Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

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Who Are We?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

Kapoor & Sons caught everyone by surprise. It is not a conventional blockbuster and yet Facebook was awash with friends recommending it to friends to catch it next Friday. Beyond the feel good family saga is there a hidden societal anxiety it inadvertently hints at?

One might say that along with Dil Dhadakne Do it is ushering in cinema that explores the dysfunctional family; a counter point to the era of ‘hum saath saath hain’ (‘we are together’, ed.) families. Both these films penetrate the happy façade and reveal troubling conversations around incompatibility, unfaithfulness, sexual preferences etc. But there may be a little more to Kapoor & Sons than just that.

The film’s climax is moving. The family photograph that the ageing patriarch was longing for finally gets captured. This is the high point of the film, the emotional reward for the viewers as they liberally cry into their tissues and hankies; tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.

One could argue that the grandfather is the real ‘hero’ of the movie and it is his striving to have a family photograph of Kapoor & Sons that holds a mirror to the unconscious societal yearning today: the desire to craft an ‘heirloom’ in these times that impede the historicization of our lives.

kapoor-sons

The photo studios are near dead, the yellowing ancestral photo frames on the wall are disappearing from our homes and even the idea of the photograph itself is changing.

Up until the 90s, the photograph was solely a physical, palpable object. As it creased and wrinkled and faded and changed colors, it was like rings on a tree trunk, it told us the era of its origin. It was a hand-held time travel device. In one glance it showed us the passage of time. It. It told us where we were and where we had reached today. It was a marker of our social identity as much as it was of our happy moments. Photographs were taken on key momentous occasions and they told the story of our lives, the milestones of our life were mapped in these photographs.

The weight and significance of our photos has emptied out today, as we endlessly take ‘selfies’ and ‘wefies’ with our phones and upload them on Facebook or our social media home of choice. We take so many pictures, that it becomes a virtual live streaming of our life. Our real self is converted into its digital equivalent at rapid intervals. Our pictures are a representation of our ‘present continuous’.

Today updating is of more importance than history. We display our individual metamorphosis as we flow in the liquid river of time, but we hardly ever preserve our collective history. And apps like Snapchat go one step further and erase the past altogether, it is a capture of our ‘now’; the way we existed for a fleeting moment, and then it is gone.

Today the ideas of heritage and lineage are vanishing with the decline and breakdown of traditional family structures. Families meet probably once or twice a year around ceremonies of birth, marriage and death. Identity increasingly resides in the individual and not the grand collective.

The family photograph’s job is to stand against this evaporation of our family history and the rise of constantly morphing, transient individuality. The family photograph becomes a tangible possession, an attempt to solidify a moment, to freeze it and cast our collective identity into a solid photo frame. It becomes like a plaque or a bust that can withstand the vagaries of time. It concretizes our family heritage.

With the family photograph we are instantly framed in our Khandaan (‘family’ in Urdu, ed.). It instantly creates an institution. The family photograph’s quest today is to answer ‘who are we?’. It is an attempt to create a tiny bastion of our familial identity within the shifting sands of time where nothing permanent will take root.

‘Kapoor & Sons’ would typically be the name given to a family business in the good old days, when one was able to visualize one’s succeeding heirs well into the future. Today where no one knows what tomorrow will bring, the movie Kapoor & Sons urges us to capture and commemorate our family, our little Khandaan, no matter how imperfect the individuals in the unit may be. It knows that our family photograph is just what we may need by our bedside, as we journey into the future unknown.

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Homes in India (3)

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

 

Objects and symbols in the Indian home space

Typical objects found with uncanny regularity across homes, trace the strands of the narrative that runs through the idea of home in India. It is a space that belongs to the familial collective rather than to the individual and therefore carries the responsibility of representing the family to the larger collective. As soon as he walks in, the visitor is sure to run into the great Indian ‘showcase.’ It is a glass fronted cabinet which typically contains trophies and medals won by the children, toys evoking memories of their childhood, wedding pictures, fifty year old pictures of parents in the early years of their marriage and sundry objects that represent the bricolage of the family’s pride & joy.

The home belongs to the familial collective and everyone & everything contained in that space is jealously guarded. Guarding against the evil eye and ushering in prosperity is a theme that underlines the divide between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders.’ Feng shui Buddha and the Ganesha will sit on the same shelf, united in their endeavour of securing the auspiciousness of the home space.

baby pic in drawing room pg21

There are some decidedly intriguing objects like soft toys, artificial flowers, posters of babies and ingenuous ways to install covers on all kinds of objects that mark Indian homes. What do these things mean? Why are medieval locks sitting alongside modern security measures? Why do plastic chairs find favour in rural homes as well as in modern urban homes? The shift in identity from the familial collective to that of nascent individuality has heralded the idea of décor; but the unique collection of objects still makes it an unmistakably Indian home.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

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Tamasha: the other you inside

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Tamasha, released in November 2015, did only moderately well at the box office. But it got people talking. Underneath all the Mona-Ajit humour and the love story, there is a message in the movie that may be worth digging out and looking at.

It is not the familiar tale of following your dreams. There are plenty of Bollywood fables around the struggle of becoming a cricketer, musician or runner.

Tamasha_(film_poster)

It creates conversation because it is perhaps the only one that conducts a considered exploration of the dilemma between individual and societal identity in India.

For aeons, identity in India has been contiguous in nature. You never imagined your existence independently – still to date, in youth focus groups, ambitions centre on buying a house and car for the parents – the future self was visualized through the lens of family and society.

It was not just a shared identity but a societal identity one had to undertake. You had to cater to a societal ‘idea’ of who you were. You had to choose from a caste system of cookie-cutter identities on offer, doctor, engineer or IAS (soon followed by MBA).

No matter your individual uniqueness, you were obliged to fit into one of these moulds in order to be certified ‘successful’. Each ‘identity’ came with an unwritten code on how to live, talk, and behave. You had to give up your real self once you joined this program.

Everything ‘you’, that did not fit the mould was extruded out to become a ‘hobby’ you were free to practice on a Sunday. ‘Hobby’ was a mechanism to release the ‘abnormal you’, so as not to interfere with your social mobility and societal standing.

Individualism had little space in this struggle for upward mobility. Individualized hairstyles were largely absent. People with weird hair and casual behaviour were in the arts and journalism. They lived as they wanted but we were warned adequately that these people had to struggle all their life.

Meanwhile the exiled, abnormal you would make occasional appearances when it had an opportunity or when society gave permission to be yourself. It would find expression in college festivals or on Holi or at quiz competitions or at a wedding sangeet or at an office cricket league or betting pool.

Tamasha talks about this extruded us, the abnormal us, the ‘other you inside’ that we always carry within. Tamasha is about the bi-polar existence of us. Tamasha is (an exploration and) a calling to get in touch with the real you.

Tamasha is reflective of the changes taking place in Indian society. The technology, economic and business environment is throwing up opportunities that no longer fit the traditional mould. The digitalization of India makes it possible for us to pursue our unique strengths and yet be successful without submitting to any program that robs us from ourselves. The societal and individual identity for once is collapsing and fusing into one. Today it is possible to be successful without giving up on who you really are. Indian youth for the first time have a tremendous opportunity to live out extremely authentic lives, 24X7.

For the first time there is talk of running a race of your own choice rather than running on a track designed by your parents and society. Today it is possible to dream your own dream rather than being a vehicle for playing out a dream handed over to you by your parents and society.

(We see evidence of this blossoming individualism in the mushrooming of hairstyles. Today’s youthful hairstyles of spikes and textures and slashes and cuts, stand up and speak out aloud the individuality of the person sporting it, rather than being helplessly flattened with hair oil to convey conformity. The Indian cricketer’s varied hairstyles are perhaps a good example of this proliferation of individual identities).

Tamasha celebrates this world where this unique madness of ours is worn on our sleeves and we live out the ‘tamasha’ inside us instead of choosing to live a normative life chosen by others. The time is right to let the ‘other you inside’ step out and play and cavort on the stage that is today’s India.

© Subodh Deshpande 2016

See here for Tamasha production details and plot summary.

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Homes in India (2)

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Editor’s note: Continuing our headlining of an extended cultural and ethnographic study.  To request a copy of the full document please email editorial@semionaut.net or sraboni.bhaduri@futurebrands.co.in

Continuum of the private and the public space:

Traditionally the separation between the private home space and the public space is notional. There is an inherent need to stay embedded within the community network and keep up with each other’s life with a mixture of concern, support and gossip. The home and the immediate area outside the home, peek into each other without any discomfort. Homes are built around a central space like the courtyard onto which the rooms open out, which is structurally true to the notion of seeing and being seen. The idea of privacy is a modern one. Shutting the door is a very loaded act and signifies cutting off from the collective ‘view.’

home2

The threshold as a symbol:

The self extends to a shared community space but at the same time the world outside the home is where the pollutants and the evil influences reside. The sanctity of the home needs to be retrieved from the outside world. The threshold becomes an important structure which marks this separation between the self and the other. The threshold and the main door even in modern homes are heavily decorated and personalized to announce status and ownership, while various devices ward off the evil eye.

home1

Fluidity of spaces:

Within the home, the drawing room continues its dialogue with the community. Showcases stuffed with trophies won by children. Their toys and souvenirs tell the story of the family and all that makes them proud and memories that they hold precious. The other rooms remain tucked away from public view. Modernization manifests itself through the appearance of aesthetics. For the first time, décor has become part of the narrative. The rooms now have boundaries but the separation is still fairly fluid. The fluidity is marked by softness that a curtain offers versus the hard separation of the door. The specialized function of a room remains negotiable so it is not unimaginable to have study table in the living room or to tuck away a bucket under the bed.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2016

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Hello from the Other Side

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

 

Editor’s note: Adele lives down the road from Semionaut’s secret undersea base near Brighton UK and, for us Brits, she mythically resolves the contradiction between your mate and a stellar talent greater than any who came before her (also author and immaculate vocal interpreter of the best Bond song ever, by some significant distance). Taylor Swift, eat your heart out.  And so on – pick whoever you like. They won’t come close. So it’s refreshing to receive a brave and insightful contribution from the other side of the world, one which has the courage to have a shot at decoding the ‘meaning’ of Adele. For which, many thanks Subodh – our new contributor. Connotations of “the other side” in colloquial English: beyond the grave (look at Adele’s face on the cover of 25, not wanting to start any Abbey Road-type rumours or anything); the opposition, the enemy; across the water (for Brits the Americans on ‘the other side of the pond’); the Other of the primal I-Thou pairing, a founding source of identity – all subjectivity having been intersubjectivity long before neuroscience discovered the mirror neurons; the other side of the end of a relationship, one which thought it would last for ever. We publish this as a conversation opener. Please come back to us. Anyone. Everyone. It’s good to start with a decoding voice from a culture where a man can still use the word ‘frumpy’ without having to resort (as would be necessary for the word to be sayable in the West) to camp archness or ostentatious half-ironic bitchiness – and to do so without pre-emptive fear of gender armageddon from the other side, from those who once made the mistake of caring too much. The house lights dim. Hello, it’s me. Who is speaking? 

Hello from the Other Side: the Meaning in Adele’s Music

Adele’s 25 has become the year’s biggest-selling album in the US, with a record 3.38m copies sold in its first full week of release. She cuts a distinctive figure amidst the female pop stars of today with her unique brand of music. Her heart-broken ballads are heard everywhere from taxi radios to cafes to salons and airport lounges. What makes her unique brand of music so popular?

Adele has often been quoted saying that she strives for a certain effect in her songs, its ability to move her. This tear-inducing quality is the key ingredient of Adele’s music. Adele’s lyrics have a strong universal character. She appears to be narrating our story. She has this operatic ability to convey the tragedy of modern relationships; that makes our hearts ache with reminiscence. Listening to Adele becomes a cathartic act. She creates a new genre of music; she is a ‘Cathartist’.

adele-announces-25-release-date-cover-art

Adele embodies this tragic figure. She comes across as a smiling survivor; bravely carrying on with her life. Her generous figure, ordinarily dressed (sometimes bordering on the frumpy), is very unlike the sleek, glamorous, airbrushed stars. She appears very much the ‘hapless girl’; the one who gets dumped; half expecting the love of her life to turn back.

There is perhaps another function to Adele’s songs. The technology of today erases time and distance and we experiences lives where everything is within immediate reach. Adele’s music negates this and creates a sense of distance and loss. Her music is like a reverse telescope. It manufactures distance: people appear further than they really are. In a world where we are constantly connected, her songs suggest the pain of separation. Today when lives are lived out on Facebook, it is hard to lose touch with people even if you un-friend them, and one often ‘bumps’ inadvertently into ones exes in the digital world. Adele creates a tunnel of nostalgia and wistfulness for us to dive into. Ensconced in her music; our loss appears considerable and significant, as it ought to.

Just as the telephone was this heavy contraption that made our relationships precious by making our loved ones barely audible and out of touch, (The sheer ease of smart phones compresses our world; people appear close at all times) Adele’s songs make us feel a palpable sense of loss in a world where technology with its pervasiveness and immediacy conspires to dilute it. Adele makes us believe that it is in fact a dense wall that separates us from those we once loved and once in a while we can peer across and say hello from the other side.

© Subodh Deshpande 2015

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Homes in India (1)

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Editor’s note: Sraboni Bhaduri sent us a fascinating and comprehensively illustrated cultural and ethnographic study of Homes in India that she compiled using materials provided by her colleagues at Futurebrand. This is beyond the scope of what we can publish here but Dr Bhaduri has agreed to summarise key themes for Semionaut. If you would like to see more please email editorial@semionaut.net or sraboni.bhaduri@futurebrands.co.in

HomesIndia

Homes in India

In spite of regional differences, social backgrounds and levels of prosperity, there is a certain unity in the way that homes in India look. What provides ‘homely comfort – a term that is used to characterize essentially what homes should be. What makes a home quintessentially Indian? What does it say about the nature of needs, priorities and social structure? How is this reflected in the way space is used? What are the typical artifacts that unite India in symbolic terms?

A small glimpse of the decode of the home space in India will follow a four part structure:
1. Key codes of homeliness
2. Topography – rooms, external spaces
3. Objects and symbols
4. Modernity

Picture1[1]

Key Codes of Homeliness:

Homes are characterized by a sense of flow. It is a space that does not demand considered thought either by way of arrangement or in the way of being. Spaces are not super specialized by function or designated place for objects. Bedrooms may flow into the living room if grandfather likes to sleep below the window there or shirts may be perpetually draped on the back of the dining room chairs; simply because it is the first available clothes hanger like object one encounters on coming back home from work. The needs and convenience of the inhabitants reign supreme. Spaces and objects follow the flow of life within that space. Untidy trail of objects and the off hand treatment given to aesthetics however needs to be distinguished from cleanliness. Homes are meant to take care of the well being of the family and safety, security and prosperity are the key needs that it caters to.

It is a space that contains and takes the family and the guests into its fold. The doorway is therefore invested with a great deal of significance as it marks the separation between home and outside ; between trust & mistrust; between safety and threat; between prosperity and want. The woman of the house, mostly a mother figure, is the one who is charged with responsibility of translating this. She is the definitely the chief custodian of homeliness.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2015

 

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Emergent Indian Woman

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

One has grown up believing that every Indian woman reflected the Mother/Caregiver archetype. Even if she started out as the Innocent or had a brief stint as the Explorer or even the Rebel, eventually she had to be the Mother. Whether it was biological or metaphorical, in real life or on screen, this was essential for the woman if she had any desire to get her man or to avoid being punished or simply bumped off. On screen, the Bollywood heroines followed this trajectory, reflecting it in the clothes that transited from fashionable to the prescriptive, gracefully draped sari. Transit accomplished, you knew that she was (as she still normally is) going to be shortly rewarded with marriage. Long-suffering was a prefix that came with the territory and all the roles.

Femininity in India has been characterized as soft, gentle and comprehensively embodied in the quintessential blushing bride. She is delicate but with great strength of character and mythic strength to fight and protect. She spanned the unique Madonna – Warrior continuum.

Coming from this space, the emerging archetype is particularly interesting. It has been brought alive on screen most sharply by Alia Bhatt. It is really fresh, so still easier to describe as what it is not. The emerging feminine is chirpy, talkative, ebullient and spirited but she is not Julie Andrews from Sound of Music. She can hang out with the boys, drink them under the table and then crash out at their place and wake up next morning with some shred of doubt whether the boys had the nerve to take advantage of her drunkenness. She is buddy- like but not a tomboy. She is aware of her sexuality and quite eager to explore it but not burdened by morality which has been the traditional tag along for the Indian woman. She is not a rebel and nor is there a sense of celebrating some hard won freedom.

It is femininity that does not reference the masculine. There is some benchmarking against the man in terms of establishing her drinking credentials, in which she has to excel. This of course may be a reflection of the culture’s changing relationship with alcohol which has moved from being the drink of the despondent to being a symbol of partying. In that sense, it is a symbol of her shift from being a careworn dispenser of responsibility to an individual who is entitled to pleasure. However it is not a duel to establish equality or a sneering superiority. She does not mimic the masculine nor does she kick off against it. There are no statements being made and no points being proven here. It is an exciting discovery of territories that were never explored. It may be a playful act of cheating on taboos like checking out a disreputable neighbourhood or a bout of drunken dancing which transits her from the repressed to the expressive.

alia bhatt

She is free-spirited but not a wanderer. She can be materialistic and have dodgy ethical standards without being a gangster or a gangster’s moll. And if it is beginning to sound very evolved, the one on that count is easy. The reference point here is Alia Bhatt who has had some notable blonde moments. Of course the way she dealt with it was in keeping with the easy spirit of this femininity. No denial, no defense, no anger – just self-deprecating humour in form of a video titled ‘Genius of the Year.’ The air around this femininity is light and easy and sunny. It commands respect without the attendant gravitas. So, has the new feminine moved away from the traditional roles & associations?

It is not as though everything is being redefined. There is vulnerability, sentimentality and a desire to engage with all the traditional roles and it is done to the best of one’s ability. There is some striving there. Falling short is met with tears but little self-flagellation. The feminine that went before her is not mocked and nor does she take it upon herself the task of defining a brand new space or reimagining every role afresh. The emergence of this new shade of femininity is marked by a sense of ease and guilelessness. It seems to be easy because it is not burdened by a destination. It is very real because it is a shift and not a transformation. Continuity is maintained with the relational identity that she has always held. The difference is that it still exists, but that it is not what defines her today.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2015

Posted in Asia, Culture, Emergence | 1 Comment »

Network: Ryan

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Where are you and what are you doing?

I’m studying on the Design Futures & Metadesign MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. The keywords that clarify my research focus are sustainability, sociability and technology. I lived in Shanghai for more than 10 years before moving to London. Globalisation and cultural mixing have created significant similarities and highlighted differences between London and Shanghai. I’m intrigued by dynamic changing cultures. After a few years working in advertising agencies, I returned to education – which allows me to step out of the box, to probe my beliefs and values.

