Public Culture in Indian Sociology

After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Introduction to Public Culture in Indian Sociology 2. From Popular to Public Culture 3. Culture and the State 4. Overseas Perspectives and Views from India 5. The Politics of Space 6. Cultures of Commerce 7. Mass Mediation and Public Life.


  1. Introduction to Public Culture in Indian Sociology
  2. From Popular to Public Culture
  3. Culture and the State
  4. Overseas Perspectives and Views from India
  5. The Politics of Space
  6. Cultures of Commerce
  7. Mass Mediation and Public Life

1. Introduction to Public Culture in Indian Sociology:

The sociology of India since the 1950s has been dominated by one of two major interests. The first pertains to overarching ideologies of civilization, of tradition, and of cultural genius. The second has been a preoccupation with the workings of caste, ritual, and rank at the village level.

A few important works have sought to bridge these two strands. But on the whole they have proceeded in parallel until recently.


This dual focus has meant that certain spaces, institutions, careers and practices have fallen outside the disciplinary gaze. Such spaces include streets, bazaars, and restaurants. Neglected institutions include the state, legal, and non-governmental organizations.

Careers and occupations, such as those of bus conductors, grain dealers, truck drivers, and stock-brokers have been paid scant attention. And such practices as life insurance, blood donation, well irrigation, and moneylending, have received little sustained analysis.

Many of these interstitial practices, spaces, and institutions span villages and cities, isolated communities and state organizations, informal and formal occupational strategies.

They are neither about the Indian village—as such—or about Indian civilization, conceived as an integrated cultural design. There have been some prescient calls to attend to these intermediate phenomena but the response, until recently, has been scant. Even where such studies have been conducted, they have been empiricist or institutional, rarely placing them within a wider framework of cultural analysis or criticism.


The concept of public culture can be an illuminating way to bring such interstitial phe­nomena into the mainstream of a renewed sociology of India. This project has implications for the academic division of labour, the epistemology of disciplines and the terms of the relationship between sociology and other fields as they define their methods and produce their objects of study in India.

These implications are taken up in the conclusion of this essay. To examine how public culture works in India, it is necessary to take stock of the context in which the popular and the public constitute a consequential zone of cultural practices and to ask how our current interest in these practices has been formed.

2. From Popular to Public Culture:

While the term ‘popular culture’ has a clear set of referents and associations, ‘public culture’ is a newer conceptualization. Popular culture draws our attention to the everyday practices of ordinary people and, as a category, emerged in the social history of Europe as an antidote to the study of elites, of grand events, and of official sources and perspectives.

Building on these European precedents, scholars working on South Asia have made important contributions to the study of public ceremonies and rituals, of dramatic and performance traditions, of oral traditions of narrative, and of leisure and its varied forms.


Prior studies of popular culture were often descriptive accounts of specific traditions, practices, and cultural forms, and the perspective of these studies tended towards the ‘salvage’ mode, seeking to record cultural practices that appeared to be in the process of disappearing.

The best studies of popular culture, however, made two important contributions. First, they provided a counterpoint to the overwhelmingly structural preoccupations of the bulk of the ethnography of India since 1950.

Where most social anthropologists (and many culturally oriented sociologists) were concerned with kinship, caste, and ritual as parts of a complex structural whole, the best studies of popular culture opened our eyes to activities and values— sometimes aesthetic, sometimes religious, sometimes ludic—which could not be directly or mechanically tied to social reproduction, rank or status.

In other words, these activities were expressive, and what they expressed was often the life-worlds of specific castes, occupational groups, regional groups, and micro-audiences, outside the encompassing structures of work, rank, and power.

Going as far back as the texts from the British colonial archive these expressive formations were seen as cultural emblems of social groups, but such texts and their modern equivalents tended to be segregated from studies engaging the dynamics of rank, status, and reproduction.

For this reason, much of the work on Indian popular culture has tended to create the image of a gap between everyday life and the requirements of livelihood and social hierarchy. Inadvertently, the objects of such research seemed to be set apart as being either about bread or about circuses.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the study of popular culture began to witness a shift away from a strict interest in the expressive practices of specific sub-cultural groups and to recognize that popular cultural expressions are inevitably tied to contests over power, value, and meaning.

