On the ordinariness of participatory culture

Aswin Punathambekar

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Amit Paul's participation in Indian Idol 3 created chances for interaction across long-standing ethnic, religious, spatial, and linguistic barriers in Meghalaya.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; India; Political culture; Sociability

Punathambekar, Aswin. 2012. "On the Ordinariness of Participatory Culture." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The suggestion that there is a strong relationship between participatory culture and civic/political engagement would not come as news to anyone in India. Indeed, when one raises the topic of participatory culture in the Indian context, the standard response is to point to Tamil and Telugu film cultures, where fan associations continue to play pivotal roles in many film stars' political careers (M. G. Ramachandran and N. T. Rama Rao being the most well-known cases). In fact, this narrative of cine-politics has been so dominant that other sites, modes, and dimensions of participation have not been considered, let alone studied in a systematic fashion, for no apparent reason other than their seemingly nonpolitical character. In sharp contrast to academic debates in the United States—where media and cultural studies scholars struggle against mainstream political science, which approaches the issue of participation in a narrow sense of purportedly rational, information-based engagement with civic and political affairs—the problem in the Indian context is the struggle to highlight the profound ordinariness of participatory culture.

[1.2] To be sure, the past few years have witnessed some astonishing instances of popular participation intersecting with and reshaping a wider political field. The third season of Indian Idol, which saw fan mobilization for the two finalists influencing broader political movements in Northeast India, and the Pink Chaddi campaign designed to protest attacks on women pub-goers by a conservative, right-wing Hindu group come to mind right away as two key cases that have attracted considerable attention. However, even as we have established the importance of examining participatory culture as a site where popular culture, politics, and daily life intersect in new and unpredictable ways, we have, far too hastily, cast aside the sociable dimensions of participation in favor of mapping links to the realm of politics proper. My main argument is this: We need to develop accounts of participatory culture that take the sociable and everyday dimensions of participation in and around popular culture more seriously while remaining attuned to the possibility that such participation might, in rare instances, intersect with broader civic and political issues and movements. Using Indian Idol 3 as a case, I want to suggest that sociability should be as fundamental to our analyses of participatory culture as civic/political engagement.

2. After Indian Idol

[2.1] Let me begin with a brief account of the events surrounding Indian Idol 3. In the summer of 2007, media coverage of Indian Idol focused on how people in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya had cast aside decades-old separatist identities to mobilize support for Amit Paul, one of the finalists. While some fans set up Web sites and blogs to generate interest and support from the rest of the country and abroad, others formed a fan club and facilitated efforts by a range of groups and organizations to sponsor and manage public call offices in different parts of Meghalaya, distribute prepaid mobile phone cards, and set up landline voting booths. Recognizing the ways in which these activities were beginning to transcend long-standing ethnic, religious, linguistic, and spatial boundaries, state legislators and other politicians soon joined the effort to garner votes for Amit Paul, with the chief minister D. D. Lapang declaring Amit Paul to be Meghalaya's "brand Ambassador for peace, communal harmony and excellence" (Shillong Times, 2007). It seemed that this campaign around a reality television program could set the stage for a remarkable refashioning of the sociocultural and political terrain in Meghalaya. As one commentator remarked:

[2.2] When Meghalaya's history is written, it could well be divided into two distinct phases—one before the third Indian Idol contest and one after it. A deep tribal-nontribal divide, punctuated by killings, riots, and attempts at ethnic cleansing, would mark the first phase. A return to harmony and to the cosmopolitan ethos of the past would signify the second. The agent of change: Amit Paul, the finalist of the musical talent hunt on a TV channel. (Mazumdar 2007)

[2.3] While news organizations from New Delhi and Mumbai looked upon these events with incredulity, commentators in Shillong began debating how Amit Paul—a middle-class, Bengali, non-Khasi—had emerged as a catalyst for changing relations in Meghalaya. To begin with, the situation in Meghalaya had begun to change over the previous 4 to 5 years, with tentative moves on the part of different groups to reach out and work toward peaceful resolutions of long-standing issues. Secondly, Amit Paul's background—a high-school dropout who had to struggle in a marginalized state and region of the country—resonated deeply with youth across the region, with questions of ethnicity receding into the background. As Manas Chaudhuri, editor of the Shillong Times, remarked: "In a place where there's nothing much to celebrate, Amit came as a godsend. He's talented, and has won all our hearts by singing Khasi, Nepali, Hindi and English songs on the show. It reminded people of the cosmopolitan culture that once prevailed in the state, and they have been overcome by the desire to restore the happy, multi-ethnic character of this state" (Mazumdar 2007).

