A screengrab of a cover of of the viral Sri Lankan song 'Manike Magi Hithe' by Indian pop singer Arjun | YouTube
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Our relations with the island neighbour have sailed through rough weathers. The discussions around the concerns and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils still affect both our internal politics and our larger geopolitical maritime interests. Domestic opinions on bilateral relations are divided during Tamil Nadu state elections or when India pragmatically nudges Sri Lanka by abstaining from voting at the UNHRC. At times also united when diplomatic lobbying successfully wins contracts for Indian companies or when India pushes Colombo to implement the 13th Amendment.

But in today’s modern-tech interconnectedness, there are instances where realist state behaviours are overwhelmed by the expression and appreciation of historic cultural linkages through music and art. It wasn’t just the success of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ by Yohani, that most of us have been ‘vibing’ with, but the myriad artistic reactions to the song and audiences’ responses from across borders that offered the platform for this essay.

In the backdrop of political curtains, the mashup of the Sinhala song and the much-viewed Tamil song – ‘Rowdy Baby’ by the Nandy Sisters was strikingly ear-catching. One can explore the kind of cultural and artistic diversity that just this single mashup binds together. Not to mention the countless other renditions and video-shorts being made in several Indian languages, and particularly the warm appreciation shown by the Sri Lankan audience (both Tamil and Sinhalese) in response to the reception by their Indian counterparts to music from their country.

Instances like these might seem trivial and short-lived in the aura of digital trends. But they offer the opportunities to get deeper insights into the inter-subjective nature of identities and their civilizational connections that have remained resilient over centuries despite clashes and conflicts in the present post-colonial political order.

Despite the wide imprint of Bollywood movies and music not only in our sub-continent and its neighbours but also in the African continent, the Indian government has never pursued it actively as one of the soft-powers in its quiver among many other. Perhaps the only trans-boundary talent that mainstream Bollywood ever appreciated was from across our western border, ties with whom are cut-off by the industry post the Pulwama attack.

Well, what I make of the still trending beats of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ culminating into Yohani’s debut into Hindi songs is that this should be not just the Look-South but also the Look-East moment for Indian music and cinema for embracing both distant talent within the country and also trans-boundary talent. Her debut was a result of the market forces propelled by the creative responses from the audience here at home, and across the world.

With the liberalisation of content on the internet, more and more wide-ranged multi-lingual web-series/movies are coming up, and are gaining affirmation from people for their plurality. Although ‘The Family Man 2’ does misrepresents the discourse around Tamil insurgency, it is one such example nevertheless that nicely explores this multi-lingual range in its plot.

It is indeed the people’s prerogative to recognise and appreciate distant talent both within and across borders, and offer them the opportunity to present themselves on a bigger stage. With the advent of the digital content. the responsibility to democratize music and cinema lies with the artists for what they create and with the audience for what they demand as responsible consumers of content. This responsibility also ensures that the ability to leverage this soft power lies primarily with the people, and this has been the case for India so far, in contrast with South Korea’s move to elevate popular K-pop artists as special Presidential envoys. Soft power when overtly recognised by the state, does not sustain its ‘soft’ allure.

In conclusion, the success and welcoming reception to ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ does serve as a defining moment for the enrichment and upliftment of music and art, reviving cross-cultural and ancient ties that form a larger identity of the sub-continent to which people still subjectively relate even though such an identity of oneness is not formally defined. In essence, the significance of a people driven constructivist growth of art must be recognised.

Rajiv Sangle is a student at IIT, Guwahti.

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