Tell us about your DJ Electric Eel project

 DJ Electric Eel (DJEE) is a practical project, a part of my MA dissertation which I’m working on currently (summer 2014).  The DJEE project involves several different topics, such as biology, music, programming etc. So I tried to use the term “DJ” to embody the complicated project as a comprehensive common sense form.

Eel1

The project, in general, is constructed by a group of electric sensors, devices and an electric eel which can generate electricity and use electric fields to perceive the outside world.

The electric eel is kept in a glass water tank. Several electromagnetic field (EMF) sensors measure the electric fields generated in water by the electric eel. The data from those sensors are organised and transformed into sounds by software (programs such as Processing and MaxMsp). The data is also transformed into visuals and music that accompany the sounds. The electric eel indirectly changes the pitch and tone of the sounds by emitting unpredictable electric signals.

How are people responding to it?  Have you been surprised by any of the reactions?

 One of the most interesting things about this project is that there are always many different responses when I talk about it and show some of the video footage to people.

On 6th June 2014, I presented the idea in public for the first time. On that occasion I also showed a single soundtrack of music generated by a small electric eel and an Arduino device prototype.

I got a lot of feedback around Nature – definitions and forms of interaction. Although Nature as a big narrative in my topic, I haven’t clearly defined it yet as a specific concept or content. Meanwhile, I realised that understandings of Nature in terms of epistemology and traditional ideology, between Western and Eastern cultures, are very different.

There were two interesting notes in the feedback to my first presentation of DJ Electric Eel: “My body is nature” and “My body is technology”. They were probably written by the same person but separately and in different colours. It was very interesting for me because the DJEE project, explicitly or implicitly, caused the participant to think about the relationship between him/her, nature and technology. The two comments are a sort of argument or conflict. They raise an interesting point to think about.

Eel2

You ask people an open question: “In what ways would you like to reconnect with nature if the technology were available?”  What would your front of mind answer be to that question right now?

 The open question is a sort of prompt to bring audiences into my topic at that moment. For me, the more interesting thing is how to reconnect nature with modern society and changing cultures. As a designer, I’m interesting in using different technological approaches to build up new dialogues between human and nature. The future expectation of the DJEE project will be a live music performance. Hence, it will not only engage with individuals but also a group of people in a social context.

You talk about the uncanny aspects of the electric eel project.  How did your interest in the uncanny come about?  What were the main steps in its development.

 The uncanny causes intense feelings. Everyone has these sorts of experiences more or less. Theoretical research, such as studying Freud and Lacan, brought me towards understanding the power of the uncanny. Actually a lot of art works, films and advertisements take advantage of the uncanny in order to create strong empathies and synaesthesis which can impress the audiences and encourage their self-reflections. I think it also works in the DJEE project. From a human DJ to an electric eel, from rhythmic music to abstract sounds, from looking at creatures in an aquarium to watching and listening to an eel making sounds. The familiar and unfamiliar experiences contribute to an uncanny experience.

Tell us about your experiences in advertising and what draws you to the world of applied cultural and semiotic analysis.

 Working in the creative department of an advertising agency, I used to look for stories and topics to connect the targeted audiences and the brand values in creative ways. The brand itself may be essentially meaningless – but advertising renders meanings and stories into brand voices. It’s just like how people create languages – advertising produces new languages and signifiers in order to clearly represent the complexity behind the brand. Furthermore, semiotic analysis helps us to better empathize with our targeted groups and potential audiences.

Where would you like to be and what would you like to be doing in 5 years from now?

 I’m quite an active person with a lot of expectations. One year of study made a lot of difference. Now, I’m planning to get back to work, and I’ll slightly shift my career focus if that’s possible. However, there are a lot of fascinating areas I want to explore in the academic context. Many things will have happened in 5 years, but learning and reflection will be deeply infused into my future life.

One year of living in London has had great significance to me. I love the city. London has a wonderful bio-environment for designers. I really want to continue my studies and discovery of the diverse cultures in London in the future.

Tell us about the pictures you have chosen to illustrate this interview.

figure 1 : the effect picture and the principle of the device

figure 2 : the relationship between these four elements will be discovered in the future

More information about the DJ Electric Eel project:

http://djelectriceel.tumblr.com/

© Ryan Hu

Posted in Art & Design, Asia, Emergence, Europe, Fuzzy Sets, Global Vectors, Semiotics | No Comments »

Diversity 5: Emma

Friday, May 16th, 2014

1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity?

Transport. I’m a traveller, and although I love arriving in, being in and absorbing a new country or culture, one of the things I love most is moving: the feeling of traversing through and making my way across lands on trains, buses, planes, by car, on foot. I’m half-Thai and half-Irish and was born and brought up in the melting pot of South London. I’ve travelled and lived in a number of countries and cultures, married someone also half this and half that and have children with very interesting genes, so ostensibly, the word ‘diverse’ applies to me as well as my life experiences and my milieu, but my take on that depends on the interpretation of what ‘diverse’ means. The word ‘diversity’ is itself a hybrid, formed from the fusion of the Latin prefix di (which can mean both the number two and ‘aside’ or ‘away from’) and the verb versere (to turn). Thus ‘diverse’ is open to two readings: it can mean one (e.g. route) that turns into two, or to turn away from (e.g. a route or path). Although it would seem I personify the former definition of diversity – one nationality and culture on one side, another nationality and culture on the other, and me an amalgam of the two, I didn’t know my Thai father so the second definition is more apt: Thai-ness as a culture, language, collective psyche was turned away from me (or me from it) and I felt alienated from it. At the same time, my inherent Thai-ness meant that physiologically and psychologically, I was turned aside from the English and Irishness around me.

I went to Thailand for the first time when I was 19 and the thing that struck me, first and foremost, were the motorbikes and pick-up trucks. Riders sat on motorbikes with no helmets, women drove themselves or sat side-saddle on the back, whole families and children lined up on one bike, some precariously holding babies. In the back of the Isuzu pick-up trucks (the

motorbike-1

car manufacturer was also new to me at the time) groups of workers were ferried to and fro. The thing that struck me was the openness – bike riders weren’t helmeted, unidentifiable, uniformed in black leather– you could see them clearly, and as individuals. The backs of the uncountable pick-ups were open too, carrying people I could see to destinations I couldn’t imagine.

Those two modes of transport became a metaphor for the two nations I was connected to. As Thailand moved forward, anything was possible: yes, it took risks, but it was defiant, unmasked, trusting, and it seemed to me, as I drove into Bangkok for the first time from the airport, so free. Things were visible, people were visible. When I thought of Britain, with its helmet-clad motorbike riders, overbearing regulations, conventionality, closed-top cars taking closed people to predictable places it seemed, conversely, contained, reserved, safe, obedient, tame, stiff and filled with people terrified of doing anything socially unacceptable. I don’t feel that any more, about myself, or about the two countries, and I know that initial impressions aren’t always right, but the associations remained with me and transport has remained in my mind a thing much greater than itself.

2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are. 

The publishing world is undergoing a shift from white, male, Judaeo-Christian, imperialist (Residual) themes and characters to multi- and cross-cultural leitmotifs, if not yet in areas of book production then at least in attitudes towards it. A study in the US last year revealed that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. This study exposes two things. Firstly, that despite the (Dominant) culture of diversity in Britain and America, Asians and people of colour are still notably under-represented in books, films, plays, TV programs, MA and MFA writing programs and all areas of media production.

Junot Diaz

Secondly, even if the books on our shelves are not yet embodying the diversity in our culture, the simple fact that a study has been undertaken to highlight this discrepancy demonstrates this changing attitude towards what is being published (and read). Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, award-winning short story writer and Professor of Creative Writing at MIT, recently wrote a broadside on the ‘too white’ bias in MFA programs (May 1, 2014). Additionally, the #weneeddiversebooks trend on twitter and other social media calling for diversity in

Authenticity twitter1[1]

literature (and, as per the knock-on effect, films) focuses on the rationale that we live in a diverse world and thus under- or mis-representation is, therefore, ‘inauthentic’. As authenticity is an emergent trend in itself, the trend of calling for diversity in public platforms is sure to lead to an emergent pattern of behaviour in reading, literary discourse and publishing, which in turn will lead to a more diverse rendering of narratives in the semiosphere.

http://emmashevah.com

http://emmashevah.livejournal.com

twitter:@emmashevah

Junot Diaz photograph by Carolyn Cole for the LA Times

Screenshot of Twitter page linked to #weneeddiversebooks

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Diversity 5: Hamsini

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

1. What one thing comes to mind for you first and most profoundly in relation to your personal history and the theme of diversity 

Even as a child, I was a cross-culturalist.  I loved geography and read about people in various parts of the world.  I troubled my  mother a lot whenever she told me the ‘cultural rules/codes’ expected in our Tamil Brahmin culture…I used to tell her, that other people around the world don’t follow these customs and practices and nothing happens to them because they don’t do these things that we are supposed to do…of course, this was only in those matters which I didn’t like or didn’t wish to follow.  I had and still have a great curiosity about the various kinds of peoples that make up this planet of ours and have close friends from many cultures that are very different to mine. This is because I am hugely open-minded about genuine and apparent/visible differences and I look for the under-lying human truths of the shared experience.

However, “embracing and celebrating difference” is tough to practice (I prefer the word difference to diversity, the former being a real word that the man on the street would understand and diversity being a ‘coined’ word by policy makers hoping to give it life).  I come from a country where ‘unity in diversity’ is one of the defining characteristics of our culture and motto as we are taught in school…interestingly I came across this phrase in Indonesia as well – the only other country using it.  Hinduism is a religion that embraces diversity in its very fundamental principles and practices.  And yet, nowadays, I find general levels of tolerance dropping and conflict increasing.

2. Give me (what feels intuitively like) an emergent example of diversity now where you are.

Actually, some of the roots of Indian (sub-continental) and Hindu culture are all about how to deal with difference – the peaceful acceptance of difference as THE GIVEN in society and ways to deal with difference to achieve a peaceful co-existence and to live in harmony.  This starting point of difference as THE GIVEN led to defining a role based hierarchical social order; it also led to syncretism…an ability to create fusions of the existing and the new; an ability to participate in this world and that (sufi version of Islam for e.g).

However, the downside of starting with difference as THE GIVEN is the inability to see all as ‘equal’…a very confusing idea actually, when you think about it … we are all different and yet we are equal????  If we are different in ability and in accomplishments and in status and in form, then how can we all be put on the same plane … that we are equal…in whose eyes are we equal???  It is one thing to say, God loves us all equally, as does a parent…but even a parent knows that all his/her children are not the same at all…they are different and have different destinies…

But, having adopted a “liberal and humanistic constitution” and working in accordance with late 20th/early 21st century norms of empowerment through ‘rights’ (which I am also a votary of, by the way) … we are now in a situation of low tolerance and increasing conflict as each individual and each hitherto dis-empowered group is clamoring to be heard and is impatient to overturn centuries of discrimination as they now see it.

The old model of dealing with difference viz tolerance, patience and peaceful co-existence (within endogamous communities each of which follows their own way of life) is breaking down under the forces of individualism, ambition, competitiveness, assertiveness and ‘rights’.  There is inter-group competitiveness … if Shiva worshippers can build tall statues of Shiva, then Hanuman worshippers can and must build a taller statue still…and so on…each group thinks my way is the best way and their way is the road to hell…which it is my duty to block.

We have not yet found a new model for dealing with difference that works for this new world in which we live.  How to achieve ‘liberty,equality and fraternity’ of all, for all, on an ongoing basis.  Meanwhile, new examples of syncretism and dialogue (the old values) continue to give us hope…

Speaking personally, the idea of a ‘rooted-cosmopolitan’ could be the 21st century poster  boy/girl or icon of diversity.  Not sure whether it will have mass appeal though…as in my experience, the instinctive pull of tribalism is too strong and the security of staying within the comfort zone of the familiar – viz people like me is overpowering.  Super-market cosmopolitanism (safe difference via consumption pleasures) is an easy answer…but since it does not seek to go anywhere below the surface pleasures, it can’t offer much.

The other example I can give is of ‘Semiofest’ as an organization – the 4 co-owners are 2 women, 2 men, Indian, Colombian, English by adoption…of the 4 of us, I am a globalist who has always lived and worked in India, the other three are mixed in some manner or the other…it is a combination that works very well…embracing difference is our motto and we live it every day…

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Three Levels of Seeing

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
 

I recently had occasion to interact closely with a number of wholesalers and retailers in textiles, a very old and established trade with business relationships going back three generations between textile mills and retailers.  I then used a semiotic perspective to analyse some of the discussions that had taken place with them on the phenomenon of knowingly selling fakes from their stores to their customers.

Trinary

 

 

I started by looking into the context of everyday business operations in India.  While there are laws, rules and regulations, actual business practice and everyday business ethics are more governed by social regulation.  By social regulation, I refer to the voice of social and community authority, viz, elders and the collective consensus on an issue as  to its ethical rightness or virtue.  Social regulation works through evoking three kinds of fears – divine retribution when the Gods are displeased, offending and hurting elders and thus inviting their wrath/ punishment and finally, offending the community, resulting in expulsion and exile.

Working every day within the context of social regulation, every businessman sees three levels of behaviors and practices in any given moment as being available to him.  These may alternatively be seen as three paths on which he can walk.  At the top one path is the path of virtue – virtue is also strongly linked to ideas of purity of intent/motive and non-self interested action taken vis-à-vis the other party involved in the deal.  While this is the zone typically assigned to saints and mystics, even business people are capable of acting at this level.  Those who do so command a huge level of spiritual power and moral authority over their fellow business-people.  For the sake of alliterative labeling, we can call this the zone or path of purity.

At the next level or second path is the zone/path of pragmatism and permission.   This route evolves through a collective consensus among the members of the local community and it refers to the extent of permissible deviation from the path of virtue.  In the case of fakes, it could be the extent of stock that retailers would carry of fabrics with a fake ‘Made in Italy’ label that are actually manufactured in China or elsewhere.  When they sell this stock, they knowingly mislead the customer that they are selling them fabric that they present as being genuinely made in Italy, when it is not.  Or it could be to do with the extent of dilution of a quality standard in manufacture.  As long as they stay within the ‘permissible’ range as understood through collective consensus, they have safety in numbers and they know their fellow business people will not lose respect for them.  Also, they are not compromising their longer term agenda or reputation as good people to do business with – either among customers or among the business community.

At the bottom the third path is the zone of villainy.  Acting from this zone or walking on this path will surely invite curses (gaalis in colloquial Hindi) and calumny from fellow business people.  Actions in this zone would include resorting to out and out cheating, violence, threats, treachery, blackmail, reneging on agreements (not necessarily the contract in its legal details) as well as reneging on financial dues and settlements.  When a business man acts from this zone, he has either compromised his ethics beyond repair or is risking doing so.

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, “Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management” also makes reference to this simultaneous seeing of three levels of action choices.  He describes the three levels as Bhagawan, Deva and Asura.  Asura (which loosely translates as a demon) signifies actions that arise from the zone of villainy.  Deva (which loosely translates as a B-level God) indicates actions arise from the zone of awareness.  Bhagawan (which loosely translates as a truly Divine being) signifies actions that arise from the zone of a higher spiritual being.  Bhagawan actions are those that are worthy of emulation and worship.

The Indian Eye often sees presence and absence in objects, entities and phenomena not just in terms of dualities or binaries but as ‘trinaries’.  They could be three columns (parallel vertical paths to walk on) or three levels (parallel horizontal paths to climb up from level to level).  The eye spots the co-existence of A, B and C as three distinct possibilities in the same realm.  So, in the realm of ethics, there is the co-existence of God-like, Human and Demonic behaviors.  In other cases, the hybrid of A & B is seen as a distinct path in itself.  For example people may be solo Christians, solo Hindus and hybrids – also worship in Churches while following a specific Hindu God or a Sufi Saint.  They can be strict vegetarians, strict non-vegetarians and hybrids – vegetarians at home while being meat-eating outside the home.  There are combinations that are valued as a valid third element e.g. sweet-sour, bitter-sweet.  There is a valid space for ambiguity, the grey zone, the ‘third-way’, the ‘nuances and shades’.  The eye sees all three as valid vs. seeing the third as a negotiated compromise or a dialectic synthesis of hard oppositions, viz operating from a binary vision?

Does this simultaneous ‘trinary’ vision call for the development of additional tools of semiotic analysis specifically applicable to some forms of categorization in Indian culture?  Looking beyond Indian culture to global culture, the growth of the internet, social media, gaming and digital interfaces are blurring the lines between real and virtual and creating a third zone that exists simultaneously.  The development of robotics and artificial intelligence is doing something similar to the human and machine binary.   Has the time then come for a new semiotics of the ‘trinary’?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

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Word Pairs

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

WORD PAIRS – CONCEPTS OF CONNECTION VS. CONCEPTS OF DIFFERENCE

Effective cross-cultural semiotic analysis ought to reflect the diversity of cultures.  It is now accepted even among psychologists that there is no universal and standardized human psychology, rather individual and group psychology is itself hugely influenced by culture.  The American psycho-analyst Alan Roland wrote about his experiences and theorized a different model of the self for his Indian and Japanese patients vis-à-vis his American patients.  Richard Nisbett in his book, the Geography of Thought provides ‘research study-based’ evidence of the differences in perception between Americans and Chinese.  And Devdutt Pattanaik, Indian mythologist draws attention to the differences between the core belief systems underpinning Western, Chinese and Indian thought.

How might this perspective be applied to developing new semiotic tools for India/other Asian cultures?

One of the key principles of the semiotic analysis of meaning is the idea of difference and how that difference is dealt with, to create meaning.  The distinctions of ‘is” vs. “is not” and “oppositions and contradictions” is a key part of the way semioticians analyze concepts and ideas to arrive at territories of meaning.

However, there is another way to look at binaries and that is through the lens of presence-absence for a sense of completion of meaning.  The central idea here is of “completion” that goes with pairs of inter-twined entities.  One cannot exist without the other.  Both must be viewed together for the meaning to result.  The separation of one from the other, distorts the meaning.  To understand the essence, they must be viewed and understood in the pair, so deeply are the concepts inter-woven and inter-twined.  The underlying cultural code here is not that of individuality or autonomy but of essential dependence and co-existence.  It arises from a relational definition of society and culture vs. a transactional and contractual definition of society and culture.  Separation would create a feeling of tremendous loss and desolation, not a celebration of individuality.

HS1

For e.g. in Hindi, there is a central idea of a “Jodi” or pair.  Jodis would be concepts such as husband-wife, father-mother, brother-sister, hero-villain, sidekick-hero, master-servant, politician-media (recent), food-drink (khana-peena), hardware-software etc.   The central premise can be extended to a range of entities.  Is a city possible without citizens?  Can a movie Star be a Star without a multitude of fans?  Hindi pairs:  pati-patni, mata-pita, bhai-behen, raja-praja, guru-shishya.

