Delving deep into the memory, everyday life, biographies and history of television screening culture, Prof. Biswajit Das in the text below, offers a ‘qualitative and descriptive analysis of the ways in which viewers lived a significant proportion, with wider ramifications, of their everyday life with television in Rural Rajasthan’. The text constitutes a part of his paper titled “From Site to Terrestrial Television: Television in everyday life in rural Rajasthan“.
Set in rural Rajasthan, this paper tries to find out: : ‘How do people relate themselves to the medium and the televised events in their day to day lives? In the sphere of everyday life, do people trust television? Do people believe what it says? and finally, do people believe what the people say in the television?'”
The introduction of television in the mid 1980s in rural Rajasthan can be viewed as a critical event in the medium’s genealogy, providing insight into the way television acquired meaning as a cultural form. Today, the medium has almost received acceptability and ‘taken for grantedness’ in everyday life in rural area. However, the initial years also provide interesting account about people’s perception of technology and life surrounding it.
Memory of Television
During the interview, the questions relating to the respondents’ first memory of television turned out to be very insightful for our research endeavor. Most of them were initially hard faced and reluctant, however felt comfortable and opened up gradually. Some of the responses were:
My first memory of Television is of days I was young……..
Oh, those were the days……… things were very bad here……
Something like Television ……. Some people came …….
They said our problems would be solved by watching it …
My distant memory, I don’t know……..
I encouraged the respondents to narrate their childhood experience: “Well I am a Rajput by caste and we live in this village for more than hundred years……this is our village……..
After few minutes of interview, i came upon the first memory of television:
those were the days…….
people were going out in search of jobs…….
there was drought and famine……..
somebody said that some outsiders came with a machine……
some people are inside the machine……….
they advise you solutions for all kinds of calamities……….
While verifying this popular memory i came to know that the village was dominated by Rajputs. Television was introduced in this village when the region was afflicted with drought and famine. Television’s role was viewed as a messiah to solve the calamities in the village. Each participant came up with a distinct memory of his own. One of the old woman said:
she wanted to see that machine………
she was not allowed to go in the evening………
In a society where male and female relations are so distant and where women remain constantly under veil, never venture into a public place to share with the male folk. Be it in home or outside they have to maintain a distinct image for themselves otherwise they are ostracized by the community as well as the village society.
Memories of television increased in importance as the interview progressed through time, and the same events were quoted by the participants more and more often. Another old woman in the village mentioned that :
During her childhood her neighbour said………
not only it speaks…………..
seen through naked eyes…..
so many things….so many people can remain inside the box….
TV sets are made in foreign countries……..
Only foreigners can do such wonders…………
The other young male respondent, while narrating his childhood experience of television said:
This machine was meant for the upper caste people…………
His father never went nor did he take him to the sight……..
Memories of the SITE Experiments
By cross-checking, we were able to put a date to this memory. The official memory of the SITE experiment dates back to 1976. This experiment was introduced in Rajasthan for educational purpose. The experiment continued for some time and subsequently, the countrywide school education project was introduced through television. Experiments have been undertaken time and again with a pretext of reaching the rural audience. Further, a developing country can not openly support such investment in television technology unless there is an element of ‘rural’ anxiety associated with it.
The popular memory of the villagers can not recall these experiments in a chronological order. As some of the elderly man said they did not have the chance of watching television in their tender years due to existing social deprivation within the rural society. Inter caste hierarchised relations in rural society were the marker as well as the decisive factor in governing communicative relations. Television as a technology could not remain outside the purview of such hierarchy, neither could it bridge the gap between upper and lower caste in the village community. On the contrary, inter caste relations governed the social relations of appropriation and acquisitions of TV technology in rural society.
The TV set in the village school
Some of the upper caste members in the village provided interesting accounts relating to their memory of television. As an elder member highlighted: He was very young when the TV set came to the village and was installed in the school. The school was chosen because it was more spacious so that more people could watch it. Every evening he used to go with his father to see the programs. There, he used to meet his friends and they used to sit in the front row to watch the program. They used to scream when the image came on the screen. The images fascinated them because their curiosity was to know: ‘how some body could manage to remain inside the box’
They visited the school the next morning and loitered near the TV room, which used to be locked during the day time. Whenever they had a chance to enter the room, they looked around the set and “explored the hole through which the man entered inside the TV set”.
