Annual International Lecture 2013: Bollywood Songs Across Troubled Waters

'Bollywood Songs Across Troubled Waters' was the Annual International Lecture 2013 from the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

They called the sea kālāpānī (the darkling, haunting waters) where caste was lost and from which one never returned. Only a heroic simian god-king, none other than Hanuman himself, could vanquish the demons which inhabited these treacherous waters. For the destitute, landless peasants of the Indo-Gangetic plain the kālāpānī, seen only after one had boarded a ship in the Hoogley, was the beginning of a journey which split their lives into two.

In unarguably the most accomplished fictional work about indentured labourers to Mauritius, their first major plantation colony — Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy (of which two volumes, Sea of Poppies and The River of Smoke, have been published as I write) — kālāpānī is the space of transgression which polluted the self and carried one to lands from which return, as ‘unpolluted’ Indian subjects, was impossible. One of the key protagonists of Ghosh’s yet to be completed trilogy, Deeti, is certainly aware of this as she very quickly connects her vision of the tall-masted Ibis to crossing the kālāpānī.

Years later, when they had established themselves in the plantation diasporas of Mauritius, Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji (and other outposts of the Empire) the descendants of indentured labourers discovered in bidesias or folk songs emotional flows, which connected them to an India, beyond the kālāpānī, which existed only as intergenerationally transmitted narrative. One mode of recall took the form of memorial reconstructions of songs of love-longing and departure.

Through these songs – often cast as songs of the rainy season – the people of the diaspora, like the men and women on board the Ibis in Amitav Ghosh’s memorable Sea of Poppies, lamented their lost homeland. In the ‘time of celluloid’ (part of the title of Rajadhyaksha’s recent book) these songs merged into Bollywood songs of rain and monsoon. Using memory as an affective source, the paper connects the material conditions of indenture to memories of the author’s own frail mother as she sang these songs. In part ‘memorially constructed,’ in part a theoretical intervention into Bollywood cinema in the diaspora, and in part a homage, this paper is also a personal narrative of someone who failed his mother.

Vijay Mishra, PhD (ANU), DPhil (Oxford) FAHA, is Professor of English Literature and Australian Research Council (ARC) Professorial Fellow at Murdoch University. During the 2013 Hilary Term he is a Christensen Professorial Fellow at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. His 2012 publications include ‘Understanding Bollywood’ (in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Global Communication and Media Ethics), ‘The Gothic Sublime’ (in The New Blackwell Companion to the Gothic), ‘René Girard, Jacques Derrida and Salman Rushdie’ (in Violence, Desire, and the Sacred) and What Was Multiculturalism? (Melbourne University Press).