Protest, Politics, and Performance: South Asian Youth in the Age of Globalisation
In this essay, Subhankar tries to explore the performative self of alternative protest movements, its spatial and visual manifestation, as an embodied tool of resistance in the South Asian context. The essay illustrates the different dynamics of youth performance where the ‘youth figure’ in itself becomes a site of protest and political weapon by adapting creative methods of activism.
Protest movements have always been crucial harbingers and significant sources of transformation in political attitudes and socio-cultural aspects through new cycles of mobilization, awareness, and initiation of other effective forms of activism. Student protest and youth activism have long been a prominent feature of political reform and social movement, particularly in South Asia and the globe in general. Beyond the political repercussions of such protests, this ‘romance’ of revolutionary fervor contributes to democracy, national narratives, society, and global politics very effectively. While we discuss protest movements, performative forms provide important tools for subversive purposes which are often embedded in different patterns of ideological dominance. Performances with different cultural forms often tend to have strategies that significantly impact different punctured leaps of socio-political bearings, tensions, and conflicts. Theatre, Music, live art, and many more strategic art forms turn out to be the potential tools of political emancipation and social protest. Pantomime, sound systems, processions, skits, masks, banners, streamers all have become a familiar phenomenon in any kind of activism across sectarian boundaries. The recent development of digital media has taken another paradigm where voices of protest are articulated through digitally transmissible contents. South Asia, as a geographical unit, has always been a significant ground of social-political unrest and activisms both in colonial and post-colonial times. Apart from playing a significant role in the nationalist struggle movements, South Asian youth has been the crucial element in contemporary socio-political movements. Especially, the recent decades have also witnessed an upsurge in student and youth activism across parts of India and the larger South Asia (Sharma 2021). The significant youth engagement in politics and protest mostly starts from the educational campuses as natural communities, structured around class, gender, caste, religion, economic aspirations, and muscle politics (Martelli and Garalyte 2019). But beyond these campus communities, there are youth political communities having the potential at addressing and subverting various fractured social and cultural lines, and emerge as autonomous youth forces.
In the present scenario with globalized art forms and new media, - protests, activisms, and performances are having different dynamics in formation, circulation, as well as implication. Socialization of the production of the performance is taking place where the bureaucratic hegemony is challenged through a mass-circulation of cultural products. Beyond the iconic protest images, the human body in the particular space also brings significant embodied utterances that evoke broader resistance. As columnist Caitlin Moran very rightly said, “The Protester, I find to be a beautiful thing. An objection made flesh, a whole-body made over to do one thing: voice disapproval, simply by standing somewhere (November 12, 2011).” This series of featured essays broadly aims at encompassing the varied nature of the movements and resistance, of children and youth, through various epochs of history and culture in South Asia. Performance turns out to be the central coagulating force that brings all of these into a unified whole where performance becomes a mode of being, a process of meaning-making through a repertoire. Considering this, the present editorial essay tries to explore the performative self of alternative protests, its spatial and visual manifestation, as an embodied tool of resistance in the South Asian context. It illustrates the different dynamics of performances where the ‘youth figure’ in itself becomes a site of protest and political weapon. Broadly, it tries looking at the possibilities of performance as a democratic activity that has a direct engagement with the audience and thus puts into question various political, social, cultural forms. However, it is not to put performative forms beyond the questions of political or social domination, but more broadly to look at the potential of it in a globalized transmission of culture and cultural artifacts.