This period coincided with a waning interest in the study of caste as a technical subject and a related decline in studies of kinship, rank, and stratification among younger anthropologists working on India.

The reasons for this shift are complex- in part, it was a response to a global drift away from studies of kinship and social organization in anthropology as a discipline; there was also a recognition that the study of rural India, especially at the village level, needed to include wider networks of regional, state, and national processes and policies; and finally there was a growing sense that the study of larger forms of turbulence in Indian society and politics required fresh approaches to caste, class and identity.

Signs of this shift towards a more politically sensitive understanding of popular culture, away from a narrower civilizational or expressive focus, are to be found in studies of the links between Hindu nationalism and popular culture, of film and other popular media, of sexuality, gender politics  and of education and science as cultural fields.

These studies were largely independent of the new developments in history and historiography that came out of the Subaltern School and certain historically oriented anthropologies developed principally in the United States, which sought to place indigenous cultural formations in the perspective of the longue duree. Today, however, the line between these various streams of cultural criticism is frequently blurred.

Two scholars who inspired these multiple streams of work were themselves anthropologi­cally oriented historians: Bernard Cohn and Ranajit Guha, both of whom had established overlapping ways of theorizing popular practices, colonial knowledge and the working of state powers and official archives.

It is worth remarking that these works were also responses to the critiques of knowledge advanced in the West by Foucault (1981) and Said (1978), and m India by Nandy (1987) and Uberoi (1978, 1984) among others.

These latter works had deeply weakened the claims of existing forms of humanist anthropology and colonial knowledge and had thus exposed the epistemological price extracted by the very way in which the human sciences had constructed their objects, both in the West and beyond.

After these trenchant epistemological critiques had taken some of the high ground, the anthropo­logical study of India as the paradise of hierarchy unbound, could no longer proceed in the manner of a normal science.

3. Culture and the State:

The zenith of a folkloristic, rather than a critically grounded approach to popular culture can be seen in the many books and catalogues that accompanied the Festival of India in 1986, where scholars from India and the West combined to produce a dazzling display of ethnological accounts, exhibits, and performances calculated to show the unity-in-diversity of Indian popular culture.

Although a few such works showed an admirable interest in the political contexts of Indie cultural forms, the majority tended to be marked by the rhetoric of preservation and celebration.

Already underpinned by the massive investments of the Indian state and subject to intense criticism and debate in India, the ‘exhibitionary complex’, associated with the Festivals of India overseas and the cultural apparatus of ‘Apna Utsav’ performances throughout India, marked the transition to a marked politicization of cultural identities in India in the middle to late 1980s, notably during the tenure of the late Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister.

It is possible to make two observations about this period, with the benefit of hindsight. First, this intense nationalization and commodification of popular culture by the Indian state accompanies an aggressive effort by the same regime to advance the cause of economic liberal­ization, privatization, mass media, and high technology, thus radically opening Indian markets, consumers and audiences to global forces and resources.

Second, the efforts to nationalize Indian culture in the second half of the 1980s provided the facade beneath which another drama was taking shape: the mobilization of new forms of cultural nationalism by the forces of Hindutva.

By the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when it also became clear that Rajiv Gandhi’s policies had come at a high cost in terms of pressures to accept stiff doses of structural adjustment meted out by the international lending agencies, the study of popular culture (often de facto of Hindu culture) began to be placed in a stronger framework of critical analysis.

It became increasingly apparent that many popular forms, especially the televisual propagation of the epics, were part and parcel of the explosive growth in the power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), and the many organizations of the Sangh Parivar, particularly in the Hindi belt.

More recent studies of Indian popular culture show the impact of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, and have sought to account for the relationship between Hindu popular cultural practices and the massive victories of the BJP in state and national elections; of the cultures of violence unleashed during this period; and of the relationship of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to wider transformations in electoral politics, mass media, and ideologies of economic nationalism.