During evening they used to watch varieties of program starting from agriculture, family planning, rural development and so on. Most of these program used to give advice using various types of seeds, manures, pesticides, small family norm, family planning program, sanitation, cleanliness and health and hygiene.
The man inside the box
Some of them used to go back home and discuss with their parents for “following the instructions as advised by the man inside the box”. Their parents used to argue with them by saying that “ this man did not know anything about their village. Neither, did he have any ideas about the land and soil, water resources and the economic conditions of the household in the rural areas. Whatever he was prescribing was meant for rich households with good land resources. If we would follow his advice, we won’t get any thing from the land, what we are getting now”. While verifying this statement , we realized that most of the messages telecast during SITE experiment in Rajasthan were developed in Delhi and were telecast from Delhi. Most of these messages were telecast for a uniform ‘public’ situated in diversified region of Rajasthan. Since it did not take into account the diversity in the region, most of the messages could not have any impact on the rural viewers.
The children remain confused regarding the authenticity of the voice. They were not sure whom to trust , whether, their parents, who had been struggling hard to produce a bumper crop in a desert area through their rich experience or an alien person coming through television and providing his sheer expertise and solution for each and every problem. In a desert area, where one encounters all kinds of problem starting from drought, lack of rain, water resources, lack of cash, hunger and poverty, lack of health infrastructure or any institutions to support, such messages are meaningless for them unless they are backed by concerned agencies to support.
Chitrahaar: Adding glory to the TV set
Soon Chitrahaar ( program based on film songs twice a week) and Sunday feature film added glory to the television set. All of them regularly visited to watch Chitrahaar and the fascination for Sunday feature film was an extra incentive. They never had any exposure earlier about film songs or movies. They used to scream, laugh and enjoy when they used to see the heroes and heroines do love making on the garden, agricultural field, and in parks.
It is interesting to note that school in the village context was never an exciting place to visit . In a desert area, where people are constantly migrating outside the village for their survival, school was a luxury for such population. Further, the larger thinking prevailed in the village that ‘school education would snatch away their children from them’.
However, the inauguration of television in the school premises made it more a site of fun and joy. Even though, most of the children did not visit in the day time to attend the school, but they made themselves available during evening for sheer pleasure and fun. Children, not attending the school have no distinction between play time and non play time. They need to be engaged in such environment. Television provided them an opportunity to be engaged with. The school premises used to be crowded everyday during evening for viewing program. Occasionally, some of the members of the untouchable caste used to visit the site but left the premises early before any untoward incident took place.
TV as a teaching technology
The school received another TV for the country wide educational project. The children attending the school were shown educational program in the day time. It was difficult for them to understand because of the language. The use of teaching technologies were alien to their experience. In a rural school, where even a black board and chalk is a luxury, their sudden exposure to such teaching method through TV was quite astounding. But evening was a great fascination.
Although school as an institution is introduced to bridge the gap between gender, caste and community, however this institution could not fulfill its mission, rather succumbed to the dictates of the upper caste members in the rural society. Neither, the girl child nor the lower caste children could reach the threshold of the school. The girls were only allowed to continue their primary education. Most of these female children had undergone child marriage and now counted the days/years to join their husband and the in-laws house. They stayed back at home and prepared themselves for would be ‘daughter-in-laws’ in distant places.
As one of the elders said : “ the more they go to the school, the more they have the power of reason, the more they have the power of reason , the more they argue. An argument in the in- laws family would create bad name for her as well as for her family”. Thus, the girl children were doubly oppressed both by the family as well by the forces out side the family. Neither they were allowed to go to school nor even to visit their friends very often. They were the worst sufferers. As long as they were at home, they remained imprisoned . The moment they shifted their residence after marriage, had a veiled existence.
