Of the People: Essays on Indian Popular Culture

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Item Code: IDJ949
Author: Biswarup Sen
Publisher: Chronicle Books, New Delhi
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 8180280276
Pages: 250
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.8" X 5.7"
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Book Description
From the Jacket:

Why is all of India so obsessed with cricket and what are the reasons for the fall of hockey from its Olympian height and the decline of football? What explains the continuing convention of singing and dancing in Hindi films? Why has everything desi suddenly become fashionable and hip?

This collection of essays is based on the premise that such questions about Indian popular culture need to be examined if we are to make sense of the twenty-first century India. Following the growth of cable television, the rise of new technologies and the emergence of a culture of consumption; the products of contemporary culture have come to play an increasingly important role in shaping some Indian social practices.

The book argues that the incredible draw of cricket can be understood in terms of a postcolonial anxiety about "catching up" with the West; the ubiquitous song-dance in Bollywood film must be seen not as escapist fare but rather as a device that enables the articulation of modernity; the quest for identity on part of the Indian diaspora has contributed to the rise of a global desi culture. What these and other instances demonstrate is that, far from being mindless diversion, popular culture serves as both a crucible and an agent for the formation of national consciousness and social identity. As the popular goes, so goes the nation.

Biswarup Sen received a Doctorate in Communications from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught for several years at the Department of English, SUNY-Binghampton. He has worked as a marketing and communications consultant in both the corporate and non-profit sectors. He currently teaches courses in mass communications and popular culture at the University of Oregon. He has also been writing frequently on popular culture in newspapers and journals.

"… in a postcolonial society like India, the meaning of popular culture is intricately bound up with the crucial role popular texts play in mediating national aspirations and global realities."


The Study of Culture
India is often associated with a familiar set of texts, motifs and figures: Vedic rituals and Hindu gods, the Ramayana and the Panchatantra, the ragas and Natyashastra, Mughal architecture and Urdu verse, mandirs and mosques, sadhus and pirs, and the kisan with his bullock cart. However, not even the most ardent fundamentalist will claim that this string of symbols exhausts the meaning of the times. Our daily lives may still bear the vestiges of ancient tradition, but they are far more marked by the practice that comprise modernity: cricket matches, Bollywood movies, television serials, talk shows, Hindi film music (filmigeet), MTV, shopping malls, multiplexes, food courts, internet cafes and the World Wide Web. These new formations are everywhere, all of the time, providing the sights, the sounds and the flavors that comprise the world we inhabit. To think of India in its current incarnation then, is to contemplate its popular culture.

This book is based on a theoretical approach-often referred to as "cultural studies"-which distinguishes itself from the more traditional disciplines in the humanities and social sciences by insisting that popular cultural practices like cricket or Bollywood films are objects of study as legitimate as, say, the reign of Akbar, landholding patterns in rural Tamil Nadu, caste politics in Uttar Pradesh or the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. This perspective grows out of the fact that the logic of capitalist development after World War II has led to a "cultural turn" that dramatically increased the role played by the arts, the entertainment industries and the media in the functioning of society. Thus, the sift from manufacturing to service industries that has taken place in the last five decades or so has radically changed the nature of economic practices. The enormous emphasis placed on quality control, total management systems, and customer satisfaction, and the exponential growth in marketing, advertising and public relations has meant that economic activity is now crucially determined by notions of communication and interactivity. When call-center representatives take on Anglicized names and modify their accents to cater to western customers, their behavior is governed by the culture of globalization. Also, the rise of information technology means that material goods have cultural practices embedded in them. The major inventions of the modern era-the personal computer or the cell phone-are far more than gadgets of convenience; they contribute to the making of culture in significant ways. This is not to suggest that memorable icons from the past like the Janata stove, the Godrej steel almirah and the Ambassador car were without any meaning. The Janata stove, with its connotations of mobility and modern technology, symbolized the nuclear couple which had liberated itself from the chullah as well as the joint family; the Godrej almirah embodied middle-class anxieties regarding savings and security; while the Ambassador car was the symbol par excellence of the nationalist program of industrialization and self-reliance initiated after Independence. But none of these commodities were productive of culture in the way PCs or cell phones, using features like e-mail, chat rooms, web pages, ring tones and instant messaging, happen to be. This development implies that the economy, once thought of as a sovereign level that dictated the form of society as a whole, must now be reconceptualized as a domain that is intimately connected to cultural norms and practices and is both determined by and generative of the semantic milieu we live in.

