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Transmitting the TV Nation: Cultural Policy and National Identity through the performing arts on Doordarshan(1976-89)

Communication technology and media have been constitutive elements of Indian modernity and played a significant role in constructing the spectacle of the nation during the decades of the 1970s-80s. The Nehruvian socialist vision was deeply connected with ideas of scientificity and technological advancement as instruments of nation-building. However, it was not Nehru himself, but Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who harnessed the power of television to disseminate the vision, values and views of the state. The strategies connected with the state’s relationship with television changed remarkably during 1964, when Indira Gandhi was the minister for information and broadcasting and in 1966 with her ascent to power. At this point, the Chanda Committe recommended overall expansion of television for the purpose of development, but also questioned the government’s monopoly over broadcast media and proposed an autonomous national television service. This suggestion was strongly resisted with the argument that national interest necessitated control over an impactful medium like television. Development was strategically linked to communication technology and Vikram Sarabhai, who was heading Indian Space Research organisation at that time, also advocated television for national integration and social and economic progress.1 The actual expansion of television started during the Emergency (1975). While on one hand, severe censorship was imposed upon the print media, broadcast media was used by the state as pivotal device to steer public opinion. In 1976, television, which had been operating as a subset of All India Radio, was established as a separate entity called Doordarshan. The year 1982 marked the colour television era in India, following the historic telecast of Asian Games on Doordarshan.

In the 1980s in India, television emerged as an important medium for dissemination of information, a tool of education and a site for construction and reinforcement of a ‘ national identity’. The apprehension of cultural imperialism and the prime motive of developing and reinforcing a national cultural identity emerge as critical factors that determined the trajectory of representation through the performing arts on national state-owned television. During this time, India was also at the forefront for the call for a New World Information and Communication Order (that emerged out of debates regarding imbalance in global communication and media representation at the UNESCO meet). Concepts of ‘Indianness’ were also getting defined with international exposure and exchange between artistes at the World Cultural Festivals and the cultural exchanges with the USSR. The classical arts operated as strong cultural symbols of ‘ Indianness’.

The National Programme of Music and Dance on Doordarshan was an exclusive segment for the classical performing arts. The genres of music and dance, the artistes and the repertoire selected for telecast were significant indicators of the cultural policy and the promotion of specific cultural symbols for the reinforcememt of national identity. These also operated as sources of legitimization of the categories of ‘classical’ and ‘ folk’ and often articulated genealogies of the ‘classical’, mythologizing and linking it with the glorious cultural pasts.

Secondly, the spaces of performance and reception underwent changes in form and format with their inclusion into broadcast media. However, during this time, the performing art was not reconfigured into unique televisual formats for the National programme. The television studio actually replicated a proscenium stage, thus attempting to authenticate both—the performance and its appropriate performance space and to perform the function of ‘mediating’ the performance without interference.

For instance, ‘Jashn-e-Wajid Ali Shah’ featuring Birju Maharaj and Bharti Gupta was a televisual adaptation of the stage performance. The dance piece is closely connected with the history of one of the major classical dances of India—Kathak.

On 15th August 1988 (Independence Day), a unique national integration song and video was telecast on Doordarshan after the Prime minister’s speech—Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. It aimed at highlighting the ‘unity in diversity’ aspect of India with its various linguistic and regional communities and their integration within the over-arching umbrella of ‘Indianness’. The video charts out the cultural geography of the State and defines identities of its people. The pan-Indian character of the song was embedded in the lyrics where one phrase is repeated in fourteen different Indian languages. It is noteworthy that the video shows icons from the field of literature, art, music, dance, film and sports as ambassadors for this national integration.

“The way in which the state dealt with television reveals that it not only expected it to represent national equality through its messages, but interpreted the medium itself as a representative of the advanced, ideologically balanced and culturally monolithic nation state. Television had developed from and stood for a standardised national unity...”2

Tapping into the imagination of the imagined community3 of the nation, state-owned television in India during the 1970s and 80s operated as a mechanism for performing the ‘nation’.

“Doordarshan was the state’s own theatre, an arena where the ‘nation’ and the ‘state’ were omnipresent, an organic whole existing in perpetuity and the centre of all activity.”4

The paper would explore how this television as a‘ theatre of the state’—Doordarshan, imaged and imagined the nation and in what way agencies of cultural control defined, transformed and operated through the performing arts. The archive, in this context would be connected with the dialogue between broadcasting, performance, technology and cultural identity.

1 See Sevanti Ninan, Through the Magic Window, p.22

2 Britta Ohm, “Doordarshan: Representing the Nation’s State” in Brosius and Butcher (eds.) Image Journeys, p. 78

3 Reference to Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘Imagined Community’

4 Nalin Mehta, India on Television: How Satellite News Channels Have Changed the Way We Think and Act, (Harper Collins: New Delhi),2008, p. 25