Socialist ideas are now considered 'passe': Maitrayee Chaudhuri, author and JNU Sociology professor

Maitrayee Chaudhuri spoke to us about her book, everyday advertisements, everyday details in the English-language print media, the communicative abundance of television
Refashioning India Book Cover (Pic: Express)
Refashioning India Book Cover (Pic: Express)

Through her book, Refashioning India: Gender, Media, and a Transformed Public Discourse, Maitrayee Chaudhuri, a Sociology professor at JNU, provides a chronicle of contemporary India. The book offers detailed studies of advertisements, everyday details in the English-language print media, the communicative abundance of television and a lot more. We spoke to the author to find out more about the themes presented in the book.

Excerpts from a politically-sound conversation:


What would you say are the most dominant themes in your book through which the story progresses? What is the main focus?

Gender Images. I began with the spectacular but discrete study of gender images in nationalist rhetoric in general and the media in particular. I did begin with a study of women’s representation in print media advertisements. Changes in gender images have to be linked to the reworking of state and market relationships; changing nature of capitalism and nationalism. Then I went on to talk about the rise of the PR Industry, brand building, managerial discourse etc. Hence my early reference to how political parties started hiring PR agencies — 2014 saw the full use of the PR machinery at work for PM Modi. We saw that in 2019 as well. For as the media says — it's all about optics and perceptions. 
The rise of BJP was also one of the major themes present while I was writing the book. The ‘feel good nationalism” that the media propagated after the 1990s has now blown into a transformed idea of hate-fuelled hypernationalism, of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

1990s was a turning point not just in terms of India’s new economic policies. It was also the time that marked politically at one end, the rise of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its majoritarian Hindutva agenda. If the shrillness of Hindutva rhetoric dimmed between 2004 and 2014, sans state support, it acquired unprecedented scale, intensity, and violence after 2014. 

At the other end arose a comprehensive assertion of Dalit and Other Backward Classes (OBC) with issues of social exclusion, discrimination and an agenda to seize both political and cultural space from the hegemony of ‘upper castes’ in a post Mandal epoch."


What shifts have taken place historically in the representation of women the media, that accompany transformations in the political scene today?

This focus of this book is on the changes that took place after the new economic policies of 1991. I argue that it ‘was a new beginning in the history of contemporary India, evident in its new economic policies, political visions and cultural imaginings’. 

Talking of changing the representation of women after 1991, the most obvious is the shift from public deference to austerity to the spread in the idea of shopping and spending as pleasure.  Advertisements earlier were about the prudent woman who managed a limited household budget. A quick quote may help capture the point:

The public deference to austerity was to change quickly and dramatically from 1991. The transformation of the media with the unprecedented growth in the advertisement not only ushered in new images but heralded new ideas of a good life and the good Indian as ‘consumer citizen’. The stress was on success, an exclusive and glamorous lifestyle that effectively displaced the larger section of Indian men and women from public discourse. This is the time when new words such as ‘celebrity’ ‘glam quotient’ and ‘page 4’ came into circulation. Within this context, the Indian woman learns that ‘thrift’ is no longer a virtue, and ‘shopping’ is a legitimate pleasure while Indian men learn that looking good is not a woman’s privilege.
I am glad that you asked the question of ‘historical shifts in the representation of women’ in the media. Indeed this focus on history is a very important part of my book. 

Permit me, therefore, to start with a caveat — made necessary precisely because of contemporary media’s obsession with ‘breaking news’, the sensational event or a statement. This neglect is partly because of the contemporary format of news that does not allow for any informed and complex analysis. (This is a world of binaries…I come to that a little later).

But this fascination with the immediate is unfortunately also because of a growing and gross ignorance of histories, dramatically evident in the media…perhaps in a more heightened way in television. The TV has to be exciting…anchors appear constantly excited. History …the details… is boring stuff. And importantly seen as irrelevant, particularly when new mediatized history is being made every day.  

A point that I make through the book is that women have been very central in India’s public discourse, starting from the 19th-century reform movements, through the national movements and later in independent India. 

