Aishwarya Dhanush: A performance of privileged mediocrity in the capacity of ineligible candidacy for UN Mission

The much hyped news about Ms. Aishwarya’s “performance at UN” on the International Women’s Day has finally turned out to be a disgrace, since a 1.22 – minute video of the performance was released in youtube. The social media is abuzz with scorn pouring on her pathetic performance, including a scathing comment from the famed barathanatyam dancer Ms. Anita Ratnam.

Though the 1.22 – minute video released is but a fragment of her one – hour long performance, it appears that the instant “reviews” were not off the mark. The short sequence, seems to have been choreographed in the vein of dance sequences performed to the tune of movie songs – haphazard moves lacking graceful movements and transitions. She is literally enacting the verses, as in a screen performance, in utter disregard to the semiotic nuances of the “traditional” genre.

Leaving aside her disgraceful performance, and gleaning through the media reports last week, it comes as a surprise to note that, even some “prestigious” media outlets have reported blindly that she was to perform at the “UN Headquarters at New York”. The fact that she was invited by the office of India’s Permanent Representative to UN, in collaboration with the “America Tamil Sangam”- a New York based NGO was conveniently ignored by these “prestigious” media outlets.

The program schedule announced officially by the women’s organization of the UN (unwomen.org) has no mention of her performance, which simply means that Ms. Aishwarya’s performance was one organized by the Indian diplomats to UN, along with a NGO of Tamil NRIs. In spite of this plain fact, these media outlets were boasting “Performance at UN Headquarters” without any sense of propriety and responsibility, which obviously led people to assume that she performed at the “UN General Assembly”.

Anita Ratnam Tweet

Disregard to facts, disinclination to inquire into details, and lack of sustained interest in pursuing a matter to its depths have become the norms of Indian media outlets. If one pursues the case of Ms. Aishwarya further, the readers will remember that she was announced as the “UN Women’s Advocate for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in India” recently in August 2016. However, the media, sang the chorus that she was appointed as “UN Goodwill Ambassador” to India back in August and September. Again if one can do a simple fact check at the UN Women’s organization’s official website  there is no such announcement on Ms. Aishwarya. One can only find the names of Mr. Farhan Akhtar and Ms. Sania Mirza as Goodwill Ambassadors from South Asia (India).

UN’s romance with celebrity figures was systematized during the stewardship of Mr. Kofi Annan, in the hope that they would serve to propagate the organization’s alleviative missions. Over the course of time these “Goodwill Ambassador and Messengers of Peace” designations were extended to various grades – International, National, and at times, Regional. And the General Assembly has issued definitive guidelines for the selection of such Goodwill Ambassadors and Messengers of Peace.

The first two basic criteria as formulated by these guidelines are as follows:

Individuals invited to serve as Goodwill Ambassadors or Messengers of Peace shall: (a) Possess widely recognized talent in the arts, sciences, literature, entertainment, sport or other fields of public life: (b) Be persons of integrity who demonstrate a strong desire to help mobilize public interest in, and support for, the purposes and principles of the United Nations, and who demonstrate the commitment and proven potential to reach out to significant audiences, including decision makers.

Does Ms. Aishwarya fall in line with the above mentioned criteria?

Even as per Kollywood box office standards, one can say an emphatic “NO”! She is neither a talented director – not to mention an accomplished one, nor has been recognized so, either by the industry or by the public at large. The movies she had directed are artistically mediocre and box office flops. She is not a celebrity, who rose to prominence in accord to her own achievements. She is a celetoid – a person thrust to prominence by the tabloid media, poaching on gossips and celebrity fanfare. (For a nuanced distinction between “celebrity” and “celetoid” refer to Chris Rojek’s work “Celebrity” available at reaktionbooks.co.uk).

And she has demonstrated nothing of a desire to help mobilize any cause of public interest. To the contrary, her sentiments are close to the likes of Cho. Ramasamy, one of the most vehement right wing ideologues in Tamil Nadu. When her sister Ms. Soundarya Rajinikanth was announced as the “co – opted member of Animal Welfare Board of India”, in addition to serve as “a Member of its Performing Animals Sub Committee (PASC)” and as the “Ambassador of AWBI to the film fraternity”, she acquiesced quietly without any qualms.  One has to remember that AWBI is one of the key players in forestalling Jallikkattu, precipitating the massive uprising in Tamil Nadu. To top it all, the “America Tamil Sangam” which co – sponsored Ms. Aishwarya’s program, had conferred “Tamil Rathna” award on Mr. Subramanian Swamy, a right wing politician infamous for his tirade in Twitter, calling Tamils as “porukkis” (meaning scoundrels or goons in Tamil according to context).

