India, Media, Writing

United by television

A few weeks ago, Rama Bijapurkar argued, in this paper, with her trademark clarity and insight, that India’s growing regionalisation needs to be welcomed as a sign of unity. Using a slew of evidence from across different arenas of life, spanning wedding customs, politics, television shows and language, it was first established that there is growing regionalisation taking place in India and then argued that this was, in fact, best reflective of the idea of India. The second part of the statement rings unerringly true. India, or for that matter any culture, needs to be celebrated because of its specific differences rather than its generalised universality. As anthropologist Clifford Geetz puts it, what if we were to “discard the notion that Man with a capital M is to be looked for “behind”, “under”, or “beyond” his customs and replaces it with the notion that man, uncapitalised, is to be looked for “in” them”?

It is the first part of the contention that sparks off some interesting questions. Is India really becoming more determinedly regional? Without question, if one were to look at politics, for instance, it seems difficult to argue otherwise. And of course, television and cinema seem to portray more culturally-specific settings that span different regions. My own feeling is that what we are calling regionalisation is, in fact, a more complex interaction between several different forces. To be sure, regionalisation is one of the effects that gets produced, but it is only one of several variables at play here.

The truth is that India has always been a sum of its regional identities. Most of us grew up with caste and region being the primary source of our identities. Our names give our roots away; we are embedded in a social matrix that allows others to identify where we come from and governs to a large extent, the customs we follow and some of the key choices we make. A generation ago, a ‘Madrasi’ in Delhi, for instance, was a cultural oddity, and was defined primarily through his regional origins. At that time, we looked upon people from other regions with a mixture of curiosity, fear and disdain, so unfamiliar they appeared to be. The Mehmood portrayal of a South Indian in Padosan was a typical example of the stereotyping that was needed to create a modicum of familiarity with someone from a completely different background.

What has actually happened is that with the reduction of the cultural distance between different regions with greater interactions that have taken place over time, we no longer regard other regions with the bewildered unfamiliarity of older times. We are able to consume images of a Gujarati or a Tamil family today as we are able to see a reflection of ourselves in them more easily in spite of the external differences. The use of regional settings in popular culture is a sign not of growing regionalisation but of the growing readiness to appreciate other cultures without being threatened by the seeming differences.

This is what allows a Kayasatha from UP to sit through and enjoy a Saas Bhi. This is true of the greater acceptance of regional cuisines and of festivals like Durga Puja and Dandiya, which have become more pan-Indian in their appeal. These festivals always existed, but their appeal was limited to the regions they catered to.

Today, we are able to consume these since we understand these a little better. More importantly, we do not fear a dilution of our own identity by rubbing shoulders with other regions. The region as a source of identity is still alive and kicking, but today it competes with several other sources of identity, including the relatively recent use of the label ‘Indian’.

In a practical sense, this greater comfort with other regional cultures allows for a more public display of regional identity. But what is most striking is that while regional identity might be more visible it is less rooted. In a larger sense, tradition is becoming less a source and more a costume. We wear extravagant signs of tradition but these no longer define us from within in the same way that they did earlier. We observe tradition instead of being embedded inside it. We celebrate weddings over many days and go through all rituals, but in each case, our interest is to extract pleasure rather than solemnly undergo the ritual. The clothes are more important, the dancing is more unrestrained and uses music from all possible sources and food from all parts of the world (the usual wedding reception mix of local-Punjabi-Chinese-Continental) is of course, paramount. A festival like Dandiya is at one level, more traditional than ever before with dazzling costumes of a kind that peacocks would wilt in embarrassment in front of and at the same time displays little fidelity to the original spirit of the festival, not to mention the wholly modern sideeffect of increased pregnancies during the period.

The spectacular enactment of tradition has its roots in the third and perhaps most powerful force at work today — media. Media, particularly television, privileges what is displayed over what is experienced and the image over content. Television is increasingly the firmament under which we all lead our lives. It homogenises benchmarks and flattens the landscape of our imagination to what is shown on television.

Regions that have their own powerful networks manage to keep greater distance than those that do not. But overall, our visual vocabulary converges because the stimuli we receive are common and flatter.

Combined with consumption, media produces a new kind of regional identity — one that is both elective and based on a notion of entitlement. So I can be an outraged Gujarati whose asmita has been trampled upon when I choose, an enraged Indian whose cricket team has let him down and a disillusioned Mumbaikar whose spirit has been broken by politicians in spite of paying such high taxes. The consumer uses identity as temporary skin to slip in and out of situations as per his convenience and advantage. When regional identity becomes a costume one can wear when one wants to, it allows the individual greater room for more flexible navigation.

Increasingly, one could argue that India is unified less by an idea and more by its media. The conceptual and moral centre, which in any case was more professed than practised, has given way to a shared access to common images. This promotes both greater regional understanding as well a more strident sense of entitlement. We are able to appreciate and resent other regional cultures more, when it suits us.

In the political arena too, greater regionlisation is, perhaps, in reality better described as greater fragmentation. Without a larger purpose, a more nationally acceptable nobility of ambition, the political discourse has fractured into a local squabble into who gets how much. Politics has been reduced to elections which have in turn been reduced to a quest for power the use of which is now more or less exclusively about distributing gain to the interest group that offers patronage to the winner.

What we are seeing in India is change of a complex non-linear kind. We are both embracing regional identity and hollowing it out. We are celebrating it and subverting it. Above all, we are using it to serve our ends in a more discretionary, market-friendly way. Whether that is a cause for celebration or not not is a question I will for better minds. But it certainly is cause for deeper thought.

 ET-Feb23, 2009