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Centre for the Study of Culture and Society


2. Cultural Studies

In the previous lesson we saw how complex the concept of culture could be. In this lesson we will look at the history of Cultural Studies.

Most accounts of the history of Cultural Studies point to the origins of the discipline in the West, and also draw attention to the difference between the British and American variants of Cultural Studies. When we talk of Cultural Studies in India, we need to note that British Cultural Studies has certainly been an important influence. However, the emergence of the area in the Indian context has also been determined by developments in the disciplines of history, art history and the study of cinema. Moreover, much of what we may today view as early work in Cultural Studies was in fact not called Cultural Studies.

A working definition of Cultural Studies would be that it is the study of culture in order to understand a society and its politics. While attempting to trace the history of Cultural Studies we need to look at approaches and areas that are clearly related to what we identify as the concerns of Cultural Studies. These would be

— the focus on everyday life and its practices
— a shift away from classical or elite cultural forms to popular or industrially produced forms (such as cinema, television, radio, popular magazines) and
— the focus on ways in which power and authority are exercised in cultural practices Cultural studies uses a wide range of materials from the realm of popular culture (click here to find out about books on popular culture) including films, cartoons, advertisements, newsreports, new media such as the internet, actual spaces such as cinema halls and other urban locations (you will come across some of this material in the lesson Country and the City).

It also looks at legal documents, government records and 'high' art. While shifting the emphasis from the written to the visual, to the topography, to the imaginary, these methodological innovations question the presumed centrality of the written text. Also critical is the notion of culture as a set of meaning making practices. Or in other words, culture is the manner in which a society makes sense of the world.

For the student of culture therefore, an important task is to interpret social and cultural practices in order to arrive at what they mean in a particular context. Like the anthropologist, the student of Cultural Studies would study commonplace or supposedly trivial practices like watching television and more conventionally ‘cultural’ practices like celebrating religious festivals to analyse what they mean to the people concerned. This range of material is studied in order to understand the relationship between what we describe as cultural practices and the acts of representation that form the matter of this culture.

‘Representation’ is a complex term and takes on a number of meanings. You have already come across this concept in the previous lesson. Here is an example that will allow you to see why the concept is of importance to cultural studies.

If there is a picture of a woman superimposed on the map of India, we automatically take it to be more than a picture of a woman, or that of the geographical outline of India. We have—because of the common sets of meanings and concepts that we share—learnt to recognize this as representing mother India, which implies that the nation is being re-presented as the mother. In doing so, a Cultural Studies student would point out, woman is being re-presented as a mother figure, who in turn is equated to the nation. These layers of meanings that get attached to the image of Bharat Mata, were crucial for bringing together people for a nationalist struggle. Further, this important role was played by calendar art, which was a ‘low’ art form. (Click on Bharat Mata to see various visual images linking the Indian woman and the nation).

How did Cultural Studies emerge in India? Let us trace the beginnings of Cultural Studies in India by tracking back in time each of the characteristic features that we now understand as Cultural Studies.


• Subaltern Studies.

1. The move away from elites and their practices: The emphasis on the popular is a relatively recent development and owes its genesis, in part, to an important development in the discipline of history. This was the emergence, in the 1980s, of the subaltern studies school—a group of historians writing on the history of India under colonial rule. An important characteristic of the work by the historians associated with this school is their focus on ‘cultural’ aspects in order to understand historical events, include uprisings and rebellions.

The term ‘subaltern’, which literally means subordinate, a low rank in the army, indicates the group’s political and ideological standpoint. In other words, their writing of history was not from the point of view of the dominant or elite segments of society. Keep in mind that the notion that history tells the stories of kings and queens is still prevalent even in the minds of college students of history today. The subaltern school argued that the history of modern India had only ever been told from the point of view of the colonizer or the indigenous Indian elite. They were interested instead, in studying the ways in which ordinary people—peasants, industrial workers, tribals and others—made history.

Read the following extract by an important historian of the subaltern studies school to understand some of their major concerns.