Applying this thinking to defining category meanings would imply that even though the product categories that are bought and sold are objects, they should be viewed and understood by combining them inextricably with the users who have the closest relationship with the object.  To illustrate, cars are not cars without drivers (though new driverless high-tech cars are on the design table) and medicines are meaningless without doctors/healers/medicine men.  A semiotic study on the category meaning of cancer treatments would start by looking at cancer drugs and oncologists together or at doctor-cancer sufferer as the single and complete entity rather than separating the patient, the cancer, the doctor and the medicine into separate entities that are placed in varying individual positions with respect to one another.

Could the consideration of inter-twined pairs be a new tool added to the semiotic tool box for Indian and Asian markets?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014

 

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Short List – Celeny

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

 

THE LAYERED GAZE OF THE MEGALOPOLIS

To identify a space is a challenging undertaking filled with problematic notions of graphing, naming and containing a territory. Yet to identify a memory or moment created within a space is a more plausible endeavor. One of the powers of physical space is its unyielding ability to create a temporary and temperamental place. But it is the inhabitants that give birth to the settlement itself. Cities, on the one hand, often make one feel small or insignificant, while on the other, they also make one feel enlarged and intoxicated by its growing space. In this short paper, I will use China based photographer Jasper James’s photographs of cities through the silhouettes of people to explain how these images that combine cityscape, portraits, and one’s individual existence metamorphosis into one; how they become an invitation to see the world differently.

With humble and distant observation, James’s “City Silhouettes” series is taken in Beijing, China, one of the most populated megalopolises in the world. The density and immense traffic of human encounters on the daily basis is here staggering. However, these images give the viewer a chance to have a singular moment with one person in the foreground while simultaneously seeing the habitat of over 20 million residents in the background. The silhouettes function as a portal between the mind and the moment (of seeing), the occupant and the occupancy, the organic person and the inorganic structure of linear city architecture, and so on. Using three superimposed layers to make the photographs, James emphasizes the person, the city, and the sky and in each image declares the illusion of chaotic solitude or the multiple nature of each individual.

JasperJames1
Figure 1.© Jasper James

In Figure 1., we see a woman looking down upon the city with a nurturing and pensive yet determined tone. A major color spectrum can be identified: from the darkest black to the palest white. The lighting seems similar to the sky when reaching dawn and the fading of the layers causes the building structures to blend in displaying a hue of softness, a misunderstood lightness and overall vulnerability. Perhaps this is the woman’s perspective of the municipality, of her lived experience, and simultaneously her moment of genuine experience of the city. But the more general question that arises is this one: How does this images relate to any urban person’s lived experience? Simply put, we all see reality through our own eyes. The magnitude of any city can never camouflage the magnitude of the self. Moreover, the identification of each silhouette is vague enough to allow anyone with a vivid imagination to slip inside its shadows and fill in the void. James has concurrently revealed, first, how small we are as humans in a metropolis and, second, how big we are as individuals in a metropolis. He questions the viewer to decide for herself or himself which of the two unveilings to scale at that particular moment of seeing.

JasperJames2
Figure 2.© Jasper James

In Figure 2. James’ image of the urban child is a muddled message to decipher, with conflicting tonalities between a lost child pleading for help and a curious child enamored with its concrete fortress. Is this surrender or praise? Is the city a welcoming haven for a child or brutal fast lane? This particular moment captured by the image suggests both polarities of experience. In addition, the sides of the image are blurred which in turn gives the outline of the child a highlighted contrast and sharpness. If this is the child’s perspective, is it steered within parameters? Are there limitations to what the child can see? Or else, what can the viewer see through the child? Is the child enchanted by the colossal constructions or just forgotten among monuments of business world? James’s use of contrast gives way to interpreting the shapes of emotion within the physical layouts, where the only way to go is up. The buildings rise as the child rises too, and the movement is not only captured but also suggested as limitless..

Each photograph thus has a variety of colors from the full spectrum allowing for layered and multiple interpretations to emerge. If the colors were pastel, the images would seem lighter in tone and expression; if the images were in monochrome, the messages would lack certain depth. The use of color and fading with the white to black spectrum gives them a realistic documentarian tone. The city then also becomes multi-layered space and a multiplicity in itself. Some people allow for a city to drive them: drive them mad, drive them to success, drive them away, while others remain as they were and become interiors of the city. James portrays the insight of the separate: the endless particles of the mass that form megalopolis. In a city like Beijing, with limited spacing capacities, the photographer has achieved a way to represent individualism using just light and angle. As a creative resistance to territorial assault, James manages to make the viewer briefly experience the dizzying inertia of a city; a moment in which a viewer, that is, human figure, can for a second exceed the scale of a megalopolis. I think that James’s photographs operate as superior ads for the city, providing a fresh image of Beijing, one where art perfectly folds into superior marketing.

© Celeny Gonzalez

 

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Theorising Cricketainment

Friday, June 7th, 2013

 

A critical semiotic analysis of the IPL-cricket brand and its implicit code of engagement with its audience/consumers throws up interesting perspectives. IPL was conceptualized by its creators as a hybrid concept for a country and audience that is very open to hybrids that mix up very different elements into interesting mixes and cocktails. So IPL was a version of the T-20 format of cricket that blended cricket with Bollywood style entertainment and American sports management concepts of league teams owned by business people, with the cheerleaders thrown in for good measure. With the scandals and excesses increasing year by year, after the sixth season, it might be helpful to use semiotic thinking to decode the very identity of IPL that lends itself to such; more importantly, how would audiences and fans be impacted. Can semiotic thinking shed some light on these aspects?

From the mass Indian audience and fan’s point of view, what is IPL-cricket? Is it a sport, a game viz cricket? The implicit but well understood culture and category code of a sporting fan’s engagement with the sport of his choice is of fair play and faith that the game is not rigged in any manner. In any sport, the rules of play are well defined, there are rule-enforcing policemen viz the umpires and within that framework, the contestants – the top sportsmen, high performers that they are, play to win. So, from a ‘sport’ framework, spot fixing and allied match fixing with the brazen involvement of the underworld and cheating sportsmen are anathema. All sports, everywhere, have their scandal stories when big money is involved, along with the fallen idols. But it is understood that the ‘governors’ of the sport will do what it takes to clean up the game of the ‘sleaze’ so that the sports’ fans and sports lovers can enjoy their beloved game without loss of faith or doubt. The credibility of the sport cannot be compromised, else all will be lost.

Or is IPL-cricket, cricket really? If it is cricket-ainment, then does it belong with other forms of televised entertainment and thus virtual realities? In the world of entertainment, everything is make-believe anyway. Even ‘reality’ shows are staged and ‘live’ performances are pre-recorded. The audience knows this and aligns their expectations accordingly. In the ‘entertainment’ frame, everything is staged and created for effect. Why not the matches too? Why not have the matches strategized and co-ordinated to keep the audience guessing and waiting for more, like the script writers do for TV content? And if the sportsmen are akin to actors and stars performing their part in a pre-arranged script, then how does it matter if they cut a side deal for a little bit of spot fixing, for some thrills and extra cash? In a strange way, there is no cheating or dishonesty or problem with the brand, because the brand is delivering what it promised to its audience, viz, entertainment to the max – with sideshows of scandals, controversies et al to add masala and spice to the entertainment. After all, it is showbiz and in showbiz notoriety and infamy sells as much as genuine performance.

Or as a hybrid – that is a mix of both sport and entertainment – like cross-cultural marriages, fusion food and fusion music, does it have its own rules that it should be evaluated against? Then what are those codes and rules of engagement for a hybrid? Clarity of identity and transparency in rules create simplicity of understanding and consequently trust. That the transplanting of American concepts into the Indian soil creates all sorts of confusion and unanticipated outcomes is clearly evident from the six seasons. Cheerleaders become equivalents of item girls in movies, but when required to perform live in public, need to adopt public behaviors that fit in with Indian cultural standards of modesty in public places.  American style free market capitalism in the management of the economics of IPL-Cricket, when transplanted into India’s unregulated or lightly regulated sports market has led to visible and gross excesses of cronyism that gallop unchecked.

In economic terms, clarity brings efficiency via simplicity. The first value add of branding to a marketed product is to create a trust mark that its consumers can rely on to define their expectations so that they can know for sure that they have got their money’s worth. Or as a TV audience, they have got their time’s worth.   In a world of consumer choice, when the consumer-audience wields the power of the remote control, clarity in defining the brand’s identity, the category classification that it belongs to and hence the codes/rules of engagement with its consumer become a necessity, not something that can be denied, overlooked or glossed over. Declining viewership ratings may be the first sign of an underlying, fundamental identity issue which has not been addressed. Semiotic thinking can lead the way to strategic brand management.

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2013

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Rediscovering Old Age

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

 

Whenever you meet clients in India, it seems that every brand is striving to be youthful and wants to target 18-25 year olds. The rest of us on the wrong side of this age divide might as well make ourselves scarce. Any ad review over the last ten years will only showcase young people and older people, if they exist, will at best be middle-aged parental figures, representing irritant authority against whom the youth kick off to make a point. They were either judgmental mother in law like figures, inspecting the home of young couples to see whether their kitchens and bathrooms were being kept up well or simply uncomprehending of the ways of the young generation.

In the past couple of years, there has been an interesting shift. Old people have made an appearance, first in advertising for financial products such as pension plans and now making inroads into sectors such as telecom which were bastions of youth. The old people are emphatically old – very wrinkled and proceeding towards being bent as well. The physicality is where the archetype parts way with the character. They mostly do not conform to the archetype of the wise old man/woman and nor to the covert social take of being strange and cranky.

This is a significant shift in a culture that is beginning to idealize youth. The balance of power has tipped in their favour of young people as they are more economically empowered, making more money than their parents ever saw and also being inherently tech savvy and therefore better able to negotiate the world today.  Traditionally, moving towards maturity and old age was revered and somewhat eagerly awaited. With advancing age came all the privileges of enhanced status and authority reflected in being consulted by the young on every decision and putting the seal of approval on every purchase. Advancing old age meant that it was pay back time for the young, where any good kid was going to dutifully serve and put the elder’s wish before his while the old cultivated a detachment from worldly affairs and a move towards spirituality.

Against the backdrop of this shift, advertising’s sudden engagement with the old and this moving into the foreground of collective consciousness is intriguing. Post tipping of balance of power, what codes govern old age? Perhaps when there is an ambiguous space the imagination runs free. Collectively there is a need to re imagine old age. The contours this reimagining has taken are interesting.

In this imagination, as reflected in advertising, the old are not moving towards either detachment or spirituality. The mood is light, marked with merriment. While the physicality is exaggeratedly old the behavior is emphatically like that of a teenager.

Portrayal of the old as carefree and a tiny bit irresponsible is reflected in a health insurance ad where the son is evaluating a policy and wants his father’s opinion but the father is too busy listening to rap on his iPod and would rather talk about the music than insurance. Or in a bunch of oldies giggling like school girls, cheating at cards and planning a birthday surprise for their brother; again from an insurance ad.

Another theme that gets repeated is that of romance between the old, which is particularly interesting as old couples in India are expected to be done with overt expressions of romance by the time the children come along. Buying diamond rings for your wife in your old age especially when it is preceded by a lifetime of restrained consumption is  intriguing; as is an awkward old man giving his dour wife a rose on Valentine’s day when the cultural norm is one of functional choices and practical transactions between couples.

Reimagining old age is fertile creative territory for the agencies in India and perhaps it is media validation and way forward for those living in changed times. Or maybe an acknowledgement of those who have the big bucks and a history of being consumption deprived.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqg8pVOTooY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N2PRuuYVsA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lb6Ky4PdHw

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

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Violence of the Dispossessed

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

 

The steady Indian economy has ensured that its citizens are relatively more secure in a world, where the societal formations have been destabilised by economic uncertainty. India also has the distinction of being the largest democracy and a pacifist power, often being accused of being a soft state. It displays little aggression in sports with enthusiasts attributing it to lack of ‘killer instinct.’ This historic lack of testosterone combined with family values and warm security should point to a society which is generally peaceable. But that is not so. Indian society is simmering with conflict. There is a war within – a war of the genders.

Violence against women is at an all time high even as women are now more literate, economically independent, empowered and liberated. And this is the woman that men cannot locate in their lexicon and paradigm of understanding women. For reasons of moral virtue men have always been told to look upon women other than his wife as mothers or sisters. But the modern Indian woman does not look anything like the mother or the sister that he has known. He cannot process this liberated and somewhat westernised woman. He does not know where to place her in his world and what to call her. There is no word for it.

The Indian man’s first brush with westernized women, was the white English woman. She was attractive and a sexual object. His lust for her did not disturb his moral virtue. She could remain in his fantasy because her otherness was so distinct that he never confused her with his mother or sister. Her relatively easy relationship with the opposite sex fuelled his fantasy but never disturbed his world because she was alien and distant. His fantasies never translated into action because he was intimidated by her. She was powerful as she belonged to the white master. He knew how to address her. She was ‘Memsahib’ and master was ‘Sahib.’ She merited an additional prefix of ‘Mem’ meaning English which was shorthand for all western values. Permissive values and women after all don’t go together. Such a qualifier for men is really not needed.

Closer to the colonial times, this nomenclature applied to the Indian elite. But as the colonial hangover receded and new contemporary Indian identities emerged, transfer of these values to the Indian context posed a problem. How does the common Indian man make sense of this woman who exhibits Memsahib like behavior and sartorial preference?  The physical attributes of the white woman like fair skin, slim figure and height still inform his ideal of beauty but his sexual reverie is rudely interrupted when he finds that the incorporation of the other has gone beyond the external. She inspires the same intimidation but this time he cannot accept that she is unattainable. He is enraged that once again the elite have cornered the prize. The liberal metrosexual man who is comfortable with her new identity is desired by her. This feels like betrayal because it comes from the brethren. The toiling, struggling masses have once again been left out with no recourse but brute force. The Sahib has walked away with the Memsahib.

© Sraboni Bhaduri 2013

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Hedging semiotic bets

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

 

I was lucky enough to be commissioned to do a project on premium beauty last month. This involved a field trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (still colloquially known as Saigon). While analysing beauty archetypes and immersing myself in glamour magazines and visual culture I was struck by the creeping influence of an array of new beauty looks which play with mixed racial identity in an ambiguous way. This is a semiotic hedging strategy for a region which is becoming increasingly sure of itself and aware of its growing hegemony, whilst still vestigially in thrall to the West.

Those who track such things know that the beauty archetypes have been becoming more Asian for years. In 2006/07 Shiseido launched Tsubaki in a lacquerware looking bottle touting the uniqueness of Japanese beauty. A brand called Ichimaki did the same thing. At the same time the Kao brand Asience released a cringeful and starring actress heavily insinuating the superiority of East Asian over European women. No longer are leggy blondes fawned over in quite the same way as they used to be; except perhaps in hostess bars! Far from seeking to be European, the pellucid, almost sepulchral North East Asian look seems to be favoured. Cosmetic surgery is booming and generally deployed to widen eyes, mitigate the epicanthic lid and lengthen the nose bone. Whilst this may have been originally motivated by a desire to emulate Westerners, this has been appropriated as an East Asian look in its own right.. This represents a paradigm shift from the round faced and fatter cheeked Vietnamese beauty of the 1980s and before. In Vietnam this is being driven by Korean (and to a lesser extent Japanese) visual culture with slick premium beauty brands such as Ohui, Lenarge and others. In this, Korean K-Pop, soft power and brands work hand in glove with one another.

Anna Truong

So, we have this general drift towards celebration of East Asian beauty. At the same time there is this penchant for mixed race models. I conducted a similar project in Japan 5 years ago and was struck by the popularity of so called ‘haafu’ (Eurasian half Japanese, half European models) even though they were still exotic  and marginal curiosities it seems back then. In Japan the stigma of not being totally Japanese is gradually falling away. There are now famous ‘post race’ tarento such as Rora who are a Japanese, Russian, Bangladeshi mix. In Vietnam, a more conservative less ‘postmodern’ society, Anna Truong is a popular half Vietnamese, half German model and daughter of a famous singer noted for her warm and classy Eurasian beauty. Now what we see is the so called the Eurasian look being used alongside the more refined, more racially distinct and paler Korean look.

The mix is becoming hard to trace. Asian women who have been enhanced or are made up to have a more European look jostle with Europeans with black hair and the sort of skin that approaches a pallor of Japanese skin along with genuine Eurasians. This places the latter group – perhaps previously ostracised – in the ironic position of now being able to accuse ‘full blooded’ models of seeking to ‘pass themselves off’…

Za advertising

So, if we consider some of the images chosen here we can see how this shift is playing itself out in practise. The Za cosmetics print ad features two models dressed as flower power exiles. They have the rosy pinkish complexion and broader cheekbones and the auburn highlights popular in East Asia but note their Amazonian stature and cosmopolitan aura. The ad perfectly captures the vanillarized ambiguity of these looks – impossible to pigeonhole, easy to accept. They paddle off a miscegenated atoll somewhere in the territorial waters of ‘Ocean Eurasia’ but refuse to be pinned down or reveal their definite co-ordinates. Occidental Caucasianness is becoming a twist or garnish to spice up looks, rather than adopted wholesale.

This Lancome ad I saw outside a shopping mall in Saigon and in a fashion magazine is another significant cultural text. The two models adopt an identical gaze, as if the art director could not decide which to use. The double appeal of Caucasian and East Asian is the key here. This is also what all mixed race people have always known; we’re always ‘double’ in consciousness and heritage, never half. The beholder is meant to mix the identities in the mind like colour palette on an easel.

Lancome advertising

An experiment by Gillian Rhodes a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in 2006 found that when Caucasian and Japanese subjects were shown photos of Caucasian, Japanese and Eurasian faces both groups rated the Eurasian faces as most attractive. A hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is that these faces are preferred because they signal genetic diversity, a vital marker of reproductive health..

As someone of Caribbean heritage who lived through the 1980s in the UK when being mixed race was not embraced in the quite the same way it is now, I am stunned at the ubiquity of mixed race models, particularly Caribbean/white mixed in UK advertising and on TV by mainstream brands like M&S. Miscegenation has become the darling of brand guardians who seem to think this ethnic daring boosts credibility with a progressive population, who may have their prejudices (and as we know from the muppet opera Avenue Q ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist’) but who want to believe in a world where exotic beauty trumps race. Of course the Obama phenomenon would have fed this trend. In East Asia the decision to use these models seems less political than strategic. From the semiotic perspective, this reveling in gradations is a sort of aesthetic rapprochement. The Eurasian look seems to square the circle, blending proud celebration of Asian skin with a dash of Caucasian exoticism. This also helps manage the tension between the desire for cultural capital and class mobility and the need to be anchored to an East Asian root. 

