Cultural Appropriation and Consumption in Neo-Liberal Times
Sanjay K. Roy
Modern capitalism thrives by transforming everything into saleable and consumable commodity. In this exercise nothing, from the elements of nature to forms and practices of culture, is spared. The glut of nature – the climate, the greenery, the forest, the sea, river, mountains, the rains, the wild animals, the snow-clad valley, the sight of snow fall, the snow-covered hilltops with golden plume, the blue sky, the space – everything finely packaged and offered to tourists and “nature lovers” as commodity of irreplaceable value. The tourism industry, largely controlled by the big capital, can manipulate all conservation laws, in league with the ever-willing political elite, and finds its way for making profit while severely toppling the ecological balance and serenity. The opening up of the lush green tea gardens in North Bengal for promotion of tourism industry is a typical example.
Similarly, the elements of material culture like archaeological preserves, historical places, monuments, places of religious importance - the ancient idols, the mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches – and the socio-cultural practices in the form of festivals and rituals, beliefs and sentiments and the emotions associated with religion, the folk forms of music and dance - are often appropriated in the reproduction of popular cultural forms and activities, using the media like films, television, radio and magazines, which together function as the “culture industry”1 (to use the phraseology of Adorno). The mass media of different forms are used for mass circulation of these appropriated and mediated commodities; the culture industry thus thrives by reproducing and packaging the rich reserve of any given culture in a society.
The “culture industry” uses the elements of culture, the religious and social sentiments, as a huge reserve of raw material to be
reproduced again and again. The transformation of elements of culture, which are often representation of a collective tradition and part of social memory, helps reproduction of culture and all its associated beliefs and values without hurting the public sentiments and carefully avoiding peoples’, politicians’ and institutional rebuff; the prime idea being to cash in on peoples’ emotion. Thus, the possibility of a logical-critical-scientific treatment of tradition and culture, which would have helped in the generation of scientific and critical mind-set is nipped in the bud. Such a “with the tide” (uncritical and all-permissible) treatment of culture is of course rooted in larger business motive, based on careful calculation of the nature of consumers for commercial films and television serials as well as soaps and series on digital platform. However, the covert function of such reproduction of culture is to sustain and expand a space for a kind of politics that thrives by cultivating cultural sentiments and peoples’ religious affiliations. It nurtures a brand of politics that most often thrives on religious nationalism, apart from other profit-making politico-economic rationale. The 80:20 (or the majority: minority) game is a part of this calculation; the religious and social lives of the minority communities find an unfavourable representation while those of the majority community find overwhelming representation. The privatization of all forms of media and the control of the media by the powerful corporate houses, having close connection with the ruling elite, help appropriation of culture even more effectively to fulfil interests of both parties. The ultimate function of all this is ideological integration of the masses into a socio-political and cultural order that suits the overpowering ruling elite; whether this comes to good use for erasing off the alternative space and varied aesthetic negotiations operational is a different question.
Most of the Indians nurse overwhelming religious sentiments; the mega serials, based on the epics: The Mahabharat and the Ramayan, ran in hundreds of episodes over a few years amidst resounding success generating a strong emotional attachment with the cultural tradition to the extent that the whole nation was doped into the world of fantasy (the imagined unreal yet connected world). A hyperreal moment2 (to use Jean Baudrillard’ phraseology) was thus created whereby the views and viewing of an imaginary world under an emotional spell led to confusing an epic for history. With ever rising viewership the serials helped the culture industry proliferate manifold; the flow of advertisements, boosted the sale of TV sets, initially black and white, then colour, and the accessories that come with TV sets. A large majority of the Indian population, even the rural population, were bombarded with relentless flow of advertisements, at a time when Indian economy and market were growing at a rapid pace in an era of globalization. Apart from doing business in millions, the racking of religious sentiments helped arouse a new sense of Indianness rooted in religious nationalism, which undoubtedly helped the rise of Hindu nationalism and consolidation of BJP in power. The timing of making and airing these serials is noteworthy; late 1980s and early 1990s, when India was gradually and surely turning neo-liberal and global, and the ascending capital, national as well as global, demanding more space to grow. The audio-visual media, especially television, was gradually opened for amassing of private capital, freeing from the monopoly of the government-controlled agencies. The television manufacturing industries grew hand-in-hand with other industries as the latter offer advertisements in order to arouse the collective and imitable passion for relentless consumption. The privately controlled news channels now run 24x7 in connivance of the ruling elite for relentless ideological propaganda to blunt the critical and at times aesthetic faculty of the citizens. Here, I would refer to the idea of aesthetic and its corelate notions of ‘taste’, as proposed by Bourdieu, which often bears the notions of a class-oriented consumption of cultural products and reproduction of culturally significant and defining forms. Such living up to a class-specific ‘taste’ and aesthetic assertions under the influence of ‘cultural capital’ cannot be completely overlooked, but mass media surely pass out some ‘popular cultural’ forms and practices through which many cross the classified-class barriers and become omnivores, feeding upon a culturally hybrid experience and create new aesthetics of consumption.