On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India RANAJIT GUHA (an extract)

The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism-colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism. Both originated as the ideological product of British rule in India, but have survived the transfer of power and been assimilated to neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist forms of discourse in Britain and India respectively. Elitist historiography of the colonialist or neo-colonialist type counts British writers and institutions among its principal protagonists, but has its imitators in India and other countries too. Elitist historiography of neo-nationalist type is primarily an Indian practice but not without imitators in the ranks of liberal historians in Britain and elsewhere. Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of the consciousness - nationalism - which informed this process, were exclusively or predominantly elite achievements. In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions and culture; in the nationalist and neo-nationalist writings-to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas. (...) According to Guha the problem with elitist history, even if it of the nationalist variety is as follows: What, however, historical writing of this kind cannot do is to explain Indian nationalism for us. For it fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism. In this particular respect the poverty of this historiography is demonstrated beyond doubt by its failure to understand and assess the mass articulation of this nationalism except, negatively, as a law and order problem, and positively, if at all, either as a response to the charisma of certain elite leaders or in the currently more fashionable terms of vertical mobilization by the manipulation of factions. The involvement of the Indian people in vast numbers, sometimes in hundreds of thousands or even millions, in nationalist activities and ideas is thus represented as a diversion from a supposedly ‘real’ political process, that is, the grinding away of the wheels of the state apparatus and of elite institutions geared to it, or it is simply credited, as an act of ideological appropriation, to the influence and initiative of the elite themselves. [Click here to read the rest of the statement by Guha] 2. Role of Interpretation: Another key shift that the subaltern studies school made possible was the recognition of the centrality of interpretation. The emphasis on interpretation implicitly recognizes that historical events are available through representations by various sources, including earlier generations of historians. The thrust on interpretation drew attention to the fact that the Subaltern Studies historians were not looking at events as they happened but at colonial records or other kinds of sources about these events. In short they were often looking at representations of historical events such as rebellions and trying to reinterpret them in order to find out what they did not say. Drawing on the emerging field of semiotics they re-interpreted earlier writings to argue that ordinary people were important participants in historical events. Read the following extract by Ranajit Guha from the essay "Prose of Counter-Insurgency".

Indeed there is hardly an instance of the peasantry, whether the cautious and earthy villagers or the plains or the supposedly more volatile adivasis of the upland tracts, stumbling or drifting into rebellion. They had far too much at stake, and would not launch into it except as a deliberate, even if desperate, way out of an intolerable condition of existence. Insurgency in other words, was a motivated and conscious undertaking on the part of the rural masses.

Yet this consciousness seems to have received little notice in the literature on the subject. Historiography has been content to deal with the peasant rebel merely as an empirical person or member of a class, but not as an entity whose will and reason constituted the praxis called rebellion. The omission is indeed dyed into most narratives by metaphors assimilating peasant revolts to natural phenomena: they break out like thunder storms, heave like earthquakes, spread like wildfires, infect like epidemics. In other words, when the proverbial clod of earth turns, this is a matter to be explained in terms of natural history (pg 46). In the essay, Guha examines the records of the colonial administrators as well as commentaries by both British and Indian writers on rebellions. He points out that these writings, contrary to evidence, state that peasant rebellion is either sudden or unplanned. Interpretation is important in the essay at two levels. Firstly, Guha interprets the writings of earlier historians to show where they have gone wrong. Secondly, Guha argues, the mistake of earlier historians is one of interpretation of the material they came across. This material, Guha states, can be re-interpreted to show that peasant rebellion is indeed a planned activity, which demonstrates that the peasant acts consciously when he rebels.

  1. What to study? These historians often used rumours and stories—in short, popular cultural forms—and oral accounts of participants in various agitations and movements as sources for history writing because common people do not leave behind written records of what they do. Their point of view is not to be found in official records and therefore alternative sources need to be unearthed in order to understand the actions of these people.

Read the following extract from Shahid Amin’s essay, "Gandhi as Mahatma" for an idea of the kind of sources that these historians used: Stories about Gandhi's occult powers first appeared in the local press in late January 1921. An issue of Swadesh which announced his arrival in the district also carried a report under the heading: Gandhi in dream: Englishmen run away naked. A loco-driver—presumably an Anglo-Indian—who had dozed off while reading a newspaper at Kasganj railway station in Etah district woke up from a nightmare at 11 p.m. and ran towards a cluster of bungalows occupied by the English and some Indian railway officers shouting: Man, run, man! Gandhi is marching at the head of several strong Indians decimating the English. This caused a panic and all the local white population emerged from their bedrooms in a state of undress and ran towards the station. The key to the armoury at the station was asked for, but could not be found as the officer-in-charge was away. English women were locked up in boxes and almirahs, and some Englishmen were heard saying, "Man! The cries of jai jai are still reaching our ears. We shall not go back to our bungalows." In the morning Indians who heard of this incident in the city had a good laugh at this example of English self-confidence (atmik-bal). This story, first published in the Banaras daily Aaj and then in Swadesh, is illustrative of the wider tendency of the times to berate British power and boost Indian prowess by contrast. The British emerge in tales of this kind as a weak-kneed race, mortally afraid of the non-violent Mahatma. Other stories to appear in the press just prior to and immediately after his arrival were about a lawyer of Deoria who was cursed by a follower of Gandhi for going back on his promise to give up legal practice and had his house polluted with shit; about a high-caste woman who suffered the same polluting fate after she had denied a young boy a blanket to protect him from the cold when he wanted to go to the station at night to seek darshan; about a Kahar who tried to test the Mahatma's power with a foolish wish and came out the worse for it; and about a Pandit who sought to defy Gandhi by insisting on eating fish only to find it crawling with worms. These stories have the same sequential and structural characteristics as many others reported from Gorakhpur. Taken together and classified according to their motifs, they may be said to fall into four fairly distinct groups:

i) Testing the power of the Mahatma ii) Opposing the Mahatma iii) Opposing the Gandhian creed in general and with respect to dietary, drinking and smoking taboos iv) Boons granted and/or miracles performed in the form of recovery of things lost and regeneration of trees and wells (...)

[You can visit this link to read the entire essay, which studies rumours and stories about Gandhi].

  1. What is political? They also argued that peasant insurgencies, for example, were political in that they negated (resisted, rejected) existing power relations in the colonial period. Read the following excerpt that makes a strong argument on why peasant rebellion, thought of as outbursts and often likened to natural calamities in the past, were in fact political: There was nothing spontaneous about all this in the sense of being unthinking and wanting in deliberation. The peasant obviously knew what he was doing when he rose in revolt. The fact that this was designed primarily to destroy the authority of the superordinate elite and carried no elaborate blueprint for its replacement, does not put it outside the realm of politics.On the contrary, insurgency affirmed its political characterprecisely by its negative and inversive procedure. By trying to force a mutual substitution of the dominant and the dominated in the power structure it left nothing to doubt about its own identity as a project of power. As such it was perhaps less primitive than it is often presumed to be. More often than not it lacked neither in leadership nor in aim nor even in some rudiments of a programme, although none of these attributes could compare in maturity or sophistication with those of the historically more advanced movements of the twentieth century. The evidence is ample and unambiguous on this point.

Of the many cases discussed in this work there is none that could be said to have been altogether leaderless. Almost each had indeed some sort of a central leadership to give it a name and ome cohesion, although in no instance was it fully in control of the many local initiatives originating with grassroot leaders whose authority was as fragmented as their standing short in duration. Quite clearly one is dealing here with a pheomenon that was nothing like a modern party leadership but could perhaps be best described, in Gramsci’s words, as "multiple elements of Ecconscious leadership" but no one of them.. predominant. Which is of course a very different thing from stigmatizing these loosely oriented struggles as ‘sub-political’ outbreaks of mass impetuosity without any direction and form. Again, if aim and programme are a measure of politics, the militant mobilizations of our period must be regarded as more or less political. Not one of them was quite aimless, although the aim was more elaborately and precisely defined in some events than in others. The Barasat peasantry led by Titu Mir, the Santals under the Subuh brothers and the Mundas under Birsa all stated their objectives to be power in one form or another. Peasant kings were a characteristic product of rural revolt throughout the subcontinent, and an anticipation of power was indexed on some occasions by the rebels designating themselves as a formally constituted army (fuuj), their commanders as law-enforcing personnel (e.g. duroga, subuhdar, nasir, etc.) , and other leaders as ranked civilian officials (e.g. dewan, nuib, etc.) - all by way of simulating the functions of a state apparatus. That the raj they wanted to substitute for the one they were out to destroy did not quite conform to the model of a secular and national state and their concept of power failed to rise above localism, sectarianism and ethnicity, does not take away from the essentially political character of their activity but defines the quality of that politics by specifying its limitations. [Excerpted from: "Introduction," Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, pp. 9-10. If you are interested in reading the entire essay, click on this link


• Womens History


 In the 1980s, important developments in feminism drew attention to the difficulties of writing a history of women and their participation in politics as well as their contribution to various human activities, including literature.

In a move that had clear parallels with subaltern studies but also extended the scope of the subaltern studies project to cover women as well, the book We Were Making History (1989) drew attention to the issue of women’s participation in political movements. The book is a history of the Communist led Telangana armed struggle (waged between 1948-1951 in what is now a region in Andhra Pradesh) as told by the women who participated in it.

The book reveals the active participation of women in the armed uprising in various capacities, from running shelters to guerilla actions. However, the book’s editors argue, while pointing out the extent of women’s participation is necessary, a work of women’s history cannot stop here. A work that stops at drawing attention to the participation of women in historical events would be a contributory women’s history. Instead what they are interested in is women's history, which demands a re-centring of knowledge ("Writing about Women in Struggles", p. 22). In other words, knowledge has to be produced with another centre—one that is capable of showing how women make our world. In a contributory history, "Women are not seen as making history, or as having shaped the movement, only as having contributed to it." ("Writing about Women in Struggles", p. 25). They go on to state that they are interested in, "What is history like when it is seen through the eyes of women and judged by the values they define, what were their experiences, what was the movement for them? (…) In this history women are not spoken about, they speak for themselves" (p. 26).