The awareness that popular energies and quotidian cultural forms could be annexed for the purposes of larger and more violent national politics was not entirely lost on anthropologists and sociologists.

This awareness is especially marked in two recent edited collections which place anthropological and sociological understandings of Hindu na­tionalism in the context of studies from art history, economic and social history and political science.

More than many other individual essays and studies, these two collections (which involve collaborations mainly between scholars based in the United States and in India) demonstrate that narrowly folkloric or culturological accounts of popular culture, especially in its Hindu forms, implied an innocence on the part of the analyst that is no longer sustainable.

4. Overseas Perspectives and Views from India:

While the co-optation of ‘Indian’ culture and civilization by the forces of the Hindu right from the late 1980s onwards made it impossible to divorce the study of popular culture from its broader political context, there were developments in Britain and in the United States going back to the early 1980s which were also important in creating the need for a more critical, contextual, and globally oriented account of popular culture.

These developments fall under the broad rubric of ‘cultural studies’ which recently acquired the status of a publicly recognized field in India. This field has been regularly enriched by critical and theoretical work emanating out of Indian diasporic intellectuals and experiences who have helped shape its interest in hybridity, border identities, multi-culturalism and feminism.

The most recent example of this cross-pollination, in which resident and non-resident Indians continue to shape central debates in cultural studies, is a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry that contains a number of Indianist contributions in its discussion of ‘borders’.

The emergent zone of traffic between cultural studies, area studies, and ethnography was marked by the emergence of the journal Public Culture in 1988. In the years since it was founded, this journal has helped to define ‘public culture’ as an aspect of culture which pays special attention to debate and contestation, to national inflections of cultural forms and to the glo­balization of cultural institutions and images.

While it appears to be just another cultural studies journal produced by the academic industry in the United States, this journal was ani­mated by the wish of the founder-editors to engage with the alternative modernity’s of societies such as India, which appeared to fall between the cracks of a rurally oriented anthropology and a past-oriented cultural history.

The specific urge to develop a framework to deal with Indian modernity from a cultural point of view was a central part of the motivation behind its founding. Over the years the journal has retained a strong interest in Indian phenomena and cultural debates, and has helped to create a comparative context for the discussion of Indian advertising, cinema, diaspora, epics, historiography, and politics.

An entire issue of the journal in the 1990s was in fact devoted to debate surrounding a controversial work of cultural criticism and included essays by several Indianists.

At the same time, two volumes published by scholars associated with the work of Public Culture, Breckenridge and van der Veer eds. 1993 sought to illuminate the diverse ways in which major cultural forms in contemporary India encode themes of nation and violence, state culture and sub-dominant practices, spectacle and commodity, expenditure and leisure.

Public culture emerges, in this body of work, as a way of looking at India as one site, among others, where western modernity is being translated, interrogated, and contested, as Indian traditions of some antiquity encounter the complex forces of colonialism and the political economy of the postcolonial order.

In this view, culture no longer implies consensus; traditions are subject to multiple appropriations and deployments; class becomes a site for cultural consumption as well as production; and the state is a key player in virtually every domain of cultural expression.

Public culture, looked at this way, encourages the study of the relationship between minority and majority cultural forms; of the relationship between national and global cultural economies; and of the relationship between forms of identity politics and cultural assertion to transformations in space, media, and the market.

In this context, it is worth noting the coincident foundation of Public Culture in the United States and The Journal of Arts and Ideas based in India, the latter with a strong focus on the visual arts and a wider concern with cultural analysis and criticism.

By its nature, the study of Indian public culture does not permit the segregation of leisure from work, of politics from kinship, and of the marketplace from the temple and the voting- booth. Two other recent studies can be seen as illuminating the dynamics of public culture regarded in this manner.

The first, a collection of essays by Veena Das, invites old concepts to ‘inhabit unfamiliar spaces’ and to acquire ‘a new kind of life’. These unfamiliar spaces are those of the Partition, of kinship strained by the struggle between national systems of honour, of the discourse of Sikh militants in the 1980s and of the suffering and the pain of the victims of industrial-ecological disasters.