© Chris Arning 2012

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Chocolate Vietnam

Friday, November 9th, 2012

 

This Vietnamese chocolate pack is a perfect juxtaposition of globalized visual culture and the extraction of semiotic cues of local influence. As ethnographer Arjun Appadurai wrote: “The central problem of today's global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization… What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way…” (p. 6; Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture). This dialectic drives branding and design codes.

The excellent paper by Thurlow and Aiello (National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry Crispin Thurlow and Georgia Aiello, Journal of Visual Communication, 2007) on aircraft tailfins showed how global kinetic motion vector motifs can be hybridized with local avian mythology to create national airline brands that also successfully conform to an international design idiom. A similar thing is happening here. Chocolate has for a while been becoming much less a sweet confectionary and being seen as a gourmet foodstuff. The cocoa bean usually rendered in faux naïf illustrator (as if straight off a Linaeus etching) style has become a staple image in the brave new world of bean to bar new chocolatiers. The Marou pack cleverly combines this with subtle cultural cues. The brand descriptor and historicist font used for the title is a contrivance of Gallic savoir faire. The title Faiseurs de Chocolat – is ‘made up’ French (it should be fabricants) and the square cartouche reference vaguely fin de siècle France luxury goods.

To the uneducated observer (which I still consider myself to be after only a two week stint), the main design influences in Vietnam are Vietnamese re-creations of broadly Chinese design and a re-imagined colonial France. This stunning chocolate packaging from Marou subtly references both of these traditions whilst arguably forging a delightfully charming Vietnamese confection. The building that houses the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City would probably be a good example of this type of hybrid form. It is a pleasing mix of Chinese and French influences with the splayed eaves and roofing characteristic of pagodas, engraved calligraphic panels, and the cloud and transom patterns in balustrades, but with the shutters, balconies and neo classical influences of French architecture. This 1937 building, is an example of forging something distinctively Vietnamese out of semiotic resources available.

Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

The colouring of the pack is interesting too. The ochre yellow is ubiquitous in Hanoi and in the South. This stucco seems to be used on all the old French colonial houses. Significant now of faded grandeur, it is arguably used to re-orientalize Vietnamese products for the Viet Kieu, South Vietnamese exiles who crave romanticized views of Vietnam they had to leave behind in painful circumstances in the 1970s and because they do not now recognize their country.

Vietnam is a country still quite divided between North and South living in the shadow and the trauma of two bitterly fought colonial struggles. The North via photography and other elements martially commemorate their struggle and eventual triumph against massive odds. The South who lost the war – but appear to be winning the peace – are nostalgic about remembering what was interrupted and purged in 1976. Being publicly nostalgic has only quite recently become a possible trope in Vietnam. As cultural anthropologist Christophe Robert comments: “Indulging in nostalgia is akin to dilettantism and bourgeois loafing…After independence and reunification of the country had been achieved. Nostalgia for the bad old days was inappropriate. In political terms, and especially in Saigon and southern Vietnam, nostalgia could potentially open the door to revisionist accounts calling into question the brutal means- and the authoritarian governance of the Communist Party.” (Robert, p. 408)

When it comes to the luxury goods there is a demand from more discerning old money in both Hanoi and Saigon for nostalgia in art, interior design and packaging. It seems that the two Frenchmen who set up this brand wittingly or unwittingly tap into this vein whilst also auto-orientalizing Vietnam for foreign visitors. I picked this item up in the Sofitel in Ho Chi Minh –; at 131,000 dong, (about $5) it is definitely a chi chi item you wouldn’t find it in a normal supermarket. My cultural anthropologist colleague Christophe Robert believes that this pack would appeal only to the very pinnacle of the social hierarchy in Vietnam, those with both money and symbolic education to be able to appreciate the references. Aside from being beautifully and artfully put together, this pack seems to be a semiotic text that shrewdly pushes the right buttons both with overseas Viet Kieu diaspora, nostalgia craving rich Vietnamese and easily impressed, time pressed foreigners like me looking for swift souvenirs.

© Chris Arning 2012

References

Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy, Public Culture (1990)

Robert, Christophe ‘The Return of the Repressed: Uncanny Spaces of Nostalgia and Loss in Trâ`n Anh Hùng’s Cyclo’ Positions 20:1 (2012)

Thurlow, Crispin and Georgia Aeillo, ‘National pride, global capital: a social semiotic analysis of transnational visual branding in the airline industry’, Journal of Visual Communication, (2007)

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Two Types of Garishness (1)

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

 

I thought it would be worth looking at two types of garishness at London 2012. Garish is defined as obtrusively bright and showy. Synonyms: gaudy – showy – loud – glaring – flashy. I think that the official Russian Federation Olympic uniform and the GLA volunteer London Ambassador’s uniform both qualify. I thought it would be worth interrogating what sort of garishness it is and how it functions in both cases. What does this garishness communicate, what does it communicate in each case and why.

The conclusion would be that once we start to look at the different communication contexts, we can better see that the garishness performs different semiotic functions.

Russian Federation track suits by Bosco. They have been polarizing. Certainly, in the UK, when the first Russian athletes arrived at Heathrow in late July, they were slated by the press who interpreted them as an example of shameless 80s retro, evoking stereotypes of tasteless tracksuits, mindless away kits, insinuating unpleasant things about Russian taste. A friend of mine was roundly lampooned by his friends on his Facebook profile for having bought one as an ironic souvenir of his trip to the Olympic stadium. It was described as ‘minging’, and another quote described it as “the single worst piece of Olympic fashion” and “pikey sports kit”. This is a predictable English reaction based on our design prejudices that lean to sober and understated design leavened with a good deal of class hatred. I do wonder what Russians think of it? It seemed that the Russian athletes stepped out into the stadium with great pride and apparently it has been a popular fashion accessory back home in Mother Russia.

Unlike other tracksuits this one uses an ornate patterning device that catches the eye. The pattern is immediately identifiable as having an oriental, Levantine from my best guess, probably Ottoman influence. Matching the red stripes on the sleeve and waist is a sumptuous tangle of curlicues, paisleyesque, roseate and heraldic motifs all deftly interlinked together in a rich tapestry. According to my Russian colleague Masha Papanthymou, a main reference in the design is an ornamental so called 'Turkish cucumber', with Persian or Indian roots, which has of late become quite popular in visual culture, in a 21st century Russia still trying out new identities.

It has been popularly used in kerchiefs and scarfs and used by designers such as Denis Samichev on i-Phone covers as a nascent sign of Russianness. Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes discusses the perennial oscillation in influence between European oriented St. Petersburg and Asiatic Muscovy. Figes comments on the sympathy for all things Oriental in the Russian bourgeoisie in the 19th century: “the significance of the Eastern trace in Russian art went far beyond exotic decoration. It was testimony to the historical fact of Russia’s descent from the ancient cultures of the Orient.” (p.392). Vladimir Stasov researched the influence of Persian and Mongolian motifs in Russian lettering in Church manuscripts showing that Russian scribes had adopted nearly all of the rhomboids, rosettes, and checkered patterns later osmosed into Russian folk visual culture. So we can see from a Russian perspective that this track suit is not just kitsch Soviet retro; it is a fecund inter-textual reference to Russia’s history. Something similar has been happening in Turkey with Ottoman motifs in the last few years – becoming more comfortable with celebrating this through scarves & interiors.

What I like about it is that whilst it does play to a Russian love of grandiloquence and sentiment it also expresses something unique about Russia totally absent in the insipid anonymity of the horizontal Russian tricolore that will probably be forever associated with topsy-turvy transition period after the 1991 coup and short lived CIS.

As emblems, the bear or phoenix would be too vainglorious, so the sumptuous red with white tessellations smuggle in what a condensed symbol would do rather too overtly. This is reinforced by the bold lettered sash RUSSIA across the chest printed in grand, vertically imposing lettering. This is a new and interesting expression of Russian soft power and the team’s decent medal haul at London 2012 would have made this clear. Certainly Putin was a keen cheerleader for Russian success at the Games. The promotional imagery on the Bosco website, blonde Russian athletes, gazing Social realist style across the wheat fields of the steppe also shows a clear and proud rhetorical thrust.

© Chris Arning 2012

This analysis will continue in Part 2 with a look at the UK’s own take on garishness – the Team London pink and magenta Ambassador’s uniform.

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No dress code for food

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

 

Food voyeurism seems to be a global phenomenon going purely by the number of food related shows from all over the world that are on air. In India we consume them all with gusto. Never mind if most us in India are totally unfamiliar with many of the ingredients and certainly have no idea what a terrine or a béchamel sauce may be. Unfamiliarity with an Enoki mushroom does not keep us from participating in the drama surrounding it on Masterchef. We are learning how the other side eats and we are learning to consume food visually.

Food presentation is something fairly alien to us in India. The kormas and the curries are just one mass which see nothing further by way of presentation than garnishing with finely chopped coriander. Even in garnishing the repertoire doesn’t extend beyond coriander or perhaps coconut and on a really good day it could be fried onions, all on a consistent background color varying between pale yellow to reddish yellow. Compared with the food art that other cuisines are given to, Indian cuisine can be described as visually limited.

This visual poverty seems a little odd for a cuisine that uses a rich array of spices and has a multiplicity of expressions, with each region having a rather complete & distinctive set of offerings. It is rich and imaginative in every way except that it refuses to romance the ingredients and will not dress up charmingly to lure the diner. A carrot will submerge its identity amongst five other vegetables and no vegetable will attempt to hog the limelight by posing as a flower.

Food on the table is good enough. It does not need hard sell. For a culture that believes each grain is a manifestation of god, demanding that food look pretty would be blasphemy.  Grains, vegetables, spices themselves are treated with respect even in a busy bazaar. They will all be washed and polished and arranged into geometric heaps. Every transaction with the customer disturbs this arrangement but it is carefully restored. It is much less efficient than simply putting it in a heap or displaying fruits & vegetables in a cardboard box.

Food demands respect. The equation between the diner and the food is fairly clear. Food does not have to try too hard. In fact it will be romanced by ornate containers. The only points of embellishment are the plate and the containers. The great Indian thali does not woo the diner but the food itself.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Of Marriages & Products

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

 

I love our Big Fat Indian weddings. The colourful mandaps and the phera-chori, the mehendi and the mithai, the glittering bridal nathni and the bridegroom’s shehra, the kanyadaan and the bidaai – all of these are exciting yet intimate moments shared between family and friends.

Does the rest of India also love it? Perhaps it does, both in real and reel life. The two-decade long obsession and popularity with the elaborate Indian wedding is easily apparent in Bollywood movies and satellite television, attracting audiences by the millions. The import of this is not lost on the image-makers branding the Wedding as a luxury product to be consumed in vast proportions.

One often sees advertisements using the backdrop of the Indian Wedding against which to position their products. From sarees, jewellery, suit materials to bank insurances, from lifestyle accessories to food items – Indian weddings have them all.

Let’s do a flashback scenario in a stereotypical context where a young couple is shown nodding to the formalities of the insurance policy. It is almost impossible to get anyone on a rational platform today, leave alone explain benefits! It is, after all an image driven society! Today, many related products with or without any matrimonial implication ride on the Indian wedding as a backdrop. The question is not whether these ads are successful or not, but how marriage as a sign helps connects people to products and brands.

Other products like the fairness cream; – e.g Vicco turmeric or the Raymond suitings too have explored the wedding themes. For example the jingles of “banno teri ankhiyan” that were played in the oldest Vicco ads were an anthem in those days and all one could remember were around twenty women applying haldi to the bride. Also, the Titan ad showing a young girl playing piano for her sister was designed along similar lines. More than the brands, the jingles; the context; the gaze; the expressions have not been forgotten.

A recent survey shows that there is an increase in the new age ‘live in’ relationships. Well, our advertising certainly seems to be replaying the good old stable institution of marriage. One wonders if marriage has become as much of a ‘product’ as are the brands themselves. Either ways, the brands are laughing all the way to the bank! Marriage anyone?

© Heta Trivedi 2012

Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz3o1PS7IFo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BRYGTqouuE&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvx8pB9Ivoo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZq10WlFQlk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3jEffr4mWQ&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg_As8OycpY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOeUssxuz5U

 

And brush up your wedding vocabulary:

Phera – Rounds taken by husband and wife around the sacrificial fire

Chori – Structure made of wood or steel under which the rituals of a Hindi wedding take place

 Sehra – Garlands of flowers covering the face of the bridegroom

 Mehendi – Henna applied on hands and legs of the bride during wedding

 Kanyadaan – the ritual wherein the parents of the bride give their daughter to her husband

 Bidaai – the ritual where in the girl says good bye to all her family members while leaving from her home after the wedding

Banno teri ankhiyan – a famous song in Hindi language that is sung during weddings

Haldi – Turmeric

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Shinkansen & the Myth of Progress

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

What travels with the stealth of a Lexus and at Formula 1 speed and has a hospitality trolley? The Shinkansen, literally meaning “new trunk line” but very quickly dubbed bullet train by Western pundits, is an important semiotic property in Japan. The Super Express is a talisman that keeps Japan moving literally and mythically.

According to Wikipedia: “The Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the world's busiest high-speed rail line. Carrying 151 million passengers a year (March 2008),[4] it has transported more passengers (over 4 billion, network over 6 billion)[5] than any other high speed line in the world” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen.

These sleek trains were inaugurated in 1964 – a blue riband year for the Japanese in that it, very much like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, seemed to set the seal on the Japanese post war resurgence. Travelling at over 210km per hour, it was by far the fastest rail transport then available and must have impressed travelling visitors as to how far Japan had come. Whilst no longer on its own as the fastest train in the world (the French TGV is faster and China have a Maglev which travels at 420kmph, though the Japanese still hold the record for the fastest ever maglev), the Shinkansen is still a paragon of silent speed and service, with spotless safety record.

Japan has a fleet of over 1500 Shinkansen trains that criss cross Japan every day taking Japanese businessmen from Tokyo to Osaka or reuniting families over the Golden Week or Obon holidays. The speed and perfect punctuality of the Shinkansen certainly seem to the outside observer as a reminder of the robust infrastructure underpinning Japan despite the long term recession and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation leak. It is the most palpable sign of technological prowess in a country that has lost some of its reputation for being vanguardist and visionary. It almost seems as if the Shinkansen train functions as an eternal rebuke to these doubts. It says something that the names of these trains depending on how often they stop on the trunk line, NOZOMI (meaning hope), HIKARI (meaning light) and SAKURA (cherry blossom) represent positive and galvanizing messages to the Japanese passenger and the public at large. The Shinkensen is a project that subject to continual renewal – the trunk line has just been extended into Kyushu and there are plans to build and extension to the most Northern island of Hokkaido as well as to upgrade the Tohoku line to faster speeds.

As goes the Shinkansen line so goes progress in Japan.

What is most noticeable about the representation of the Shinkansen is the idea of forward progress through sleekness and contemporaneity of its plastic design profile.

From the needle like fierceness of the grey and blue 500 series to through the latest pantograph platypus billed 500 series to the outrageous, exaggerated nose cone of the E5, the design of Shinkansens, despite owing partly to aerodynamic logic is becoming increasingly aggressive; each design seeming to outdo its predecessor. The E5 being advertised as “Made from Dream” is actually positioned as more like a transatlantic or private airliner than a train – the seats will be lavishly upholstered and service to match – it is true that Shink travel has the best of flight without the hassles.

Advertising by JR lingers languidly on the flaring and scalloped flanks of the train nose cones. The new 700 series and the coming E5 have become the centerpiece of promotional work that focuses not on where you’d want to travel but simply on riding this train. A pamphlet for a season ticket shows in aerial shot the immensity of the front section – like a sperm whale’s head with the sly concision of the canopy hood set off against the albumen like fuselage looking like something out of Star Wars.

Another JR poster shows two E5s gracefully passing each other against a black background almost like two automated swans gliding on the tracks. Grace and functionality: two underlying values that are most prized in Japanese aesthetics.

The thorax of the beast is very rarely shown. A semiotic perspective would suggest this is because the sinewy, muscular design of the Shinkansen seems totemic of the notion of forward propulsion. Shinkansen is an index for the future or at least a very strong metaphor for forward progress and a belief that the future is bright. On the pamphlet showing the E5 the arrows, pure indexes (as Peirce said, the sign that signifies not be convention but by blind compulsion), relate to the idea of speed but also to the idea of a smart card being a progressive idea for the new generation.

My recent trip shows that the Japanese government and local tourist centres are assiduously promoting domestic tourism. Shinkansen ads in 2012 carry a new slogan that say (Nihon ni Tsunagou – “let’s join up Japan”) and on the flank of a Joetsu line Shinkansen was a message of hope to stricken prefectures of the Tohoku region. though Japan already perhaps the most comprehensive train coverage in the world.

There is clearly a lot of goodwill towards the Shinkansen in popular culture. You can buy Shinkansen chocolates in long tubes at station shops, there is also a book and DVD made for children that goes through the chronology of the Shinkansen, the successive series and how they are assembled with a cockpit view. There is even a Shinkansen museum, I believe in Nagoya, where you can see the original 0 series snub nosed 1964 trains and learn about the background and the original blueprints.

Whilst there has been some disruption to services and may be some trouble on the line ahead, nation Japan does not seem to be hitting the buffers quite yet and the Shinkansen – a bullet (train) that tapers at both ends – is a powerful semiotic force that acts as both persistent proof of this and as a motivating impetus into the future.

 © Chris Arning  2012

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Vehicle body art

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

 

Vehicles on Indian roads talk. Almost every vehicle is embellished either with images on the body or with accessories within. There is  general disapproval for the plain vanilla factory made look. It is a rather inviting tabula rasa on which story of one’s identity must be etched. After all, buying a car is a milestone and historically it does mark the class transition from belonging to the plebian crowds who access public transport to becoming somebody who can afford their own private means. The nature of the images and the embellishment do tell you many stories. Stories about the life journey of the owner; how they got there and what they feel about it. How space is shared or rather grabbed on the road can be read as a mini snapshot of the class dynamics of this society.

I will pick up two sets of vehicles and two popular images and embellishments typical to them. Privately owned cabs which are leased out to the driver and the mid range sedan which are favored by those who have recently risen above the harried middle class.

 Privately owned cabs for all practical purposes belong to the driver who works them hard so that he can have money left over after paying the daily lease sum and the fuel & maintenance costs. While on the face of it he can pull off a certain amount of status & posturing within his community about practically being the owner, the joy runs a bit shallow. He finds himself working harder & harder to beat the terms of the lease and save himself a respectable income. This pseudo ownership is nothing but a cuckold. The vehicle being experienced as a cheating girlfriend rings true at many levels. In a society where ‘ownership’ of a heavily bedecked woman lends status gives further credence to this parallel. Each cab is lovingly decorated with colorful tinselly frills and the stickers with sad romantic couplets complete the story of the driver being the jilted lover – all because he spends such long hours on the road. A pair of heavily made up blue eyes painted at the rear of the vehicle is significant at many levels. It is blue signifying the much desired white woman fantasy complete with all its loose morality associations. It is placed at the rear where it is looking on at the vehicle behind – at the ‘other’. The eyes seem to guard the rear alluding somewhere to the vulnerability experienced on the road. Is it the vulnerability of the pretender?

