After this article was published this morning, the film was removed by the makers from YouTube. I apologize. But the arguments still stand.
The culture market in Meghalaya is a nascent phenomenon, at least in the scale that it exists today. Of course tourism has always had it within the gamut of its agenda but in the past few years, alongside large-scale development projects, large-scale commercial projects of culture have also evolved.
I curiously opened a YouTube clip titled “Monolith Festival, 2016” which I chanced upon on Facebook and which was generously shared by some online acquaintances. Two minutes into it and I was completely creeped out by the voiceover, amongst other things. But I continued to watch, even if reluctantly.
First of all, there’s no such thing as a homogenous Khasi culture, as was featured in this film. Beliefs and practices (and this includes language and clothing) are so diverse amongst the Khasi sub-tribes.Unfortunately, historical accidents have engendered internal hegemony within the Khasi tribe (like elsewhere)and what has become the locus of popular attention is an idea of culture from only one region in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills- all to the comfortable disappearance of the rest.
Second, the voice-over’s pretentious accent in this film is quite alienating as it moves into a descriptive mode coloured with a colonial tone and over-romanticization of the people and activities displayed. The narrator narrates, yes, but one of this kind controls the narrative too much that as a viewer, one doesn’t get any freedom to observe and understand at your own pace and in your own terms. But perhaps, that’s the point.
Third, festivals like these portray culture as completely apolitical, not questioning the power structures that operate within and how external factors have come to redefine and reshape cultural landscapes. Heck, events such as these are actively participating in the re-making of culture within a capitalist market economy. Here you have, “culture” stripped of all its political and savage value, presented to you in a delicious platter-easy to appreciate, easy to consume. One young person interviewed in the film admits that if not for this festival, he wouldn’t have seen or been aware of many of the performances. Well, I understand the “awareness” argument of supporters of this festival, but don’t you think we need to ponder over what happens to a particular activity/practice when uprooted from its own context? All songs, rituals or dances are embedded with conceptual values which are often linked to ideas of social existence, sacredness, nature and everyday practices of a community. Now you displace these and present them on a general platform for an urban audience. Don’t these activities adopt a new objectified and commercial meaning now? Moreover, events like the Monolith present culture in truly a monolithic form, as if there is no inconsistency, no ruptures and no transformations in the very practices of these rituals and performances; as if cultural practices remain in a historical vacuum; as if they should be preserved for the sake of preservation, especially for the pleasure of urban dwellers who feel removed from their roots; as if the struggling, marginalized and impoverished everyday lives of people from the villages, who are “custodians of culture” cannot taint this image of culture. As if.
Lastly, one tourist in the film says that the sacred groves were empty without the Monolith festival. I certainly don’t have a romanticized idea of nature but this statement is disturbing to me because huge events like these inevitably impact on the biodiversity of the area. Think of the waste generated, think of the number of cars it is attracting, think of the expansion of roads, think of the loud music which drowns the chants of the cicadas, think of the destruction of the grassland next to the groves. The list goes on.
Awareness, tourism, bla bla…but at what cost? And can’t we think of better ways to deal with Khasi history and culture outside the parameters of the market economy? Because let’s face it, the people whose pockets are filled the most are the organizers’, not exactly the villagers’ who come to participate. It is still an event based on a top-down approach, nothing authentic and beautifully organic about it. If indigenous practices are really that much of a concern for the Government and the urban public, why not improve and ensure the contexts in which they would survive? Is funding efficiently channelized towards local industries of food production, weaving, crafts and agriculture? Is there even a space for these industries to exist in this economy? If this Government is truly putting its heart out for the huge population of tribal people it is ruling over, and seeks to preserve the dances, songs and other practices, then what about the subjects in those songs-the forests, the rivers, the hills? Recent acts of the State clearly reveal that it’s easier to save songs than it is to save trees; it is easier to save culture and lock it in festivals and museums, than to save nature- the wilderness, it tames everyday into a commodity.