television

Reflecting on Hindi TV as an Autoethnographer: Mahabharat and Hindu Epics

Watching the first episode of the 1988 Hindi TV-series Mahabharat and accounting for my experience by live-tweeting my thoughts and opinions on the show has left me with a lot of questions. Is television anywhere near as popular in India as a pastime as it is in Australia? What was the real message behind the show? Why on earth was Ganga killing all her children?

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Ganga and King Santanu (Image Source)

With these questions and my cultural assumptions in mind, — which can be found in my first post here — reflecting on my autoethnographic accounts of a cultural phenomenon can be insightful and revelatory. Reflective analysis not only highlights “dominant narratives” and “ways of thinking” about culture but also pursues a deeper understanding of such experiences on a larger cultural scale (Warren, 2009). By scrutinising my initial comments and assumptions, and by conducting a little more research on all those postulations I tweeted about, here I am, trying to make sense of my Mahabharat experience.

My first enquiry is into the prevalence of television in India, and more precisely, the popularity of Mahabharat across the country. Researching this felt like a history lesson, but albeit an intriguing one. Television for me is a staple, and consuming programs on TV like there is no tomorrow is something I pride myself on. Television in India was introduced in 1959, however “transmission was restricted to areas in and around the capital city of Dehli for over a decade” (Kumar, 2006, p.57). With the arrival of the TV in the Indian family home came the inevitability of globalisation, and moreover a connection to “an increasingly mobile world around them” (Kumar, 2006, p.64). Television allowed families to share in entertainment experiences, created a bond between individuals and the characters they saw on-screen and moreover kept people informed.

As for Mahabharat, “the religious epic captured the collective imagination of Indian viewers” (Kumar, 2006, p.76) since its inception and release. Programs such as this have entrenched a sense of national identity for members of the Indian community (Kumar, 2012), and have been reflections of Indian values, mores and social and cultural norms. To say the show was successful would be an understatement, reaching a diaspora of over five million individuals. “Within weeks of its launch, the TV show became part of many Sunday morning routines” (Awaasthi, 2016). The Mahabharat series has since seen two modern adaptations released as a result of its popular reception in the past, with Lavanya Mohan (2015), writer for the The Hindu stating that “BR Chopra’s Mahabharat revolutionised Indian television of the nineties.

Now that context has been somewhat established and the history of Indian television successes has been explored, my next question is about the content I saw in the first episode of Mahabharat. There were several times throughout the course of the 40 minute show I was left scratching my head in confusion. Was this simply because of a cultural barrier or was the show itself confusing? My guess is the aforementioned.

Mahabharata — note the ‘a’ at the end this time — is one of the major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Denoting information on the development of Hinduism, the poem was traditionally attributed to be the work of Vyasa. According to James L. Fitzgerald (2009) of Brown University, the Mahabharata presents sweeping visions of the cosmos and humanity and intriguing and frightening glimpses of divinity in an ancient narrative that is accessible, interesting, and compelling for anyone willing to learn the basic themes of India’s culture.” The sacred text was the basis for the television series Mahabharat, and the first episode I saw was regarding the story of Devavrata.

To put it briefly, the first instalment of the Mahabharat series shares the story of King Shantanu and the relationship he has with the goddess Ganga, with whom he marries in human form. She is described by her “superhuman loveliness” (Rajagopalachari, 1979, p.19) and Shantanu’s infatuation with her is duly noted. Following the birth of their children — they have several throughout the course of the first episode — Ganga drowns them in the sacred river Ganges. The first episode of Mahabharat doesn’t explain why Ganga does this, however it is believed that it was due to a curse. So, mystery solved? I think so.

Watching the first episode of Mahabharat with absolutely no knowledge on traditional Hindu stories, the Mahabharata or Sanskrit epics proved challenging to say the least. Not only was it made clear that I was an outsider in this cultural experience, but it also highlighted how unfamiliar cultural phenomena can lose meaning when shared across transnational borders. As I tried to make sense of my Mahabharat experience my own understandings of Hinduism and India’s entertainment industry were confronted with new ideas and interpretations.

As I have acknowledged before, autoethnography demands self-reflexivity and openness to interpret a cultural experience. By researching my cultural assumptions and addressing my ethnically driven concerns with information from books, eminent media platforms and social and historical commentary, my experience and understanding of Indian television and the Mahabharat experience I encountered has profoundly changed. The next time I sit down to watch an episode of Mahabharat I won’t be so thrown by Ganga drowning her children, and I will be able to appreciate the cultural heritage present in the telling of a great Hindu epic.


