Over the past few days, talk about Indian Idol has revolved around the violent clashes following the insulting remarks made by a radio DJ in New Delhi (coverage and reactions here). And leading up to the finals, media coverage was focused on how Amit Paul and Prashant Tamang, the two finalists from the north-east of India, were bringing people together and creating a space for people to cast aside decades-old separatist identities. In cities across the northeast, hundreds of people took to the streets to express their support for Amit Paul and Prashant Tamang and it seemed they were willing to look past linguistic, ethnic, and other separatist lines of identification (see, for instance, this story on CNN-IBN).
My friend Arijit Sen, who has been covering the northeast region for CNN-IBN over the past few months, had this to say about Amit Paul and the situation in Shillong:
In Shillong, the Khasis ( matrilineal society but property management vested in mother’s brothers hands) , the Garos (people from the Garo Hills/are of Bodo Tibeto-Burman stock and have settled in the Garo hills for 400 years and have 5 broad matrilineal clans) , the Jainitias ( people from the Jaintia Pahar, Hindus, traditional belief system close to Khasis ), the Bengalis and the Marwaris have never been this close before.
In Shillong, everyone except tourists heads home in the evening. Areas are marked within which Khasis stay and areas are marked within which Bengalis stay. Ignoring the past, people came out of their water tight compartments and started singing songs of Amit Paul. They even had a Khasi version of “yaad aan rahan hain tera pyar.”
But the music one associates with Shillong is western music. Bands like Boomerang and Soulmate are supposed to represent the state.Western music as much as it acted a bridge between Shillong and the rest of the country, also gave this state a distinct identity that somehow made it difficult for Meghalaya to join the Hindi film music party. Amit Paul broke it. So for the first time, you had popular mainstream music blaring out in the main square of Shillong. And so I guess everyone thought, who cares, this is our moment, let us all celebrate.
But people did not just come out all of a sudden. Businessmen and people living in Shillong for years took initiative. A fan club was formed. fans enlisted as sponsors of PCOs that were open all night for people to come forward and vote. Posters were distributed. Prepaid mobile cards were distriburted. So this was a much needed push and it worked like magic.
For me, it is this moment of fandom that is the most interesting aspect of Indian Idol. I was excited to hear about this and see a rally on the streets of Shillong with banners and posters announcing the formation of an Amit Paul Fan Club.
However, given the broader socio-historical context, the nagging question is: so what? Can we expect this moment of fandom to have any sort of lasting impact on inter-personal relationships in this region? How will different stakeholders cash in on Amit Paul? The state government has already appointed Amit Paul a brand ambassador of peace and communal harmony, and with elections to be held in February 2008, it will be interesting to see how this moment when cultural differences were blurred is (re)framed by politicians.
But then, given the structure of the show, isn’t it unfair to expect an Amit Paul fan community to cohere and sustain itself for a long period of time? After all, there will be an Indian Idol 4 within the next year or so. How, then, do we think about this instance of fan expression?
Would it be useful to conceptualize this as an instance of flash fandom? Flash fandom – like a flash mob, a fan community that coheres for a brief time period and draws people together but is so inclusive that it can only be fleeting. I think this notion of flash fandom lets us acknowledge that this was a space of sociality that allowed people to transcend rigid definitions of identity and, crucially, doesn’t force us to pose the “so what” question in entirely negative/cynical terms. Perhaps, more broadly, we could argue that flash fandom is the modality of fandom for reality TV shows.
(pic courtesy Arijit Sen)