TV set during the mid 1980s
During the mid eighties, investing money on a TV set was an impractical proposition as the viewing hours were less, besides, the infrastructure for television software were not developed in India. Most of the program shown through TV set were based on development. Entertainment was least priority.
However, the early 90s saw a remarkable transformation in Indian landscape. Along with 9th Asiad games, the television program mushroomed, the viewing hours increased, second channel came up in subsequent years but catered to the urban areas. But the problem in rural areas remained as usual. The urban areas took the major share of Doordarshan, except, the other regions were connected through network program. Prior to the introduction of network program, at least there was a focus on rural area. Along with the expansion of television, even the rural viewers and their program were marginalized.
On the contrary, the urban areas were filled with color sets due to relaxation in export-import policies by the state, the viewers in the rural area still loved to retain their community viewing and chose the school premises as a site for spectatorial contract and gaze. This viewing could not continue longer due to withdrawal of experimental program by the Central Government. Seduced and over powered by television, the viewers now desperately looked for places to have a glimpse of the set. However, few privileged ones could afford a TV set in the village.
TV enters the domestic space
While interviewing these households, one gets an interesting account of television’s penetration right from the public sphere to the domestic space. As one of the respondents reported : His family members vividly remember those days when TV arrived their home. “ It immediately passed through word of mouth to everyone in the village. People flooded his home to see the TV set and praised him for his new acquisitions at home so that later on they could visit and have a glimpse of it”. In the initial days they had a problem of locating the TV set within the house. This dilemma was not due to the members’ preference for location of the TV set within the household but the army of villagers who swarmed into his house regularly. They used to keep the set in the lobby so that every one could watch it. Others, who could not have an access to the images, were satisfied with the audio of the TV set. But the craze was much more to have a glimpse of the visual which was quite alien to their society and culture. As he said “Now, almost every one in the village has a TV set, even more than one set so no body visits their home to watch TV these days”.
Gradually, the attention shifted from school to home. It was equally a shrinking of space from public to private. In a society where ‘public’ is maneuvered by the vested interests, such binary oppositions remain blurred and questions the very term ‘public’. The earlier rhetoric of broadcasting for ‘education’ and ‘information’ lost its potency along with a shift to consume TV program like any other product. There was also a shift from community viewing to group viewing of TV.
Today, Television has been consumed like any other domestic item in the rural household. While inquiring about the acquisitions of TV set in the households in the village, the responses were quite interesting to note. Broadly, there were two set of responses: (a) Television came to the household through marriage and (b) Television was bought when Ramayan and Mahabharat (mythological) serials were telecast .
The TV set as dowry
In case of the former, the relationship between TV set and marriage is quite intriguing. TV set is added as an extra item to the dowry price for marriage. Earlier, Radio and Tape recorder were the usual items for dowry in marriage. Today Television has replaced these items and established its superiority over these items as a symbol of status. The groom’s family discuss with much pride about the items they received as bride price from the bride’s family. The bride’s father is a double victim in this entire process. He insists to offer as well as gives dowry with a fear that his daughter would not be ill-treated . Both the acts are illegal. In some families , the case is completely different. They not only would like to show off the various items they are giving for their daughter’s marriage, but also becomes a point of discussion for some time in the village. As some respondents said “ they did not ask for it but when the bride’s father insisted to accept , they could not deny”. While verifying this statement from others in the village, one receives horrendous accounts about the dowry system in the village and more specifically about the groom’s family. As some of the younger lots said: TV has become such a common object that whether you ask or not you are likely to get a TV set during marriage from the bride’s family. One comes across more than one TV set in the average houses. However, they use only one set for viewing and the rest remain packed and unused with a hope that it can be used for further marriage negotiation in the family. Since joint family is the norm of rural household, it is obvious that some one would marry from the family or would marry within few years. TV set is preserved for that purpose.
Antenna as status symbol
In case of the latter, most of the houses have acquired their TV sets within last seven/eight years. But their memory of purchase is related with memory of Television. Both the serials (Ramayan and Mahabharat) were telecast in early 90s through Doordarshan channel. Over the years these serials have been time and again repeated by various cable channels. Here popular memory of an event collapses with the technological memory. TV technology can not only recreate memories through storing and retrieving the messages but also dictate the rites of passage for the society.