In this book, Das poses a series of critical questions about the relationship between the state, communities, and the individual, showing how law and cultural norms are mobilized at each of these levels, and further showing how contemporary events can benefit from an anthropological perspective on the discourses of law, suffering, terror, and communal mobilization.

Das’s essays may be seen as eminent examples of studies in public culture, for every one of the topics she explores involves fundamental cultural contests over meaning, value, and power.

In developing her argument, Das is able to show that the legal and bureaucratic order of the modern nation-state suffuses the lives of individuals and communities in ways that affect the deepest matters of kinship and honour, self and the other.

From another perspective, Das’s book may be seen as a formative contribution to what may be called the ‘ethnography of the state’, in which she joins a wider anthropological interest in studying what has recently been called the ‘social poetics of the nation-state’.

The second book to offer a conceptual approach to the phenomena of public culture is a recent collection of essays which explores the relationship between culture and colonialism.

This collection, much more within the cultural studies tradition, is centrally preoccupied with issues of literary, cinematic, and photographic representation, and contains a series of glimpses of the ways in which Indian visual practices and institutions, as well as more traditional forms such as the novel, bear the definite mark of the colonial encounter.

Though the essays deal with a wide range of cultural practices and forms, the collection is unified by an approach to modernity which sees Indian culture ‘not as some kind of organic whole … but as “ways of struggle”.

‘Thus the emphasis is on ‘the materiality of culture, the connections between culture and ideology, and the intersections of culture, knowledge, and power in the colonial and post-colonial contexts’. Here the overlaps with Das’s approach to ‘critical events’ and the concern of a growing group of analysts with transnational flows, alternative modernities, and the debates which constitute public culture are evident.

If there is one major tendency which unites these diverse approaches to public culture in India, it is a concern with the new visual order, which encompasses billboards and photographs, calendars and posters, films and television, spectacles and performances, all in a manner which links aesthetics to politics, representation to contestation, seeing to believing.

There is a growing coincidence of interests between scholars studying theatre, film, television, photography, and traditional forms of pictorial art. All these scholars are interested, to a significant extent, in relating problems of representation to problems of violence, community, identity, and modernity.

Though some of this work is mostly concerned with the internal structure of visual texts and genres, and with highly theoretical issues of spectatorship, aura, and authorial style, a growing body of studies is concerned with the social medium in which these visual objects circulate and with the ways in which audiences, fan clubs, journalists, and political parties interpellate themselves into this visual field.

In some ways, therefore, the conditions for the study of public culture in India are now relatively well defined, and cultural analysts working on Indian material have been in the forefront of defining the parameters of this field.

In a context where modernity and its everyday expressions had largely been seen through western epistemologies and exemplified in cosmopolitan ethnographies, studies of Indian phenomena have sparked important cross-cultural exercises in the study of public culture.

Furthermore, the worldwide search for critiques of western knowledge, forms and regimes has been led by thinkers from India such as Nandy and Uberoi, along with counterparts from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia.

New historiographies of everyday forms of subaltern practice and agency have been inspired by historians working principally on Indian colonial materials. Recent contributions to the ‘high’ theory of diaspora, hybridity, intersexuality and narratively have been suffused with Indian voices and approaches; international feminist scholarship has been enriched and interrogated by feminist scholars working in and from India.

Also, some of the richest work to revise earlier Eurocentric models of nationalism and its postcolonial expressions have been led by work on Indian nationalism.

In addition, path-breaking work on cinema, ethnic violence, women’s fiction, popular science, and a host of other public cultural phenomena has been shaped by contributions from India. From a broad interdisciplinary perspective, work on India has suffused the richest recent developments in cultural studies, art criticism, film studies, political philosophy, and development studies.

A glance at such journals as Alternatives, Lokayan, Journal of Arts and Ideas, Public Culture, and the Economic and Political Weekly substantiates this interdisciplinary claim.

But the contributions of social anthropologists and sociologists to this burgeoning field of interdisciplinary inquiry have so far been limited in number and scope, and in a sense, high theory has outstripped the empirical study of Indian public culture.

