Rarely are images used in our newspapers to set issues in their contexts and layered complexity. More often the same images are used everywhere to reinforce simple notions of the nation. On the dangers of a singular perspective...
On February 21, a Sunday, readers of most national newspapers in Delhi awakened to a front page photograph of Siripuram Yadagiri in flames, his mouth stretched in an agonised grimace. The 19-year-old student had immolated himself near the Osmania University campus in Hyderabad to fuel the ongoing movement for a Telangana state.
Boxed by a bare bones caption and flaming headlines such as “Andhra ablaze”, the photograph became a defining image of an entire state sliding into anarchy.
Even a still frame of flames has a paralysing effect on the mind; the sensation of panic triggered by the photograph literally took the shape of a ‘ viewpoint' on an as yet unelaborated issue. The perfunctory reports tucked inside would have had a tough time replacing such an overpowering emotion with information to facilitate a reasoned understanding of the issue.
There was something even more disturbing. What initially had seemed to be the same photograph used by different newspapers turned out to be images shot from an almost identical angle by different sources. In photo composition as well as display, it demonstrated an alarming sameness of perspective.
In a world predominantly perceived through images, the camera is the all-seeing eye, its frame the tutoring gaze. The mammoth replication of that image thus became the singular narrative of the event as well as the Telangana issue for the average reader. Literally a ‘freeze frame' if you will of a movement in flux.
But one photograph, published by The Hindu, also on page one, stood out from the terrifying sea of sameness that day. Sourced from an external news agency, this photograph was accompanied by a report.
The selection of this picture loosened the noose of a homogenised way of ‘seeing' and framing issues that is increasingly becoming the media's leitmotif. Before our eyes was a swell of agitated Osmania university students. The photographer had captured them in their attempt to breach the police cordon around the Andhra assembly — seat of elected government — to raise their voice for a separate Telangana state.
The most arresting aspect of this photograph was a huge Indian flag held aloft by the students. A profusion of hands clutched at the flag like it was a sheltering sky. As if at that moment the students were laying claim to a rightful space in the capacious folds of the Indian flag, insisting that their story of aspirations too had a place in the narrative of the nation. A story told from the margins.
The report alongside detailed the volatile physical progress of the movement, in which the individual tragedy of Yadagiri's act had found its place. But the photograph did something more; it hinted at the very framework of levels of contestation, catching the fluidity of the issue.
The stand-off between the state government and its challengers was clear. But did the heavy security presence mean a victory for the government or an acknowledgement of its vulnerability and the students' power? The flag made you wonder: were the protestors invoking the Centre against the ‘middleman' or invoking the high ground of the flag against the Centre for murmuring yes to a new Telangana state and stepping back instantly?
Whatever it was, the photograph seemed to have inverted the context in which the Indian flag has largely been seen in our times — invariably epitomising mainstream and majoritarian narratives of nationalism.
Rarely ever has the idea of nationalism been so easily encrypted and disseminated as in these times of mass culture. As symbol, illustration, graphic or icon, elements of the Indian tricolour have been used as a mode, and code, of communication to propagate aggressive ideas of India, Indianness and national pride in the past two decades. Where, often, the medium's character of mass transmission has been presented as proof of the pan-Indian nature of nationalism narratives.
Two dominant narratives come to mind. In the hands of the sangh parivar, the Indian flag has been graphically used as a weapon to spew a version of nationalism defined by the demonisation of the ‘other'. It's a trail that stretches from the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 to the carnage of Gujarat 2002, when, ultimately, this narrative of ‘national pride' or gauravgot internalised as a code signifying the act of dehumanising and inflicting shame on a minority community.
The other master narrative of national pride that the flag flutters with today is the perennially breaking story of a giant awakened from slumber to a new level of confidence warranting a regular ‘Jai Ho' chorus. It's a story of the ‘united colours of India', powered by the muscles of economic development, and plugged into the process of globalisation.
We see images of this discourse all around us. Witness the assertion of ‘ national pride' in a tricoloured wristband absorbing a cricketer's sweat, or the flaming streaks of patriotism on a sports fan's cheeks.
Most importantly, witness the use of the flag as a groovy publicity icon. It dresses up ambition for a huge market as the purest love for the nation: clear as bottled water, springy as a fizzy drink or fast moving as four wheels. Witness any corporate sponsor of a sport becoming synonymous with the nation.
Whatever the occasion, the flag's association with the ‘big-ticket idea' of ‘growth' has been cemented. As has the notion that anything which goes against this sentiment is a purely selfish emotion aimed at destabilising development. (Continuing demands for justice to victims of Gujarat 2002 are now often shushed with the explanation that Mr. Narendra Modi has become a role model of development.)
In this master narrative, the importance of stability cannot be overemphasised — even if it signifies a status quo. It's a fact; development does come at a price.
The Indianness that is sought to be projected with this narrative of the Indian tricolour is a curiously flat, superficial identity. It is leached of the depths of regional, sub-regional or local markers, which are interpreted as grave threats to the idea of a national veneer, not building blocks of fluid, multiple identities. Call it the politics of airbrushing, a technique popular in the publicity business.
Against this backdrop, the story of the two photographs becomes clear. The stand-alone treatment of Yadagiri's image seemed to add to the anxiety that invariably accompanies this popular, mainstream narrative: of politics unleashing an unpredictable pathology of acts. It strengthens the resolve to keep students (and, preferably, everyone) away from politics and work towards a ‘strong' nation.
Moreover, with photographs there is always a temptation to conflate a particular person's image into a generic representation with a comment. Headlining a smiling girl's photo ‘Pride of the Nation' is one thing. But turning the image of Yadagiri's trauma into a general comment on Andhra is bad taste compounded with a sweeping, hyperbolic, pitch, a latelevision reportage.
On the other hand, the photograph of students holding aloft the Indian tricolour fore-grounded a question that is crucial for the health of any democracy, especially one with the layers of diversity and disparities as India possesses.
The question being, does the flag signify a political fabric of static, ‘ powerful' meanings always to be fixed at the centre by the mainstream or a chauvinistic majority? Or does our visualisation of this political fabric have the tensile strength to acknowledge a perception of lack at the periphery without seeing it as an ‘intolerant' attack on the idea of India?
In cognitive terms, this means seeing issues in their context, with all their layering, and from different angles before slotting them in pre-fabricated moulds of interpretation.
Clearly, it's not an easy task. The credo of the age is that ‘size matters': be it a country or a television set. Nothing connects the great Indian drawing room chatter to the corridors of power and influence more than the idea of India as a superpower, courtesy its nuclear programme, digits of growth, an untrammelled market and the national cricket team (but only when it wins. Mention indices like maternal mortality and child malnutrition and you run the risk of being branded a ruthless kill-joy verging on the anti-national).
Notions of grandeur are inherent to politics. Equally inherent to the idea of journalism is the notion of reflecting upon and examining such grand edifices. How supple are these ideas, how inclusive of plurality and difference, how sensitive to the turbulence caused by rapidly colliding universes of the local, regional, national and global — and the margins?
Typically, in a 24X7 world, news is reality show or pulpit outburst as voice of the nation, set to speeding frames of distraction. The only possibility of finding some tentativeness, reflection and comprehensive look at issues lies in the pact of word and image on newsprint, solemnised by a range of newspapers, each claiming to be different.
The problem starts when they too start exhibiting symptoms of a monochromatic gaze and distracted presentation, further closing off the reader from ground realities.
Evidently, the biggest challenge of the times is to stay grounded in the real world. As the story of the two photographs indicates, it's time this issue was flagged as high priority.
Chitra Padmanabhan is a cultural critic based in New Delhi.