References:

Watching Hindi TV as an Autoethnographer: Mahabharat and Live-Tweeting

I have been a fan of Bollywood film ever since I was first introduced to the three-hour classic Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in high school. I can quite clearly remember being amazed by the intricate details in the costumes, the set designs and the drama throughout the course of the film. Last year I even dedicated my DIGC202 project to my Bollywood film experiences through the form of a YouTube channel.

Wanting to stick with something somewhat familiar to me — that being my growing appreciation for Hindi culture, —  I decided to focus my autoethnographic research project on my experience of Hindi television. In doing so, I hoped to further heighten my understanding of Indian culture and thus become a more culturally aware individual.

 

Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience.”  By live-tweeting my personal experience of a Hindi television show — an aspect of Indian culture entirely foreign to me — I hoped to produce an authentic account of my experience that could enhance my understanding of Indian culture. Autoethnography as a methodology aims to “facilitate understanding of a culture for insiders and outsiders,” and whilst viewing Hindi TV for the first time, my status as a cultural outsider became painfully apparent.

Upon deciding on experiencing Indian TV for my autoethnographic research project, I was then tasked with finding an appropriate Hindi television program. It was here that I became awfully aware of the fact that I was an outsider looking in. When choosing an Indian TV program to watch, I found it incredibly hard to locate a show online that was both accessible in Australia and had English subtitles. I initially wanted to watch a TV show called Comedy Nights with Kapil due to its SNL parallels and comedic value in India, but after several failed attempts to find an episode with English subtitles, I gave up and chose something completely different. Due to its universal accessibility — meaning it was available with English subtitles on YouTube — I chose Mahabharat as the field site of my autoethnographic research.

Mahabharat, produced and directed by B.R. and Ravi Chopra, was first aired in India in 1988. It tells the story of the Hindu epic of the same name, abounding in religious, social and political history and commentary. The 94-episode series falls into the historical-drama genre and was well received by audiences across India and made popular transnationally thanks to the diversification of Indian diaspora.

In order to share my autoethnographic experience of Mahabharat and provide a detailed account of my thoughts, feelings and interactions I decided to live-tweet whilst watching the first episode. Twitter has been utilised among many as a tool for interactive communication, accessible to the masses as a way to actively participate in conversation and debate (Kassens-Noor, 2012). In choosing Twitter as the outlet for my initial accounts of Mahabharat I was aware that my unfiltered commentary would be readily accessible to any user who happened to search the Mahabharat or DIGC330 tag. It is believed that live-tweeting “promotes connections with real-life learning, thereby encouraging critical reflection and fostering enhanced understanding” (Kassens-Noor, 2012, p.11). I wanted the live-tweeting process to not only enhance the cultural experience I was immersing myself in, but to ultimately challenge the way in which I “see how every day communication produces cultural norms” (Warren, 2009). Some of the tweets I shared whilst encountering Mahabharat for the first time — and the first impressions, cultural assumptions and opinions I had on the show — have been included below.

  • My initial commentary on the gender roles presented in Mahabharat reflected a disparity between men and women:

  • The significance of religion and spirituality in Mahabharat was addressed on several occasions:

  • Ideas and thoughts I shared on issues of translation in Mahabharat, or concepts I simply did not understand revealed my status as a ‘cultural outsider’:

  • My final tweets regarding the conclusion of the episode summed up the messages or lessons I interpreted throughout the program:

In my attempts to discern unfamiliar cultural meanings and contexts, I have been able to expand on the knowledge I had previously possessed on Indian social values and norms. Moreover, by participating in my viewing experience of Mahabharat I have been able to question my own place in the world, and how this in turn shapes the way in which I interpret or make sense of others. Mahabharat as a field site has consequently both enlightened and challenged my “assumptions of the world” and has hopefully made me a more culturally appreciative and understanding individual.


References:

  • Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P., 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1.
  • Kassens-Noor, E., 2012, ‘Twitter as a teaching practice to enhance active and informal learning in higher education: The case of sustainable tweets’, Active Learning in Higher Education, 13(1), Michigan State University, Sage Publications, pp.9-21.
  • Warren, J.T., 2009, ‘Autoethnography’ in Encyclopaedia of Communication Theory, SAGE Publications, p.68-69.

Boss Coffee

I should probably remember that ‘globally famous’ includes sometimes being famous in other countries that don’t revolve around my life. Why is it so weird that Tommy Lee Jones is a spokesperson for Boss coffee? It’s not, and I need to remind myself of that.

 

 

In this series of commercials for Boss coffee Tommy Lee Jones plays an alien who has come to earth and is learning about it and the people that inhabit it. In every commercial he has a new profession where he comments on human behaviour as strange but then always ends with something along the lines of ‘but they have alright canned coffee’. If you haven’t seen them, please do, because they’re both funny and classic Tommy Lee Jones. This is not the first promotional campaign Jones has signed up for, he is in fact quite popular in Japan and has recently signed on to join SoftBank’s long-running series of White Family commercials. In all of Jones’s commercials he plays his classic deadpan serious  and yet likeable persona.

