media, information, the contemporary

Amplification and Listening Publics in Urban India

Mehak Sawhney

September 2018 - April 2019

I am a scholar, curator, and activist based in Canada, and I am currently pursuing my PhD in Communication Studies at McGill University. Between 2018–2019, I worked at the Sarai Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi (CSDS) as a researcher funded by the M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP). My work focused on sound and media cultures in urban India. More specifically, I conducted ethnographic and archival research in Delhi and Allahabad to study sonic amplification and public address systems as critical infrastructures for mass mediation in public spaces. My field sites included the Delhi Metro and the Kumbh fair, where I conducted fieldwork for about a year, and my archival sources were from the National Archives of India and the Central Secretariat Library in Delhi. A part of this research was awarded the Jean de Grandpré Prize for “outstanding paper in communication studies” at McGill University in May 2020, and was published as a journal article in Media, Culture & Society in March 2022. During this time, I was actively involved in organizing events and film screenings at Sarai-CSDS. I also presented my research at two international conferences – the Association of Asian Studies conference in Delhi and a media studies conference at Stanford University. My prior research at Sarai was on sound and AI with a focus on the politics of machine listening in India through a study of technologies such as speech recognition and voice biometrics.

My research at Sarai further contributed to my PhD project, Acoustic State: Sound and Surveillance in Postcolonial India, that investigates audio surveillance across technologies such as telephones, radio, and sonar, and explores the sonic dimensions of political subjectification and territorial state control in postcolonial India. This project is being funded by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, a prestigious federal doctoral grant in Canada. I was also the co-curator of Capture All: A Sonic Investigation (2020-2022), a collaborative project between Sarai-CSDS, Delhi, and Liquid Architecture, Melbourne, that supports sound artists and researchers from India and Australia in developing their artistic practice and research on sound and power. This ongoing international project has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts as part of their program on international collaboration and exchange.


Journal Issues Edited:

“Capture All: A Sonic Investigation”. Disclaimer, edited by Laura McLean and Mehak Sawhney, co-published by Liquid Architecture and Sarai, (August 2022).

Peer-reviewed Articles:

“Infrastructure of Life: Public Address, Listening and Crowds in the Delhi Metro and Kumbh.” Media, Culture & Society 44, no. 2 (2021): 341–61.

“The Acousmatic Question and the Will to Datafy:, Low-Resource Languages and the Politics of Machine Listening,” Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies 9, no. 2 (Fall 2022): 288-306. [Link: To be released]

Book Reviews:

“Sensate Sovereignty: A Dialogue on Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening”, Amodern, 2020.

Translations (Hindi to English):

Ratlami, Ravi. “Hinglish Is Cool Yaar!” In Hinglish Live: Language Mixing across Media. Translated by Mehak Sawhney. Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2022.

Premchand. “The Boycott of Hindi and Gurmukhi in the Frontier Province.” In Premchand on National Language (Rashtrabhasha). Translated by Mehak Sawhney. Delhi: Aakar Books, 2019.

Research Collections

This archive was built between February 2021 and August 2022 and supported by the collaboration between The Sarai Program at CSDS and ICAS: MP on thematic module 7 entitled, ‘Media and the Constitution of the Political’. This project details how truth-telling is transformed after widespread media proliferation with a focus on public commissions of inquiry into the Northeast Delhi Riots in 2020. The project seeks to understand the nature of political, humanitarian, and legal claims made in the presentation of witness speech and evidence; how to assess the temporality of the report in negotiating these often-competing claims; and what the handling of media evidence discloses about the politics of caution, care, and self-care. In detailing how investigations assemble evidence and articulate the evidentiary value of media, special attention is given to practices associated with open-source investigations, online publication and archiving, and the management of risk associated with such human rights media work. Research collections include fact-finding reports and books, documentary films, collections of film and photo documentation, news reports, web archives, and social media threads.