In the remainder of this essay, I shall make some programmatic suggestions for conceptualizing a specifically ethnographic and sociological contribution to the study of public culture in India. What follows is thus less an inventory and more a prospectus.

5. The Politics of Space:

The study of space is hardly new in the cultural sociology of India. Many village studies have examined land and soil, boundaries and house forms, regions and sacred sites. But the study of rural space as a product and medium of human activity and as a context for agency and conflict has been less well attended as regards rural India.

Likewise, there is a large literature in sociology, urban planning and social work on cities, slums, urban renewal plans and migration. But this literature, which is dominated by demographic, structural and aggregate phenomena does not have a strong cultural dimension.

Consider the ethnography of motion and travel. While we know about the large-scale logis­tics of roads, railways, trucking and other forms of ‘life on the move’, we have few sustained ethnographic glimpses of these phenomena, and those few concern pilgrimage as a cultural form.

These studies offer only a tantalizing glimpse of what an ethnography of Indian trans­portation could say about public culture. We need answers to questions like the following: How is the growing trade in domestic tourism organized at both national and regional levels?

Who are the entrepreneurs behind this industry? Where are its drivers, guides, and promoters re­cruited from? How localized is this traffic and when does it bring together consumers from different regions and classes in common spaces-in-motion? How do ordinary Indian travellers conceptualize the relationships between leisure, pleasure, and devotion in these journeys?

Another set of questions having to do with space is especially pertinent to cities. As many Indian cities undergo massive demographic change, occupational and linguistic groups from regions which previously did not occupy common urban space are thrown together in volatile economic and political circumstances.

In cities like Surat, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and elsewhere, the dynamics of labour and capital combine with mass-mediated propaganda and severe shortages of living space and jobs to create conditions of considerable social friction. We need to link the work on change in the cities of such regions to other studies of cultural style and labour circulation.

Thus, in the case of Gujarat, a politically potent brand of public culture studies could seek to link recent work on cloth and clothing among rural jatis to the first-rate work on labour circulation, and these to what is known about urban demographics, communal violence, and reservation politics in Gujarat.

Political messages, sartorial conventions, circulating sites of employment and anxiety about economic opportunities create a volatile landscape of desire, fear, and violence in which cultural styles and political mobilization may be seen in a single framework.

Such linkages can also be explored in other parts of India, where similar glimpses of work, cultural style, and political identity are available in the form of unfinished puzzles.

Closer still to the everyday life of cities, we know less than we should about the growth of all sorts of houses, colonies, and squatter settlements, which characterize a growing number of Indian cities.

This spatial explosion occurs along a complex continuum ranging from the up market complexes of suburban housing being built by mega-developers (with a substantial eye to overseas purchases by non-resident Indians) to the ad hoc arrangements of street-dwelling indigents or proletarians, always at risk of natural or political destruction.

Linking these economically diverse real estate markets, notably in a city like Mumbai, are a complex network of real estate developers, politicians, speculators, and hoodlums, who operate in a shadow world of licenses, pay-offs and physical violence, to protect those who pay and to evict or blackmail those who cannot.

In Mumbai during 1992-3, there was clearly a complicated nexus that linked the excesses of municipal violence against street vendors and their illegal structures to the larger politics of organized crime and communal politics, and thus fed into the brutal violence of December 1992 to January 1993 which followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

This episode has been thoroughly documented in the recently published report of the Srikrishna Commission.

The line between spaces of traffic, commerce, and leisure has become completely blurred in many Indian cities. We need to ask about the everyday pressures, for many pedestrians, of walking on the road, avoiding cars, scooters, bullock-carts, and bicycles because footpaths are either non-existent or fully occupied by vendors of consumer goods.

Such commerce, itself a vital component of the informal economies of many cities, in turn generates large amounts of unaccounted income which flows into circuits of street expenditure on (often prohibited or smuggled) goods and services, ranging from paan and prostitutes to video cassettes and fake Nike sneakers.