Performance as Protest: South Asia as a Boundary and Beyond
Protest movements play a key role in the expression of democratic thought and thereby challenge dominant orthodoxies of local, national, and global phenomena. It critiques different inequalities and identity politics across governments, regimes, economic foundations, social organizations, and cultural dimensions. Student protest and youth activism always brought new dynamics to the nature and mode of resistance and often identify themselves beyond the mainstream political ideologies. The history of the freedom struggles of countries like India, China, Japan, South Korea, and others have glittering chapters of youth movements and activism. The Young India movements (the 1920s), The Chinese Communist Youth Movements (1940s), The Burmese student protests (1988), the JP Movement in Bihar (1974), and protests in the 1960s and 1970s in Japan are to mention just a few of them. In the post-independence era, different South Asian countries have witnessed several youth protests and movements beyond their party lines, often building a dialogue with the global concerns of religion, education, race, gender, culture, digital dimension of youth, and others. Procession, placards, mass gatherings have always been a popular mode of resistance by creating temporal communities and collectively voicing against something. But beyond these usual methods of resistance and activisms, there are significant ‘non-violent’ creative performances used as a method of protest and voicing something loud. If we look at global history, there are many instances. The White Rose Resistance (1942-43) against the Nazis in Germany by circulating leaflets, The Tree Seater of Pureora (1978) to resist the cutting of native trees, The Chipko Movement (1973) in India, The Singing Revolution of Lithuania (1986-91), all these represent creative techniques of protest and performances that very effectively brings forth the voices of resistance to a larger mass. This democratic nature of the protests is highly performative. It is an act to be acted as well as to be seen: an act and an enactment. It communicates ideas, demands visibility, and tries articulating a collective form of resistance.
The White Rose Resistance (Germany) and the Chipko Movement (India)
Protest broadly can be of two kinds: one through the direct confrontation of the regimes and secondly, relying on resistance through avoidance. Beyond these two broader categories there is a significant presence of alternative modes of protest mapping out entirely different patterns into the youth and socio-political bearings of them. In the larger South Asia, especially in the Indian scenario theatre, songs, art installations, street performances, and other dramatic modes of protest have a vibrant presence. The 2012 Bersih Protest in Kuala Lumpur and the graphical demonstration of the Prime Minister by the young artist-activist Fahmi Reza in the public, came as an alternative satirical model of protest. Graffiti, paintings, and the very drawing of it in the ‘real time’ came as an interesting performative event of the protest (Sweigart, Chris A., et al. 2015). Similarly, the wearing of Yellow Shirts in Bangkok, also known as Yellow Shirt Protest became a significant visual method of political protest challenging civil society and the government (Satitniramai 2017). When the new emergence of digital expression still remained a ‘niche’ for places like Nepal, a recent protest against gender violence over digital medium took the street demonstration as an effective visual mode of raising voice.
The 2012 Bersih Protest in Kuala Lumpur and the Yellow Shirt Protest in Bangkok
New-Age Protest and India
Turning to the Indian context, theatre and musical presentation have always been major players in youth activism (Ghosh 2005; Garlough 2008). Added to that, in recent decades, art installation has been a prominent form of engagement changing the discourse around youth and activism. Sheba Chacchi’s art installations like ‘Seven Lives in a Dream (1998),’ ‘Record/Resist (2012)’ voicing for women’s rights has effectively looked for raising voice through artistic expressions and communications. In the last few years, the nationwide protest against CAA-NRC has effectively come with several creative possibilities of performances. The reorienting of the iconic song “hum dekhenge” to the masked street play at IIT Bombay with animal Imagery, all portray the dramatic potential of performance and the political possibilities even beyond the immediate concerns. Hashtag movements over the internet, wall graffiti, and posters, creative use of university space, poetry sessions have all become very effective and alternative modes of raising voice in India and South Asia in the past decade. Significant youth movements like the hashtag #HokKolorob at Jadavpur University, #Breakthecurfew protest in Kerala (2015), #Mydegreenotfake protest at FDDI, #PinjraTod movement to many others took shape initially in the campus space and expanded beyond the walls of the campus to the streets, social media, and even crossed the boundaries of the nation. These different movements open up new avenues of performative-protest to look at how ‘performance is political’ and thereby a potential tool of youth for the vocalisation of words in post-colonial South Asia.
