Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India

Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India

by Purnima Mankekar

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In Screening Culture, Viewing Politics Purnima Mankekar presents a cutting-edge ethnography of television-viewing in India. With a focus on the responses of upwardly-mobile, yet lower-to-middle class urban women to state-sponsored entertainment serials, Mankekar demonstrates how television in India has profoundly shaped women’s place in the family, community, and nation, and the crucial role it has played in the realignment of class, caste, consumption, religion, and politics.
Mankekar examines both “entertainment” narratives and advertisements designed to convey particular ideas about the nation. Organizing her study around the recurring themes in these shows—Indian womanhood, family, community, constructions of historical memory, development, integration, and sometimes violence—Mankekar dissects both the messages televised and her New Delhi subjects’ perceptions of and reactions to these messages. In the process, her ethnographic analysis reveals the texture of these women’s daily lives, social relationships, and everyday practices. Throughout her study, Mankekar remains attentive to the tumultuous historical and political context in the midst of which these programs’ integrationalist messages are transmitted, to the cultural diversity of the viewership, and to her own role as ethnographer. In an enlightening epilogue she describes the effect of satellite television and transnational programming to India in the 1990s.
Through its ethnographic and theoretical richness, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics forces a reexamination of the relationship between mass media, social life, and identity and nation formation in non-Western contexts. As such, it represents a major contribution to a number of fields, including media and communication studies, feminist studies, anthropology, South Asian studies, and cultural studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378242
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/10/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Purnima Mankekar is Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford University.

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Screening Culture, Viewing Politics

An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India

By Purnima Mankekar

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7824-2


Culture Wars

In 1990 the monsoon was whimsical, full of still days and sultry nights. One afternoon, as my family and I set out from my mother's home in New Delhi, I sensed tension in the air. When we reached the main road at the edge of our neighborhood, we noticed an enormous crowd of people. We drew closer and saw that these were students with angry, resolute faces. The prime minister had been attempting to introduce legislation, known as the Mandal Commission Bill, to set aside quotas in educational institutions and government offices for people belonging to "backward" (lower) castes. The young people thronging the streets were from two colleges near our neighborhood; they were protesting the Mandal Commission Bill. As someone who had grown up in New Delhi, I could map most of the educational institutions (and neighborhoods, bazaars, and cinema houses) in the city onto a fairly predictable grid of class. I knew that these two colleges were attended primarily by lower-middle-class students; the chances were very high that they were also upper caste. From their perspective, the Mandal Commission Bill appeared to snatch from them their very lifelines, their meager chances for upward mobility: no wonder they were so angry, so desperate.

Our car was soon surrounded by the students. A young man tapped on the windshield and I rolled down my window, full of foreboding but curious. Never one to panic, my husband asked the students why they had gathered. Never one to be intimidated by anyone, least of all someone a fraction her age, my mother demanded to know what was going on. "Someone just burnt himself," the young man cried. At a busy intersection less than a mile from us, another student, whose name we later learned was Rajiv Goswami, had poured kerosene over his body and set fire to himself in protest against the Mandal Commission Bill. The students had just found out; they were marching in solidarity and in rage. "You won't be able to go any further," someone else in the crowd shouted, "You should turn back and go home." Stunned, we did.

Rajiv Goswami's attempted suicide unleashed a spate of violence that rocked north India. Upper-caste, (primarily) lower-middle-class students in cities and small towns throughout the area took to the streets in protest. Millions of Indians watched in horror as young upper-caste school and college students, all members of lower-middle-class families struggling to achieve upward mobility, committed suicide. The predominantly upper-caste print media sensationalized their suicides, portraying these young men and women as martyrs.

Media portrayals of the agitations against the Mandal Commission proposals foregrounded the middle- and lower-class (rather than upper-caste) positions of the protesters: in this manner, dominant discourses about "middle-class anxieties" displaced the presence of inequities resulting from caste differences. As lower-caste communities garnered their forces in support of the proposed bill, the Supreme Court stepped in to impose a stay order deferring all legislative actions until the violence in the nation's towns and cities had subsided.