In contrast the theme of embellishment of the sedan alludes to the sense of snug security of those who have just arrived. The car is a protected cocoon, sealed off with its rolled up windows & tinted glasses warding off unwanted eyes looking in. Comforting softness of this world is further accentuated by velvet cushions and soft toys placed on the parcel tray, looking out at the world through the rear windscreen as though mocking the sweat, dust and grime of the road. It mimics the untouched innocence and hyperbolic snugness of the nursery.

When these worlds come together, predictably there is mayhem which is known as Indian road traffic; also known as the most dangerous sport in the world! [Apparently it is drawing visitors from round the world as an extreme sport.] When the soft, pink cushioned world of the sedan mocks the violated fantasy of class transition, testosterone is bound to flow. The rash and aggressive driving of the overworked cabs in turn mocks the fragility of the cushion & soft toy brigade. And the troubled co existence of the classes and masses that have been denied transition continues.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Biking displaced

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

 

‘Roadies’ is a reality show running into its ninth season in India.  Any show that runs into its ninth season has enormous mass appeal and this one has got youth cult status. It started with a bunch of boys doing tough ‘tasks’ involving much physical endurance, hitting the road on their bikes and essentially surviving physical odds as well as political challenges of group dynamics.  It is built on the classic ingredients of masculine appeal which cuts across every adolescent or middle aged man’s fantasy of biking, road trip, tough ruggedness and brawn.

What provides the twist in an otherwise timeless tale is the personality of the host and creator of the show – Raghu. His process of screening and audition to select contestants for this reality show seems to be close to what in India is called ‘ragging’ and in some other cultures is called ‘hazing’. The aspirants go through, besides a group discussion and elaborate form filling, a personal interview.  Raghu – short tempered, volatile, politically irreverent and liberated from any kind of political correctness that being on television demands – puts the aspirants through hell. He zeros in on their weaknesses, false selves, paltry defensiveness and posturing and proceeds to dismantle them ruthlessly in a bid to reveal their ‘true’ selves. Physical challenges such as doing knuckle push ups or head stands are employed to take the aspirants out of their comfort zone in order to break down facades.

The intriguing bit is why are there thousands of young people in every city lining up to go through this experience which for most ends up being public humiliation on national television? They want to go through this and for most it is a test by fire that they want to go through; expecting a stronger and perhaps a ‘real man’ emerging at the end of this experience. They want to be judged and want Raghu’s verdict on who they are and what they are worth.

Raghu does not come across as a bully but more as a tough father delivering home truths intended to chisel and bring out the real man. Clearly this brand of parenting which is directive, ruthlessly disciplining and offering a certain amount of authoritative resistance that an adolescent can go up against and resolve his final bits of identity formation which have gone missing. Obviously traditional patriarchs are being missed by the kids. They have nothing to go up against and test themselves and the limits. Is there an overdose of non-directive, organic ‘discover for yourself’ feminine nurturance which does not make enough use of parental authority?

When ‘ragging’ or ‘hazing’ are experienced as rites of passage; what does it say about this generation’s life experiences? They have to search far and wide for a piece of resistance against which they can sharpen their identity and sadly this is the defining and toughest experience of their lives. This reality show has some very real responsibilities. The host is the guiding light and fills in for fearless authority figures while a staged road trip is a simulated coming of age experience for a whole generation.

 © Sraboni Bhaduri 2012

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Kolaveri Di

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

 

Why this Kolaveri Di? This Tamil-Indian song has garnered  a still snowballing 5.5 million hits  in less than a week of release on 17th November 2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YR12Z8f1Dh8

The funny thing about a viral is that – like news, it is time-bound, and after the initial buzz, fizzles so completely that you later wonder what it was about. 

Kolaveri is relatable by all – and yet not quite one's own lingo. Most of it is understood yet leaves something incomplete to the Indian imagination.

Tamil is the not-quite-other 'other' to the rest of India. A Dravidian language spoken in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Tamil, and its brethren Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada form the  base of  the regional film industry. With a glancing acquaintance with Northern India's Bollywood, the two worlds rarely come together or collide. They could belong to different planets – going by the stars, sets, stories, music and fans.

Until Kolaveri Di.

The seamless social network  and the vast Indian demographic dividend of the 65% less-than-35-years youth segment have finally made out with one another, cutting across regions. 

In the Indian world mediated as it is by twenty two official languages, Kolaveri uses 'only English' – in Tamil. And this is the patois spoken in more urban homes today. Where the  nouns and adjectives, in English, are strung together by the grammatical 'if’, ‘but’, ‘the’, ‘and’ and ‘is' in the tongue spoken by the parents. ‘Windanu shudda kar de’ (‘shut the window’ – in Punjabi), ‘Moonu-white-u’ (‘the moon is white’  – in Tamil), ‘Bread-e butter dao’  (‘give me buttered bread’ – in Bengali) is what the nextgen feels totally at home in. 

Kolaveri sublimates and air-conditions the stereotypical broken heart, moon, holy cow, white girl with black heart – in Tamlish, and hits the sweet spot at multiple points. Why has this Kolaveri Kolaveri Kolaveri di exploded as an anthem of a cynical youth-gen fed 24/7 through dozens of channels and the internet on an over abundant supply of  West and East – Lady Gaga, Bieber, Antabella, and the now jaded Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Pritam, and worse, Punjabi Bollywood?

Dhanush has given multiple interviews in the last few days expressing surprise at the song's success because he says he is not actually a singer (he is a Tamil film actor and son-in-law of the Tamil super-god-star Rajnikanth). My dad, a Hindustani classical musician, laughs this off. After I got him to hear Kolaveri, (he enjoyed it), he said do not underestimate a South Indian's command over 'sur' (melody) and 'taal' (rhythm). One more of those wonderful beliefs we all live with, north of the Sahyadris. 

The entire filming of the video is as if in the studio – right out of the reality show genre. The expression on the face of the music cast is poker-faced and vacant, not unlike the faces of the artists, waiting in the wings to go on stage of a  highly theatrical and impassioned drama.

For now, let us leave the ensemble reveling in the encore.  

Pa pa pa ppan,  pa pa pa ppan, pa pa ppan ppan pa pa ppan

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

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The linear paradox

Friday, September 30th, 2011

 

 

Gone are the days when traveling abroad would mean being overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour of consumerism. India has caught up with the West in the 21st century. This time when I travelled to the USA, what struck me most was the Culture of The Line!

I observed how automatically people fell into a line in the West. There was no push, no shove. Just a quiet, polite, patient standing in a queue. The concept of ‘personal space’ of leaving a foot of gap between the first two people in the line seemed so alien. In India, half a dozen of people would have fitted in that ‘space’! I was taken up by the order, the discipline and the silence in the movement of the line in every walk of life in the West. Just like a ‘well-oiled machinery’ of the human race!

Come to India and the chaos hits you. Of course, there is a line but there is no concept of line in the Indian psyche. Like sardines, we stick close behind each other in a mile-long line. With much push and shove, we jostle to get our way in the line.  Anything it takes to get ahead in the queue. There is much action, noise and chitter-chatter around the line.

Some trying to break ‘Into’ the line, others trying to get order into that line. Some striking a conversation with the stranger behind to pass the time. What a stroke of luck it is to find a ‘friend’ in the line, who quietly squeezes you into the line!

This difference in the behavior of standing in a queue made me reflect on the two cultures.

A line is symbolic of the discipline of systematic, linear order. Paradoxically, Indians seem to display no linear order in public, and yet they are culturally conditioned to a ‘linearly sequenced’ pattern of life.

“Vishnu is God that organises the world. Society comes with rules and regulations,    roles and responsibilities, milestone that give life direction and standards that create hierarchy.” – Dr. Devdutt Pattnaik

 For Hindus, life is a sacred journey in which each milestone, marking major biological and emotional stages, is consecrated through sacred ceremony. Rooted in the samskaras [16 rites of passage that punctuate the symbolic line of life in Hinduism], Hindu Indians are conditioned to live by the prescribed code of conduct and customs within the complex social matrix. Each relationship in the extended family structure is given a unique name, with defined roles and responsibility. There is order, discipline and respect inherent in the Indian culture. And we all are bound by it, no matter how modern we get.

My question is why is there such a lack of order and discipline in the public space? Why are we in such a tearing hurry to ‘get ahead’, when as a nation we do not have the competitive streak to win? A paradox! It forces me to think deeper on the psyche of the Indian line culture…. 

 Is it the number game?   A population of 1.2 billion is credited to India.

Yes, people, people and people. Everywhere you go, you see a sea of people….that’s India for you! We have intrinsically been a ‘society of scarcity’ as opposed to the ‘society of abundance’ of the West. Out on the streets, we are competing with millions for the same resource. We are struggling with the constant fear of getting left behind in the daily rat race of living.

The ‘society of scarcity’ keeps us on our toes, with the mind ticking all the time. There is nothing predictable when people rub with people in the sea of emotions. The Indian mind is forced to think of creative, innovative ways around the constraints. How do we get there before others take it? How do we stretch our rupee? Nothing comes easy. The ingenious Indian mind is known for its ‘jugaad’ – i.e. “what ever it takes, I will find my way around…I will find ‘my’ solution around this situation.”

In a country where no two days are alike, where the systems may not toe the line, you will quite often hear people say: “Yeh desh Ram bharose chalta hai” (this country runs by God’s Grace.) And we carry on in faith…

There may not be the ‘conveyor belt efficiency’ of linear order in India, there may seem no method but there is a method in the madness that is real, palpable, organic, spontaneous and creative.

 

© 2011 Aiyana Gunjan

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Signs of discontent

Friday, July 29th, 2011

In early April this year, the educated upper and middle classes and youth in India’s urban centres rallied behind an unlikely hero, 72-year-old anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, from a small village in Maharashtra. Anna Hazare adopted a favoured protest tactic of Mahatma Gandhi, the fast until death to shame the Government into considering an anti-corruption bill and enacting it into law.

Hazare’s use of the fast showed how the symbolism of this act has changed since Gandhi’s time. Gandhi’s own understanding of the fast was that it was first and foremost a self-directed act, designed to purify the self of its own selfish excesses. When it came to protesting against the State, he used non-violent resistance as his main political method. But since then, and as we saw here, fasting has become politicised – turned into the ‘hunger strike’ and used as a protest weapon against the State.

The semiotics of the protest also revealed an interesting amalgam of symbolism brought in to strengthen the protestors’ halo and just cause.

For example, an image of Mother India, portrayed as a typical Hindu Goddess, was superimposed upon a map of India, symbolising the protest as a patriotic movement to restore the glory of the nation which has fallen, due to the actions of corrupt politicians. The image showed her holding the Indian flag in her left hand and waving it, while holding up her right hand in the gesture of a blessing – all to encourage her devotees, the patriotic middle class in their just fight. 

India has always been portrayed as the ‘mother’ in all of its languages, in contrast to some other cultures, such as Germany, which represent their country as a ‘father’. So a popular chant is ‘bharat mata ki jai’, which would be translated as ‘Victory to Mother India’ or ‘Hail Mother India’. 

It’s the custom in India when setting forth on a venture of any kind to seek the blessings of parents, especially your mother. So, the protestors’ portrayal of Mother India blessing her children showed that they were embarking on a new mission to save the nation.

They also put up a huge banner featuring a warlike call to have strength. All the Indian heroes of the Independence struggle and prior were depicted on the banner – as if to indicate that their soul and spirit were now invoked in the battle, making their spiritual blessing available to the modern warriors fighting to save the country.

Anna Hazare, the rural activist and contemporary hero wearing the Gandhian mantle, dressed as befits this symbolic lineage – in white khaki with the trademark white cap of the people’s hero. There was nothing flashy, trendy or designer in his attire to take away from the Gandhian image.

Modern protests would however be incomplete without two new elements – the televised debate and the candle-lit vigil. So, not only did TV cameras cover the man undergoing his fast for 36 hours, they set up temporary interview spots on the site and staged televised debates with various political celebrities who added their mite and sound bite to the battle. Finally, citizens around the country showed their solidarity with the cause by setting up candle-lit vigils in their towns on the evenings of the three-day fast. Of course, Facebook, Twitter and all manner of social media were liberally used to swell the numbers of protestors.

Contemporary middle-class protest in India is thus positioned as being clean and positive – the ‘good’ fight against the cancer of corruption. It is a fight that is blessed by the legendary heroes of the motherland, drawing inspiration from the master protestor, Mahatma Gandhi, televised and debated by intellectually minded citizens and finally, touching the hearts of millions of ordinary people throughout the country. What could be a more noble play – for power to influence the government?

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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Mahatma Gandhi, an icon of high living?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

 

Mahatma Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. The design pays tribute to his life and achievements. The top of the cap and cone are inspired by the spindle which Gandhi used to spin cotton – one of the symbols of Indian independence. The colour white is a reference to truth and peace, while the Mandarin garnet represents the orange colour that is part of the Indian flag. The nib shows an image of Mahatma Gandhi, walking with a stick. In addition, the limitation of the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000 is symbolic for the masses of people who followed him during his fight for independence.” Mont Blanc website

 

July 2011

Dear Bapuji [Bapu means father in Hindi, and Bapuji is a respectful, affectionate term for Gandhi in India], 

I would lie if I said that the first sight of this Mont Blanc ink pen did not catch my fancy. On the surface it seemed very nice and befitting…Mont Blanc, the iconic brand of writing instruments, paying tribute to your life and achievements. But that was just my first reaction. When I read further about this ‘Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 3000’ something did not seem right – either to my Indian heart or to my branding mind.

Mont Blanc and Mahatma Gandhi coming together?

Bapuji, you are no Amitabh Bachchan endorsing any and every product.  Bapuji, you are my Bapu, the father of my nation. Maybe I am sounding like an emotional, patriotic Indian.  Let me put on my branding hat and objectively view the case of Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi coming together. After all, there’s got to be a sync between the two brand identities to create meaningful synergies. 

Yes, I do see a basic match at the functional level.  Bapu, you wrote profusely and demonstrated the power of the pen to the world. It seems appropriate for the top international brand of writing instruments to pay you a tribute.

But what about the brand fit at the core values and vision level? Is there a match between Brand Mont Blanc and Brand Mahatma Gandhi at the philosophical and cultural level?

Gandhiji, to get to the core essence of your life philosophy, I poured over your words verbatim in Mohan-Mala [an anthology of Gandhi’s thoughts and writings]. You wrote:

 “The dream I want to realize is not the spoliation of the property of private owners, but to restrict its enjoyment so as to avoid all pauperism, consequent discontent and the hideously ugly contrast that exists today between the lives and surroundings of the rich and poor.”  Mohan-Mala, 1929

 Doesn’t the very concept of a limited edition for only 3000 exclusive owners defy your dream? If I am buying an ink pen for a whopping price of Rs 1,161,145, where am I restricting its enjoyment? Am I not sharpening the contrast even between the super-rich and the poor?

I appreciate the fact that the product design for the Monc Blanc Limited Edition took inspiration from the spindle. But does Mont Blanc really know what the spinning wheel and khadi mean to the people of India?

I claim for the Charkha [spinning wheel], the honor of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and businesslike manner. The Charkha, therefore is not only not useless…but is a useful and indispensable article for every home. It is the symbol of the nation’s prosperity and, therefore, freedom. It is a symbol not of commercial war but of commercial peace.” Mohan Mala, 1921

How can the charkha be an inspiration for Mont Blanc whose DNA goes against entering every home. Bapu, is this not a superficial use of such a deep and profound symbol? 

I ask, what does a luxury item catering to only 3000 individuals have anything to do with your values of equality, simplicity, minimalism and economic freedom?  Bapu, you penned these words in 1921:

“Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral and therefore sinful.Thus, the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. It is sinful to buy and use articles made by sweated labour.” Mohan Mala, Oct 1921

I respect Mont Blanc’s intent to pay tribute to your life and achievement. But it hurts me to see you being used as a ‘celebrity’ endorsing the epitome of opulence. You are my India. You are the universal spirit of peace, harmony and non-violence in each of us. How can the soul of my country be used as a symbol for pure economic gain?

I ask, where is the match between the ideal of simple living-high thinking and the ultimate expression of high living?

Yours truly,

Aiyana

© Aiyana Gunjan 2011

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The six pack triumphs in India

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Karan Singh Grover

How is the male body represented in Indian popular culture and advertising today? Are there any clear patterns or codes?

The male grooming industry is booming in India, and bringing with it a definite change in the way advertising represents the male body. In general, there has been a move away from the more soft and rounded form of traditional Indian aesthetics, towards the structured, symmetrical body favoured by the ancient Greeks (and by contemporary Western codes of male attractiveness).

In traditional Indian art, the representation of male bodies left out internal structure: it was not about hard muscle and bone. A softer form meant prana – the life force which fills the body in Hindu metaphysics – could move and flow. These art representations highlighted the values of traditional Hindu culture in which the spiritual was prized over the material, and the symbolic representation over realistic depictions. There was an implicit relationship between the divine and the human, and as aligned to the Hindu philosophical tradition and world-view, the spirit of man was seen as a manifestation of the presence of the divine. 

The history of Western art represented the male body very differently, as we can see in Greek aesthetics. Instead of valuing flow and roundedness, the Greeks idealised the perfectly proportioned, sculpted male nude. Ancient Greek sculptors celebrated the spirit of man by glorifying the beauty of internal physical structure. It’s an ideal which has persisted through time in the West and entered the material and consumer culture of today.

Now it’s arrived in India too – the development beginning around the mid-1990s. Before this time, Indian films and advertising generally showed the stars as they were: neither particularly fit, nor well muscled. Their star appeal was not based upon overt display of their body beautiful or aesthetic, but on their personality and charisma more than anything else.

However, in the past decade, as the Greek ideal of the male body has entered popular culture, the stars have started working out, building their bodies up with diets and physical trainers to the Western, muscled aesthetic. There’s also been promotion of the 'six-pack abs' as a body aesthetic to aspire for and work-out towards. We find these depictions in the advertisements for body deodorant sprays such as Axe and Axe clones. Western material culture has finally conquered the whole world – all men every where, now are urged to aspire to the same template, with minor modifications allowed, to accommodate requirements of race and place.

 

What about when the male body gets really muscled, exceeding the Greek ideal, as does Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan? Does Indian culture read 'big muscles' as a bad-boy signifier, versus the more streamlined physique of 'good guy' Bollywood stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan?

Shah Rukh has a wiry and small physique, but he too worked out and has acquired this new aesthetic. In fact, the publicity around one of his big hit films of two years ago was all about his six-pack abs. 