The pujas and religious functions find relentless reproduction in television serials and programmes; the festive season in Bengal starting with Durga puja, Laxmi puja, Kali puja/Deewali and ending with Bhaiphonta in the months of September-October, alongside the one-month vacation for the people attached to the educational institutions, find overwhelming representation in the television programmes. Every melodramatic serial would devote a number of episodes covering all significant religious or social events. The pujas organized by the politicians and the film stars find special live coverage for about a week; for about a month the Bengalis are in a festive mood and television plays a central part in this celebration.
The celebration of Poila Baisakh (Bengali new year), Christmas, 31st December (the new year celebration), Jamai Sasthi, Bhai Phonta and so on are also voluminously represented in television programmes. The welcoming of the English new year on the night of 31st December is the largest of all social functions celebrated by the middle and upper-class urban Bengalis on and off television; the viewers arrange parties on 31st night with family members and friends, consume alcohol or soft drinks, and for the younger generation this is an occasion for substance abuse; an occasion to be alienated from all frustrations and depressions of life; the urban middle-class switches on the television with the readiness to consume the hypocritical, hypo-real moments created by the socalled celebrities, expressing repugnant gestures on screen; indeed, a perfect example of tittytainment (or cheap entertainment) that tend to set cultural standards for others.
Among other things, all the families and households that find representation on the television screen are joint families with extended kin, friends, villains (from within and outside the kinship net), who are also given a place in the household, even when the serial is located in an urban context where small families and stem families are the rule. The serials progress on the themes of love and marriage and untiringly reproduce joint family values and patriarchal values coated in religious and traditional sentiments. The turn of events, the characters and their relations are completely bereft of the logic of everyday life or human sensitivity, making television the perfect “idiot box”; the omnipresence of gods, temples, gurujis etc. often relegate science and logic of life to the back seat. Even the television serials that are based on historical events and revolutionary time, some such recent television serials being Rani Rashmoni and Kadambini, soon turn religious and get lost in the world of fleeting and provocative sentiments of all kinds. Yet the television serials and programmes occupy a large part of a day’s routine of the lower-middle and middleclass Indians as a large section of the population has been kept out of the labour force, and the common people have discovered television as a means to numbing entertainment in their ample leisure time. Television has become a major part of the life of the retired and the elderly population, which is absorbed in non-creative and timepassing activities by ploys of the culture industry, sustaining and reproducing uncritical selves. The out of workforce population who in the pre-television age used to read and socialise a lot, now they have largely given up the habit of reading and visiting their neighbours and relatives often and without notice.
The archaeological sites of historical and religious importance, with some touch-ups and manoeuvring under the guidance of the state agencies or specially constituted trustee boards, turn out to be lucrative business packages as they, with promotion through advertisements, become favoured tourist destinations. The best business packages are worked out when nature is moderated and “beautified” and the area is developed with modern living facilities and some built-in, cosmetic environmental changes to give physical comfort and aesthetic pleasure (aesthetic pleasure is now a commodity too) to the middle- and upper-class tourists who have made occasional tours an essential means for recreation and status elevation.
The culture transformed into commodities for consumption are often fetishized as they acquire a mystical value, although with considerable use value; goddess Kali coming real in the serial Rani Rashmoni is adored by a large majority of the viewers as a real avatar. The moment goddess Kali comes alive with mystic sounds and light on the screen the viewer’s, women viewers in particular, emotions touch the high point and adorn the goddess with uludhwani (a sound collectively made by the Bengali women on auspicious, particularly religious, occasions by twisting their tongue and moving it rapidly while drawing in air); the hyperreal thus gets confused with the real. In the 1970s we noticed this confluence of real and the mystic during the screening of the religious film Jai Santoshi Maa (1975). The impact of the film was such that goddess Santoshima, who was until then absent in the list of goddesses adored in Bengal, found a permanent place. In West Bengal, the political leaders, particularly those of the ruling political party, enhance their social status by demonstrating their religiosity and devotion in organizing and airing such religious functions. The huge amount of money, often crores, amassed through legal and illegal means in organizing and telecasting Durga puja and Kali puja help the politicians enhance their rating in the vote market. Even prominent Muslim leaders of the present ruling party in West Bengal competes with the Hindu leaders of the same party in organizing Durga puja and nurtures huge fan following. As an icing on the cake the leaders organize cultural programmes (music night) with popular singers, which are also telecasted on television screen. Such appropriation of culture, even if does not bear the testimony of any cultural capital, helps enhancement of social capital, which is used for political ends.