The tension surrounding the Mandal Commission Bill had barely died down when Hindu nationalist campaigns to "liberate" a temple in Ayodhya reached a climax. Defying all historical evidence, Hindu nationalists alleged that this temple was the original birthplace of Lord Ram, and had been "desecrated" by the sixteenth-century Moghul emperor Babar, who built the Babri Mosque on its remains. Hindu nationalists portrayed the "liberation" of the temple as an attempt to avenge the "humiliations" of centuries of Islamic rule: reclaiming this temple became symbolic of a cultural cleansing that would permit "India" to recuperate its supposedly pristine Hindu heritage. In this campaign, which erupted in waves of Hindu-Muslim violence throughout the land, the Indian nation was represented as a Hindu nation (Hindu rashtra) whose "original" (read: Hindu) inhabitants would finally be able to assert their "pride" in their "national (i.e., Hindu) culture."

The Hindu nationalist coalition had been consolidating itself for several years, but in 1990 things came to a head. L. K. Advani, the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched a ritual procession through some of the holiest of Hindu sites to garner support for his cause. According to press reports, he was welcomed by mammoth crowds wherever he went; in some places he was greeted by men and women bearing urns of blood, their own blood, which they offered as tokens of their dedication to the cause of the Hindu Indian nation. In a few months, towns and villages across the nation reverberated with Hindu-Muslim riots. Some of these places had never witnessed communal violence before, not even during the apocalyptic Partition riots of 1947.

What a year it was; a crazy time to start fieldwork, and that, too, on television. I was never able to write fieldnotes about the afternoon I tried to leave my neighborhood and was stopped by the students. But I remember it as vividly as if it had happened yesterday. Even at the time, it felt like a harbinger of things to come, like the beginning of a war. What did my research have to do with any of this? I had planned to study the role of television in the reconstitution of postcolonial "Indian Womanhood." There were times when the fear of violence and restrictions of curfew made it difficult for me to conduct my research. Suddenly, notions of womanhood, community, belonging, nationhood, and culture were no longer abstract or "merely academic" concepts: they had become sites of violent, sometimes bloody, contestation. As I started to trace the role of television in these battles, my project acquired a new urgency. It was quite a year; a fitting time to start fieldwork on television.

What did television have to do with the battles erupting around me? The developments described above shaped and emblematized the late 1980s and early 1990s, the sociohistorical conjuncture in which this study is situated, and signaled the coalescing of battles for the hegemonic control of popular consciousness around issues relating to social justice, nationhood, and identity. The riots surrounding the Mandal Commission Bill highlighted the anxieties and aspirations of poorer upper castes for upward mobility into the middle class and the struggle of lower castes to survive in an increasingly competitive, acquisitive society with limited educational and job opportunities. Opposition to the bill reinforced the consolidation of the upper castes and middle classes as an assertive historical bloc. At the same time, the broadening base of popular support received by the predominantly upper-caste, middle-class Hindu nationalist elite reflected the hegemonic success of their supremacist ideologies. The campaigns to reclaim the Ram Temple reflected the manner in which the very notion of the nation had been communalized.

As an Indian woman and a feminist who had returned "home" to do fieldwork, I was struck by the subject positions assumed by women in this reconfiguration of discourses of social justice, identity, and culture. Photographs, video reports, and my observations of the Mandal Commission protests and Hindu nationalist campaigns for the destruction of the Babri Mosque revealed the conspicuous presence of middle- and lower-middle-class Hindu women. When lower-middle-class and upper-caste men and women formed "parents' groups" to protest the Mandal Commission, women were at the forefront of these efforts. Similarly, women were actively involved in the organization and mobilization for the "liberation" of the Ram Temple. In fact, some of the most visible and vocal spokespersons of Hindu right-wing organizations were women. Women were also actively involved at the grassroots in women's wings of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the militant Durga Vahinis. Indeed, when I now look back at the first few months of my fieldwork, two images stand out in my memory. During the protests against the Mandal Commission Bill, a metropolitan newspaper published an unforgettable photograph: a lower-middle-class and upper-caste woman in her late forties wearing a shabby, rumpled salwar-kameez stands with her hands on her hips staring up disdainfully, defiantly, at a policeman striding purposefully toward her with a baton in his hand. Upper-caste women's positions as parents, anxious about the future of their children, combined with their claims as citizens, concerned about the future of the nation, elided their privileges as members of the upper castes. In a video report of an effort by Hindu right-wing groups to destroy the Babri Mosque, the camera scanned the faces of a number of middle-class Hindu women of different ages. The expression on all their faces was similar: a combination of rage and an excitement bordering on frenzied rapture.