‘Seven Lives in a Dream (1998)’ anti-dowry demonstration in Delhi and protest against gender violence in Nepal
However, South Asian protests are no more considered a regional phenomenon. With the inclusion of global issues like race, gender, and ecological crisis, social and political movements are getting a globalized voice beyond the South Asian scenario. Two give a few examples, we can look at the movements like ‘Stop Asian Hate’, ‘Black Life Matters’, ‘The CAA-NRC’ protests which are no more constricted within the South Asian scenario, but had already surpassed the geographical boundaries. The performances, digital circulations, and a globally accessible audience have added new dynamics to these movements and activism. The solidarity and democratic responses to such protests can easily be discernible in different educational institutions where students and youth are protesting for the same cause beyond their national or continental parameters (“Student Organising”, 2019; “Students, Activists”, 2020). Though the state, in most cases, exercised its power, the machinery and institutional apparatus of the activism as a unified and cohesive form of resistance took them to a stage where “the whole world is watching” (Epstein, 2015, p. 2). This is the postcolonial transformation of youth activism responding to the trans-nationalist political issues around gender-based identities, moral policies, queer collectives, and ethnicities.
The alternative modes of protests and creative performances became an enabler and brought creative possibilities for youth activism. It brings into focus dramatically changing forms of globalized forces which takes our political awareness to different settings and brings a change in the understanding of the very nature of the youth protest in the twenty-first century. In this information age, the efficacy of social media plays the role of a catalyst, and circulations of the performance reshape the nature and structurization of social movements and protests. More interestingly this gives shape to a globalised ideological force that effectively influences neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. As Epstein (2015) argues, “Youth and social movement activists have recognized that their actions are played out before a world stage, and have realized that acts involving the modification of their own strategies, tactics, and political perspectives according to events occurring in external settings can be inherently opportunistic rather than self-defeating.” (p. 5)
The prominent tool in this new-age protest is the very being and becoming of the youth figure as a globalized entity. Instead of being a very imagined or fantasized sense of community, the youth is designed as a evolved, powerful, cohesive, and democratic entity that asserts authority, entirely different from the power dynamics of the nation-state and its self-interest. They represent a distinct cohort that is easily identifiable (Giddens 1987; Epstein 2015). International mobility, the free flow of the cultural forms, expansion of the global market, education, and emergence of new global corporate entities have made youth a global figure and force of protest who defines their own aspirations and demands. More importantly, it became a democratic effort that does not easily circumscribe to any agency and thus enables a free flow across identities, ethnicities, and conventions. As Appadurai (1996) rightly points out, local politics and global process affects each other in a chaotic and unpredictable way but it is never unidirectional in nature (p. 166). Thus, the youth protest in the twenty-first century has significantly given a global presence to several unseen concerns and also became a global critic to issues of educational, political, social, and economic biases.
Performing Protest and Possibility: Non-Violence as a form of Action
The critical distance between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ has often been questioned in regards to any performative action: be it a protest performance or any other non-violent mode of presentation. If we closely look into the aforementioned methods of youth movements, the alternative model of ‘doing’ something else has essentially brought an alternative ‘being’ which is similarly effective like the earlier understanding of action where certain ways of being can lead to certain actions. So, the strategic or principled notion of alternative models of the non-violent form of action leads to the generation of nexus between play and display, between being and becoming, between ‘creating’ and ‘being created by’. The performative action brings certain ways of doing things that become predominantly a tool of a nonviolent way of reframing the narrative of protest. So, this is the reciprocal relationship that the political or protest motif shares with the actual doing- the performance.
