media, information, the contemporary

Media, Crowds and Democracy

Kamayani Sharma

January 2019 to September 2019

I worked at the Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi (CSDS) from January 2019 to January 2020 as a researcher in a project funded by the M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies ‘Metamorphoses of the Political’ (ICAS:MP). I joined Sarai with a Master’s degree from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi (JNU). and a professional history has spanned art criticism, anthropological research and teaching philosophy.

My research interests lie in forms of abstraction, state practices of visuality, pre-digital intersections of art and technology and popular cinema. During my MA degree I published research on Films Division documentaries in the context of the mid-20th c. mediascape as an article “Archaeology of an experiment: The science-fiction cinema of Pramod Pati” in the journal Studies in South Asian Film and Media. At Sarai, I built on this work on post-Independence Indian state media through the thematic ‘Crowds, Media and Democracy’. Beginning with the figure of the spectator-citizen who must watch government films before accessing popular cinema, I moved towards connecting mass formations with mass media. To excavate the ontology and conceptuality of crowds in the period 1947-1992, I investigated modes of massification created, controlled and consolidated by media infrastructures of the state, as well as non-state apparatuses running parallel to and in response to them.

I spent my initial research phase consulting scholarship about crowds through the modern and contemporary period, emerging mainly from Euro-American and South Asian contexts. I learned about the various disciplinary approaches that posit the crowd as a hermeneutic, to understand the relationship between political formations and information networks. This helped me develop frames and methods, as well as identify sites of analysis and archives for the study of pre-Internet Indian crowds. Eventually, I was able to arrive at specific media technologies and representational objects that structured and indexed the varieties of aggregations in mid-to-late 20th c. India.

As I progressed in my research for ICAS:MP, I engaged with two genres of material – (1) state media forms like the Press Information Bureau (PIB) press release, PIB photography, Prasar Bharti footage, Films Division(FD) documentaries and police media [paperwork for assembly, photography, communication devices and crowd control technology] and (2) non-state media forms like photojournalism and popular and parallel Hindi cinema.

Towards the latter part of my research tenure, I narrowed my focus to crowd photography in Delhi in the 1980s (from the post-Emergency period to the anti-Mandal agitations). The subjects of my archival and ethnographic fieldwork comprised both photojournalistic and policial composition and discomposition of crowds and publics. I first began to track these as images in the archives of prominent English and Hindi periodicals of the 1980s. This led me to conduct interviews with leading photojournalists of the time, who had taken many of these pictures. The knowledge I gleaned from these interviews prompted me to pursue lines of enquiry with Delhi Police to gain a sense of the state's counterparts to press photographs. I interviewed various personnel, most importantly retired and serving photographers in the force. Finally, I looked at two archival sources—MHA Annual Reports and back issues of Indian Police Journal—to contextualise these first-hand accounts. This research is part of a paper tentatively titled “Rationalising the Crowd, Representing the Public: Journalistic and Policial Photography in 1980s Delhi”.

During the first two years since leaving Sarai, fieldwork was not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions, put in place very soon after my departure. Nevertheless, the discursive and methodological orientation I developed at Sarai as a result of my research has persisted through other projects. Over the pandemic, I started a visual culture podcast and received a fellowship to contribute to on visual culture. Both undertakings are informed by the infrastructure studies approach I became familiar with at Sarai. Since summer 2022, as Delhi returned to normalcy, I have been revising the aforementioned research paper. I continue to study the relationships between crowds, photography and the state, particularly in terms of their contemporary incarnations as part of surveillance strategies. My Sarai project is an important part of my independent research work, alongside my writing practice and current day job as an editor & content strategist at Sharjah Art Foundation.


Peer-reviewed Articles:​

“Archeology of an Experiment: The Science-Fiction Cinema of Pramod Pati.” Studies in South Asian Film & Media 6, no. 2 (October 1, 2015): 147–64.

“Home Is Where the Horror Is: Pakistani Films and Historical Trauma.” Essay. In South Asian Gothic: Haunted Cultures, Histories and Media, edited by Katarzyna Ancuta and Deimantas Valanciun, 33–47. University of Wales Press, 2021.

“Sabka Time Aayega: Language and Identity in Gully Boy.” Essay. In ReFocus: The Films of Zoya Akhtar, edited by Aakshi Magazine and Amber Shields. Edinburgh University Press, 2022.

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.