The village houses today are linked to one another through wires and look like a wired cosmos. In most of the cases, the antenna are replaced by wires. Antenna, which remained a symbol of status in past years has been replaced by wires. The location and size of antenna on the roof top of the house became a marker of opulence and displayed power position in the rural social structure. As one young man belonging to untouchable caste said “ he thought antenna was used for distracting birds in the village. Although he used to hear from friends regarding the program coming through TV but his friends never expected him to visit their houses to watch TV program”. It clearly shows the distinction between people having and not having access to TV set in the village. Although, Cable wires have no doubt attempted to homogenize the households through a common thread or wire, however, the privileged few still retain both to exercise their position in an inegalitarian set up. In this context, it is worth noticing the tendency toward the standardization of the products and homogenization of tastes that responds to the market demand by continuously renewing designs of technology with a hope of proving differences. However, the rural society responds to such innovation through their internal logic of differences. So that difference becomes a visible substance.
One can overhear sound and noise from the houses while by passing these units. These sound and noises are not because of conversation within the household but the discussion during group viewing and frictions over choice for channels.
The birth of local cable operator
Most of these households have indigenous, black and white sets which are manufactured by local companies. These local sets do not provide the facility of sufficient channels nor the technology is sophisticated enough to receive all the signals beamed by terrestrial satellites. People are happy with the sets they have, they don’t aspire much. As one of the elders said “If I would have more money I would buy a stitching machine so that I can do more work and feed and clothe my children properly”. It shows that investing further in TV is not a priority amongst various members in the village.
The local cable operator provided interesting accounts of the rural society and the viewing pattern. Every day, the cable operator received loads of complaints regarding transmission fault, lack of visibility and lack of audio reception. But the cable operator denies such allegations and highlights that in most of the cases these are pretexts for not paying the monthly rent for the cable operations. Further, the TV sets purchased by the villagers do not have sufficient facilities to receive or catch the cable transmission. When he reported to various households regarding these problems, he is being scolded by them and the villagers question his integrity. As one of the young respondent commented “ the TV set is perfectly o.k. He does not know the mechanism of it…..he grumbles for more money……..”. while inquiring from the cable operator, he said “ most of these houses have more than one TV set , the members of the household make cross connection to these various sets. In few cases, some of the houses do not ask him formally for cable connection, but illegally avail the facilities in the night by making cross connection. It was difficult for him to make surveillance in the night. However, he knew about them through other sources. Neither, he can ask them or charge them for illegal acts. Because he does not possess license as a cable operator, further, any such awkward incident would jeopardize his business. Most of the villagers do not pay regularly neither they pay the full amount to him”. The question arises here what is an illegal act? When the villagers know very well about the illegal operation undertaken by the cable operators, they try to have an upper hand to him and engage themselves in such act because cable operator can not be an authority to control them.
The TV set : Combination of all
Besides the TV set , there are other means of communication such as tape recorder and Radio available in the average households. Newspaper is a distant dream due to lack of accessibility. Most of these gazettes are lying unused due to fascination to see images through TV, ‘which is a combination of all’ as one of the respondents reported during our field work.
In variably in most of the cases, the TV set is located in the bedroom in the houses. The TV set is yet to receive a distinct architectural space in the households. Neither, the village households can provide such luxury for television. The architectural space constitutes of two rooms in the house. One room is used for storing grains and other domestic accessories. The other room is used for sleeping purpose. TV is placed in this room. It is difficult to locate or assign any single room for any specific purpose. The same room is used for sleeping, eating, viewing Television programs and children study in the same room.
So many activities are undertaken simultaneously so that the room becomes a hub of activities. Earlier, their leisure time was spent in sleeping, listening to audiocassette recorder or radio songs. Now these activities are replaced by viewing Television. Since TV has occupied a central position within the bedroom, it is a constant source of “distraction for other activities” as reported by one of the respondents in the village. In fact, TV has a visible presence in the rural household.
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Image 1: CCMG