The noteworthy among the implications of the appropriation of culture by the media are (1) misrepresentation or distortion of history, (2) reproduction of myths and un-reason, (3) promotion of tittytainment (4) promotion of religious nationalism and (5) massive wastage of creative labour; the mindless television serials have eaten up the space for the creative performing arts like classical music, theatre and parallel cinema. By whiling time watching television, the otherwise creative people lose their creative aptitude and thought, which, in turn, impact their lives and livelihoods. For instance, the fact that the group theatre is losing viewership could be explained in this light.
Given its wide reach and popularity, television with all its productions, the serials and short films, could have been a fantastic medium for spreading a strong and appropriate sense of history, literature and relevant artistic achievements. India has a rich reserve of literature in its national and regional languages; many such stories and novels have been translated into English and other Indian languages. In the days when Door Darshan had command over all television programmes there were efforts from various corners to make quality serials and films based on true and socially meaningful short stories and novels. Munsi Premchand’s stories, namely, Eidgah, Godaan, Boodhi Kaaki, Nirmala, Namak ka Daroga, Sawa Ser Gehu, Coffin etc., were adapted into television serials; some stories ran for more than 10 episodes, all in 1980s and 1990s. Most of these stories were directed by the film-maker-poet Gulzar. Talented actors like Pankaj Kapoor, Vrajesh Hirjee, Anjann Srivastava, Surekha Sikri, Ravi Jhankal, Jaaved Khan Amrohi, Raghubir Yadav and many others gave soulful and realistic performances, adding to the ‘aesthetic’ value of these programmes.
One of the best short film Tamas was made by the film director Govind Nihalini which was aired on Door Darshan in 1988; the film was based on the Hindi novel written by Bhisham Sahani. Another illustrious film-maker of modern India, Shyam Benegal, made many episodes of Bharat Ek Khonj based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India; such television serial often gave the common Indians an authentic account of Indian history from ancient to modern times. Those were the liberal days under the Congress rule, which had true respect for the rich and diverse cultural traditions that India is. But now, when the television is almost completely controlled by the corporate houses for business and the corporate-political elite alliance is absolute, the culture industry has re-set its objectives to (1) further capitalist interest by making profit and (2) help the political elite in popularizing its political agendum, i.e., to appropriate cultural tradition and promote religious nationalism.
In reproduction of the elements of the given culture in films and television serials and programmes the culture industry had the choice of doing it with social responsibility and by adhering to a set of values or a set of alternative standards. Some such standards could have been honest, authentic and critical representation of the rich cultural traditions, commitment to certain ethical standards which any art form demands, commitment to promotion of scientific temper while sustaining a critical stance towards the unscientific and superstitious elements in the social and cultural practices and so on; and by doing that the industry could have played its part in elevating the overall ‘aesthetic’ experience of the nation. Unfortunately, by going opposite direction primarily to fulfil business ambitions and political compulsions, the culture industry, especially the television industry in India is flouting ethical standards and norms of rightful citizenship and its larger social responsibility.
If the mainstream argument of this discourse is in line with Habermas’s idea of colonization of public space through distorted communication3, the question, along post-structuralist arguments, that remains to be answered is whether the corporate-political nexus has established its complete hegemony over the media reproduction of culture and whether the battle in the cultural field is over. On this point I would argue that notwithstanding all efforts of the power to establish its monopoly over media the alternative and critical voices are active fighting for its rightful, democratic place in the social media and this goes defying the State’s efforts to establish a surveillance regime backed with its colossal coercive power. One can look at how the popular cultural forms find expression and representation and how the different folk cultural forms and alternative art forms struggle for a space in the ambit of popular media. We must also take note of the fact that the mass media, specifically digitally supported social media platforms, are making pathways for such a democratic, counter-hegemonic upsurge through dialogical and dialectical negotiations with the mediated forms and striving to produce some authentic, aesthetic and counter-hegemonic discourses, often defying the hanging (or actual) threat of an authoritarian purge.
Prof. Sanjay K. Roy Department of Sociology North Bengal University