What is the sociology of expenditure in these street settings? How do the cross- ethnic links that characterize these daily transactions connect to the sudden paroxysms of communal violence which periodically segregate ethnic groups.

How does this micro-economy of street expenditures and sales tie into the service economy generally, through the provision of food and related services to the lower level employees of large corporations and offices?

In terms of taste, lifestyle, and social aspirations, how do these spatial logics link lumpen consumption to the upscale lifestyles of film-stars, crime lords, and corporate chieftains?

As citizens navigate these immensely crowded spaces, characterized by many kinds of cash transactions, ad hoc structures, and ethnically inflected occupational niches, how do the cross- cutting ties of work and commerce resist the essentializing and segregating discourses of right- wing media propaganda?

How do the rhythms of amity and enmity interact in cities where residence, work, and transport throw culturally distinct groups into constant contact?

What is called for here is a series of close studies of the relationships between street commerce, real estate markets and their controllers, and various kinds of criminalized practice. Such studies, from a variety of urban settings, would tell us a great deal about the pathways and nerve centers which guide the journey of rumours, weapons, gangs, and money in the urban cartography of ethnic violence.

Finally, such studies of the dynamics of lived space, especially in cities besieged by migrants from diverse communities and regions, could build a perspective from the ground upwards of what various groups valorize as national space, national boundaries, and national monuments (such as the Babri Masjid).

The spatialities involved in these contexts are of course different, but the perspective of public culture might allow us to mediate the relationship between the everyday spaces of work, residence, and worship and the more over determined sites of national honour and ethnic purity.

As communal parties and other radical voices increasingly cast the net of ‘national space’ over specific sites and monuments in particular cities and localities, the sense of national honour is localized, and cityscapes become both icons and indices of ethnonational identity and purity.

These cartographic transpositions need intense empirical investigation, and the traditional strengths of cultural sociology in India, in the study of temples, pilgrimage sites, village gods, religious routes and the like, could be revitalized and extended to illuminate these new spatial worlds.

In this way, we might begin to develop a sociological sense of the links between property and territory, a vita! (and unfulfilled) requirement for understanding the political economy of communalism. These ethnographic accounts would complement the initiatives already taken in the realm of studies of the discourses surrounding community, identity, and honour in the India of the last two decades.

6. Cultures of Commerce

The preceding consideration of new ways of looking at space and its production in contempo­rary India implies collateral perspectives on media and visual culture, as well as on commerce and consumption. There have of course been some studies of commercial communities, market processes, and consumption by anthropologists of India.

But these have rarely tied commerce to wider forms of cultural politics nor have they usually linked sociological issues to those of culture.

Today, as the whole of Indian society comes to be more explicitly tied to the global economy, as Indian labourers and professionals increasingly travel to overseas markets, as major new class fractions and fragments enter the political arena in cities, small towns and villages, we need to re-examine the cultural dynamics of commerce.

The public culture of commerce raises a wide range of questions which social anthropologists could engage with.

What are the ways in which commoditization has transformed rural and urban life? How exactly have changing consumption patterns, material aspirations, and marriage markets affected the politics of dowry (including the pattern of domestic violence and dowry death)?

What sort of ties between commerce, trade, and group identity provided the context for the mobilization of Rajput hyper-masculinity in the celebrated sati death of Roop Kanwar? In so far as a significant number of Indians (about 15-20 per cent of the population, according to most estimates) have the capacity to spend some money on modern consumer goods, what determines their attachment to these goods?

Who are the groups that most profit from the flow of urban goods to rural areas?

Answers to these, and related questions, might supply an ethnographic dimension to the vital question of the class and caste composition of many new social movements, ranging from anti-reservation movements and Hindu nationalist parties to farmers’ movements and backward caste coalitions.

The salience of commerce and consumption to the study of these social formations (which have transformed the culture of politics throughout India in the last half century) is that the ‘world of goods’ serves as a system of public signals of both solidarity among groups and of difference between groups.

In a state like Uttar Pradesh, it will be hard to understand the complex links between mandir and mandal (popular ways of referring to communalism and caste politics respectively) until we have a fuller sense of the solidarities that have emerged in and through the marketplace and the world of commodities.

