If not for YouTube and my lefty list-serve I would not have seen it--and placing it on mediacommons has pushed it further into a critical space, I think. I agree with Avi about its lack of contextuaization on YouTube--and that is what is meaningful about In Media Res--because the curator's note creates a critical dialogue. Avi, the Youtube note points mistakenly that Bant Singh's daughter was 2 years old while she is in her early 20s (another instance of the exoticization that Radhika is warning against.) However, we cannot speak about the global politics of this image by focusing on the image alone. For all of the specifics and nuances of Bant Singh's words he is talking about international class solidarity--a politics that we have to invariably practice with others wherever we are. Perhaps, the question we are not asking is: what is the kind of politics that can be generated through online exchange of images such as this? If left at the level of individual viewing it would perhaps, at best, be an act of critical conciuosness--I continue to be optimistic that that is in itself a valuable part of education. At its best, it will become part of a collective source of action.

Jyotsna writes: " what is the kind of politics that can be generated through online exchange of images such as this? If left at the level of individual viewing it would perhaps, at best, be an act of critical conciuosness–I continue to be optimistic that that is in itself a valuable part of education. At its best, it will become part of a collective source of action." I agree. And yes I did see your links and references as well in my first reading - but as you rightly point out I am still and was focusing on the impact of the image and sound - that is what stands out forcefully in these contexts. The content is important to how these voices are reproduced. Even getting the context from Tehelka however does not take away my question about travelling images in this particular kind of global cyberspace - situated in an implicit narrative of linear development narrative. Just want to clarify I was by no means accusing curators or anyone else of actively contributing. My questioning must be there as must other types (I wish they would come and post!:)) of discussion. Bant Singh's ACT within the community - his singing - has become a part of collective action already. He has been inspiring. What sort of collective action it becomes a part of as a result on online circulation - that remains to be seen of course. But online circulation in particular modes is simultaneously effective and not - depending on how it circulates and what form(s) it takes... We should not let go of the discussion. So let's get to the productive contributions we can make to this struggle - what forms would that take, for instance? Let's talk about that too. hopefully more people will join in. r

[...] While the filter model we’ve converted IMR to has made it much easier for curator’s to access digitized versions of materials to comment on – and in the case of Jyotsna Kapur’s contribution is something you really might only be able to find on-line – there remains some question as to the efficacy of relying on third-party hosting sites like Youtube, especially for materials uploaded by our curators (rather than “found”), given Youtube’s penchant for cowing to corporate threats and yanking down anything that potentially challenges copyright and fair-use laws. Clearly, Viacom’s latest demands are a clear example of this. MediaCommons is adamant about the rights of scholars to quote from media materials as part of our critical analytical and pedagogical practices, but nonetheless, as my esteemed colleague Jeremy Butler points out, we might be facing a serious conflict of interests. While discussing the possibility of using a clip from “My Name is Earl” for an upcoming IMR curatorial effort, Butler expressed the following concerns (reprinted below with his permission): [...]

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