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Padma Chirumamilla

Interview by undergraduate student Sarah Uddin (2019). Major: Screen Arts & Cultures and Anthropology.

Padma Chirumamilla, David and Mary Hunting Graduate Fellow
Disassembled television sets in South Indian repair shops.


What is the current project you are working through the Institute?

I’m currently working on my dissertation, “Producing TVs: The Multitudinous Life of Television in South India.” What I’m looking at is how television became such an important object to the everyday life of South Indian people. If you look at the history of TV in South India, it is a nationalist project, headed by the government, and isn’t broadcast in South Indian languages. Yet, like anywhere else, television is widespread in every home and every corner shop in South India. I was wondering what was behind the process that sort of led to the television becoming a commonplace device. Through an international grant, my research took me to India for a year to work in a local TV repair shops in the state of Andhra Pradesh in Southeast India. I went out on jobs with TV/computer repairmen and people who installed software systems. I also tracked down written material such as TV repair manuals, newspapers both in Telugu and English, and trade journals to get a sense of how television both as a physical object and a platform for content became such a large part of everyday life. Now, at the institute, I’m working on organizing all of my research material and getting it on paper.

What got you interested in your project’s topic?

I’ve always been interested in technology and its impact in people’s lives. As an English major for my undergrad, I was really interested in how technology was portrayed in literature. For my undergrad thesis, I looked at how community, technology, diaspora and their interactions were portrayed in contemporary English literature in India. But I realized that my interest in technology and how it is recognized was not limited to its literary portrayal. At the University of Michigan, I decided to further explore these questions surrounding technology and its impact in everyday life in a different fashion, one that was more anthropological and ethnographically based. My current work started with the intention to see how computers make their way to small towns and other out-of-the-way places. Usually, when people think about computers and digital technology, there is an assumption that they exist in big cities and urban centers but I was gravitating more towards digital technology’s place in communities and places where people don’t necessarily imagine it existing on any sort of scale. I quickly began to gravitate more towards television and its impact. I found that TV had a more colorful history, being that it was initially illegal and those who interacted with it worked to the left of the law. It also has been around longer than computers and other digital technologies. My interest in India stems from personal reasons as well. My parents are from India and I grew up there on and off as a child. I thought it would be fruitful to go back and try and understand this place that has been a part of my life for quite some time but that I hadn’t really studied in any great detail.

Any key takeaways or interesting discoveries you’ve made along the way?

One insightful discovery I’ve made along the way has to do with thinking about obsolescence and its place in life. I mean in terms of objects or softwares that don’t serve their original purpose or cannot be updated but for whatever reason, they are still being used because they are liked or deemed necessary, like an old cellphone or outdated television set. They take the place of the latest and newest update or machine that isn’t readily available to people in South India. So we are living in a world where old and contemporary technologies are mixed up together and exist in the same context. I’ve been really thinking about what this notion of obsolescence and mixed technologies means for peoples’ livelihoods in South India—when the technology that has shaped their lives to some degree becomes less and less relevant for others who can afford or access constant technological updates. What happens when a television repairman discovers his services are no longer as important or necessary to his community? How does this notion of obsolescence impact one personally and their ideas about the future? There are no easy answers for these questions and it's easy for us to take as truth the misconception that technology is a linear progression. There is a deeper, stranger, and longer life that technology lives. When it gets old, or obsolete, how does it impact people's’ lived experiences?

How does an academic environment with other fellows benefit you or help your work at the Institute?

 

I’m constantly surprised about being admitted to the Institute. The fellowship itself is important because it gives you the much needed time and space and a great set of people to think about your project and come to new ideas. In my case, my research documents range from photos and videos to written material and even audio clips of ambient noise I gathered on site. It can be overwhelming at times, and having a place where I can just kind of sit and sort through all the material to figure out how it fits properly and produce an academic work that encompasses what I have been trying to say on the matter is extremely beneficial. Being surrounded by all these other academics who are really dedicated and have different research going on, talking to them and bouncing ideas off them just helps get the creative and analytical juices flowing. Even if I’m not actively talking to another fellow about my work, hearing them think out loud about their work in a collaborative environment can be so enlightening for my own thinking processes. Both the space to think and the company at the Institute is helpful to my research.

Any advice you’ve gotten from a fellow that really stuck out for you?

It may not be one thing necessarily but more like a constellation of things over time. Other fellows will provide reading suggestions that may not have come to my attention because I wasn’t familiar with them. For example, I recently presented my research at a seminar and one of the fellows suggested I look into Eve Sedgwick's work on reparative reading. It proved to be unexpectedly really helpful and I wouldn’t have thought to read it on my own in order to prepare for the presentation.

What is some advice you would give to a current undergrad?

One thing I would say is don’t be afraid to admit that you might not have all the answers right now. I think my undergrad was a little different than if I had gone here in terms of rigor, but it was also different because I was a first generation undergrad student. I had a lot of questions about the process of going to college and the benefits themselves. Admittedly, it is such a bizarre and weird experience if you think about it. At times, it can feel like the decision to pursue higher education is causing you to leave behind your familiar environment for a place that is an odd combination of job training and existential enlightenment. You’re both trying to find adequate ways by which you can access the job market but also trying to gain a broader idea of the world’s complex nature and our place in it. That is a tricky combination to address and balance at first. Something that helped me maneuver higher education during my undergrad experience was the interest in taking a variety of classes that I wanted to take rather than just taking those classes that had a clear-cut outcome. Doing what gives you financial security in the future is understandable, but this is the one time you can also explore your interests without being burdened by inescapable, adult responsibilities. I would say that as an undergrad it's worth exploring a lot and trying to have a little bit of fun along the way.