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“Elliptical Refractions”: The Unfolding of Cultures in Transit against Politics


In geometry, an ellipse is popularly defined as a closed curve and the locus of a point such that the sum of the distances from that point to two other fixed points i.e. the foci of the ellipse, is constant. However, if the ellipse is to be reimagined as dynamic, with the distances from the center changing with contextual recalibrations, it can act as a suitable metaphor for existent cultures travelling across space and time and repeatedly negotiating their proximity to central discourses.

David Damrosch in his much-quoted definition of world literature refers to it as being constituted by national literatures travelling in “elliptical refractions” and becoming relevant in different contexts as per events that create spaces of relevance between a text and an audience. While the figure of the ellipse, unlike the circle, elongates the scope of circulation, refraction denotes a change in direction. From this standpoint, one can make sense of the prominence of cultural texts in the domain of politics being an ever-changing phenomenon. A particular slogan or song may emerge during a popular movement, then become a part of the cultural archive and popularly reappear years later in times of political upheaval.

"Death to fascism, freedom to the people!", in the original Serbo-Croatian, “Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!” originated in Yugoslavia in 1943, as a communist partisan motto. The slogan began circulating after the execution of Stjepan Filipović, a Yugoslav Partisan, who while being hanged, thrust his hands out and denounced the Germans and their Axis allies as murderers, shouting "Death to fascism, freedom to the people!". These words have been used in several protests and struggles against totalitarian and right-wing regimes across countries, across time.

“Hum Dekhenge”, the Urdu nazm by Faiz Ahmed Faiz written in 1979, in protest against Zia ul-Haq’s oppressive regime in Pakistan gained widespread currency during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. The poem, which has been part of the popular literary consciousness in South Asia, also became the title of a photobook released this month, chronicling the anti-CAA struggle. This demonstrates how a text travelling from its roots in Pakistan in the late 1970s happened to activate relationalities with the Indian context in 2020. These unique relational moments are many across the political landscape of the world.

Image Credits: The Indian Express

More recently, the viral Bengali “Khela Hobe” slogan, literally translating to “The game will happen” was popularized by the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) in an electoral fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier this year. After a monumental victory of the TMC, the slogan, which was originally used by Bangladesh's ruling Awami League MP Shamim Osman in 2016 in response to anti-independence forces in his country, has been taken up by multiple political actors. Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) promised an electoral unseating of ruling forces in Jammu and Kashmir, remarking “Khela Hobe will happen here also". Similarly, Samajwadi Party (SP), in anticipation of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections next year has re-tuned “Khela Hobe” and turned it into “Khadeda Hoibe” in Awadhi and Bhojpuri, proclaiming that the current regime shall be “chased out”.

What is worth noting, in the words of John T. Hamilton, while “a rhetorical ellipsis” expresses a subtraction of words”, “a geometric ellipse”, “denotes an addition of centers”. Cultural texts might have origins but can revolve around various centers as they travel. This provides us hints towards thinking of a global humanity in terms of how cultures interact, without discounting historical-geographical particularities. The contextually renewed relevance of these slogans. poems and songs, sends us back to their roots, commemorating and keeping alive the memory of human struggles. This phenomenon of travelling cultural texts in a politically charged world signals towards a transcendent human solidarity, spanning across the expanses of space and time.


By Abhinav Bharadwaj (Columnist)

Abhinav is a postgraduate student of English literature at University of Delhi. A published poet and an independent researcher, he has been a longlist awardee of the Wingword Poetry Prize and his works have been published by journals such as English Studies in Latin America, Contemporary Literary Review India and media portals like Feminism in India. His areas of interest include world literatures, gender and sexuality studies, modernisms and media and culture studies.

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