To meme or not to meme?

Updated: Jun 28, 2020, 07:58 IST | P Vatsalya | Mumbai

A meme scholar from JNU speaks about the politics behind meme making and featuring in a brand new podcast called Talk Meme To Me

Neog, Aditya Talpade, the host of the show and Koninika Roy, Catalyst at Culture Lab, pose for a picture before recording the first episode of Talk Meme To Me
Neog, Aditya Talpade, the host of the show and Koninika Roy, Catalyst at Culture Lab, pose for a picture before recording the first episode of Talk Meme To Me

Memes are everywhere, whether it's in our chat groups on WhatsApp or Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. "Memes have emerged as a kind of lingua franca when it comes to digital communication," says Krishanu Neog, a doctoral student exploring the role of memes in digital populism and social media at JNU's Centre for Political Studies.

"I decided to study memes because I could see a lot of political conversations unfold through them. Political commentary can be snuck in using humour, among people who might otherwise claim to be apolitical. Humour makes this process more palatable. Activists, advocacy groups and even the digital wings of political parties have become increasingly meme-savvy," he adds.

The woman from the  viral "Yeh bik gayi hai gormint" news clip looking like revolutionary leader Che Guevera in a meme
The woman from the viral "Yeh bik gayi hai gormint" news clip looking like revolutionary leader Che Guevera in a meme

The reach of memes can be understood through the following incidents. Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2019, in what was touted to be an apolitical interview. Kumar shared memes featuring PM Modi with him, who seemed genuinely delighted by his supporters' efforts. Or, think of the iconic Pakistani news clip where a woman can be heard saying: "Yeh bik gayi hai gormint." This particular phrase, used by a disgruntled citizen to express her frustration against state apathy, managed to strike a chord with hordes of netizens, who wasted no time in converting it into a now-viral meme.

A meme is typically shared using the Internet and contains both pictures as well as phrases, often used to convey a message through humour. "Memetic culture makes use of popular and visual cultural content such as Bollywood. This factor makes memes accessible to a large number of people," the research scholar remarks. Owing to their universal appeal, many memes often end up becoming viral and are used as templates to create more. Think of the late actor Irrfan Khan recreating rapper Drake's viral 'Drake Approves' meme.

Pic/Just Savarna Things, Facebook
Pic/Just Savarna Things, Facebook

Neog speaks about his research and its findings in a recently launched podcast called Talk Meme to Me. This quirky and trailblazing podcast is a part of Meme Project India, an online, transmedia project created by the fellows of Godrej India Culture Lab's Leadership Programme.

Talk Meme to Me is hosted by one of those seven fellows, Aditya Talpade. Talpade, aka FP2, is an enthusiastic connoisseur of memes and a student of applied art at Mumbai's Rachana Sansad. FP2 and Neog try to decode the politics of meme making in the first instalment of the podcast. "A meme, or a particular memetic trend can carry with it entire worldviews or contestations regarding the same. It can tell you a lot about how social hierarchies, political systems and economic processes are perceived in the popular imagination. It can tell you about the inclusion and exclusion around us in terms of class, caste, gender, sexuality, all couched in sarcasm, snide and irony," Neog explains. An example of this is meme pages using the cyber space to further their social justice politics. "Twitter accounts such as @ambedkarperiyar, @AmbedkarCaravan and Facebook pages such as Inedible India, Just Savarna Things and NewsDrum have made anti-caste critique both accessible and fun by tapping into meme culture," writes Tejas Harad in a national daily. Echoing Harad's sentiments, Neog says that the offline bleeds into the online and shapes cyber culture, blurring any easy distinctions between them.

Krishanu Neog
Krishanu Neog

Catch podcast on: Spotify, iTunes and Google Podcast
Read about The Memes Project: memeproject india.com/

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