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  • Limits of the Trace
  • Moinak Biswas (bio)
State University of New York, 2015

Sudhir Mahadevan's book represents a salutary shift to historical investigation in Indian film scholarship, a move away from engagement with contemporary Bombay film, often ahistorically called Bollywood. A Very Old Machine tells us how the cinematic apparatus has been put together in India, as technology and practice, as both maker and product of an experiential modernity that was not meant to conform to a normative model of modern practices in this part of the world. The "very old" of the title refers to both the age of the machine and the persistence of some of the most ancient film-viewing contraptions in the present, while the machine the author has in mind is both the contraptions and the moments of their specific assembling. Mimicking its own intuition about the interrupted chronology of the tools and institutions it surveys, the book goes back and forth in time, signals multiple moments of inauguration for the story, and leaves one narrative line midway to take up another, thus making the case for a historiographic model even as it writes history.

Mahadevan's inquiry is itself a product of a moment where the everyday and the archive, two concepts invoked throughout the book, cross paths more frequently and visibly than ever. The digital turn has foregrounded such intersection in its manifold occurrence. Spontaneous storage of photographs, films, music, and texts in personal computers and conversations between databases across disciplines and [End Page 192] territories have made the archiving impulse ordinary and visible and freed it to a radical extent from notions of value so far as the stored objects are concerned. Anything and everything is collectible; the boundaries of ephemera extend to include every odd thing as a trace left by something. The traces that the book explores have no apparent relationship with archiving in that sense, but the optic it uses and the logic of movement through time it follows must owe its inspiration to a moment when we have begun to accumulate impressions of the past as acts of reflex. The gaps the book leaves in the story-structuring gaps—if one might call them—echo the very form that everyday archiving has taken on.

The chapter "Copyright and Cultural Authenticity" (chapter 3) is in a way an acknowledgment of this connection. It outlines the context of the emergence of legislative measures to secure intellectual property over images, especially photographs and their prints, which in their "mass cultural" form posed a serious challenge to proprietary control in the nineteenth century. Mahadevan says he wants to explore a different archive here, one that moves from the question of the "viability of the machines" discussed in the preceding chapters to the "commercial 'viability' of images" (68). The chapter outlines the efflorescence of photography and popular print culture (e.g., chromolithography), mostly in the colonial city of Calcutta, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which became an "archive" located at its meeting point with the question of proprietorship. At such intersections, questions of originality and artistic autonomy (artisan versus artist, copy versus original), as well as the question of authorship in general, get foregrounded. The logic of the market, which seemed to drive the bargain in favor of intellectual property, created obstacles in the path of commercial expansion of image production, a paradox that the author brings to our attention. These questions have informed a very fruitful debate over digital commons and intellectual property across the world since the beginning of the new millennium. Indian scholars and activists have made a significant contribution to it.1 Mahadevan is certainly a part of this intellectual project.

A slightly older discourse that examined the machine and the apparatus through the grid of ideology and desire, found prominently in film theory in the 1970s, informs the book's strategy to move from the history of technology to accounts of circulation to inscriptions of form [End Page 193] and politics. Cinema remains the elusive object here. Cultural Studies– oriented film scholarship also tended to render the films themselves...


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pp. 192-199
Launched on MUSE
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