Take any of the major issues of social reform of the 19th century and it would be obvious that it is difficult to find one, which is not about women. Most reformers of different ideological orientations and very different caste/class/regional locations wrote on the women’s question. I cannot name everyone here but just think of  Savitribhai Phule, a Ranade,  a Veerasilingam,  a Vidyasagar, Periyar, Aurobindo, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Nehru….the list can go on…

If we, therefore, do not know how they were represented…how to understand that shift? History, therefore, is important. History allows us to link contexts with events and ideas.  

History, for instance, helps us understand why in the making of what once was the dominant national narrative ideas of austerity and simplicity were important; why a commitment to growth with equity was stated goals of the state; why secularism and socialism were integral to how India was imagined. 

So what changed? In the early two chapters of the book, I delineate how through the 19th and 20th liberal, socialist and cultural revivalist ideas played out (sometimes conjoined, sometimes contested) in the way women were represented. 

We had liberal ideas of equal citizenship of women; we had socialist inspired images of a feisty peasant, adivasi and working-class women; and we, of course, had ‘cultural revivalist’ ideas of sanitized, virtuous Sati Savitri images at play — a vision where she is reduced to cultural emblems of a community and nation. 

With the ascendency and hegemony of Hindutva politics, the story is not about cultural emblems’ any longer. It is about brute and legitimate violence against women even as the ‘Beto Bachao Beti Paroa’ slogan echoes through the bylanes of India. 

With the rise of corporate-driven BJP publicity and the fondness of the PM to hobnob with Bollywood stars we now have a new obsession with glamour.

The two trends — gloss and vulgarity —work together. My argument in the book is that all these ideas play up in the changing representation of women in the media.  

These three trends, I argue, remain central in contemporary India. What has shifted is the relative weighting of the three. Socialist ideas are now considered ‘passe’ so even as we continue to have great inequalities; large sections of women who are poor, workers, unemployed — they do not get represented in India media. They don’t exist. 


How relevant is media manipulation of popular opinion currently? Do you feel people in the media today are trying to propagate their own ideologies, causes? And if so, what impact is it having on the minds of the liberal?

Yes. Media is manipulating popular opinion. Media is setting agendas and narratives. But obviously, media is not a standalone entity. My book tries to examine the links between the commercial imperatives of the media, growing dependence on adverts — very evident in the chapters in the first half of the book. I mention how media proprietors wanted to shift to ‘Sunnyside Journalism’ — for the argument was: that’s what the ‘audience wants’. 

I began working on the media because I was struck by the shifting images of women and men; of lifestyles and the sheer gloss of post-1990 media. But I soon realized that the story is not just about the images but larger. It was about changing the public discourse of India and creating of new subjectivities. Here a constant theme running through the book has been chosen. I have tried to map the construction of new ideas of freedom; ideas of self-propelled individualism. I use the term ‘untrammeled selfhood’; the slow but steady disconnect with the larger public. One can argue this is manipulation. But the counterargument would be it is ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’.

The disconnect to the larger ‘public’ was first with ‘others’ ‘poor people — what advertisement firms defined as scroungers — not relevant to the market. More recently, though a strand present throughout but muted, is ‘others’ — Muslims in particular. Take Gautam Gambhir’s recent comment. “History has been witness to our patience and endurance. But if oppression ensures security for my people, then so be it,” he added. Who are these “my people” he alludes to? 

Early chapters in the book talk about the sense of freedom that the expanding middle class felt. The choice to switch channels; to surf on the Internet; to order online; to do a nose job. What it was replaced by was ‘market censorship’ far more sophisticated and importantly pervasive without one realizing it.  Maybe if one switches from one TV channel to another across the many Indian languages the similarity of the programmes — news, adverts, soaps would be an eye opener about what choice one has. 

What we have today and for the last five years…is it states or markets censorship? This leads me to the question of how we understand state, market, media and its changing configurations. Is it choice or coercion?

The ‘liberal’— no longer a nice word — we need to examine how this idea to have traveled. Just a few days ago I was watching a TV programmes where the idea of freedom and liberals came up. The anchor made the point that one has to bring all voices to the debate for a genuine conversation. I am sorry but freedom does not mean the choice to be Fascist, spread hate, spread untruth; to be feminist, to rape as punishment. 

There is a clear line that divides democracy from authoritarianism, freedom from unfreedom; justice from injustice.  It is not an equal opportunity to hear but also the content of diversities that matter. The media needs to slow down and look back at what the socialists went through to fully appreciate what they are doing.