[2.4] Finally, Amit Paul's participation in a national contest like Indian Idol was seen as a unique opportunity for Meghalaya and other states in the Northeast to assert their presence in the nation and claim their place in the "national family." Without a doubt, there were several schisms that threatened to disrupt the momentum generated by hundreds of fans across Northeast India, with groups like the Shillong Arts and Music Lovers Forum complaining that politicians were leveraging this moment for narrow reasons. And activist-writers like Patricia Mukhim did pose critical questions, asking readers why recognition from the rest of the country was so important and if it was because people in Meghalaya were unsure about their belonging in the nation (Mukhim 2008). For the most part, however, this reality television phenomenon was seen to have set the stage for a gradual reconfiguration of sociocultural and political relationships in Meghalaya.

[2.5] Indeed, the most striking aspect of the fan following that developed around Amit Paul was the sheer range and number of organizations and groups involved: the Shillong Arts and Music Lovers Forum, Civil Society Women's Organization, Society for Performing Arts Development, Bihari Youth Welfare Association, Frontier Chamber of Commerce, Marwari Ekta Manch (Marwari Unity Platform), and several smaller clubs in different localities of Shillong that drew in people from different ethnic, caste, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, with the Amit Paul fan club serving as an umbrella organization. In addition to organizing rallies throughout the city to raise awareness and drum up support for Amit Paul, these groups worked hard to ensure that their contestant received enough votes to stay in the competition. Working closely with local businessmen, including influential figures like Dwarka Singhania, treasurer of the Meghalaya Chamber of Commerce and Industry, fans ensured that public call offices in residential areas and several prominent locations in Shillong remained open all night for people to come forward and cast their vote. And as Amit Paul progressed through the competition, attracting attention in Meghalaya and other northeastern states, fan activity intensified and funds were raised to create publicity materials (posters and banners placed throughout Shillong, for example) and even distribute prepaid mobile phone cards for free (note 1). Over a period of 3 months, it became clear that the mobilization around Amit Paul had created a neutral space for a range of people to work together, and the many public activities had dramatically changed the way different groups inhabited the city of Shillong. In a city where areas are clearly demarcated along ethnic and linguistic lines—for instance, Bengali-speaking denizens tended not to wander into Mawlai, described as the "cradle of Khasi sub-nationalism"—the tumultuous reception that Amit Paul received when he visited Mawlai as part of his first visit to Shillong after competing in Indian Idol seemed remarkable even to the most jaded observers in Meghalaya (Mazumdar 2007).

[2.6] Without exception, every news report focused attention on the political dimensions of the participatory culture this contestant had sparked. Of course, this focus on the political was understandable given the intensity and seemingly intractable nature of ethnic conflicts in Meghalaya and other parts of Northeast India (note 2). But as the contest on television and among fans came to an end and media attention gradually drifted away from Indian Idol 3, no one asked what remain the most crucial questions: Given the sociohistorical context of Northeast India and the complex politics of ethnic strife, what happens when such phases of participation that emerge around a reality television program fade away? What are the cultural and political implications of a zone of participation that lasts a few weeks or months at best? The answers, I would argue, are more likely to be found in the terrain of daily life, which, in turn, forces us to rethink our understanding of public and public life in ways that are not beholden to Habermasian ideals.

