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Circulatory Practices and Contested Spaces

Introduction, Part Two

Published onMar 28, 2022
Circulatory Practices and Contested Spaces

The manner in which diverse circulations including that of bodies, objects, ideas and cultural material have historically shaped social spaces in South Asia has been a topic of scholarly discussion [Orsini and Sheikh 2014][De Bruijn and Busch 2014][Sood 2016]. With a specific view on the media-saturated environment in contemporary India and the increasingly relevant practice of media ‘stings’, Ravi Sundaram speaks of a “circulation engine” that connects multiple environments: the political spectacle, the judicial review, and the online archive[Sundaram 2015]. But the correlation of circulation and (contested) spaces is highly relevant beyond the openly competing political, social, and religious actors in today’s India and also concerns the space of ideas and concepts. As Nadja-Christina Schneider shows in her article in this collection, the notions of female empowerment and Indian nationalism are highly contested terrains.

Is it possible to use this understanding of circulation to make sense of the situation in contemporary India where under a competitive authoritarian regime specific networks create proliferations around divisive notions of identity that mark certain sections of the population as outgroups? Scholarship about the important and dangerous role of WhatsApp groups and forwards in India [Nizaruddin 2021][Mukherjee 2020] evidences the immense power that the Hindu Right generates through its strategic use of social media [Udupa 2018][Falnikar 2020]. Definitely, the circulation of inciting, exciting, polemic and provocative content is part of a dangerous social media spiral that creates and endless cycle of media-based ideological battles, especially in the digital space. The digital space, like the physical one, is a contested one and both are interspersed with unequal power relations, misrepresentation, political oppression, divisive discourse, and hatred.

Given these developments, what circulatory possibilities exist in terms of repertoires of living together that can create different kinds of proliferations to provide frameworks for peaceful coexistence? Research on contemporary India has explored connections between resistance and circulation with reference to art [Ghosh 2020], music [Damodaran 2020] and poetry [Plys 2020], social and independent media in a wider sense [Dey 2018], oral and visual non-hegemonic traditions [Gopal 2020]. For instance, Priti Laishram writes about the circulation of resistance songs in the north-east Indian state of Manipur:

“As the use of cassette has stopped and selling CDs became financially non-viable for independent artists, social media has become one of the major channels to reach the audience. The artists who sing songs of resistance do not perform in street protests, and their songs are even not used in street protests. Concerts, crowd-funded events, and social media, then, have become a major means through which the songs are circulated.”[Laishram 2020, 17]

The described transformation of performance culture and media practices indicates how important it is for actors of social change to create new communicative spaces, where counter-narratives can flourish and may eventually facilitate building “communicative communities”, as Max Kramer delineates in his article in this collection with regard to independent documentary film practice representing Kashmir.

 The contributions of this collection

Emanating from the fruitful academic and activist exchanges over the course of a three-day international digital conference in September 2021 (organized by Nadja-Christina Schneider, Fathima Nizaruddin and Fritzi-Marie Titzmann), the five articles in this collection follow the above mentioned questions about circulatory practices and contested spaces in India as dimensions of the main theme of living together. The five articles share a media perspective which includes interrogating the visual mediation of a new female ideal (Schneider), examining documentary film practices, their audiences and specific communicative and representative forms (Kishore, Kramer), a transmedia newsletter in the context of the Indian Farmers’ movement (Titzmann), and music video circulation that combines spiritual and political messages (Kirchhof).

India’s New Daughters

In “Nari Shakti and the Nation”, Nadja-Christina Schneider discusses a new role model that is specifically reserved for young unmarried women who are adressed as the ‘new daughters’ of the Indian state. A particular focus lies on their physically trained bodies that are imagined and represented as able to defend themselves and their nation. Schneider traces how “these new iconic visualizations of ‘India’s empowered daughters’ are currently increasingly circulated across different media platforms and networks” and focuses in her analysis on the visual imagery that was produced in television broadcasting of the Republic Day parade as well as in popular and documentary films about young ‘heroic’ women, which encompasses a range of role models from India’s first female airforce pilot to women who join a Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation. But Schneider carves out how all of them represent versions of nationalist female empowerment that do not stand in opposition to the prevailing Hindu nationalist gender ideology.

