South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts

South Asian Media Cultures: Audiences, Representations, Contexts

by Shakuntala Banaji (Editor)


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‘South Asian Media Cultures’ examines a wide range of media cultures and practices from across South Asia, using a common set of historical, political and theoretical engagements. In the context of such pressing issues as peace, conflict, democracy, politics, religion, class, ethnicity and gender, these essays explore the ways different groups of South Asians produce, understand and critique the media available to them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843318422
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 04/01/2010
Series: Anthem South Asian Studies Series
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Shakuntala Banaji is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the London School of Economics (LSE).

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South Asian Media Cultures

Audiences, Representations, Contexts

By Shakuntala Banaji

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Shakuntala Banaji
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-320-5



Shakuntala Banaji

South Asia through the Lens of Totalising Events

Throughout this volume 'media cultures' refers to the complex interactions between particular audiences, their practices of meaning-making and use, and specific texts, representations, formats or media. It also refers to the interplay of politics, history and finance in the relationships between media producers and texts, ideologies and social contexts. The chapters collected here present a wide range of media cultures and associated cultural practices from across South Asia. At the same time they explain those cultures and practices through a set of historical, political and theoretical engagements that share many common elements. This might be, for instance, in relation to violence and peace, ethnic divisions and state responses or conflicts between supposed tradition and erstwhile modernity. Or it may be in relation to pleasure and learning, autonomy, morality and resistance on the part of marginalised peoples or highly controlled groups. All of these have been explored by the authors in their research, and practice, in the areas of media audiences, texts and contexts in South Asia. Before treading new ground, however, it is worth asking why the kind of approach taken in this volume is so necessary, and why now.

Several cohorts of university students in London, listing what came immediately to mind in relation to the five best known countries in the South Asian region, almost uniformly linked India to words such as 'vast', 'amazing', 'spiritual', 'Bollywood', 'non-violence', 'poverty', 'IT/call centres', 'large democracy' and 'beautiful', Pakistan to the phrases 'terrorism', 'Islam' and 'near Afghanistan', Sri Lanka to 'war' and 'honeymoons', Nepal to 'Mount Everest' and Bangladesh to a single phrase: 'always flooding'. When asked the same question, a similar group of university students in Bombay responded in an almost identical manner, except that the vituperative list in relation to Pakistan was slightly more elaborate and that Nepal was seen as a 'honeymoon' destination. Stereotypes about most countries circulate widely in international settings, and so are not in and of themselves shocking. But for readers of this volume, the proximity of these countries to each other, their shared histories, languages, religions, cultures and traditions (both positive and negative) should make the stark differences in perception noteworthy. When asked what evidence they based these associations on, students either recanted or mentioned some form of media, the most common being photographs, television and newspapers. What gets shown or does not get shown, discussed or ignored by the national and international media with regard to South Asia, and the reasons or processes operating behind those decisions, evidently contributes to the construction of particular sets of meanings about South Asian nations and national identities.

Distinctive media events, for instance, can become points of departure for public interest in and understanding of contemporary political realities. A bomb attack, in Pakistan, on the Sri Lankan cricket team, supporters and staff by members of an (unknown) supposedly Islamist extremist group; the hostage-taking, arson and killing in Bombay, India in November 2008; the recent violent mutiny in Bangladesh ; video evidence, taken on a mobile phone, of a young woman in Pakistan being beaten with a whip while a crowd of men watch in seeming silence; the film Slumdog Millionnaire (2008) by the British Film-maker Danny Boyle. Even in diaspora, some of these media events actually make prime time viewing. Yet, events such as these are hardly representative of the cultures of media and politics in South Asia. Myriad everyday counterparts of these sensational events contribute to the fabric of life in South Asia. From the attention paid to regional radio broadcasts in vernacular languages through the uses of urban internet cafes to mass demonstrations against local dam-building projects filmed by locals on mobile phones, less spectacular activities and happenings are frequently ignored in academic, journalist and policy literature. Thus the morally complex, socially diverse, historical and political processes and contexts within which the events listed above are embedded take place largely out of sight. This situation is problematic for two reasons.

First, the history of the region comes to be read mainly or even solely within the sporadic, ideologically dangerous and/or simplistic frame of such internationally sensational events and the media discourses which surround them. One manifestation of this trend, both in journalism and in academic writing relating to South Asian media and politics, is the tendency to emphasise religious differences, conflicts and borders rather than both positive and negative civic solidarities and shared cultural trends. Second, large areas and aspects of media production, interpretation and use are discussed via highly simplistic frames of reference. Others are misrepresented (deliberately or unconsciously), suppressed or ignored. This may be seen in the lack of debate about learning, media and culture, and in misleading causal explanations about the relationship of media and media reception to politics in South Asia. Frequently the topic of popular culture and its relationship to politics appears limited to the realm of textual analyses of television news, film and other entertainment genres. India dominates the locale. Even more narrowly, anxieties about or celebrations of Indian popular cultural representations remain a key subject for much output on the politics and history of South Asian Media. Thus, for instance, advertising (consumerism) and sexual 'obscenity' are vocal concerns across the political spectrum but communal stereotypes and xenophobia are only occasionally discussed; equally, cultural imperialism and the 'westernization/corruption' of youth is a favoured topic, but increasing religious and political censorship or arbitrary suppression of media producers and products rarely merits legislation or prosecution. So how might those of us interested in South Asian media and cultures of reception and production more fruitfully approach this topic?

