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Member Achievement: Nisha Kommattam

Congratulations to COSAS Member and Associate Instructional Professor in Comparative Literature Nisha Kommattam on her chapter “Vehicles of Progress: The Kerala Rikshawala at the Intersection of Communism and Social Realism” which appears in the book Sound Alignments: Popular Music in Asia’s Cold Wars. In Sound Alignments, a transnational group of scholars explores the myriad forms of popular music that circulated across Asia during the Cold War. Last week’s Member Achievement featured Dr. Anna’s Schultz’s chapter, “Cosmaharaja: Popular Songs of Socialist Cosmopolitanism in Cold War India,” in the same work.

Professor Kommattam’s chapter “Vehicles of Progress. The Kerala Rikshawala at the Intersection of Communism and Cosmopolitanism” examines the iconic trope of the autorickshaw driver as represented in two popular Malayalam movies from the Cold War era, Odayil Ninnu (1965) and Aye Auto! (1990). More precisely, Professor Kommattam discusses three film songs that illustrate how the “Kerala rikshawala” as a cultural icon is situated at an intersection of vernacular Communist ideologies on the one hand and emerging cosmopolitan aspirations on the other. A close reading of the songs’ textual, visual, and sonic structures will expose these intersections as well as lead to larger questions about the uneasy relationship between class, caste, Communism, and cosmopolitanism.

Her argument here is twofold. First, she argues that the cultural icon of the Kerala rikshawala offers an identificatory trope for many consumers of the mass culture production that is Malayalam cinema. Relatability, ubiquity, and relatively low social stigma (compared to other working-class professions) aid the trope of the rikshawala in serving as an embodiment of the Malayalee audience’s aspirations for social justice and upward mobility in the relatively young state. Second, the trope of the Kerala rikshawala can also be read as an embodiment of the postcolonial state of Kerala itself, representing its multi-faceted pulls toward larger socioeconomic progress, attempting to provide upward social mobility to its citizens in an increasingly globalizing world.

Sound Alignments: Popular Music in Asia’s Cold Wars can be purchased here.