South Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - Books, Brahmins, Beauties: Affective Economies of the Film Songbook in Independent South India

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Jacaranda I, First Floor

This presentation applies Lauren Berlant’s formulation of cruel optimism to the early twentieth-century construction of the singing and dancing film heroine - a logotype I refer to as the mythical courtesan. In this paper, I trace the rise of cruel optimism to print media such as songbooks and their implication in advertising culture, which featured female icons I refer to as Brahmin beauties. Focusing on the career of mid-century South India’s most iconic cinematic courtesan, Bhanumati Ramakrishna, I argue that much of the embourgeoisement of music and dance in South Asia in general, and South India in particular, rests on the cruel optimism that beholding beauty will lead to intimacy. This version of cruel optimism also championed the building of beauty as well as the male gaze through music and dance training in the hope of creating a new caste conscious cosmopolitanism. I explore the historiographical imperatives at the heart of Bhanumati’s success, focusing on the era of film-making which introduced song and soundtrack to South India. This presentation draws upon ethnographic accounts of songbook culture to argue that much of what qualifies as modern Indian affective identities, up to and including classical music and dance, began with the songbook and its utility in the home. 


Rumya Putcha

Texas A&M University, United States

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2 - Books, Brahmins, Beauties: Affective Economies of the Film Songbook in Independent South India



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