[Click here to read the entire essay] The book uses oral accounts of women who participated in the Telangana struggle. The reason for the choice, according to the editors of the books is: "For us as a women’s group searching our past, oral history has a particular appropriateness. Though women have traditionally been marginalized in written cultures, they have always told stories and sung songs. These are often stories or songs that uphold the norms of a culture and serve to maintain the hold of its ideology. But they are also stories of those who resisted power and fought injustice. For each other, women have always had stories that never saw the light of more public modes of patriarchal cultures" (p. 28). Notice once again the choice of sources, which as in the case of subaltern studies historians emphasizes the need to move away from ‘official’ records in order to learn about how ordinary people make history.


• Studying Popular Culture


Although popular culture, especially industrially produced culture termed mass culture, has been studied at some length earlier, the Cultural Studies approach to cultural forms and practices is traceable to the work of the 1970s and 1980s. This new work was not concerned with the negative impact of popular cultural forms (such as cinema or television) on society. Instead it focussed on how cultural forms help us understand society. In the Indian context the contributors to the Journal of Arts and Ideas carried out important work of the new variety. The journal published essays on ‘high art’ as well as popular or mass culture simultaneously.

The approach to both high and low art forms was often based on very similar concerns, such as understanding how cultural forms were political. One key area of concern for the journal was the question of culture and ideology.

Parallel developments in other journals, especially the influential Economic and Political Weekly, made popular culture and everyday cultural practices an important area of academic work in disciplines such as literature, sociology and history. In the early 1990s there was an important discussion on the film Roja (1992). Known as the ‘Roja debate’, this discussion marks an important stage in the study of popular cinema in India. These essays were certainly concerned with the political significance of the film Roja. But the participants in the discussion suggested that the film was important to understand political developments in India.


• Activity

Go to the following URL: Link and go to the essay by M. Madhava Prasad, “Cinema and the Desire for Modernity.” Read pages 71-76 of the essay. In the light of the discussion above, you will find it interesting that Prasad not only examines popular culture but also an issue that initially strikes us as unimportant.You too might have come across writing stating that Indian films till recently did not show lovers kissing on the screen. This in itself does not strike us as being ‘political’ or in fact having any great significance at all. Notice how in this excerpt the author interprets the significance of the prohibition of scenes depicting kissing in Indian films.

Visit and read the following essays on the film Roja

Interrogating Whose Nation? Tourists and Terrorists in ‘Roja’-Tejaswini Niranjana More on Roja – MSS Pandian and Venkatesh Chakravarthy

Exercise 1 Read the following entry on Cultural Studies in the Wikipedia and pay attention to the differences between British and American Cultural Studies. List the salient features of both. Cultural studies combines sociology, literary theory, film/video studies, and cultural anthropology to study cultural phenomena in industrial societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, race, social class, and/or gender. Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. Particular meanings attach to the ways people in particular cultures do things. In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies: Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power. It has the objective of understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analysing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself. It is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action. It attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit (cultural knowledge) and objective (universal) forms of knowledge. * It has a commitment to a moral evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action. Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field's inception in the late 1970s.

The British version of cultural studies, as developed under the influence of Richard Hoggart, included overtly political, leftist views, and criticisms of popular culture as capitalist mass culture; it absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the "culture industry" (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British cultural studies scholars and their influences: see the work of (for example) Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.

In contrast, the American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; American cultural studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. See the writings of critics such as Paul Gilroy. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded. Some scholars, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture. Other approaches to cultural studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this rigidly deterministic view. They criticise the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product. Another major point of criticism involved the traditional view assuming a passive consumer.

Other views challenge this, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive, and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject, or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with identity. Stuart Hall has become influential in these developments. Some commentators have described the shift towards meaning as the cultural turn. In the context of cultural studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also films, photographs, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of ‘culture’. ‘Culture’ for a cultural studies researcher not only includes the traditional high arts and popular arts, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies. —This entry is from: Exercise 2 From your reading of the lesson can you give a brief description of the concerns and focuses of Cultural Studies in India?


• Further Reading



If you are interested in reading more about Subaltern Studies, go to You can find here an interview with Partha Chatterjee, one of the most prominent subaltern historians, and read what he has to say


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