Salman is seen as a man with a golden heart but an uncontrolled temper and a 'bad boy' in that sense…so he gets angry very easily and when he gets angry, he can get violent. But this isn’t really held against him by the public at large or even his women fans. Overall, my take is that this new body aesthetic is far more about dialling up the sex appeal and attractiveness of the man and far less about signalling a renewed focus on male physical strength and power – machismo. Instead, it signals an intent to promote the male grooming industry.

But could there be a political dimension to India’s newly muscular male body? For instance, could it be symptomatic of what’s been called India’s 'muscular Hinduism', and the recent focus on warrior heroes such as Rama?

Sociologists have written about the development of a more fierce and virile version of Hinduism in Hindutva along with Hindutva's attempt to refocus the Hindu pantheon around the virile hero-gods, Krishna and Rama. However, Hindutva's appeal waxes and wanes. It grew in the early nineties and then the Hindu right wing party lost successive elections – now they are a weak force in the opposition. Also, each state and region in India as well as each community continues to worship their favourite Hindu God and new temples that are being built also reflect this diversity. For instance, the worship of Lord Ram is particularly strong in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but far weaker in other States. So, I do not really see the depiction of this muscled male body and the new sexy aesthetic as connected to the strength, or otherwise, of Hindutva. It is far more part of a commercial attempt to sexualize the appeal of men and women via marketing.

© Hamsini Shivakumar  2011

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Shamanic small ads

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

Korean Shamanism is rooted in ancient folk religions and dates back at least 40,000 years. The shaman has a special ability to make connections as a mediator between the human world and the spiritual world. Most Korean shamans are women and in some cases, they got the ability when they were very young. There are two types of shaman. Some are understood to inherit Shamanic skills within the family, others through a call from the spirit world. Shamans hold a special ceremony (gut) or give a fortune-telling, to deliver good fortune for their clients or heal unidentified illnesses. Traditionally the shamans also hold an annual gut to propitiate gods of the village or locality. Each shaman is a specialist of some kind. Some are good at healing the souls of the dead, for example, while others can predict the future -while others again are good at the yearly ceremony to exorcise the town.

The integration of shamanism into daily life in South Korea is reflected in brand communications and popular culture.  The image on the right is a famous comedy talk show, where the set design is based on a shaman’s shrine. The host, in costume, plays the role of a shaman and the guest acts as a client seeking a solution to a problem. Shamanism is also a widespread theme in Korean films and teledramas. The centre image was used in Compaq computer advertising some years ago, supporting the claim that the functionality matches that of a shaman.  Odd as this may seem as a hi-tech metaphor it signals the strength of continuing belief in the power of the shaman – unlike corresponding ‘magic’ hi-tech metaphors in the West, Korean shamanism in this context is still connected with a culture that maintains literal belief in the underlying spiritual forces.

For anyone unaware of this living connection with Shamanism, in the country Koreans see as the original home of shamanism, one of the most surprising expressions of this cultural phenomenon will be the small-ads offering shamanic services.  These are common and particularly in evidence in magazines targeting women of middle age. The message in one of these advertisements below reads “The shaman and exorcism are like diagnosis or surgery for your spirit. If you find a good doctor you can get good treatment. So it’s really important to find a good shaman”. 

Small ads list telephone numbers, shrine locations, and give potted histories explaining how and why this particular individual became a shaman. The personal story also supports the track record of big successes – predicting Michael Jackson's death, correctly calling the Korean presidential election, predicting the tsunami etc.  And some ads list the shaman's TV appearances in her/his professional capacity. The small-ad also tend to detail the shaman.s specialism: e.g. solving job difficulties, predicting relationships and resolving relationship problems, business predictions, working on marital compatibility or concubine problems, entrance examination predictions, property investment predictions…

In the hierarchy of specialisms, one of the things people clearly want to solve most through a shaman is the secret of material and wordly success. The shaman is the mediator or agent to satisfy such desires.   The list of problems people want to solve through a shaman leans significantly in this direction. The shaman is a mediator (or an agent) to satisfy these very practical ambitions. Here certain questions and uncertainties arise. It is in a way covetous to go to shaman since, as Koreans tend to believe, the shaman can see the future and so perhaps change it to be as a client wants it to be. There is something perceptually unrighteous and shady about this because people also understand that their future is their responsibility, something that's being made by themselves.

This ambivalence means that the shamans’ advertisements are normally located in places like the last few pages of magazines or the back of the seat on night buses – like these advertisements in the illustration above. This is also a highly commercialised activity, however much its origins are oriented towards the spiritual. There are no free shamanic services. This is a job, a drive to sustain business for the shaman and his/her divine backing. In the pictures in the Korean advertisements, the shamans wear elaborate make up and vivid colour costumes to attract attention – this is a kind of mainstream marketing. 

Koreans tend to go to a shaman when they have a problem they’re not able to deal with for some reason and need to try to find an alternative possibility for now. Although shamanism is deeply rooted in traditional culture and still very much alive today, most Koreans don’t completely trust the shaman’s ability. However we strongly believe that through the mediation of shamanism it is possible to get, at least, solace of soul and some alleviation of desire.  

© Hyaesook Yang 2011

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All that glitters

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Unlike BBC and CNN, who that take pride in having an eclectic global audience, NDTV aims to make its impression on the Indian citizen (and, at most, the nostalgic expat). It is keen to be numero uno only among the current glut of Indian news channels.  

NDTV came into being in 1990 just ahead of India's  economic liberalization in 1991.  The aspiration was to be the generic challenger to state-owned Door Darshan  (DD) TV.  The old NDTV logo was far simpler than the gilt edged shine of the current offering which caters to an elite English-speaking fraction of the nation, numbering a few  privileged millions in a population that crossed a billion a decade ago.

The main headlines are on horizontal bars of gold, with light quietly flashing  off the metal. Changing  graphics are stacked gold coins. There is, after all, more gold in the bank vaults of Indians than in the rest of the world put together. Gold prices have made a permanent abode in the stratosphere, pushed upwards by a set of people for whom gold will never go out of fashion.  

And while the rest of the world and Steve Jobs may have been waxing eloquent on the beauty and elegance of a profusion of fonts available in a new tech-enabled world, NDTV continues to use squat capital letters long out of date.  Leaving no space for any other word, these letters completely envelop the space available in the logo’s permanent corner.

The bindi is present here as a marker of the nation’s identity squashed between N and D,  and so is the sound of the tabla in the audio ident.  Historically, this rhythmic Indian instrument  is considered a relatively modern marker (here for  the past few hundred years since the Mughals)  as opposed to the old fashioned Indian drum, the dhol (which has millennia behind it).

Is the channel really only catering to the local citizen?  No international news channel can do that, can it?  I see its global pretensions in the choice of the geographical maps used as illustration for every single news item.  What the channel does is throw overboard the idea of political maps. Instead – physical maps are considered appropriate.

Politically speaking, India  either includes an 'undivided' Kashmir crowning the country (as all Indians are taught in school) or  has part of Kashmir tossed over the territory into Pakistan (as most maps in the rest of the world represent it).  Physical maps create no such controversy. The show the way  the world has been, long before humans settled into a life of geopolitical complexity. In fact the graphics don’t just stop at this – as background NDTV uses a galaxy.  This suggests a time frame appropriate to the 24/7 channel's 'breaking news' moment to moment raison d’etre.

And if you take a look at NDTV's Hindi news channel, that’s pretty revealing in itself. Around 200 million consider the language to be their mother tongue, and another 400 million use it to converse with each other. The idea is to communicate a happening new nation and what better way to do it than to call the brand  ‘NDTV India' , with India written in the Hindi script.  

What’s the surprise there, you ask?

But we all call India Bharat in Hindi. Like the Germans calling their land Deutschland  and Japan being Nippon at home. In all of our zillion local languages Bharat is our name.  Can we imagine Germans having a home-based channel where the language is Deutsch all the way, but the channel itself is called 'something Germany'?

NDTV would like its viewers to draw authority and pride from the name the rest of the world uses to address the nation, India.  From the outside looking in. It is this gaze that weaves the nation together today.  At least in ‘news-speak’. 

© Piyul Mukherjee 2011

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Brazil Mash-Up: China

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

 

Brazilianness associated with shaking cultural norms – happy spontaneity as an alternative to all-pervasive balance and self-control?

Chinese popular culture connected with Brazil in recent years through football and food. Via the soccer star of mythic standing,Pele. And the speciality Brazil Roast Meat restaurant chain which popped up in the main Chinese cities. This once exotic food experience is now falling out of fashion – with new Brazilian codes in China sharing unstructured, lively and experimental associations. Overall Brazil is now being represented as a place where norms are shaken.

RESIDUAL CODES & SIGNIFIERS

Pele

Brazilian Roast Meat restaurant

DOMINANT CODES

Brazilian Soccer

Samba and dance – informal and relatively unstructured but happy and full of life, with everyone able to join in.

It echoes in the public mind with the tai chi practiced daily by older people in China – which is also happy and open to everyone but, as both are executed in China, feels highly codified and structured compared with samba.

Samba also connects with the idea of Brazilian partying, music, street festivals – echoing with analogous Chinese celebrations (e.g. New Year, with fireworks etc. echoed in Brazilian carnival).

Brazil is also coming to be associated with nature. As code that has not been extensively elaborated as yet but is clearly established. Green nature at the moment – potential to be linked with the drier, essential nature of traditional Chinese medicine (note coverage in other countries of Amazon’s rich diversity as a source of potentially powerful new ingredients/cures.

EMERGENT CODES

Evolving traditional Chinese medicine through connection with other cultures & geographies? Would obviously be a major contender.

Otherwise no clearly established emergent codes of Brazilianness in China – just occasional new examples of Brazil’s challenge to received wisdom and convention (e.g. publicity around transsexual Brazilian Givenchy model; new female President, Dilma Rousseff. 

REFLECTION – TRAJECTORIES OF CHANGE 

A place full of life, spontaneity, diversity: 

– Chinese ‘balance’ (Taichi, Qigong ) can become a little too self-directed and dry in the long term to offer a solution to growing frustrations in Chinese society
– Brazil as a new iconic place for exploration, emergence of new social norms 
– we could imagine Brazil successfully for aspirational Chinese people as a place to rediscover the spontaneous self and a refreshing change from excessive self-control.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2011

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Chinese Car Names

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

 

“How can I best imprint my brand image into the consumer’s mind?” This is currently the simplest, and yet the hardest one to answer in the auto industry in China. The competing brands are relentlessly seeking ways to create better, more appealing images than competitors in this lucrative market: going green, new value propositions such as cost-efficiency, lower-energy consumption, safety, cutting-edge design etc.
 
One of the most recent industry trends is the emergence of a new breed of bands created by Western-Chinese joint ventures that are not limited anymore in manufacturing and distributing the original western models. Many of the big JV auto companies in China have announced the creation of such brands. Our naming analysis looks prospectively into what the names chosen say about their intended positioning and the reflect of future industry trends.
 
 
宝骏 The literal meaning of this name (model to the right in picture) is fine/excellent horse, implying achievement, success in life, emphasizing the high quality of the auto and the status of the driver. Being auspicious, this name is a good fit for a car maker. Yet, it is quite similar to 宝马BMW, and lacks originality. Because of its strong resemblance to BMW’s Chinese name and its focus on status and prestige, we can expect the brand might be challenged by BMW in the near future.
 
启辰 The Chinese name chosen for this new model (left in the picture) literally means “the first light beam of a new day”, implying the new direction of the future, and also an auspicious name. Much work has been done to design this name which is a variation of the term 启明星, and it evocates the meanings such as grandeur, wisdom and in-depth reflection. This is truly a groundbreaking name.
 
理念 This Chinese name (centre model in picture) literally means “principle”, focusing on philosophy, reflection and life attitude. This name links to lifestyle aspirations and insights shared both by the customers and the auto makers. However it is not consistent with the English name and might just be a temporary project name.
 
 
From this analysis, we conclude that only Venucia (left) is showing innovation in its Chinese naming strategy. Baojun (right) is stuck in mainstream practice and Everus (centre) looks like it has yet to choose a final name. 

Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | 1 Comment »

Brazil Mash-Up: India

Friday, February 4th, 2011

 

 

Brazil – Not yet ‘happening’ in India!

In a country where precious time is spent outside the American, British, Canadian and Australian embassies, and migration is the ultimate climax, the average Indian is always nose-diving into the Lonely Planet for those ‘ten day trips’. So Turkey, Istanbul, Egypt, Switzerland, Venice, Rome, Berlin and now even Cuba have become signifiers of ‘awesome’ summers and the new Singapores and Dubais. Talk of inflation and rising airfares anyone? Tourist operators are raking in the moolah like never before and package tours that literally ‘pack’ civilizations and cultures in ten days are mushrooming in every corner of Indian cities. Indians want to be in the ‘happening’ corners of the world.

Happening is part of the Indian ‘oral tradition’. It works like the old English rhyme where everyone goes in a ‘pack’. One set of Gujarati’s tells another, and another tells a set of Punjabi’s, and these then tell another set of Bengali’s and so travels the lore. Happening is a place that does not oppose one’s essential indianness, where you can stand in the street in attires that match your own, and say cheese with a pride in having been there. Happening is a place from where you can ‘report’ about history, civilizations, new worlds, new fashions, and a sense of future, again, that ‘I’ve been there’ assertion. Man, Switzerland is ‘happening’!

So, going to ibiza? Despite my own personal angst about not getting to Brazil, I think it is not yet on the ‘twin radar’ of the migratory pattern of the Indians, or on the touristic map. Neither is it remote. Most Indians dance to Vengaboys and the famous ‘Braziiiiiiil’ or ‘ibiza’ at every party, and every football crazy Indian knows the numbers on Kaka, Pele and Ronaldinho’s shirts or the latter’s new hairstyle (see the picture above of Brazil fans in Kerala, South India, during last summer's football World Cup). But Brazil, is just not ‘historical enough’, nor is it the ‘new world’ like Dubai, nor is it ‘chic’ enough for the average Indian to aspire to be seen there.  So it is not ‘happening enough’. The image that is conjured about Brazil is ‘that place with those lovely beaches, and er..those well endowed men and women’.’ Goa comes closest to the idea of a seaside culture for Indians.  India is capable even of being ironic bout it's own lack of true connection with an authentic Brazilianness.  The picture below is from an iDiva website feature where singer Manasi Scott is shown trying to bring the Rio Carnival to Lakme Fashion Week only to evoke he response that "she looks more like a drag queen".

Brazil is an image of freedom without those monumental structures that an average Indian can hide behind and watch. Unlike an Egypt or a Rome, or Venice, where you can feel the romance, but you can still put up that staid, cheesy smile with a monument in the backdrop, in Brazil you just have to stand in front of the beaches or the rainforests and of course, the chances of the mermaids and those semi-clad Tarzans appearing from nowhere is very high!

Finally, the last semiotic import – when you say I went to ‘Venice’, ‘Rome’, Paris’ it is distinctly different from, ‘I went to Brazil’. From the ooooh’s and aaaaah’s, the graph dips to ‘oh’. And then a naughty grin, that says, ‘why’? Why would anyone want to brave the leeches and the thick dense rainforests or the blazing sun of the Brazilian beaches? Now, don’t look away, Brazil offers great economic opportunities, investment futures, blah blah blah………anyone listening?

© Seema Khanwalkar  2011

For some more examples of emerging Indian football fandom see http://wn.com/Brazil_and_Argentina_football_fans_in_Kerala,_India.

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Korea’s Flag of Learning

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

These are typical images about war or revolution and victory. With the drama and the symbolism of the flag they show a mighty determination to win even if the cost is death. On the left Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February 1945) and on the right Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Less familiar to most of us is the middle image – which is in fact an advertisement for a private education company offering extracurricular lessons for primary and high school students after their normal classes. In this dramatic Korean ad, the bold and dynamic handwriting says 'Let’s go ahead a grade' – that is to say fight, win, move ahead with a higher mark.

Private education provision always implies social hierarchy and a competitive arena in which the stakes are high. If public education aims to provide a level playing field, the private provision tilts it and sets the odds in favour of the child and the parents who give an extra push in terms of time and resource. Our featured image for this article (on the Semionaut home page) shows scenes from a Korean university advertisement. On the left, the lady proudly states “my child is studying at the university”. On the right she questions the professor about how good the university is. So this is not just about individual students but about families, not just personal striving but a kind of team battle.

“If you sleep 5 hours you will fail to enter a university, but if you sleep 4 hours, you can enter a university” is a common adage given as advice to high school students in Korea. The education system has had a strong market dimension to it in Korea since the early days of modernization in the 1970s with the New Community Movement. Investment of time and money can lead to good results which, in turn, can get the student into a good school. Images of hard work, cut-throat competition and exhausted students are already familiar from a country like Japan but the promotional rhetoric at least seems to have escalated even further in Korea.

So far we have seen one example of the family as the student’s greatest ally and another in which educational success is metaphorically linked to military triumph. This latter association is, in fact, now an expression of an increasingly familiar code. Here are two others ads for Korean universities in which the iconography of the flag against the sky depicts the triumph of the student/warrior over all opposition, while a third (right) states “Sharp intelligence conquers the world, with the sword of this university”.

With the shelling of Yeonpyeong island by North Korean forces in November 2010 the world was reminded of a military context which has been part of Krean consciousness, language and popular culture for over half a century. Wr and fighting metaphors have had positive connotations since the end of the Korean War in 1953 and through subsequent periods of national regeneration and economic growth.

In Korea, when people want to say something like 'Let's do it together' or even 'Cheer up', they say “Fighting!”  Related to this “If you feel you cannot do it you have to force yourself to do it!” is a common attitude. The language of war and military conflict is commonplace in international business discourse with its metaphors of ‘strategy’, ‘outflanking the opposition’, the ‘coup’ and so forth. What’s distinctive about this area of Korean culture and communication is the explicitness of such warlike imagery – and its insistent presence in an arena which is so central and so critical in young people’s preparation for adult life.

© Hyaesook Yang 2010

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I am Saudi Woman, hear me roar

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

The image of women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the West, and the world generally, is strongly associated with being covered in black. Women were hidden in several ways — not only was a Saudi woman's face hidden but even her voice was not supposed to come out in public. In some segments of the culture, even a woman's name was not supposed to be mentioned.

Beginning with the education drive launched in the 1960s by King Faisal, many things have changed. The illiteracy of Saudi women was eroded and increasing numbers of girls went on to higher education. Some pioneers took up public positions as radio or TV presenters, as well as prominent jobs in various organizations. However, in KSA a woman was still supposed to obey her husband and support him without even taking any credit. She was supposed to bear burdens and sacrifices in silence.

Outside the home the Saudi woman could work as a teacher in girls-only schools or colleges. By the 1980s she could also have clerical jobs in ladies-only bank branches or hospitals. The medical field was actually one of the first sectors to open to women. After all, in a gender-segregated society, women needed women doctors to tend to them. But in all these professional environments there was a glass cubicle containing women as the restrictions on visibility remained dominant.