As your book ends with the 2014 general elections and now that the BJP is in power again for another five years, what do you have to say about the ideological turn towards Hindutva? In the last five years and even now has it been aided by the media?

It has been aided, abetted, amplified. What was illegitimate in 2014 is no longer so. People are trigger happy. Hindutva has been reinvented as ‘nationalism’. The WhatsApp University and mainstream media alike have actively created this. This is the front stage. Backstage are other political and ideological actors; and the moneybags. Passions have been awakened. Hate fuels people. Nothing, nothing can be more dangerous. Like my Uber driver, millions are bombarded with hate fuelled stories. 

The irony is that the story of Indian nationalism was not about hate but a systemic critique of colonialism and the creation of compassionate citizenship. 

The attack on scholarship and critical on media has to be seen in this context. Hence my plea for a serious study of the social sciences. Since the 1990s we have had an expansion of education but a simultaneous hollowing out of the social sciences and humanities. It became all a matter of who gets what messages from family, neighbor and now the uncles behind social media. There is a terrible lack of information and knowledge. But the belief is now we have ‘knowledge’. That same issue of ‘instant access’ and ‘unequal knowledge’ that I referred to. 


It took nearly two decades to write the book, how has the journey been throughout these years? Has it had an impact on your way of writing?

You may recall that in I start with a quote from a corporate world saying: “rapidity of change has changed”; perhaps most evident in the transient nature of contemporary media headlines. 

I began with print media. Actually, print media advertisements. They looked novel in the early 1990s.  In 2019 as I receive customized adverts on my email, Facebook, Whatsapp …well….it’s a change that captures the feel of ‘fast forwarding’. …Quick, time-saving but a blur…

I then got drawn to Television and then to social media. The speed of change has been baffling. One, therefore, had to start looking at the role of technology anew.

What changed too is the manner that gender issues and feminism itself traveled. This is a constant theme woven into the book. 

… any discussion of gender, media, and culture in contemporary India need to recognize three contexts:  the constitutive influence of three decades of institutionalized feminism, the imperatives of neo-liberal economic policies; and the scale of the media and communication industry in the making of popular and public culture.  I argue further that this constitutive influence has been largely made possible through knowledge produced by a new set of firms specialized in market research and communication who are interested in understanding the Indian market. These firms function across the media industry, developmental sector, advertisement, and management firms. They reflect the changing nature of the media industry - a proliferating site of media and communication studies.

Along this add the rise of Hindutva which rests and is constituted by all three ‘contexts’ mentioned above. 

About the way my writing has changed, you may have a better idea than me! I think I tried to be simpler as the years went by — not an easy task for academics. I hope to improve on that!


In your book, you speak about the big boom that the India media has experienced, has that kind of expansion given a voice or created avenues for the marginalised sections to make themselves heard? 

There has been opening up of new avenues for marginal voices. BUT at the same time, there are a couple of things that have happened to mainstream media. 

It has been put on mute mode.  Paradoxically it is very loud. I use the term over-communicative abundance.  The noise and perpetual excitement dull our sensibilities. We are bombarded every day with images (fake and otherwise) that allow for no reflection. Noise is a different kind of censorship.
You can also call it instant access and unequal knowledge. Social media is perhaps the best example. Every time I catch an Uber the driver gives me a lesson in history. Two examples (real examples) may help convey the point. I was informed that Patel was the first Prime Minister. This was hidden all these years but now with Google, the truth has come out. Then I was asked whether I knew that Gandhi had killed Bhagat Singh. Quite unsure of my history, I said, ‘No’ but did gather the courage to ask: Why?” The response was instant. “Bhagat Singh founded BJP”. 
This instant access and unequal knowledge are deeply and violently gendered. We know that rape threats against women journalists are ‘normal’. 
In this noisy space, we have excellent blogs, extraordinary stand up comedies; brilliant Twitter exchanges; digital platforms on Dalit issues; feminist issues; minority issues; women’s issues; queer issues. But my concern is that we now have completely broken up the idea of public discourse. We have multiple customized messages.  The WhatsApp messages that my cousin, drawn to Hindutva would receive are in complete variance with the messages I receive. Where is the conversation? It does not open up one’s world as it did once. Growing up as a child in a small town one knew what good radio programmes could do. 

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