3. Public life and the struggle for the ordinary

[3.1] It is worth reminding ourselves that the world of public life is not limited to questions of citizenship or civic engagement. As Jeff Weintraub suggests, "the key to this alternative version of the public realm is not solidarity or obligation, but sociability" (1997, 21). Weintraub's argument, that the vision of public life celebrated by writers such as Jane Jacobs "lies not in self-determination or collective action, but in the multi-stranded liveliness and spontaneity arising from the ongoing intercourse of heterogeneous individuals and groups that can maintain a civilized co-existence," is pertinent in the context of a city like Shillong as well (1997, 21–22). Spaces of everyday interaction such as the street corner, balconies and verandahs, the public phone booth, and the cybercafé are, as Kumar points out, "spaces of sociability that are neither public nor private in the liberal-economic sense of state versus market forces, or in the civic sense of communitarian responsibilities and citizenship, but constitute the heart of public life in colonial and postcolonial India" (2010, 23). In Shillong, the idea of people from different linguistic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds coming together in spaces such as tea shops, telephone booths, and so on has been unimaginable for several decades now. Indian Idol 3 was a crucial media phenomenon precisely because the public that cohered around Amit Paul created the possibility and the space for the renewal of everyday forms of interaction across ethnic, religious, spatial, and linguistic boundaries that had been subdued and rendered difficult, if not impossible, over the decades. In other words, the participatory culture surrounding Indian Idol 3 created spaces in which people had to acknowledge their differences and set them aside, if only for a brief period of time, as they stood in lines at telephone booths, shared mobile SIM cards, chatted with each other in front of teashops, and took part in rallies to support their idol. In doing so, they were afforded a glimpse of the everyday that was not shot through with suspicion and the threat of violence.

[3.2] Was this renewal of public life tied to the time and space of the television event? Yes, without a doubt. Texting, going online to participate in a fan community, and creating a blog are all activities that remain bound by the temporal and spatial constraints as well as the mandates of commercial television. We also know that such phases of participation are never entirely autonomous from the larger political field—the interests of the government, various politicians, and civil society organizations with their own vested interests. What the Indian Idol case suggests is the potential for such moments of participation to move beyond the time and space of the media event into other times and spaces to generate, in the process, alternative imaginations of public life that, in turn, are tied to the experience of everyday life. As Veena Das, focusing on the violence of Partition in the Indian subcontinent in 1947 as well as the Sikh pogrom in 1984, writes: "Life was recovered not through some grand gesture in the realm of the transcendent but through a descent into the ordinary…just as I think of the event as attached to the everyday, I think of the everyday itself as eventful" (2006, 7). Das' account of the lives of people and communities caught up in these events encourages us to explore how the "event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary" (2006, 1).

[3.3] Following Das, I would argue that the struggle in places like Shillong is not, in the first instance, about the political. Moments of participation such as the one surrounding Indian Idol need to be understood, then, by first asking questions about sociability and everyday life. We can then ponder, given that neither the state nor various political movements have seemed able to imagine viable solutions to a range of problems in this part of India, if and how such spaces and moments of sociability might generate new and sustainable ideas for social and political change. In other words, it is only when we fully comprehend how public participation and everyday life are braided together that we can meaningfully pose questions about political impact: What traces has this zone of participation left behind? In the near future, how and in what contexts will memories of Indian Idol 3 and Amit Paul be invoked? Will the fleeting renewal of interaction and engagement across existing fault lines sustain itself over time? Progressive ideals and expectations about participatory cultures encouraging and informing civic/political engagement in conflict-ridden situations are well and good, but only if they are grounded in an understanding of and deep appreciation for the immense challenge of creating and sustaining spaces of sociability.

4. Notes

1. It is useful to note here that unlike American Idol, where viewers are allowed to vote for a period of 2 hours after the show's broadcast, Indian Idol viewers are permitted 11 hours (from 9 PM until 8 AM next day). Viewers could cast their vote by sending an SMS via mobile phone or "televote" through a landline telephone, use an interactive voice service available for mobile phones and landline phones, or vote online through Further, voting for Indian Idol was open not only to viewers residing in India but also in the U.K. and the Middle East (U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain). For further details, see

2. For a detailed analysis of the Indian Idol phenomenon, see Punathambekar (2010).

5. Works cited

Das, Veena. 2006. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kumar, Shanti. 2010. "Globalization, Media Privatization, and the Redefinition of the "Public" in Indian Television." Bioscope: South Asian Screen Studies 1(1): 21–25. doi:10.1177/097492760900100105.

Mazumdar, Jaideep. 2007. "The Hills Are Alive: A Local Lad on National TV Unites a State." Outlook, October 1.

"MLAs' Last Ditch Bid to Garner Votes for Amit Paul." 2007. Shillong Times, September 20.

Mukhim, Patricia. 2008. "Getting into the Underbelly of the Amit Paul Campaign." Shillong Times.

Punathambekar, Aswin. 2010. "Reality TV and Participatory Culture in India." Popular Communication 8: 241–55. doi:10.1080/15405702.2010.514177.

Weintraub, Jeff. 1997. "Public/Private: The Limitations of a Grand Dichotomy." The Responsive Community 7(2): 13–24.