It took a number of economic and cultural variables as well as the personal leadership of King Abdullah to finally tip the scales. Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, made a point of pushing women to the fore on several public occasions — for example, by including speeches from women (who were still visually out of sight) at some events. Then he started to appear in photos taken at unsegregated gatherings — for example, when he attended the graduation ceremony of the medical school in Riyadh. This sent strong signals to men and women alike that women can come out now, and participate actively in life.

The media has played an important role in creating and feeding this movement. Saudi had female radio and TV presenters for quite a while, but in recent years some of them have become superstars. For example, because of her role as co-host on the popular TV show Kalam Nawaem (Softly Speaking; think of The View), Muna AbuSulayman [shown above; she's now head of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal's philanthropic organization], has been promoted as the 'Saudi Oprah.'

Saudi TV stations have started to compete in developing programs featuring high-achieving Saudi women., and the pages of Saudi newspapers are often splashed with photos of women, albeit always wearing the traditional abayah and headwear covering at least part of the hair. But even the abayahs are becoming more and more colorful and ‘visible’ (both in design and actual colors). They are going beyond being ‘covers’ to being also a personal expression of style. Saudi girls and women are now flooded with signals shifting their paradigm and giving a new code — 'The sky is the limit' — for what it means to be a ‘Saudi woman’.

This is not to suggest that all Saudi women are rushing out to seek a career; still, they are starting to see themselves and their roles differently. I've interviewed hundreds of women, and I'm struck by how differently their self-perception is today, compared with what it was a decade ago. The Saudi woman now wants to believe that she has an active role in her own life. How does she realize this new self-image? Sometimes through seeking to be a high-achieving career woman, but also through cooking or house-cleaning, or in allowing herself to indulge in little luxuries. Also, she's more insistent, now, on participating actively in family decisions — from which brands to select to raising the children, to choosing where to live.

In the KSA we're seeing the emergence of a media-created role model: super-women who attain the highest educations and go on to illustrious careers while remaining perfect wives, mothers, and devout Muslims. These and other communications that reflect the Saudi woman's new self-perception are generally more attractive than those that depict women as ignored, unappreciated, or weak. Saudi women are learning they can roar; it's interesting to see the culture shift in order to accommodate and encourage this movement.

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Beauty Codes in India & the UK

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Semionaut presents a back-and-forth between regular contributors Hamsini Shivakumar (India) and Louise Jolly (UK), on the topic of beauty codes in their respective cultures.

 

***

1. What makes the idea of perfect beauty so powerful in your culture?

Louise: The idea of perfect beauty is a powerful and tenacious myth in so far as it promises immunity to the decay and deterioration of the physical realm. Succeeding in the ‘perfect beauty’ game means you appear to have overcome disease, ageing and death, which are our greatest fears. So ‘perfect beauty’ is about control and power as much as sexuality.

Hamsini: In India too, the appeal of ‘perfect beauty’ is about control, power and sexuality.  It is about using the power of science and technology in the pursuit of personal progress. Today, a woman’s face and figure are proven to enhance her earning power and her social status and esteem. Perfect beauty is an alluring symbol of women’s empowerment, to acquire the kind of beauty that can get the world to dance to her tune.

2. What are the codes of ‘perfect beauty’ in your culture?

Hamsini: The key code of perfection here is flawlessness. Skin that is flawless — no marks, no spots, no wrinkles, no dark circles, fair, perfect skin. Hair that is thick, strong, supple, flowing etc., etc. Science and technology are being used to eliminate the flaws that stand between the woman and the ideal of perfection. This is the role of products and of higher-order dermatological procedures. To support this, now all hair care and skin care products use the communication code of ‘measurable results’. All ads are full of the demos and cut-aways of skin layers and hair shafts showing the ‘magic’ of science in action, followed by the results — hair is x% stronger, skin is x times fairer and so on.  

Louise: One code that’s noticeable currently in UK culture is ‘performance’. ‘Perfect beauty’ doesn’t just mean concealing imperfections with an external layer (for instance, of make-up or face cream). Instead, it’s about bringing internal processes to an optimum level of performance: for instance, boosting cell metabolism. In this sense, ‘perfect beauty’ is like a top-performing car engine, rather than just a flawless, pretty surface.

3. What are the codes of ‘real beauty’? Is it a strong alternative or counter-point?
 

Louise: Dove has created an understanding of ‘real beauty’ that’s all about psychological authenticity — revealing the real person underneath the skin. While it’s won many fans, the code faces two conceptual problems. Firstly, do beauty consumers really go for the idea of a ‘true self’, or do they prefer the mutability that comes with the concept of self-as-construct (a ‘pick and mix’ of identifications and fantasies)? And secondly, it’s hard for brands to sell products unless they’re offering some form of transformation or improvement. So Dove is now turning to ideas of clinical efficacy and expertise — as in its new global hair platform ‘Damage Therapy’ [example above].

Hamsini:  Dove’s campaign for real beauty never really took off in India and Unilever ran it in a very limited way here. While women here always acknowledge the importance of inner beauty for a woman, meaning not losing intrinsic feminine qualities such as caring, nurturing, sensitivity, that does not make a strong selling proposition for beauty brands — which are expected to aid in visible improvement or transformation of looks.

4. Are any brands or celebrities moving into new territory?

Hamsini: In India, the movie stars continue to be the aspirational beacons and icons and Aishwarya Rai [shown above] continues to reign supreme as the most beautiful woman in India. She is herself a vision of perfect beauty. The media often presents the woman of substance as a counter-point to the perfect and glamorous beauty of the movie stars. These are high-achiever women in various fields who are not conventionally good-looking at all, but focus on presenting their own looks in the most attractive manner. 

Louise: In the UK, American celebrities like Dita von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Lady Gaga have been very influential in shaping beauty codes. These icons challenge the opposition between ‘real beauty’ and ‘perfect beauty’ by offering highly constructed forms of beauty that remain idiosyncratic and unique. In other words, they’re neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘real’, which opens up another option for women: self-construction that doesn’t aspire to perfection.

5. Final thoughts

Louise: From what you say, Hamsini, it seems that science and technology are crucial to beauty discourse in India — almost as if the role of flawless beauty is to manifest the power of the technology you can harness (as much as technology just playing a support role to beauty). It also struck me that you brought up the idea of beauty as enhancing earning power and personal progress — so contributing to women’s success in public life. Yet, in an interesting contradiction, the media still distinguishes  between ‘beautiful/glamorous’ women and their ‘intelligent/successful/substantial’ counterparts — going back to the old opposition between ‘pretty’ and ‘clever’ in femininity.

Hamsini: Couple of things struck me as interesting in your analysis, Louise. The first is just how compelling the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty is in a capitalist, consumerist society — for various reasons. The second idea is that of beauty as power, something that is as old as mankind, perhaps — but now democratized and available to all women who have the inclination and the money. The third idea is to be able to choose your own ideal of beauty and remake yourself to that — an idea which requires the woman to have tremendous confidence in herself as a social leader. I wonder if in a hierarchical society like India, women will warm up to the thought of being so singular.

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Posted in Asia, Clients & Brands, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Europe, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Socioeconomics | 3 Comments »

His & Hers

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

A recent post over at Sociological Images, a social science blog that "encourages people to exercise and develop their sociological imaginations with discussions of compelling visuals that span the breadth of sociological inquiry," has some excellent points to make about how male and female bodies are represented abstractly on public restroom doors in various countries…

Almost universally, these signs depict men as people, and women as people in skirts; except in Iran, where men are depicted as people, and women are people in skirts and hijabs. Some signs incorporate gendered posture: the woman is canting, or has her eyes demurely cast downward, while the man has his feet firmly planted on the ground, displaying his physical strength. And so forth. Click on the "full story" link for many eye-opening examples.

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Meet the Herbivores

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Gender relations have emerged in Japan as a topic of heated debate, not least due to the emergence of what have come to be referred to as the ‘herbivores’: a generation of young men who shirk traditional notions of masculinity in favour of a softer, more gender neutral perspective on life. If media polls are anything to go by, up to 75% of all males aged 20-35 identify with the “herbivore” mentality.

A fiercely patriarchal society, the traditional Japanese masculine archetype is physically and emotionally strong, fiercely competitive, decisive and hardworking. A man’s path in life is to provide for his family and stay loyal to his employer, making the social and financial ambitions of both his society and his company his own. The aspirational man is to study hard, enter university, find employment at a well established Japanese company and slog it out until he is either retired or dead (in more than a few cases, from overwork). Women are objects to be wooed and wined with lavish lack of restraint, the extravagance of the chase being a measure of the man’s success and masculine prowess.

Enter the herbivore. Products of the economic turmoil of the post-bubble era, employment was never a given for them and a university degree could just as easily be a ticket to NEET-dom as a door to financial stability. With the demise of corporate infallibility the Way carved out for them by their fathers has come to appear increasingly precarious and in the relatively comfortable society that is modern Japan, suddenly the sacrifices entailed pose an unattractive risk. Coinciding with this shift has been the emergence of the imported notion of gender equality, which has seen an explosion in female ‘career women’ stealing coveted corporate posts and slowly diluting the long established male egoistic culture with the aid of a fresh new batch of sexual harassment laws. A lot has changed in a short space of time and true to the nature of humanity, so too has man.

Today’s herbivore no longer craves the protein of the corporate pay packet nor the status that derives from it. He shuns both the flirtatious hunt for female flesh and the desire to lurk amidst the smoky veil of late night gentlemen’s club dens. A ‘grass-eater’, he is more cool and casual on many fronts and much less apt to go gung-ho on pretty much anything at all.

Over and above this though, the exact perimeters of herbivore-hood are equivocal and there are as many definitions are there are subjects. Some typically observed characteristics include:

Lack of sexual aggression: AXE deodorants found 22% of a sample of 20yr old Japanese males to have never had girlfriends. Other surveys claim to have found 73% to have never had sex. Women’s magazines are alive with frustrated war stories of ‘fruitless’ rendezvous and Tenga’s Egg series of adult toys are breaking all sales records as they proffer a new culture of solitary pleasure

High risk aversion: in a society where risk no longer brings surefire return, both personal and financial risk is avoided wherever possible. You won’t see the herbivore taking on a hefty loan for a sexy new sports car, or wanting to drive it fast even if he did

Domestic focus: travel is less about exotic destinations and more about chilling in one’s own backyard. Family takes priority to the company or economy, the herbivore opting to head home after work while his father stays back late drinking with clients and colleagues

Keen hobbyists: traditionally female pursuits are no longer out of bounds — Saturday night may be spent cooking up a storm rather than spending up big at the hottest spots downtown

‘No sweat’ mindset: the herbivore is more cooperative than competitive. Ambition is aggressive, sweat is smelly and exertion is uncool

A distinct sense of health and hygiene: heavy smoking and drinking is out, cosmetics and self care are in. Fragrance and freshness take on a newly heightened importance as salons emerge as the new dark smoky room.

So is masculinity dead in Japan? Perhaps. But more likely it’s just hit an extreme spot in a process of long-term social adjustment. The rigidity of the masculine archetype has felt stale for decades now and despite the frustrations of parents and female counterparts, change in this case is probably not necessarily such a bad thing. Herbivores are certainly welcome to cook for me anytime.

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Drinking Collagen

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

In China, Japan and Malaysia women are drinking collagen to fight the signs of ageing.  Slogans in Beijing and Shanghai departments stores promise: "Take a collagen drink for 30 days and have skin as soft as a baby's".  The Gilgamesh pan-Asian restaurant in North London is also promising to introduce collagen-infused dishes before the end of 2010. 

The inside-outside beauty dynamic becomes increasingly supple as the skin gets semiotically reconstituted as a kind of sentient membrane that allows traffic between inside subject and outside object worlds increasingly to pass both ways. If this traffic has, in one sense, an almost science fictional feel it is simultaneously underwritten by codes of natural authenticity.  So authentic and natural is the DHC China cosmetic firm's pale yellow juice, for example, that it comes with an explanation that the collagen is taken from fish – and a promise that the drink won't taste fishy. 

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Whiskey & Wabi-Sabi

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

One of the by-products of the so called 'wa boom' in Japan is a climate that is amenable to a Nipponification of products that would previously have been considered prototypically Western. Even coffee, once ham-fistedly advertised by Arnold Schwarzenegger — is being given a Japanese twist. Coffee drinking has been considered a Western affectation since the 1920s Taisho era in Japan when it was the preserve of flapper girls sipping from Art Deco crockery. A more subtle Japanese appreciation is taking over from the tired European epicurean codes and bringing coffee closer to tea in tonality.

Now whisky is the beverage to undergo a ‘wa’ makeover. An FT article last month on Japanese whiskies trumpeted the recent triumph of Japanese brands in global tasting competitions. What most piqued my interest as a semiotician — beyond perfunctory references to the Bill Murray scene in Lost in Translation — is the bottle design of Japanese whiskies. Whiskey in Japan is shedding its regalia and going native. I was most taken by the Suntory Hibiki bottle (the name means resonance which is quite clever for a whiskey as it references not only the echoing through the distillation process, the empathy of conversations during the consumption moment, but also the many flavours that resonate like notes on the palate). The semiotics of the label on pack are masterfully simple and seem more at home on a sake bottle than on whiskey.

The centerpiece of the bottle is a worn patch of Japanese parchment typically used for calligraphy or that you might find hanging up in the tokonoma alcove of a Japanese home. Even though flecked with gold leaf (typically used in decorative poetic letters or on lacquerware boxes) the patch is humble — apparently roughly excised from a roll with the fluff and miniscule filaments of the paper visible on the border.

The deeply weathered and threadbare-looking ochre hue of the paper give an impression of craft but also of muted temperance to the packaging. The effect of the parchment and of slightly scratchy calligraphy (done in informal sosho or ‘grass’ script which is also making a comeback in Japan) communicates a meekness that countervails the elegant squatness of the beveled decanter.

The patch on the bottle could be said to tap into codes of wabi-sabi. The book Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers by Leonard Koren (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) sets out the principles of this design style as including the following: soft vague edges, ostensible crudity, a tolerance of ambiguity, and acceptance of the inevitable. Hibiki may be just a little too immaculate for this. Nevertheless, it seems fitting that in a Japan where the so-called Golden Recession has engendered a real crisis in masculinity and where geopolitical power shifts have triggered a period of introspection, Japanese whiskey should reflect this change with Suntory, one of the most design-literate companies (along with Shiseido, an FMCG company all graphic designers in Japan want to work for), at the vanguard.

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High-Tech Traditionalism

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

This week, Semionaut looks at soft science coding.

The Siddhi Vinayak temple in Bombay has a website (pictured below) wherein devotees can have an online, live darshan of the pujas being conducted daily. Lord Ganesha is the Hindu god who removes all obstacles in one’s path and is hence the god who is always prayed to at the commencement of any new venture. The temple is famous amongst the thousands of Ganesha temples across the country as one where the miraculous powers of the god is strongest and the wishes of devotees have the best chance of being fulfilled.

Electric diyas (lamps), shaped like the traditional lamps but fitted with small bulbs so that they switch on at the press of a button, and which can be kept safely lit throughout the day and night, are a modern invention. These are designed to replace the traditional lamps that are filled with oil and have cotton wicks that need to be lit — a process that is messy and can also be a fire hazard. 

Families who are spread between India and the USA use Skype and webcams to keep grandparents and grandchildren fully connected and integrated. Making use of the time difference, when it is bed time for the grandchildren, the grandmothers start their morning telling their grandchildren the traditional stories of Indian culture, e.g., from the Ramayana.

Matrimonial websites in India are designed to address the Indian preference for arranged marriages and to enable parents to hunt for brides and grooms for their children. This is in contrast to dating-and-mating websites in the West which are designed for individuals to find their own partners. Bhajans (devotional songs) are amongst the most popular caller tune downloads amongst a large segment of consumers, including youth. Many use these bhajans to signal their personality and identity amongst their social network.

These cultural artefacts reveal that Indian culture embraces change but with continuity. The traditions that live on through the ages, do so in an updated form that fit with the context and environment of the time. The content and spirit remain unchanged but the form and format are contemporized. Hindu culture has morphed in this manner from the time of the first Muslim conquests of India in the early 1100s to the advent of the Moghuls, the British, and now modern consumerism.

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What does the Speaking Tree tell us?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

The Speaking Tree is an eight-page weekly supplement on matters spiritual, attached to India’s largest circulated English language newspaper, the Times of India. It's a medley of material, written for easy weekend reading, spirituality ‘lite’ for the time-starved, go-getting wage slave seeking to live a materialistic and successful life, yet uplift his soul. Also, India’s young and ambitious who are already beginning to get burned out by the race to the top are seeking to re-connect with their spiritual roots; they seek answers to the puzzles and conundrums of their lives.
 
 
 
Drawing from the concerns and preferences of contemporary living, the paper urges its readers to energize themselves, to celebrate their life, to create, to discuss, to contemplate, to explore and to practise. In keeping with the modern achiever’s spirit of action and dynamism, even reflection and contemplation are presented as active verbs, born of intent to engage with the world rather than retreat from it into the monastery or the wilderness.
 
Wellness as inner peace is presented by Deepak Chopra, the trendy guru who combines American concepts of positive thinking for success with ideas of consciousness and meditation drawn from Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and metaphysics. Good health as balance and undiagnosed illness as body-mind imbalance are also explored. The reader is nudged to re-examine his or her state of health through the body-mind prism.
 
Ideas from Tantric meditation and Vipaasana Buddhist meditation are presented along with descriptions of pilgrimage sites and explanations of the cultural and religious significance of Hindu festivals, with all of their associated mythology. The writings of saints and mystics from around the world are liberally quoted — be they Christian, Buddhist or Sufi, Greek, Chinese or Persian.
 
In all of this, the paper follows the hidden codes of the Hindu ethos – an eclectic view of faith. Each believer has his own path, according to this view, and there is no one right path. Here is an example of a religious ethos demonstrating an ability to refresh its ideas and presentation with the changing times — and to permit the peaceful co-existence of contradictory, even opposing ideas under the big banyan tree. 

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Smart is the New Sexy

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

It is not the first time that an US sitcom has won so much popularity in China but The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) received unparalleled acclamation all over the country when Jim Parsons won the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series in 62nd Emmy Awards for his break-through performances as Shelton Cooper.

big bang

Young Chinese audiences are always big fans of US TV shows. However diversified programme types have cut the audience into smaller fans groups and only very few shows share widespread popularity across these segments. TBBT did not receive high recognition in its first season. The plot was considered a bit clichéd, centering on the relationship between a fat-witted blondie (Penny) and a group of boring, geeky high-IQ physicists. The turning point was the second season when the focus shifted away from the romance story to the geeks’ day to day life and particularly to Sheldon Cooper, a physicist with remarkably high IQ and very distinctive personality. By end of the scond season, TBBT was a huge hit and Shelton Cooper became the new role model for many young Chinese males, particularly the “home geeks” (Zhai Nan) who are characterized as follows:

–    Highly educated while lacking social communication skills especially with girls

–    Point-to-point day to day life (home – office), disconnected to the real world

–    Deeply involved in virtual communities, web surfing, online gaming, board games,
     comic books and cartoon animations. A China specific- interest is following their
     favorite US TV shows.