In the pages that follow, I do not intend to explain the processes by which some women were motivated to participate in conservative politics (see Tharu and Niranjana 1996). Nor do I mean to attribute these women's interpellation by reactionary, often exclusionary, discourses of identity and nationhood solely to television: the mobilization of lower-middle-class women into right-wing politics is complex and worthy of a separate study (see Sarkar and Butalia 1995). The point of the foregoing discussion is to suggest the historical and political contexts that underlie this study: the tale I want to tell is about the role of a popular mass medium—state-run television, Doordarshan—in the ideological construction of nation, womanhood, identity, and citizenship. This is a story about the role of television in the culture wars fought to define the Indian nation.

A comparatively new phenomenon, Doordarshan unleashed sweeping and far-reaching cultural changes in a relatively short time. Yet, despite its increasing cultural and political significance, until very recently it has been ignored in anthropological analyses of contemporary Indian culture and politics. In part, this is a reflection of the relative absence of research on mass media in anthropology and the neglect, in Euro-American cultural studies, of mass media in "non-Western" contexts. As a full-length, ethnographic study of television in a non-Western context, this book is an attempt to address those gaps in both anthropology and cultural studies. (Other ethnographic studies of television in non-Western contexts include Abu-Lughod 1993, 1997; Ginsburg 1993; and Rajagopal [forthcoming].) I aim not just to introduce a "comparativist" perspective to the cultural studies of mass media but to expand, perhaps revise, some of our fundamental assumptions about mass media, cultural politics, and subjectivity.


State-run television, or Doordarshan as it is officially and popularly known, was first introduced in 1959 as part of the larger nationalist project of building a modern nation. But it was not until the early 1980s that it acquired much political and cultural significance. In 1982 low-power transmitters began relaying the "National Programme," a two-hour sequence of news and entertainment programs produced in metropolitan centers, to viewers all over the country. The explicit objective of the National Programme was to forge a modern, national culture through the televisual dissemination of discourses of development and national integration. Entertainment serials were introduced for the first time in 1984. Although nationalist messages were woven into their narratives, the serials illustrated a crucial shift from overtly didactic programs to entertainment. The mid-1980s and early 1990s witnessed a dramatic expansion of television to different parts of India, with the number of transmitters increasing from 26 in 1982 to 523 in 1991.

With the introduction of entertainment serials, the state intensified its efforts to deploy Doordarshan in the task of creating a pan-Indian national culture (Krishnan 1990: 103). Entertainment serials (e.g., Hum Log, Buniyaad, Ramayan, Mahahharat, and Udaan) were phenomenally successful in creating mass audiences. The tremendous popularity of entertainment serials on Doordarshan can be measured from the fact that the number of television sets purchased increased from 5 million in 1985 to 35 million in 1990. By 1992, more than 80 percent of the Indian population had access to television (obviously, actual viewership was determined by the availability of power). The core of Doordarshan's target audience was the urban middle class: more than 75 percent of Indians who lived in cities or small towns watched television regularly for at least four hours a week. The serials, sponsored by private corporations and advertising agencies, also helped facilitate a critical shift from a capital goods to a consumer economy by creating and encouraging consumerist desires. With its political, cultural, and economic impact, Doordarshan thus became centrally engaged in contemporary battles over the meaning of nationhood, belonging, and cultural citizenship. Indian popular culture, and indeed, "Indian culture," would never be the same again.

