In this contribution to Indian Cultural Studies Pramod Nayar focuses on those intersections of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture where the hegemony of one kind of public culture is established; an aspect that has informed the contours of cultural identity since Independence. Strategies of exclusion and inclusion ensure that paradoxically both ‘high’ (museum) and ‘popular/mass’ (conventional cinema, comic book) culture are in fact working towards maintaining the status quo and the idea of a pan-Indian identity. Concentrating on the four cultural artifacts of cinema, the comic book/ strip, the museum and tourism, Pramod Nayar demonstrates how the ‘Othering’ of those who are not upper class/caste male Hindu Indian happens. Despite often being variously both the object and the consumer of this public culture they are rendered entirely non-visible in the grand narrative of India.
Although fully cognizant of the exclusionary nature of English in India, the author stays with public culture made primarily accessible through English. In fact he acknowledges this in his chapter on comics, when he observes that the Amar Chitra Katha comics read most often by urban, city children are not ‘popular’ culture as understood by western theorists. When talking about displays in museums, he points out how English was the language of labelling and other museum publications and when Hindi was later introduced, as in the National Museum, it was meant for the ‘common people’. This book is a noteworthy introduction to Indian Cultural Studies, albeit one which relies heavily on western theoretical models and debates.
In his discussion of these four genres Nayar outlines the history, the structure and the consumption of these public culture artifacts. Key concepts and locations of the interdisciplinary field of Cultural Studies (including a definition of ‘Cultural Studies’) are identified and elucidated in a series of boxes (particularly in the introductory chapter) which serve as analytical tools and provide the framework for Nayar’s engagement with the phenomenon of Indian public culture. A discourse on western/American popular culture either prefaces or runs parallel to all discussions on Indian cultural artifacts and engages the reader in an interpretation of these cultural artifacts in non-Indian contexts. Not surprisingly there are many commonalities given that power relations affect production, public availability and consumption of culture and that the public culture of today is a globalized phenomenon.
In the section on Cinema the book considers both the ideology of conventional/mass cinema as well as its entertainment quotient. The contexts of consumption (role of film audiences, spectatorship and extra-filmic events) are carefully studied. Nayar asserts that the basic structure of the formula film (hyperbole, movement between present-past–present, individual rebellion, moralizing sub-texts etc.) locates it within the ‘uses-and—gratification’ artistics.
Nayar’s perception that public culture in India is about the consumption of an image of a unified homogenized India (‘Unity in Diversity’) and a certain understanding of Indian history is reiterated in this segment on cinema. Scrutinizing a corpus of patriotic film songs and the cross-dresser in Hindi mass cinema he effectively demonstrates that conventional cinema erases difference in order to celebrate India-as-nation and India-as-family. Nayar hypothesizes that the consistently comic representation of cross-dressing is an expression of male cultural anxiety and furthermore, by rendering the transvestite comic, Hindi cinema deliberately erases all potential subversiveness underlying such identity. Status quo can only exist by reinforcing stereotypes.
The segment on the comic book is dominated by a history of the American comic book. Comics, although viewed as entertainment and educational material primarily for children, emerged from the tradition of caricature and cartooning. Nayar discusses the ideology of the American vigilante superhero comic characters at length, quoting Richard Reynolds, who calls this genre ‘modern mythology’. It is the narrative of the ‘good’ versus the ‘evil’ and the return of order, restoring status quo and embracing the ‘American way of life’. Parallels between the ideology of the superhero comic book and that of the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha series, which are the focus of study here, are easily established. Nayar discusses at length the ideological and political subtexts of the works of the series. The central discourse is once again that of one India, a Hindu India, which has contributed, according to Nayar, to the construction of a postcolonial Indian identity. In this ‘Route to your roots’ visual narrative, a North–Indian Hindu cultural identity is legitimized as representative of all India. For example in the category ‘Makers of Modern India’ there is evidently no South Indian, no woman and no Muslim. Nayar takes this argument further in his analysis of the museum, a site of society’s ‘relationship to its own history’.
After a brief survey of the history and background of museum culture and tradition in the West and in India, Nayar talks of how the contemporary museum culture in India contains elements of both the chitrashala as well as that of the colonial technology of ‘collection and display’. The book studies the structure (‘the object, the context of its display, the public it purports to serve and the reception of the objects’) of the museum and the discourse of the museum. The ‘statist’ approach to the culture of the public museum (‘heritagization’) leads Nayar to conjecture that culture is being used as an ‘educator’ to instill notions of cultural identity and belonging, which fit into the ‘unity in diversity’ paradigm. Culture and history (knowledge) are presented and controlled by a few, who seek to restrict public awareness. Importantly Nayar touches upon some of the debates on the issue of vandalization, but does not develop it further—which is a pity, because this is the site of possible conflict, where the masses/ consumer clearly treats the eulogized, sacred past with irreverence. However, the museum is not only an educator, but is also part of the larger leisure tourism industry and in the last segment of his book Nayar analyses the rhetoric, discourses and cultural politics of travel. He focuses his study on travel brochures rather than travel memoirs and travel diaries as this book is about public culture. The state tourism policy since Independence is outlined as are the different kinds of tourism (cultural and ethnic tourism, rural tourism, eco-tourism) that are promoted for different categories of people. The internationalization of tourism means that now along with the necessity of certain uniformity of standard (‘commodification’) a ‘transculturation’ takes place. The enormous boom in the tourism industry has resulted in a cosmopolitanization (particularly in the Third World) of tourist sites and the appearance of the post-tourist along with the kitschy nature of their experience. Of the four cultural artifacts that Nayar studies, tourism is the one which most strikingly represents the exploitative structures of global economy and culture.
A very thorough bibliography and extensive citations make this an important ‘mapping the terrain’ book for students interested in the discipline of Cultural Studies as do the sections on Further Reading. However, one does feel that Nayar could have spent more time with fewer genres as by the end of the read one is rather overwhelmed with the profusion of issues discussed.
Madhu Sahni teaches German literature and language at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.