So, performance constitutes the nature of one’s action and identity and thus becomes an agent of the protest which frames a non-violent narrative of resistance. To scholars like Shruti Bala, this denial of the violent and conventional process is a refusal where the non-doing became more effective than doing. The actors became something more than what they are expected to be and transform the event in the process by not doing something that they would usually be expected to do. This alternative model of resistance became possible because of the active involvement in unconventional performative actions and practices that came as a tool of making alternative resistance possible. The popular discontent went towards mediating different democratization through various forms of performativity. This refers to the very new self of the protest movement constituted by praxis and responsiveness (Bala 2007). It brings a different collaborative relation with power that brings new possibilities of social interaction and a different bureaucratic involvement to address the situation (Butler 2000). It complicates the earlier notion of site-specificity in protest and gives shapes to an in situ nature of protest happening simultaneously across regions. On the other hand, it also lays bare the social relevance of performance as a critical lens. It is also a form of creative turmoil to “the historical need to expand and break down the limits of traditional cultural forms - both urban and rural….” (Bhattacharya, 1988, p. 22). Thus, contemporary protest movements have become significantly symbolical and corporeally signifying. Non-linguistic and embodied utterances have become resistant to the normative protocol and show the intertwined relationship of aesthetics and politics.
Performative protest allows us to explore contemporary political subjectivities and the unfolding of the relationship between human actions and political notions in the postcolonial, neoliberal systems of oppression and resistance. The other significant aspect of protest movements lies in their democratic nature where the inclusion of certain public into the total happening does not necessarily have to be a political voice coming out of the desire to be identified in a certain way. Rather, the simply being there and the common actions exemplifies the construction of a symbolic voice which has the potential of overhauling governments and disrupting economic and political regimes. Starting from the Occupy Arab Spring, Black Life Matters, to even the ‘#MeToo’ movements came out as significant voices of protest in various modes and constructions to create a rupture in the usual order of legitimacy and dominance of certain forms. Similarly, beyond the South Asian scenario the dance protest (2011) of Chilean students in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”; the Canadian student protest (the 70s) of banging pots and pans shows how performance in itself becomes an expressive political voice beyond the immediate implications of it.
Therefore, protest movements enable the inclusion of heterogeneous people and collectively form a repertoire. It is an enormous possibility of “crafting something new that fractured the existing order, narratives, and ideologies” (Akçalı 2018; McGarry et al. 2019). Participation, communication, and interaction remain the three crucial aspects that create different aesthetics of protest by occupying space, be it material or digital, and bringing a visual framing and staging. It becomes a resource where a performance of protest becomes a possibility of power to transform; something which performativity essentially stands for; a form of social action that can bring change. Going beyond the very language barrier, the recent dramatic proliferation of the different mediums has also brought creative possibilities to the protest movements where a picturesque presentation of both material and performative culture can be witnessed. As media and performance scholar Marcela A. Fuentes has rightly argued, performance is a vital element that is used by students to represent their different focal points and political statements in ways that were easily graspable and accountable. These performances transmit a sense of safety in that they are confrontational in a non-violent way (Fuente, 2015). Art, symbols, graffitis, colored bodies, art installations, bodily performances, and most importantly digital expressions are bringing a complex interplay of performance, image, acoustic: an interesting combination of both action and ‘inaction’. The intersect between political ideology and aesthetic emancipation is igniting each other to a unique richness of action. It is not only about what emerges through the performance, or the outcomes, but also the performance in itself as it is. Thus performance is a possibility and an empowering tool in changing power dynamics and effecting change in multiple ways. South Asia, as a geographical unit, exemplifies this ‘new’ globalized nature of alternative protests to a great extent.
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Mr. Subhankar Dutta, an alumnus of Banaras Hindu University & Midnapore College, is currently a Senior Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department (HSS) of IIT Bombay. He is working on the Performance, History, and Cultural Politics of the Gajan Festival of Bengal. As a contributor, editor, and creative writer his publications appeared in Taylor and Francis, JCLA, Rupkatha, Atlantic, and others. His co-edited anthology of poetry Musings on Pandemic (2021) is published from Authorspress. He has also been an ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research) field investigator, Research Associate and has been working with theatre organizations like Qissa Kothi (Mumbai), and Fourthwall (IIT Bombay). He is currently working as an intern for CCYSC. For more, https://subhankarduttas.wordpress.com/
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