Extensive survey data are available on the manner in which Indian viewers responded to Doordarshan. For example, the 1992 National Readership Survey (NRS IV), drawn from a sample spanning 590 towns throughout India, reveals important facts about the impact of television in urban India: television viewing increased by 68 percent between 1978 and 1983, and the number of women viewers rose by 33 percent. The number of women who watched Doordarshan on a regular basis rose as well: while in 1978 only 46 percent of the women who owned sets watched television daily, in 1991 the figure was up to 62 percent. The NRS IV data also reveal that, on average, women watched up to eleven hours of Doordarshan a week. But informative as these quantitative data are on the pervasiveness of Doordarshan, its reach among diverse regions and communities of India, and the gendered patterns of its spectatorship, they tell us little about the extent to which Doordarshan suffused relations of sociality within families and communities, the intensity with which viewers engaged with its narratives, or the degree to which its discourses constituted their subjectivities.

The entertainment programs analyzed in this study were drawn from the National Programme and were shown during prime time (that is, from 8:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. during weekdays, and from 9:00 A.M. to noon on Sundays). The narratives ranged in genre from the mythological (Ramayan and Mahabharat) and the epic (The Sword of Tipu Sultan) to episodic sitcom series (Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi). Many serials (Hum Log and Buniyaad, for example) resembled the Hindi film genre known as "the social" in their use of melodrama and social realism (cf. Vasudevan 1989 and Chakravarty 1989, respectively), and in their focus on the destinies of families, neighborhoods, and communities as well as those of individuals. Most narratives had explicit "social messages," with themes relating to family planning, national integration, and the status of women woven into the narratives. At any given moment, more than half of the eight to ten serials and episodic series shown per week during prime time dealt explicitly or implicitly with nationalist themes. Although the social message woven into the narratives varied according to political contingencies (such as particular national crises or the needs of a ruling party), a significant number dealt quite centrally with women's issues.

A cross between American soap operas and popular Hindi films, these narratives spoke the "metalanguage" of popular Hindi films (evident, for instance, in the types of sets, dialogue, costumes, and music used [Krishnan 1990: 104]) and resembled soap operas in terms of audience engagement and narrative structure. Multiple plots, the deferment of narrative closure, and the buildup of suspense were important aspects of their narrative tone and texture. Further, like audiences of American soaps, those of Indian serials deeply identified with characters on the screen; unlike their more distant (although still passionate) attachment to film heroes and heroines, viewers' regular and relatively extended interactions with television characters fostered familiar, even intimate, relationships. Since most serials and episodic series were telecast in the evenings rather than afternoons, however, they were not "targeted" exclusively at women or people who stayed at home, but rather at families.

By focusing on the passions, fears, resentments, and aspirations that Doordarshan's narratives constructed for viewers, my aim was to engage the subjective bases of nationalism. As I commenced fieldwork, and as I started to look back on the creation of my own subject position as an Indian woman, I could recognize the power of nationalism—not as an "abstract" ideology of the realm of the so-called public sphere, but as a discursive practice that had material effects on the everyday lives of women. As my fieldwork and my memories of my own interpellation by Indian mass media nourished each other, I started to unravel the trajectory of Doordarshan's discourses in viewers' negotiations of their positions within their family, community, and nation. I began to trace how Doordarshan played a crucial role in the discursive slippages between "national culture" and "Hindu culture," and in the exclusion of experiences, memories, and modes of living not authorized by upper-caste, upper-class Hindu elites.


Excerpted from Screening Culture, Viewing Politics by Purnima Mankekar. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1. Culture Wars 1

Part 1: Fields of Power: The National Television Family

2. National Television and the “Viewing Family” 45

3. “Women-Oriented” Narratives and the New Indian Woman 104

Part II: Engendering Communities

4. Mediating Modernities: The Ramayan and the Creation of Community and Nation 165

5. Television Tales, National Narratives, and a Woman’s Rage: Multiple Interpretations of Draupadi’s “Disrobing” 224

Part III: Technologies of Violence

6. “Air Force Women Don’t Cry”: Militaristic Nationalism and Representations of Gender 259

7. Popular Narrative, the Politics of Location, and Memory 289

Epilogue: Sky Wars 335

Notes 359

Bibliography 395

Index 417

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