So, on both counts – celebrity status and public spirit – she is an ineligible candidate for being an “UN Ambassador” or a “Messenger” for its missions.

This raises the question, whether Ms. Lakshmi Puri, UN Assistant Secretary General and UN Women Deputy Executive Director, had given proper thought and consideration in selecting her to the aforementioned designation. Obviously it does not seem so, and heaven knows what transpired in her selection, which further raises the question whether Ms. Lakshmi Puri had adhered to the “Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service” as prescribed by UN. (In particular, note paragraphs 23 & 24 on conflict of interest and preferential treatment respectively).

Did the media ever probe into such basic questions required of ethical journalism? Did any “public intellectual” of any persuasion dared to raise such questions? How pathetic is the state of our public debates and discussions? Can we say, just in tune with the pathetic performance of our pitiable “Goodwill Ambassador” at the “UN Headquarters”?

Pearls and Perils of Post Ideological Political Activism in Tamilnadu

Right on the heels of the massive uprising in January demanding the lifting of ban on Jallikkattu, Tamilnadu is weathering through another storm in its political cauldron. Now cudgels have been raised against the hydro – carbon project in Pudukkottai district, the eye of the storm gaining momentum at a tiny village Neduvasal. Neduvasal neatly rhymes with the central slogan of the Jallikkattu struggle – “Vadivasal”, but in fact is an antonym (in Tamil, Vadivasal means a narrow entrance and Neduvasal a long entrance).

In spite of being antonyms, the parallels are quite starking, not to go unnoticed even by an indifferent observer. The locals sit in a “dharna”, activists of small organizations and youngsters with no political affiliation rush to the spot, and the eye gathers strength following which celebrities from Kollywood lend their support, and the late arrivals are politicians like the police personnel arriving at the climax in Kollywood flicks. But there are more rhye to catch up with the eye.

To surmise, the five points that set these struggles apart from those of the previous decades are as follows:

  1. These struggles express a new kind of dynamism in activism, which came out of blue since the anti – Koodankulam struggle in 2001. The usual mode of activism of all hues, was fixed at a point – born and buried at the point of strife. Solidarity was expressed at other points by other actors statically. In other words, there was no movement and interaction between actors. At the most, forms like “yatra” were performed to garner support, whose primary function was propaganda. In contrast, this new generation of “apolitical” actors move towards the point of strife garnering strength and support networks. A new kind of dynamism has evolved in political action.
  2. Local protestors, students and activists rallying around the issue are oblivious to any ideology or political thought. The focus is exclusively on the issue at hand based on information, data, and experience. Information is gathered from the demi-god of the times – internet, and disseminated through its social media avatars. Government policy decisions, statistics on the current phase of operations and fragmentary scientific data are collected and collated with disastrous consequences on the ground. Old schools of thought like Marxism and Dravidian ideology are virtually absent in this mode of activism much to the chagrin of the ideologues.
  3. Outright rejection of all political parties, including the minor ones along with the two major players, DMK and AIADMK. The widespread opinion that the major parties are embroiled in corruption and do not take any meaningful measures for the welfare of the people is deeply entrenched. The fact that the minor parties which mushroomed to give vent to such frustration ended up in aligning alternately with the two major parties have furthered this wholesome rejection of political parties. Recurring incidents of protestors refusing to allow politicians to take the dais in their protests and meetings is a visible sign of this apathy.
  4. The mode of organization is lateral, diverging from the established vertical mode of political organization. In fact, there is no organization, in the usual sense of an organization. No hierarchical leadership – not to mention a “charismatic” leader, no centralization in decision making and initiating an action. This does not mean, that this new mode of activism is “spontaneous”, without any deliberation, or meanders without any direction. To the contrary, deliberations are made on the spot, out in the open, collectively, and concretely appraising differing points of view among the participants. This process was discernible in the Jallikkattu uprising at Alanganallur, Madurai and Chennai and now at Neduvasal.
  5. The ongoing struggles are distinct from those of the previous decades in their firm anti – corporate stance, and rejection of the developmental model pursued by the central government. Tamilnadu has a long history of resisting unilateral policy thrusts of the North. In the mid – 1930s, imposition of Hindi by the tactful and powerful patriarch C. Rajagopalachari was forestalled by a mass movement lead by Periyar. The mid – 60s again saw the eruption of a massive anti – Hindi struggle which installed the DMK in power. With the Dravidian movement stalwarts firmly entrenched in power, the struggle took a “diplomatic turn” into the realms of power sharing expressed in terms of devolution of powers to State governments. After a lull of nearly five decades, in the emerging post globalization scenario, Tamilnadu is once again in the forefront of struggles, now against predatory corporate interests and a developmental model blind to the destruction of environment and deaf to long term sustainable growth models.