By extension, as has recently been suggested by several sociologists, there are definite ties between economic globalization, the pressures of structural adjustment since the early 1990s and the rise of the Hindu right.

On the one hand, new forms of consumption and new commercial classes have turned to Hindu revival as keys to national welfare as opposed to older ideologies of swadeshi (economic autonomy) and Gandhian simplicity.

On the other hand, the ideologies of liberalization and those of Hindu revival seek, as Rajagopal has suggested, to restore national competitiveness and cultural revival in linked idioms.

But understanding the links which may account for the paradoxical mutuality of open markets and cultural closure requires a closer examination of the ideologies and practices of various emerging classes, both of their leaders and their members.

Thus, the openness of the Shiv Sena leadership in Maharashtra to multinational companies like Enron with a parallel hostility to the Pakistani cricket team and to other forms of cultural invasion are not easy to interpret.

They demand a nuanced sense of how certain castes and classes view market processes, of how they disarticulate economic cosmopolitanism from territorial nativism, and of how they understand the cultural markedness of different forms of capital. This nuanced approach to commerce and capital requires the ethnographic and textual strengths of social anthropology and sociology.

Such an approach will provide one other bridge between everyday practices and identities and the larger political and cultural solidarities that characterize Indian society and politics today. Even when viewed from the classical perspective of caste studies, the structure and ethos of commercial castes has been studied less than those of other groups.

The result, with a few exceptions, is that the inter-village, regional, and state-level links that often characterize commercial castes have tended to fall out of the picture, reinforcing the stereotype of the isolation of the Indian village.

Likewise, this gap has made it difficult to create a useful dialogue between social anthropologists and economic historians, on problems in the history of capital formation, marketization, and monetization.

Finally, the relatively scant attention paid to the cultural dynamics of contemporary commerce in India has meant that a large gap has developed today between the sociology of commerce and various Indological contributions to the study of debt, livelihood and market norms in ancient India.

To treat commerce and commodification as a part of public culture in India opens the prospect of breaking certain artificial disciplinary boundaries that segregate economic forms from cultural forms.

Further, this angle on commerce offers the prospect of grounding cultural practices in the material world while recognizing that consumption (and production) take place in regimes of value that are historically and culturally inflected.

As considerations of life style (hence of commodities and consumption) increase in their importance as indices of rank, the study of commerce from a public culture perspective is sure to contribute a valuable dimension to the general study of new forms of stratification.

7. Mass Mediation and Public Life

Neither space nor commerce can be engaged without a focused concern with the workings of mass media. To appreciate this argument, one need only notice the place of advertisements on streets and highways throughout India.

I have suggested earlier that we already have a good deal of insight into specific developments involving television and film, advertising and photography, music and theatre, among other forms of mass mediation.

We also have the beginnings of important insights into the links between mass media and religious nationalism and between the logic of public debate and the discourses of terror and revival.

What we need now is to build on our knowledge of audiences and mass-mediated messages to see media as part of a broader circulatory logic in which images, messages, experiences, and desires are interactively moving.

Such a picture of circulation is not available in western theories and studies of mass media, except in partial and highly contested fragments. India, with its saturation by mass media (especially through film, but also through radio, television and newspapers) and its diversity of languages in which mass mediation operates, is a spectacular field for studying publics which are divided by different media genres and by the varied languages and contexts within which media messages circulate.

Here then is an opportunity to complicate both the monoglot and middle-class-centered approach of Habermas (1989) to the western bourgeois public sphere and to complicate the unilinear assumptions about print, capitalism and nationalism proposed by Anderson (1983).

The variety of languages, genres, contexts, and registers which constitute the circulatory field of mass media in India offers a unique opportunity to examine the multiple rationalities that might drive print-based nationalisms as well as the multiple cultures of reception that might shape media environments in India.

A deeper ethnographic grasp of such processes of differentiation and divergence might throw valuable light on what has been widely seen as a new pattern of regionalization in Indian politics, in which the politics of the center does not predict or determine regional outcomes.

