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Book extract: Reading Culture

This book skilfully analyses rhetoric of cinema, comic books, museums and tourism to reveal their political subtexts.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2006 18:51 IST

Reading Culture: Theory, Praxis, Politics
Author: Pramod K Nayar
Pages: 252
Format: Paperback
Publisher: SAGE India
Price: Rs 350
ISBN: 076193474X

This book analyses how forms of public culture in India—cinema, the comic book, the museum and the tourist brochure—generate social meanings. It ‘reads’ the strategies through which they reflect, reinforce and at times contest existing power relations within society.

Using a range of theories and approaches, Pramod Nayar demonstrates how a cultural form or genre encodes narratives of power, and works to marginalise certain identities, norms, modes of thinking and knowledge while valourising others. Using precise jargon-free language, this rigorous examination of the poetics and politics of representation, of the relations between cultural forms and power, serves as a comprehensive introduction to the practice of Cultural Studies.

Reading Culture breaks new ground in analysing the rhetoric of cinema, the comic book, museums and tourism in India to reveal their political subtexts. From patriotic songs in Hindi films to comic book superheroes, from the poetics of display in museums to the projection of 'authenticity' in tourism brochures, this book highlights the politics of public culture. These exhaustive yet highly readable critical analyses will be welcomed by students and scholars of culture studies, museum studies, media studies, humanities and the fine arts.

Here are some excerpts:

From the chapter titled "Screen Culture: Cinema"

In mainstream films, allegiances with and antipathy towards characters orient us, and we react emotionally as a result. Yash Chopra’s latest Veer Zaara (2004) works at the level of emotion. In one scene, Kiron Kher has come to plead with Shah Rukh Khan that he allow her daughter, Preity Zinta, to marry the person the family has chosen. Khan, though desperately in love with Zinta, magnanimously agrees, stating that all mothers, even in India, are like her (Kher). The appeal to motherhood as universal – and transcending the barriers, us/them – cleverly elides the audience’s awareness that we are watching a Hindu/Indian boy and a Muslim/Pakistani woman. This is the allegiance based on moral explanations/awareness that the film extracts.

We need to explore the reification of spectatorship itself. How does a Muslim spectator react to veiled – and sometimes not-so-veiled – comments about the Muslim community’s loyalty to India? How does the community-as-spectator react when they watch a film like Lagaan, which projects Hindu India as ‘the’ India? Here it is the Hindu temple that concentrates the village, when Muslims and Hindus alike gather to pray for help during a crisis. A common, community prayer has to be performed only in a temple, is it?

Here is another excerpt from the chapter titled "Panel Culture: The Comic Book"

White… At the heart of darkness

The Phantom (‘Mr Walker’, when he goes to town) and Tarzan (‘Lord Greystoke’) are two white men who speak the language of animals, natives, the seasons and violence. The Phantom, created by Lee Falk, is a costumed hero fighting crime. He rears dinosaurs and dolphins, and maintains peace in primitive Africa when he is not with his wife Diana and bringing up Kit and Heloise (his two blond, clearly Aryan children). Tarzan, a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his fiction, has English parentage. His parents were abandoned and subsequently killed in Africa. Tarzan, ‘the lord of the jungle’, grows up with apes, can talk to animals, and bursts into jungle songs and primitive ‘curses’ at the slightest opportunity.

The most determinedly colonial of comic books, the white warriors triumph over nature, savages and their own personal traumas. They represent the triumph of white civilization, ingenuity and courage over the ignorant ‘dark continent’, and reinforce traditional colonial stereotypes. Racist, patriarchal and anthropocentric – with some token gestures at animal/nature preservation – The Phantom and Tarzan of the Apes remain the raciest, and most vividly entertaining comic books of all time. Indeed, in lending libraries, these comic books circulate faster than the eye can see.