 

 

Apparently Jones visits Japan regularly and genuinely enjoys the culture and country so much so that Japan is the only country he still visits while promoting his films. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Jones was the only foreigner to sing in a commercial intended to raise the countries spirits with other Japanese celebrities. Not only has Jones become such a familiar face and active member within Japanese media but he seems to have developed such a strong personal relationship with the people and culture of Japan.

I guess in a way my original reaction of ‘what?! why Tommy Lee Jones?’ just ties back to the stereotype of Japan being weird. I mean looking at why Tommy Lee Jones is so prevalent there, watching the commercials and enjoying them myself, I can understand why this relationship exists… or at least I think I do.

Japanese Commercials

I’m in love with Japanese commercials, partly because it’s strange to me and partly because they have a unique appreciation for Tommy Lee Jones. I had seen a few here and there but hadn’t thoroughly explored them until more recently.

 

 

Apparently when watching Japanese television there isn’t as clear of a distinction between the show being aired and the commercial break. From what I’ve seen and been told by my friend Kyle, who studies Japanese and has done study abroad in Japan a few times and whom also introduces me to awesome Japanese tv shows, Japanese media seems to be much more fast paced. My first impressions of the commercials in this video are not only are these insane but quite a few of the commercials, whilst eye catching, are unrelated to the product they’re selling. While I do let out a classic sigh of ‘oh Japan…’ when watching these intense segments I’ve come to think ‘well… what about American television and the insanity of Honey Boo Boo?’ To be honest I’ve just succumbed to the stereotype of Japanese people being weird and haven’t just viewed it solely as ‘entertainment’, and that’s something that I will have to work on.

 

When thinking about what media I will explore and what specific countries media I will research I have to admit that I am scared of confusing cultures. Yes, I know a bit about Japan, South Korea and China but linguistically, culturally and even ethnically I don’t know enough to actually tell various countries and cultures apart (yes I know I’m a little racist and I’m a terrible Asian). Additionally when I think about countries that aren’t South Korea, Japan, China and the Philippines (because I’m Filipino, not because it’s popular in Western media) I realize that I really don’t know anything about their digital cultures. Personally I’ve never looked at commercials and media for other countries such as Mongolia, but now I am pretty curious to find out what their overall style is.

 

Reconnecting with my childhood.

Sailor Moon was my Superman. She was the hero that my seven – year – old self aspired to be. I mean who wouldn’t love to be a moon princess who fights for crime and justice, eats a lot of food, and cries when things don’t go her way – not to mention have a dreamy guy in a mask lust over you.

However as I grew older Sailor Moon changed from the hero I wanted to be. She became a distant memory. The toys I once owned were discarded, the costumes tucked into the deepest corners of my wardrobe. The television series was all but forgotten. I was perfectly fine with the present situation, however on July 5th 2014, everything changed.

According to Den of Geek, the reboot of the anime version of Sailor Moon was announced two years ago at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary. The Fandom went crazy. Every person had a different theory for what path the show would take. Would it be closer to a remake of the original anime? Would they stick to the Manga this time around?

When I first heard about the reboot, I – like the other hundreds of fangirls – freaked out! But it also had me reminiscing on the anime that was. Before watching the new and improved I decided to do a little research on the TV series that changed my life. The information that i had found prompted me to look deeper into the difference between the Japanese or Eastern version of the anime, to the localised version shown in the West.

Looking into the show I fell in love with I discovered a huge amount of changes. According to Rebecca Ballanger of Bookmans Entertainment Exchange the American version was altered due to the “reoccurring themes of adolescent sexuality and homosexuality”. When I watched the original anime as a child the link between Sailor Moon and Japanese culture was almost non-existent. This could mean that the Americanised version perhaps went a little too crazy at altering the anime for Western audiences.

For my research project I will be looking at the difference in not only the reboot and the original, but also the East vs. West portrayal of both new and old. It has been confirmed that an American version of the new Sailor Moon Crystal will be happening, so it’ll be interesting to see if they follow their previous path or stick more closely to the already successful Japanese version.

References:

Ballanger, R 2014, Too Many Girlfriends: Sailor Moon’s Censored Life in the U.S, Bookmans Entertainment Exchange, May 11, viewed August 11, http://bookmans.com/too-many-girlfriends-sailor-moons-censored-life-us/

Mammano, M 2014, The Sailor Moon Reboot: what we now and what to expect, Den of Geek, April 7, viewed August 11, http://www.denofgeek.us/tv/sailor-moon/167439/the-sailor-moon-reboot-what-we-know-and-what-to-expect