What is true of the economy holds true in equal measure for other areas of the social formation. Politics in modern democracies is so reliant on mass media, especially television, and on communicative strategies borrowed from the corporate world that it often seems indistinguishable from entertainment and advertising. And even traditionally autonomous domains like education and religion have begun to internalize the modes of functioning-from relentless profit making to MTV style marketing-that characterize life outside their cloistered walls. The importance of culture, then, increase as areas of life previously thought to be independent of it begin to fall under its influence. This "culturalization" of the totality is accelerated by the processes of late capitalism which replace manufacture with service, material objects with representations, and citizens with consumers. At the same time, television, movies and other forums of popular culture have begun to replace traditional authority figures like parents, schoolteachers and religious leaders as sources of information, advice and values. Consequently, the mass media now play an increasingly important role in shaping the beliefs and attitudes of younger people as well as offering them behavioral role models. All these changes imply the following: popular culture is by far the most important instrument we have for thinking about ourselves, about others and about the entire world.

How does one analyze texts and practices whose most visible function is to generate the thrills that are the core of modern life? To begin with, we need to go beyond the judgement that a popular film or television show is just "entertainment". A hit film like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) should not be regarded as merely a fix for an "escapist" urge; we need to recognize that it performs a crucial role in redefining notions of pleasure and consumption. We must also resist the temptation to see popular culture as just a conduit for "dominant ideology". To read Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge as, say, an unreflective celebration of economic liberalization would be to miss its full import. As practitioners of cultural studies have convincingly demonstrated, culture performs the complex and ambiguous task of negotiating between competing meanings and visions regarding our social being. Dilwale, for example, may be an advertisement for consumerism, but it simultaneously promotes a model of the family quite incongruent with the logic of late capitalism. It focuses in great detail on traditional customs and values, but by featuring a Non-Resident-Indian (NRI) as its protagonist it also acknowledges the irrevocably global nature of Indian modernity. Thus, a fruitful study of culture must begin by recognizing that the popular is a complex domain in which the inner essence of a particular social formation is brought out in relief. Such a study also takes for granted the commodity nature of popular art-the fact that it is typically mass produced by large organizations with a view to making profit. However, to focus exclusively on the manipulative aspect of this process is to run the risk of elaborating on the obvious. A more productive way to interrogate the texts of popular culture is to analyze them through the category of pleasure. Whatever else the popular is, it is that which elicits intense positive affect. As Richard Dyer and Ginette Vincendeau put it in the introduction to their book on popular European cinema "There is a sense in which 'the popular' is what it is most popularly assumed to be: what people like." The series of likes and dislikes that make up the fortunes of the popular also provide us with a perspective into its meaning. It is this methodological stance that informs much of the writing in this book. Thus, the intensity of passion surrounding cricket in contemporary India, rather than its aesthetic beauty or its sociological function, provides us with a clue about it actual meaning. Again, the enormous satisfaction that audiences derive from song and dance routines in Hindi films demand that they be treated as serious artistic devices that contain a central truth about Bollywood cinema. My emphasis here should not be taken to mean that I am in any way supportive of the tendency-prevalent in some quarters dominant within cultural studies for a while-to celebrate pleasure as the site of empowerment and resistance. In fact, as will be evident shortly, my take on cricket suggests the exact opposite. Nevertheless, any student of the popular who ignores the aspect of pleasure does so at risk to his own analysis. Only through an examination of the intricacies of he effect that culture produces can we come to an understanding of its latent meanings and its role in the constitution of subjectivity and society.

