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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Conceptualizing the Popular: Some Notes: Susie Tharu

A report by Chithira Eliza, EFL University Hyderabad.

A talk titled "Conceptualizing the Popular: Some Notes" was organized by the Department of Cultural Studies, English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad on 4th August 2013. The talk was given by Prof. Susie Tharu, one of the faculty members of the same university.

The main attempt of the talk was to distinguish between popular culture/art and high culture/art. Some of the questions that were taken into consideration at the beginning of the talk were: (i) How do we conceptualize the popular; (ii) what is the popular; (iii) What are the ways in which people have tried to understand and write about it; and (iv) why is this understanding significant. Tharu argues that even though popular culture is presented to us in a very simple manner which appears to be highly comprehensive, in reality and technically speaking, popular culture is unreadable. She contrasts her argument with the tremendous literacy. According to her, due to the presence of several discourses like philosophy, criticism, the high art get easily readable and one becomes comfortable with the canonical criticisms and pedagogies in high art. She differentiates popular culture and high culture as two different entities because unlike popular culture, high culture provides with an experience of "lift" refers to something that takes an individual out of him/herself.

Unreadability of popular culture doesn't mean that there are no efforts made to read it. Tharu looks into how to read popular culture rather than how to appreciate high art. Therefore she puts forth two propositions: (i) there are complexities involved in these readings, and (ii) high culture/art and popular culture/art are not similar and not two objects that can be placed under the same framework. She divides the popular into two categories: (i) good popular involving skilled, sophisticated, folk art which can be redeployed and used in a popular form at a pedagogic mode, and (ii) corrupt, unruly and popular culture that can be witnessed in the cities and in the culture of urban lower classes, especially the cinema. In this scenario, good art falls in alignment with the state and the bad art needs to be disciplined.

Considering cinema, it was seen as a threat to establishment, order of things, good culture due to which disciplinary measures came up such as censor board, cinema-related norms. But, from 1970s onwards, writings related to cinema emerged. Ashis Nandy, Madhav Prasad, M.S.S Pandian were some who wrote upon cinema. If Nandy claimed the popular culture that involved cinema as authentic, Prasad viewed it as an extension of the state while Pandian looked upon its relevance and authenticity. In the field of academics, during 1970s-1980s, a popular 'turn' took place with the unravelling of the earlier consensus regarding concepts like what is India, what is Indian and the like. Many theorists looked upon the issue of this unravelling such as Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kaviraj, Rajni Kothari and according to them, when such an unravelling happens, the national scene gets changed and makes one difficult to get a sense of it. Among the changes, Tharu cites three. Firstly, the nature of political parties get changed as they play a very important role due to their weightage and representation at a mass level. Nowadays, one can witness a shift from 'charismatic leader' of the party to ' charismatic family'. Secondly, new constituencies emerge such as women, dalits, backward castes, religious minorities and regional elites. Thirdly, there is the emergence of Hindu majoritarinism, especially Hindutva movement.

Susie Tharu also looks upon the issue of subaltern and feminism in order to analyze popular culture. She argues that it is very difficult to read the intellectual knowledge of the subaltern. The subaltern are interested in studying how the doctrine of elites works. When the latter tries to govern the former, there is a reaction against the government or the popular. Thus an idea of nationalism emerges among the subaltern. Considering the feminist critic of literature, they do not merely look into art through an understanding format, they also look at it as an institution that identifies, appreciates, circulates and evaluates the literary works. Thus there is a gradual displacement of the old, patriarchal literature as a new popular form erupts. Feminism presents popular as the battle between traditional elite culture and popular culture.

Tharu concludes the talk by analyzing popular practices. She looks upon the recognition of the importance of these practices. According to her, it is located in the 'in-between spaces' like space of moral medicine, illegal commercial institutions. She takes the support of culture of medicine in order to strengthen her argument. There is a narration of a gradual development from primitive to scientific medical knowledge in most of the medical textbooks. The recent studies show that the origin of medicine is a recent one and can be traced amidst modern state/nation. People talk about medicine nowadays because of the huge investment made by the state into this field. But Tharu opines that there is a lack between individual sickness and the medical system as they are two different systems. She then projects several medical practices followed by common men in their daily lives and finally poses the question: how do we extract a theory from these practices?