Such regional political patterns are not likely to be understood by looking at electoral data and the strategies and statements of elites alone. They will certainly require a close examination of the nature and composition of reading and viewing publics, as well as of the forms of mediation which they enjoy and appropriate.

In thus approaching mass-mediated forms and processes as part of a wide, interactive field of circulation, anthropologists and sociologists would surely add a new dimension to the classical issue of ‘text and context’ that exercised the minds of some of the finest social scientists of India in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Milton Singer and M.N. Srinivas.

More importantly, the approach to mass media sketched here is not likely to replicate some of the folkloristic drawbacks of earlier approaches to popular forms and events, which tended to see them mainly as expressive insignia of particular social categories and subcultures, elements of an unspecified Indian mosaic.

This earlier view was perfect grist for the operations of the cultural apparatus of the state, which inevitably prefers static formulae about unity and diversity.

The critical, contextual, and conjunctural approach to mass media suggested here tends to redirect our attention to the broader contours of cultural politics in contemporary India. In this view, the analysis of mass media would draw our attention back to ‘critical events’, in Veena Das’s usage, to new understandings of space and spatiality (in which every day and imagined spaces could be connected) and of commerce (by looking at new relationships between buying and being in the age of structural adjustment).

Mass mediation, as an object of analysis in a public culture perspective, holds the promise of shedding new light on the ways in which desires, fantasies, and the life of the imagination work in contemporary India.

That India is now a media-saturated society is widely accepted. But the cultural implications of this fact are not well understood. Thus an important component of the way in which elites and poorer classes in India form their pictures of power, status, and the economy eludes us.

By extension, the context in which different individuals and groups respond to efforts to mobilize them are only hazily understood, and an important dimension of many new social movements (involving the environment, Dalit politics, and liquor consumption, for example) remains elusive.

If the cultural sociology of India is to contribute seriously to the understanding of such forms of mobilization, the study of mass media as part of a broader field of communications and transactions cannot be postponed.


The points of entry into public culture discussed here—space, commerce, and mass media— do not constitute a closed list. There are other areas of vital relevance to public culture and its study—science, environment, technology, labour—to name just a few.

All of them could be seen as the province of specialists in fields beyond anthropology and sociology—such as history, economics, mass communication, and political science. But the idea of public culture—culture viewed as a zone of debates and contestation—certainly offers sociologists and anthropologists both an opportunity and a justification for studying these complex objects.

In this way, some of what is contemporary about India can be illuminated by some of what is contemporary about anthropology. In taking up these challenges, the social life of modernity in India will not remain a study of derivations, oddities, and spectacles and the social life of anthropology will not remain confined to stereotyped debates about rural, traditional or hierarchical India.

On the other hand, a robust view of Indian public culture should return us to the perennial problems of caste, family, and class, enriched by a sharper grasp of state policies, new economies, emergent classes, and incipient social movements.

As India approaches the turn of the century, and celebrates a half-century of independence, it seems appropriate to ask how far we have moved from the basic principles, assumptions and interests of colonial sociology.

In so far as village life is still studied in isolation from wider regional and national forces, in so far as cultural forms still tend to be viewed ethnologically and folkloristically, and in so far as the study of the state and nation still remains relatively distant from the study of everyday life, the answer to this question is: not far enough.

Attention to the phenomena of public culture, in the manner implied throughout this essay, might be one important part of engaging with the realities of the last few decades.

A further bonus of such an engagement will surely be to redraw the terms of the relation­ships between social anthropology, sociology and the neighbouring fields and disciplines involved in the study of India. It is not easy to predict what form these relationships might take.

But it is not difficult to see that the cultural politics of contemporary India do not com­fortably fit into a division of fields which was produced by Europe in the nineteenth century In the reconfiguration of the cultural sciences that will surely occur in the next few decades, critical cultural analysis of public culture phenomena could be one way in which the sociology of India retains its leverage.

By extension, the probability will increase that places like India will generate not just alternative modernities, but alternative sociologies as well.

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