While there is some merit in embedding a discussion of media cultures within a context of enduring national political conflicts, this approach is problematic if it represents India as somehow successfully negotiating between 'modernity' and 'tradition' via its apparently vibrant democracy and neo-liberal economic conditions, while its neighbours are mired in religious fundamentalism, economic collapse, terrorism or separatist armed conflict. In particular, India should not be understood as a monolithic entity, as if its diversity of linguistic, religious and cultural inhabitants, its multiparty system and its local, regional and national elections equate to successful democracy. In light of the gaps in discussions about South Asian media identified earlier, one of the key aims of this collection is to address continuing interdisciplinary debates around the following questions: how and by which groups of media producers are historical and social events in South Asia being represented to South Asian audiences? In what ways are discourses on gender, nationalism, ethnicity or class being expressed by mainstream media texts across South Asia and how do different sections of the public negotiate meanings from these discourses? Who are some of the real people often conflated under the terms 'audience' or 'citizens' in different South Asian countries and can their media habits and interpretations be said to form distinct 'media cultures'? Which political themes and concerns are expressed across different media audiences and across borders in the subcontinent? And how should these issues be addressed by policy-makers?

In order to get a sense of how these questions might be grounded and inflected differently for each author, it is worth turning here, albeit briefly, to three interlinked areas: national political histories; media traditions and relationships to ruling elites; and cultural practices within groups whose relationships to media and politics in South Asia make up the 'media cultures' in this volume.

Shared Histories

To a certain extent, all historical overviews, however brief or extended, construct their subject in particular ways. This one is no exception, and runs the risk of positioning all South Asian history in relation to the arrival and departure of western colonial powers and the formation of distinct nation states. Given the preoccupation of a number of contributors to this volume with the idea of the role played by media and academia in the construction of history and memory or forgetting, this section should be read with the clear warning that it leaves out far more than it includes: notably the eclectic and complex pre-British period, when much of South Asia – and the princely states within it – developed for several centuries under a series of quite different and contrasting styles of Mughal rule (Habib 1963; Thapar 2005; Alam 2009; Guha 2009; Talbot 2009).

Colonial rule in all five countries (mainly by the British though also, in the cases of parts of India and Sri Lanka, by the Portuguese and the Dutch), decolonisation struggles and their aftermath offer a common framework for beginning to describe the political contexts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The introduction and indigenisation of newspapers and cinema both occurred in South Asia during colonial rule, while the conflicts between religious communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, for instance, have often been attributed to British policies of 'divide and rule'. Although one does not get from a listing of historical events a sense of the way in which 'the event attaches itself with its tentacles into everyday life and folds itself into the recesses of the ordinary' (Das 2006, 1), later in the volume the social and cultural repercussions and significance of these events will become apparent, time and again, in the everyday narratives of media production, representation, interpretation and use.

Post 1948, India's historical imaginary has been dominated by the violence that occurred at and around the time of partition from Pakistan: the large-scale flight of Bengali Muslims into what was then East Pakistan and the reverse flight of many Hindus into West Bengal; the flight of millions of Sikhs and Hindus across the new border into India from Pakistan; the flight of millions of Muslims from India into (West) Pakistan; and the widespread, horrifying, violence of one community against another that left around a million dead and more than four million people displaced (Das 1990; Pandey 2001; Brass 2003; Talbot 2007). The physical and psychic scars left by the bereavement and the killing, the abduction of women and girls, the loss of children, rape by men of all communities against those from others, loss of property, livelihoods and life were never fully explored, discussed or reconciled in years following partition (Das 1990; 2006). Instead, these events have been replayed in novels and films on each side of the various borders with varying degrees of historical accuracy and have continued to simmer beneath the surface of everyday life in areas that were directly affected. They also frequently form the ostensible (and media perpetuated) rationale for ongoing tensions between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, even in areas that did not experience partition. Widespread unemployment, subsistence wages and – despite the various 'development plans' implemented post-independence – the continued control of resources, land, social and political power by a small minority of rural and urban elites, ensured that corruption became endemic across the country. Successive Indian governments, led by coalitions, or by one or other of the major parties, have done little to decrease the enormous gap between classes or to ease tensions between communities.

On the contrary, the last three decades have seen two Indian Prime Ministers from the same family assassinated for the perceived or actual role their governments' played in suppressing secessionist groups or struggles, as well as dozens of politicians implicated in voting scandals, widespread nepotism, the instigation of riots and aggressive far-Right Hindu nationalism. Further movements to secede from India – in Kashmir (Schofield 2003), by Sikhs in Punjab (Dos Santos 2007) and in Assam (Saikia 2005) to name but a few – have seen violent repression against local populations by the Indian army, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people dead or disappeared and destroying infrastructure in these regions. The persecution and execution of local journalists and other local media producers in India, the suppression of dissent within the local populations and the lack of reporting about atrocities taking place make the role of the national media all the more complex, and locate the mainstream fictional representations of these areas and their populations within complicated and often conflicting ideological networks.

