The Nigam concert and false consciousness

Dear Editor,

For those who intently follow Bollywood movies and music, which might possibly be half of the native Indo-Guyanese population, the song Kal Ho Na Ho is hauntingly melodious. Even for someone with the euphonic I.Q. of a goldfish and tunefulness of a grating jackhammer, I find myself reflexively humming this song. I am no Bollywood zealot, so either this is an ambiguous genetic response encoded in my Indian ancestry, or as I strongly suspect, the consequences of the star power of the singer, Sonu Nigam.

Mr. Nigam, just in case you didn’t notice, your recent “Klose to My Soul” concert at the National Stadium testifies to your symphonic sorcery. I am not speaking here of the fans thronging every inch of the stadium, or even those flanking the stage and riposting your choral invitations with flashing cameras and smartphones. That must be the universal response to your celebrity and musical genius. As a matter of fact, the Trinidad Guardian reported on the resounding success of this same concert in that country.

What I am referring to is a profound form of hypnosis that so entrances some of our people that it configures their very cultural, social and political identities. I am in no way suggesting that you are directly responsible for these people’s enchantment. All I am saying is that their interpretation and consumption of the celebrity image that is Sonu Nigam alters their very sense of self, and has particular consequences for Guyanese existence.

Just so that I don’t become too abstruse, let me explain what I mean. You see, Mr. Nigam, some of our people still resonate to ancestral impulses. Every time they hear your melodies and sentimental outpourings they clutch for mother India. They might become over-awed as you saw in the stadium, or sometimes they weep, not even knowing the reason for their distress. Bollywood has that effect, Mr. Nigam, it deludes so many of these people—literate or not—into thinking that they are participating genuinely in Indian culture. But all they are doing is culturally-appropriating, cherry-picking from the amplitude of their lineage. It is distressing, Mr. Nigam. These are people whose Indianness revolve largely around the cinematic personalities of Bollywood. It is understandable in the romanticizing of any culture, people tend to exclude the unsavoury aspects of that civilization, so I won’t be quite surprised if these people preferred to be silent about continued religious and caste discrimination, racial conflicts between North and South Indians, and marginalization of the Bihari people in contemporary India. But not knowing some of the more redeeming aspects of Indian civilization such as the significance of Nalanda University, Panini or Gayatri Spivak is mildly embarrassing. In our Guyanese context that might be similar to saying we don’t know who Cheddi Jagan was, or maybe that we do know who Cheddi Jagan was, but are selectively unconcerned with Forbes Burnham or Walter Rodney. That is, revising our history and reconfiguring our historical and cultural identity.

You see, Mr. Nigam, this obsession with Bollywood as the ticket into a state of authentic Indianness irks me for other reasons. You may not have recognized it, but the seating arrangements for your show didn’t just stop at VIP, but also included VVIP, weighted with a price tag of $25,000 per ticket. So your show attracted some “Very Very Important People”, Mr. Nigam, with a price tag that exceeds that for similar seating arrangements for this same show at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Canada. It is right there on for all to see. How is this even related to Bollywood bewitchment you ask? Well, as you know, Mr. Nigam, Bollywood has increasingly become a machinery for class warfare in India. It simply deepens the demarcation between rich and poor by elevating elite tastes and attitudes. So with some of these people suckling at that aristocratic teat, they begin to normalize and institutionalize their mimicked tastes in Guyanese society. Needless to say, the less privileged are coerced into defining themselves by luxury goods—symbolic violence at its optimal stealth. So yes, you are right, the spatial demarcations in the stadium were not mere lines but expressions of economic, social and political power that currently operate to divide the elite from the non-elite in this country. And as in India, those boundaries are markedly increasing here.

Finally, Mr. Nigam, I am fully aware of your philanthropic efforts, so it would seem natural you would have wanted to lend your iconic status to the opening of the Bal Nivas Shelter. Maybe in addition to the proceeds from the concert, you also didn’t charge your full concert fee. I really am not sure about the logistics, but nonetheless, it would seem that your cutting the ribbon to that shelter symbolized deep altruism and concern for Guyanese orphans. I really hope to see your continued appearance and involvement, once these concerts have expired. However, I must intone that while your presence at that event would have possibly galvanized international support for similar causes in Guyana (which is more than welcome), there is also the possibility that inadvertently there was some image transfer that would benefit certain political and social class interests in this country. You know only too well how this occurs in Tamil Nadu, so all I would venture is that while acceptable, your cutting that ribbon could have implicitly snipped at the tenuous racial politics in this country.

Mr. Nigam, I am told that “Kal Ho Na Ho” roughly translates to “Tomorrow May Never Come”. I am troubled that for as long as an abridged Indian culture, or truncated sense of Indianness dominates the psyche of some of our political and economic elites that Guyana would be bedeviled. Worse yet, I worry that imbibing this false consciousness would render most people too intellectually and politically effete to demand a just, fair and conscious existence. So while tomorrow may come, Mr. Nigam, it is probably not one that most Guyanese would relish.


Yours faithfully,
Romain Khan


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