The Jallikkattu uprising and the anti – hydro carbon struggle, have issued their statement point blank to multi – national corporates. In response to the vociferous call issued by the youngsters during the Jallikkattu uprising, the Tamilnadu trader’s association (TNVS) a federal body of around 6000 trader’s association with a membership of around 15 lakh traders, has announced a boycott on the sale of Coke and Pepsi from 1st of March throughout the state. This is certainly a political statement from the South, again setting a precedent for other states to pick up sooner or later, like the anti – Hindi struggle of the 1960s.

While these new manifestations are worth mentioning, a few downsides also need be taken into cognizance. These struggles based exclusively on information and its dissemination through internet and its social media avatars lack incisive analysis necessary for translating them into a dialogue with power. Unless a discursive formation effective enough to alter the “ways of seeing” of the policy makers and think tanks of the state, no decisive change is ever possible.

The disillusionment with the existing parties has a long way to go to create meaningful alternatives in electoral politics. Ultimately, all these energies need to be channelized through some political formation, that could effect change through participation in democratic legislation and governance. But, no visible alternative is yet on the horizon.

The ideology that dominated the political discourse – Dravidian politics was the dominant discourse in Tamilnadu – though stifled effective political action in the later decades, was perceptive enough to mount a critique on the evil of caste. It’s inadequacies in turn, were countered and surpassed by the radical critique of Dalit politics. The younger generation robustly active in the present struggles is mostly oblivious to the hard won achievements and the enduring relevance of such anti – caste movements and political thought. In a positive vein, the sprouting struggles can be seen as garnering forces cross – cutting caste, but it remains to be seen what transpires when the ugly face of caste prejudice and discrimination stares straight into their eyes.

These observations notwithstanding, the present stirrings have much to do with disenchantment not only towards the outworn Dravidian political discourse, but also has a strong sense of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction towards the policy thrusts of the government at the center. One could only hope that sagacious minds prevail to dissipate them through positive measures, before they transform into resentment.

 

Media and Tamil Civil Society – Seminar

Media and Tamil Civil Society

Seminar organized by

Department of Visual Communication, Loyola College

&

New Tamil Studies

One of the principal functions of News Media which defines itself as the “Fourth Estate” is to facilitate discussion and debate on government policies among various sections of the society. It is also supposed to perform the role of “watch dog” and warn the public of corruption, exploitation or inaction on the part of government and private actors. Further, News Media often plays a pedagogical role in the propagation of basic rights enshrined in the Constitution such as the right to free speech, freedom of expression and social justice.

Media institutions that perform these three roles effectively, live up to their self-definition as the pillar of democracy. However, to realize their democratic role in its full potential, the media institutions themselves should be constituted democratically in their internal organization. News persons from different sections of the society must be recruited proportionately within these institutions to ensure that the democratic aspirations and demands of different sections are adequately represented.

The seminar has been organized as an initial attempt at exploring such crucial questions of representation and effective realization of democratic ideals by the news media, especially in the past twenty years which has seen an enormous growth in the number of media institutions. We are happy to invite working journalists, freelancers and other news media persons, to reflect, rethink, and resurrect the democratic spirit of their profession.

Valarmathi

(for New Tamil Studies)

 

Welcome Address

Professor Suresh Paul, HOD, Dept. of Visual Communication, Loyola College

 

Civil society / space delineated by the Media

Valarmathi, Independent Researcher

 

Women as custodians of Culture – Media Representations

Kiruba Munusamy, Advocate

 

Portrayal of Transgenders by the Media

Grace Banu, Trans – Activist

 

Why Tamil issues get short-changed in TN Media

Babu Jayakumar, Senior Journalist

 

Media (mis)presentations of Muslims

Thiru. Jawahirullah, Manitha Neya Makkal Katchi

 

Victim / Oppressor Relationship Upturned: Perceptions of Dalits in the Media

Thiru. Thol. Thirumavalavan, Vidudhalai Siruthaigal Katchi

 

 

Venue: Lawrence Sundaram Hall, Loyola College

20-12-2016

9.00 am to 1.00 pm