Pakistan's history of political violence, coup d'etats and its succession of democratically elected presidents followed by military dictatorships is also well known: Ayub Khan's coup and his rule from 1958-69 was followed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's civilian government from 1972–77. Bhutto was then ousted by General Zia-ul-Haq, whose rule was accompanied by the increasing intrusion of religion into the polity and by the weakening of secular democratic forces. Corruption and censorship continued to thrive in the 1990s under the successive civilian governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. In 1999 General Pervez Musharraf came to power in another military coup. Ironically, although it ended in further censorship and dictatorial edicts, under Musharraf's nine-year regime, some semblance of secular ethos returned to parts of Pakistan and the country's media began to open up to a range of cultural interests. All through this turbulent half century, according to Shakil Rai Akhtar, Pakistan's dominant cultural ethos has remained 'parasitic landlordism' which is resilient despite 'Islam, modernism, democracy, socialism, some of the causes espoused by the different political leaders and regimes at different times' (2007, 213). Meanwhile, wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 over territory around the border, and in 1971–72 when India took East Pakistan's side over secession from West Pakistan (Marwah 1979), entrenched the hostility between the two countries as a mind-set in both fictional and non-fiction media texts (Mankekar 1999; Bharat and Kumar 2008).

Similarly, in Bangladesh, the violent struggle in the 1960s and early 1970s between the Bangla 'freedom fighters' and the West Pakistan army, which resulted in the creation of the state of Bangladesh in 1972 (Mookherjee 2006; Jahan 2004), were followed by armed resistance to the dominance of Bengali nationalism by, for instance, the people in the Chittagong hill tracts, who were neither Bengali speaking nor Muslim. Equally problematically, the stigmatization of women raped during the 1971 conflict and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of non-Bengali speaking residents from India and Pakistan meant that internal resentments and communal positionings were entrenched in the new Bangladesh. Although the nationalist narrative consolidated in Bangladesh around 1971 can be seen to have displaced the one of partition which still dominated in India and Pakistan, widespread corruption and political nepotism in the newly created Bangladesh, animosity towards India for its seeming interference in internal Bangladeshi affairs and growing poverty led to an extended period of political instability (Van Schendel 2009). Military coups, religious factionalism and dictatorial rule which included the intimidation, jailing and murder of journalists (Rahman 2004) and the closure of all but four of Bangladesh's state controlled newspapers in the immediate post-1971 era, have had a lasting effect on the development of the country's media (Rahman 2004, 8).


Excerpted from South Asian Media Cultures by Shakuntala Banaji. Copyright © 2011 Shakuntala Banaji. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; Talking Back to 'Bollywood': Hindi Commercial Cinema in North-East India; 'Adverts Make Me Want to Break the Television': Indian Children and their Audiovisual Media Environment in Three Contrasting Locations; Urdu for Image: Understanding Bangladeshi Cinema through its Theatres; Musical Media and Cosmopolitanism in Nepal's Popular Music, 1950-2006; Private Satellite Television and the Geo-Politics of Moderation in Pakistan; Forgetting to Remember: The Privatisation of the Public, the Economisation of Hindutva, and the Medialisation of Genocide; Myth – The National Form: Mission Istanbul and Muslim Representation in Hindi Popular Cinema; A Peace of Soap: Representations of Peace and Conflict in Popular Teledramas in Sri Lanka; Destigmatising Star Texts – Honour and Shame among Muslim Women in Pakistani Cinema; Through the Lens of a 'Branded Criminal': The Politics of Marginal Cinema in India; Pakistani Students' Uses of New Media to Construct a Narrative of Dissent; Expanding the Art of the Possible: Leveraging Citizen Journalism and User Generated Content (USG) for Peace in Sri Lanka; Conclusion; List of Contributors

What People are Saying About This

Arvind Rajagopal

'Shakuntala Banaji has brought together writings on South Asia and Media whose range and quality exceeds anything on the subject that I have seen. The ambition and scope of this volume ensure that it will be a reference for anyone interested in globalization, media and South Asia.' —Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Culture and Communications, New York University

From the Publisher

'An astute, engaging, and sophisticated volume for anyone interested in popular culture, globalization, and shifting social and political landscapes in South Asia.' —Sunaina Maira, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis

'The popular imagery versioning of South Asia has survived repeated critique. This is a timely collection that shows how this mechanism continues to do its work. Written by up-and-coming scholars who refract the usual gloss differently...a very welcome set of essays.' —Professor John Hutnyk, Academic Director, Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London

'Through detailed qualitative analysis, this book provides fascinating - and occasionally disturbing insights into the intersecting cultural identities and ideologies that are at stake in this rapidly changing region. '—David Buckingham, Professor at the Institute of Education, University of London

'Shakuntala Banaji has brought together writings on South Asia and Media whose range and quality exceeds anything on the subject that I have seen. The ambition and scope of this volume ensure that it will be a reference for anyone interested in globalization, media and South Asia.' —Arvind Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Culture and Communications, New York University

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