Transformative Potentials of Media Production and Circulation

The media initatives of Cinema in Resistance and Chal Chitra Abhiyaan discussed in Shweta Kishore’s article on independent documentary cinema are illustrative examples of how configurations are collectively created that could be understood as circulations with the potential to create new spaces for coexistence as well as conceptual change within the existing socio-political landscape in the country. Kishore emphasizes that circulation is tactical and driven by a community of cultural producers, independent filmmakers and media initiatives that have, in addition to frontal judicial responses, formed an inventive repertoire of “minor practices” to summon publics. This encompasses so called “embodies publics” as well as the decomposition of copyrights and the use of localised elements. Cultural hegemony, including production and circulation, within the capitalist system represents a hightly contested space that is effectively challenged by these new forms of coalition-building.

Contested Territory - Contested Representations

Similarly, Max Kramer writes about the transformative power of the documentary form and argues that an understanding of this form requires us to go beyond the textual focus on ethics of co-existence and move towards a “communicative community”. The contested space in his empirical example is the representation of Kashmir and its communities, in particular the notions of remembered and practiced neighborliness in Iffat Fatima’s documentary film Khoon Diy Baarav. Starting from an understanding of the force of common space and time that becomes imaginable through the practice of film, in the anlayzed film sequence the depicted everydayness of Hindu-Muslim relationships in the conflict-ridden Kashmir valley is mediated by a bird and by the practice of Sanskrit astrology and thus overcomes the dominating representation of interminable inter-religious tension. Kramer recounts how the director Iffat Fatima juggles visibility and safety. Her tactic of “contextualized visibility” requires the right moment, place, medium, and form. In this way, her films can unfold their multi-layered messages and foster communicative communities.

Media and Solidarity in the Indian Farmer’s Movement

With regard to questions of how to live together, the Indian Farmers’ Movement presents itself as an example of an ideal society. A claim justified by multiple egalitarian and solidarity practices. In her article on Trolley Times, the newsletter of the movement (2020-21), Fritzi-Marie Titzmann analyzes the ways counter-narratives and solidarity are mediated. The newsletter’s discourse is characterized by a strong anti-capitalist critique and the constant evocation of solidarity with and within the movement. Circulation via physical and digital means is crucial for the movement’s counter-narrative to establish itself and to impact a highly contested discoursive space, where mainstream media, government spokespersons, and activists’ narratives compete with each other. Trolley Times presents an interesting example of how combined mediation strategies including multilingualism, transmediality, grassroot activism, and community and capacity building support the vision of a different Indian society and a justified struggle against the government’s politics.

Circulations of Spiritual Egalitarianism

Perhaps most explicitly referring to circulation within this collection, Dhanya Fee Kirchhof follows the circulatory practices of the Punjabi singer Kanwar Grewal in pursuit of the question why and how people in the 21st century employ notions of spiritual egalitarianism to challenge divisive discourses. She argues that the notion of oneness - as expressed in Grewal’s songs, their explicit form of visualization in his music videos and his performative practice - serves as a tool to articulate, circulate and exchange implicit and explicit messages that recognize existing forms of discrimination and inequalities, while emphasizing the need for a shared struggle towards a better society. Kirchhof’s in-depth analysis of Grewal’s music videos, the audience’s response to his YouTube uploads in the comment section and the way he circulates his videos via live-streaming, uploading and live performances connect questions of space, circulation and, above all, more egalitarian ways of living together.

Taken as a whole, these five essays each tell their own story about the mediation and circulation of certain ideas that, taken together, can be seen as resistant to, or at least new perspectives and practices within, India's current political climate. They offer fruitful starting points for thinking about ways of living together and establishing new discourses and practices.


The editors would like to thank especially Fathima Nizaruddin who was part of the initial conference organizing team and contributed important conceptual ideas to this project.


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