The importance I am granting to the analytical value of pleasure explains why, in this book, I have continued to use "popular" as a prefix before "culture" in spite of some recent pleas that we need to abandon the term. Thus, Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge have proposed public as an alternative to popular on the grounds that "it appears to be less embedded in such highly specific western dichotomies and debates as high versus low culture." Christopher Pinney echoes this view when he writes that "conventional notions of 'popular culture' have little analytical use in the context of a global modernity, and in the context of South Asia's positions within that modernity. While I would concur with the claim that the "popular" in India bears little resemblance to that in the West, I would also argue that adopting "public" in its place lead to very little gain. The term "public" has strong associations with the nation-state and with national boundaries; this connection is made explicit in Appadurai and Breckenridge's definition of "public culture" as the "space between domestic life and the projects of the nation state where different social groups […] constitute their identities by their experience of mass-mediated forms in relation to the practices of everyday life" (italics mine). Such a formulation seems to suggest that our contemporary culture is locate and contained within the space of the nation. Yet, as the subsequent chapters in this book hope to demonstrate, modern Indian culture has always been transnational both in its content and in its appeal. Even as it helps to construct the nation, it incessantly transgresses its boundaries-film music has turned to African and Latin music for inspiration and has been hummed in the Caribbean and in Russia; Bollywood movies travel to Egypt and Japan and features characters living in London or New York; the Indian diaspora takes old art forms like bhangra and makes them utterly contemporary. Indian culture exceeds the nation and it thoroughly global, and is therefore far better described by a term like "popular" which captures both its immense reach as well as the passionate following it enjoys.

The Meaning of Indian Popular Culture
Popular culture is a phenomenon of the modern age. We may legitimately identify certain aspects of culture in past eras as "popular", but the popular, in its truest sense, can be said to exist only within the context of contemporary industrial society. This link between modernity and the popular derives from the vast economic, social and technological transformations that took place in the hundred years between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries. These changes first originated in the West, but soon spread elsewhere as a consequence of a colonial world order. Of the many developments that would alter the nature of societies, three were of special significance in terms of the making of popular culture. Firstly, the spread of suffrage and of democratic principles meant that popular will and popular taste acquired a value it had lacked before. Where once culture belonged exclusively to the upper classes, now whatever appealed to the masses could also be a claimant to the status of art. Secondly, a series of technological inventions and innovations that included the photograph, the moving pictures, the phonograph, the radio and television, made possible the creation of cultural products that were easily reproduced and transmitted. Insofar as all new artistic production was mass mediated, all "culture" was necessarily inserted into the domain of the popular. Finally, the consolidation of capitalism into its classic form facilitated the crystallization of art and entertainment into exchangeable commodities. Consequently, art could circulate alongside other commodities as part of the vast circuit of consumption that characterizes modern life.

India's status as a British colony meant that the social and technological changes described above reached the country soon after their emergence in the West. The process of creating a modern popular culture, therefore, got under way very early on: the first cricket club was started in 1868, the first Indian movie was made in 1913, and the first radio broadcast took place in 1926. from the very beginning, Indian popular culture would function in ways that differed substantially from its counterpart in the West. The latter's task, broadly defined, was to create a nationwide space where entertainment, meaning-formation and the needs of advertisers could be negotiated. In other words, popular culture functioned as a mediating term between individual desire and dispositions on the one hand, and the state and civil society, particularly the economy and the polity, on the other. In traditional western scholarship, the popular has been thought of as a site that expresses the will of the oppressed and the marginal. The politics of the popular, analyzed through the categories of class, race or gender, is therefore conceived of as one of opposition and resistance to the dominant order. To take an example which I treat in some detail in Chapter 3, rock and roll has typically been seen as a sort of permanent revolution against the established order. Or again, a film like Thelma and Louise (1991) is interpreted as expressing the accumulated rage of women suffering under patriarchy. While these instances may indeed embody some sort of oppositional politics, it is doubtful whether popular culture as a whole is as "progressive" as the some practitioners of cultural studies want it to be. Thus, one would be hard put to demonstrate how hit shows like CSI, Desperate Housewives or Seinfeld are to be construed as challenges to the socio-economic order.

In a colonial formation like India, popular culture had to fulfil a far more complex and acrobatic role. The fact of Empire implied that not only did it have to perform the tasks I have just described; it simultaneously had to imagine a nation and a society that did not yet exist. That being so, the "politics from below" model is even less applicable in the case of India. As I have indicated above, indigenous artistic production in the colonial period was, by dint of its location in a worldwide imperial system, necessarily implicated in the politics of empire. Entrusted with the charge of speaking for the Indian nation, popular culture tried to approximate swadeshi culture. Many popular forms-the "mythological" in early cinema for example-consciously sought to build a consensus around the set of values that distinguished Indian culture as a whole. This impulse would be intensified in the post-independence era when, except for some stray leftist deviations, all popular art joined hands with the statist program of building a strong and self-reliant nation. The process of imagining the nation by means of culture would acquire greater momentum after the coming of Independence: witness the incredible popularity of Mother India (1957), the promotion of hockey as the "national sport" and the efforts to introduce an overarching musical culture through the agency of All India Radio. What these instances exemplified was the shared assumption, on the part of producers and consumers of culture alike, that popular culture would provide the "glue" necessary to keep a disparate nation together. Only with the coming of liberalization would this nationalist urge become diminished and be eventually sidelined. The following remark, by the diplomat-novelist Shashi Tharoor, is representative of the widespread belief in popular culture's unifying mission:

Indian films, with all their limitations and outright idiocies, represent part of the hope for India's future. In a country that is still 50% illiterate, films represent the prime vehicle for the transmission of popular culture and values.

It is debatable as to what extent Indian popular culture has managed to fulfill the charge of providing a set of beliefs and values that apply to the entire nation. It could be argued, for example, that the recent spate of NRI movies-many featuring Shah Rukh Khan-that have come to define Bollywood have little to do with the culture and values that concern rural India. This example sheds doubt on claims of inclusiveness, but at the same time it foregrounds what may be popular culture's most important role-that of representing and articulating modernity. The relation between the modern and the popular is not one of simple cause and effect but rather that of a reciprocal determination. The conditions of modernity, as I have shown above, provide a ground for popular culture; at the same time the popular is the most important means by which the modern comes to be. This is especially true in the case of postcolonial societies like India, whose defining feature is thought to be one of "incomplete" modernization. Every such society which constructs its present by synthesizing the layers of social practice which constitute tradition with the "modern" is a composite structure consisting of a set of values that reflect the impulses of the moment as well as a combative stance towards the weight of the past. One of the main functions of popular culture is to produce repeated "solutions" to the dilemma concerning past and present that is constitutive of modernity. The resolutions it offers vary according to the character of the times they are part of-the city flicks of Raj Kapoor approach poverty and social injustice quite differently form the "revenge" films starring Amitabh Bachchan. Though the parameters of modernity that come into play within the frame of the popular are typically derived from the West, the compromise made between modernity and tradition within the space of the popular is startlingly original. The creation of Hindi film music as a distinct musical genre, during the decades of the 1930s and 40s, is a case in point. In this attempt to define Indian modernity, popular art habitually went beyond the boundaries of the nation. There were precedents to this expansiveness; one could argue that the Bengal Renaissance, the first great exercise in modernization in Indian history, was similarly global in inspiration. And just as the wave of westernization induced by that intellectual movement was to facilitate the birth of the nationalist movement, the hybrid nature of popular culture would also not detract form the mission of positing the "unity that is India". What the global dimensions of popular culture do imply, however, is that any facile equation between popular and national is likely to be erroneous; the popular, in every instance, is constructed out of materials which bear the mark of the global in crucial ways. Even as it participates in the construction of a national culture, the popular exceeds the scope of its mission and becomes inextricably implicated in the dynamics of the larger world.


1. A Whole Nation Padded Up: The Roots of Cricket Mania in Contemporary India23
2. Tragedy in Two Acts: The Sudden Death of Hockey and Football65
3. Hindi-Pop: The Quest for Modernity in Film Music103
4. A Boy, a Girl and a Tree: Song and Dance in Bollywood Cinema146
5. Desi World: The Uses of Tradition in the Culture of the Indian Diaspora187
End Notes226
Selected Index238
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