–    Involved and interested in IT technologies, products, tweaks and customizations.

–    Lightly obsessive-compulsive, self centric and emotionally vulnerable (due to one-
     child policy).

This generation was mostly born after 1980 and have lived through the era of the economic boom and one-child policy. They were ‘little emperors’ in childhood and have never faced any of the material shortages their parents did. They are smart, well-educated and ambitious. However when they get out of college they may encounter a wide gap between their expectations and reality. Harsh competition, soaring living costs and and an insubstantial welfare system mean they have to struggle for survival and this may consume their energy and passion for life. Hence many of them choose to immerse themselves in a small social circle with similar interests or values or escape to the virtual world to re-live their dreams. They live in a world of their own and feel happy to be seen as home geeks though the name implies a certain level of disapprobation.  

Contrary to the traditional image of geeks as boring, serious and somewhat idiotic in terms of social skills, TBBT depicts the life of home geeks as being actually full of fun, happiness and excitement. During their spare time these geeks live a colorful personal life, e.g. playing vintage games, reading comic books or doing weird and crazy experiments. They also hit on girls though often in an awkward manner. TBBT successfully refreshes the image of home geeks with which young Chinese audiences can find self-identification, while also featuring a happy, honest and simple life that Chinese viewers can long for as this has been missing from the hassle mundane life.

The influence of this TV show has already extended to multiple areas: The science facts introduced in the show have stimulated immediate Google surges, the T shirts Shelton was wearing become hot sale items, the “Penny knocking” and theme song are used as ring tones and message alarms. TBBT is establishing a lifestyle and will lead the embedded marketing among it’s followers – various props, gadgets, mugs, puzzle boxes that make appearances in the show could all have potential in this respect..

The US NBC TV show Chuck and UK Channel 4’s The IT Crowd also have similar settings involving home geeks. Chuck is more of a fantasy show in which the heroism is developed by the character’s special skills. It emphasizes that life changing (spy life, gun fighting, beautiful girls) will only happen with a huge transition from everyday normality. This small-time-people-goes-big scenario can only take place in dreams. The IT Crowd, employs extreme-sarcasm and black humor, both rarely adopted by Chinese youth.
 

 © Vivian Shi 2010 

 

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China’s ‘Fresh’ Beer Code

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

 

Why has freshness become the most familiar code in the Chinese beer market? This is an account of how bonding, brotherhood, business and cultural codes around giving face play into the predominance of these cues in current beer communication.
 
chinabeer
Beer has gained considerable popularity in China in recent decades as aspects of Western culture and taste are absorbed into different areas of life.  Freshness, purity and coolness dominate beer communication in the local market. Consequently pale beers dominate the category.  Attempts to push other types such as dark beer or ale have achieved very little success so far.
 
A common scene from beer ads is male buddies boozing up in restaurants, as can also often be observed happening in real life. A table of six Chinese guys working their way their way through forty or so bottles of beer is a familiar sight.
 
It is common in China, as in other markets, for male friends to gather together enjoying beer as alcohol is regarded as something that can facilitate bonding and strengthen brotherhood with each other. And according to Chinese drinking etiquette, how much you drink depends on how close the relationship is – and this can also be seen as a way of face-giving among friends, building relationships and group harmony.
 
Beer is used in China as a common tool to enhance relations not only among friends, but also during business occasions, where the combination of positive connotations around how much is consumed and negatives around drunkenness help make light beer the drink of choice. The lighter the beer the more you can consume before getting drunk and the more face you can give your friends – the volume consumed still being more significant as a measure of friendship than, say, the quality of the beer.  
 
However, ‘light’ can sometimes carry a negative association in the sense of “diluted or low quality”. So freshness, in terms of expression, tends to win out currently by suggesting not only lightness and purity but also a pleasant drinking experience.
 
 © Vivian Shi 2010 
 
Notes
 
For a detailed explication of face giving & key differences between high-context and low-context societies see www.beyondintractability.org/essay/face/

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iLOHAS

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Linking the iEverything phenomenon to LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) here's a packaging innovation already adopted by Coca Cola in Japan.  This is said to use 40% less plastic than other PET bottles. The iLOHAS bottle, brought to us by japantrends.com

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Chinese Bottled Water

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Effective packaging design is essential for bottled water. Codes such as mountains, lakes, human-like figures, splashes of colour, as well as shapes and lines, can all be seen on water bottle packaging. Using semiotics, the packs can be organized according to their signs into two main poles. On one side is the pole of nature which claims that the water is from a natural source, and on the other side is the pole of industry which stresses that water has to be controlled and transformed to be untainted and healthy.

Chinese Bottled Water

The pole of nature contains two visions of water: wild water and preserved water.  In China, the category of “wild water” includes products like Pepsi-owned Enchant’s (莹纯, yíngchún) purified water, whose blue package has coloured splashes to showcase wild water in movement as a manifestation of life and freedom. The message it conveys through its sign is strength, vitality, and the human being’s fusion with nature.

The category of preserved water is well represented by Aquarius’ (正广和, zhèng guǎng hé) natural mineral water with its mountain and static lines. It represents a nature to contemplate – a source of peace and quietness, a preserved nature, untouched.

In the pole of industry, the two visions of water are controlled water and tamed water.

In the” controlled water” category, shapes and lines are geometric and clean. Wahaha and Masterkong’s mineral waters, have simple blue or red colored geometric figures and lines on their packages. Their industrial-feeling design suggests that their controlled waters are totally safe and clean.

The tamed water category suggests water is adapted for consumer benefit. Nestlé’s Pure Life, for instance, uses more dynamic shapes and human figures to demonstrate its tamed water’s message of happiness, liveliness, and cooperation.

At first glance, it looks like actors exist on all possible dimensions in the bottled water market. You might think that there is no space remaining for product innovation. Yet, we can find empty territory surrounding the concepts of what we call “absolute water” and “harmony water”.

Absolute water is in a league of its own, and uses neither nature-themed nor industry-themed signs. Currently, there are only two players that convey the concept of absolute water in China – Uni-President’s Alkaqua mineral water and the distilled water made by Watson’s. The designs of the bottles are revolutionary and futuristic. Their beyond-nature and beyond-human appearance suggest that their water is extremely pure and transcendent.

Moreover, the big players in the bottled water market have yet to invent a way to combine the nature-theme and the industry-theme together to introduce the harmony between humans, nature and industry to the market.

Based on this analysis, the next steps could include product development around the two concepts: “harmony water” and “absolute water”.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

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Hinglish Lyrics

Monday, July 19th, 2010

A recent trend in the lyrics of songs in Hindi movies is the juxtaposition of English and Hindi lyrics to create bi-lingual songs. It can take the form of a refrain in English that intersects Hindi stanzas or the presence of bi-lingual sentences. The adoption of this genre of song writing by leading lyricists as well as the growing popularity of this format with several hit songs, calls out for a semiotic interpretation of this new phenomenon. 

Hinglish Lyrics

Of course the songs are trendy and cool and targeted at youth. And “Hinglish” is an old phenomenon in advertising, used for well over a decade. So, what’s with the “Hinglish” lyrics now? One explanation that suggests itself is that, we now have a  post-liberalization generation (born after 1990) that is coming of age. This is a generation who are the children of a global and materialistic age, who believe that they are simultaneously global and Indian. “Global” is sexiness, glamour, fun, challenging authority, freedom of choice, action orientation. “Indian” is sentiment, romanticism, gentleness, family values and tradition.   This is a generation that is exploring dating and the mating game, new life possibilities and risks in a way that no previous generation in modern India has done before. They are seeking a new language with which to describe their angst and their thrills, the highs and lows of their love life and indeed their life itself.

The bi-lingual song whether a romantic ballad or a youth anthem, talks directly to the contradictory impulses of their fusion soul. So, the English lines are often suggestive of action and movement while the Hindi lyrics explore inner feelings in a more descriptive, metaphorical and romantic manner.   Sexy is fun and cool in English, while it is the fire of a burning lust in its Hindi expression. 

What would a philosopher or a psychoanalyst make of the fusion soul? It is hard to place this soul into an elitist cultural hierarchy or indeed on to a salvation quest that follows the dictum of “Know thyself” in order to be true to yourself. Is their story to be written as one of eternal angst, forever caught between two places? Or is it to be a story of freedom and choice and a celebration of the human spirit in a new avatar?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2010

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Social Networking & Activism in Saudi Arabia

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Over the past 20 years it has been clear that Saudis, particularly the young, are falling in love with technology.   Given that until recently more than fifty percent of the population was under 15 years old, Saudi youth and their drive to adopt technology have become a considerable force. Cultural meanings associated with technology have evolved over the years through a number of stages. In recent months, in the hands of a new generation, it has even become the focus of a new kind of activism previously unheard of in the kingdom.

 

Distrust of technology characterized the earliest stages in this long process of change. The Arabian Peninsula under Ottoman rule was largely ignored, except for the power gained from controlling the holy lands.  So it declined culturally into something like a dark age.  When the oil money started to come in and people were able to afford some twentieth century technology, the initial reaction from the older generation was to be suspicious of the new arrivals, e.g. radios, to the extent of considering them the work of the devil.

Gradually, however, people started to embrace technology for convenience, comfort and a generally improved standard of living. Thus technology started also to convey status, accompanying the kind of wealth which was then necessary to have a car, television, VCR etc. at home. Then the communication of status evolved to include enthusiasm for technology as a sign of being educated, cultured and the kind of cool person who keeps up with what’s new. This process was accentuated with the introduction of satellite dishes into Saudi Arabia in the early 1990’s around the time of the First Gulf War. This facilitated leadership on the part of the ‘cultured educated’ people in terms of connecting with the outside world, which signaled another significant cultural shift.

Even after modern Saudi Arabia was established, and the Arabian Peninsula came out of its centuries of isolation, socio-political forces had continued to keep the kingdom within a kind of a bubble. People were very proud of their heritage and felt it set them apart. The oil rush made them even somewhat arrogant about it. Satellite dishes allowed the Saudi masses to see, hear and really listen to the outside world.  Then came the age of the internet which further facilitated breaking through the barriers to connection with the outside world. The internet and wireless also facilitated more local connections as well as global ones. Young people in particular spearheaded this movement, which cascaded into other age segments. With these developments the idea of connection and mutual influence came increasingly to replace an us vs. them attitude and to be embraced for an enriched life experience.

A more educated generation better connected with the world started to feel the need to exert more influence to create the kind of world they wanted to live in. There remained, however, sociopolitical constraints on the development of grass roots movement – no unions or youth clubs, for example, and no large gatherings without special permission. So there evolved, in response to these constraints the technology-savvy ‘Soft Rebellion’ generation – using social networks to develop such movements and assuming a leadership role within them , albeit still in the form of virtual participation alone. Some initiatives did start to move towards more active participation, particularly via the setting up of charitable projects. The key requirement in these cases was to find the right sponsors – usually attracted by a smart use of technology to generate PR and word-of-mouth publicity.

A decisive moment of breakthrough finally arrived in December 2009 when Jeddah was flooded after a couple of days with very high levels of rainfall. Many of us, in the modern parts of Jeddah, spent the morning watching and marveling at how heavy the rain was. By late afternoon reports started to go around about the damage done in other parts of the city. The heaviest rain fell in the hills to the East of the city then came gushing down natural valleys where urban development had taken place. Videos were immediately posted in YouTube showing houses, cars and people being swept away by the force of what was dubbed ‘The Jeddah Tsunami’.

Anger mounted and was expressed in many blogs as people started to focus blame on municipal and local government. The turning point came that evening when a website called ‘Rescue Jeddah’ was set up. Rather than being just a site just for complaining Rescue Jeddah became a call to action. The young team who set it up called for public action to gather whatever resources could be mustered to provide immediate relief for all people affected. It also called for those responsible for the tragedy, to be brought to justice: that is the municipality and local authority representatives who authorized urban development in ‘natural valleys’ prone to dangerous flooding coming down the hills. Experts were invited to join their discussion posting presentations of their full analysis of the basic errors made in the urban planning of the city.

Overnight numbers of people expressing support for this initiative rose into the thousands. Videos and stories continued to be posted, further inflaming popular anger. Volunteers signed up and donations poured in. It was widely expected that the government would clamp down on this activity at some point. Instead, about 10 days later , the King issued a statement that exactly mirrored the language of the people (as expressed in this site and others). He indicated that he was ‘enraged’ by what had happened, that he had set up a special panel to investigate and that he promised to bring to justice every single person responsible. In Jun 2010 the local government honored the young men and women who led the public into an unprecedented relief effort where people waited in line, not just to donate, but to actually physically pitch in.

From virtual participation, in time, active participation may yet emerge.

© Habiba Allarakia 2010

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Hilfiger in China

Monday, June 28th, 2010

In order for advertising to be effective, it must convey the intended message. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their meaning, offers valuable tools for analyzing advertising to uncover strengths or weaknesses of ad campaigns within different cultural contexts. However, since the codes used in this example of fragrance advertising are not dominant codes in the category of lifestyle/perfume in China, there is a disconnect between the codes as they would communicate in the Western and Chinese cultural contexts.

Let’s take a look at a global advertising campaign by Tommy Hilfiger. Hilfiger promotes his cologne using the image of a rugged, handsome man driving a vintage motorcycle alone in the desert. From a Western perspective, this image expresses individuality, independence, freedom, and adventure. The codes inspired by each image, or “sign”, in the advertisement are shown below:

Let’s compare the message being conveyed in both the Western and the Chinese context.

* Motorcycle: Whereas in a Western context a motorcycle represents freedom, adventure, and speed, in a Chinese context it is considered dangerous, noisy, and low status.
* Open Landscape: For Westerners, the open landscape portrays independence and lifestyle enhancement. From the Chinese view, the countryside may be perceived as dirty and dusty.

So, in order to convey the intended message to Chinese male consumers, the following switches from Western to Chinese cultural codes could be used: (Old) Motorcycle to (New) Car/Jeep; Alone to With friends; Speed to Leisure; Rough to Smooth; Freedom to Responsibility; Satisfaction (personal) to Status (acknowledgement).

By using semiotic analysis as a tool, companies can more effectively assess whether their advertising campaigns will be successful or not in different cultural contexts. In addition, for campaigns that have already been run, they can analyze why they were successes or failures in local markets.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

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IPL’s Cheerleaders

Monday, June 28th, 2010

The stupendous success of IPL demonstrates the transformation of cricket from sport to pure entertainment. Every piece of the IPL mix has contributed to making it a heady cocktail of money, power, sport and glamour on a never-seen-before scale. 

IPL's cheerleaders

Into this mix has been dropped a piece of exotica imported from America, cheer leaders as an additional source of glamour and entertainment. From the moment they arrived in IPL 1, they generated controversy. Their skimpy attire and sexy dance movements, performed live and telecast in real time to millions raised the ire of the culture custodian political parties. There is also controversy around the fact that these are white American girls who have been flown in all the way from the USA, to dance and perform at the IPL matches. The Indian blogosphere is buzzing with views both for and against and every single viewer of IPL has an opinion on them. Simply put, they are a feature of IPL that cannot be ignored.

The level of controversy surrounding the introduction of cheer leaders means that what these girls signify to the average Indian viewer of IPL on TV is controversial. Clearly they do not signal wholesome fun, celebratory enjoyment and good cheer as they do in American basket ball games. Through their attire and sexy dance display, they suggest the insertion of a live version of the Bollywood “Item Number” (cabaret routine) into the game. This blatant insertion of sex to sizzle up the game of cricket in its avatar as entertainment has riled all audiences, from cricket purists and fans to culture guardians. 

What about the future role for cheer leaders in the next IPL seasons? Some predict that cheer leading as a feature will wither away as a passing fad, as they are extraneous to the game. Others wish to build a group of Indian girls as cheer leaders and recruit them through a reality TV show and contest.

If indeed, the financial and marketing might of the IPL succeeds in creating a new occupation for young women – cheer leading, what could cheer leaders really signify? In a modernizing society like urban India, would they be a symbol of empowered women who exercise their personal choice to successfully market themselves for personal gain? Or would they have traded positions from being men’s possessions and slaves to sexual commodities being provided for men’s titillation and pleasure?

© Hamsini Shivakumar 2010

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Chinese Encyclopaedia

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

If you gave someone a paragraph to complete, starting with the words “Animals are divided into…” various types of creature might immediately leap to mind – cats, dogs, elephants, male, female, tame, wild, edible, inedible, cold blooded, warm blooded, etc. A further refinement to this exercise might be to specify the number of divisions your contestant has to play with: just 2 (likely answers might include male/female perhaps or wild/domesticated, or vertebrate/invertebrate), 6 (mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians, insects). And so on. This is an interesting one to try out with young children. Human beings and cultures are always dividing things – animals, objects, people – into groups and sub-groups. The need to segment your market (“Consumers are divided into…”, or product/service offers, occasions, distribution channels) and target your offer to the appropriate segment(s) is a fundamental rule of marketing – just as understanding the time, place and kind of people you were talking to was the basis of classical rhetoric.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote of a Chinese encyclopaedia, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into:

a.    belonging to the Emperor,
b.   
embalmed,
c.   
tame,
d.   
suckling pigs,
e.   
sirens,
f.    
fabulous,
g.   
stray dogs,
h.   
included in the present classification,
i.     
frenzied,
j.    
innumerable,
k.   
drawn with a fine camelhair brush,
l.     
etc.,
m.  
having just broken the water pitcher,
n.   
that from a long way off look like flies.

This is an excellent text for flipping us out of the familiar daze in which the cut on reality our cultures and ideologies present us with seem simply given, natural, true. A great moment of defamiliarisation which gives us a glimpse into culture’s constructedness and relativity. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes the effect this passage can have – of shattering “all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography”, “breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions”, while evoking “the exotic charm of another system of thought” and “the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

The passage on animal types comes from Borges’s “Essay on the Analytical Language of John Wilkins”. Wilkins was the author of Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language (1688), an attempt to impose a mathematical certainty and objective scientific transparency on language and writing systems – in effect abolishing the distance and (often) cultural arbitariness in the divides between ‘things’, ‘thoughts’, ‘words’, and ‘characters’ or writing systems. Something akin to the Wilkins view of representation as strictly secondary to a world of concepts, reason and empirical reality became a Western cultural norm lasting well into the Twentieth Century. Borges’s response graphically summarises the turn from this to acknowledging the role of language and culture in producing meaning – and signals the re-emergence of semiotics in academic and cultural life from the 1950s and 60s on.   With the application of semiotics to understanding and guiding the development of brands, the master methodology emerging from this “turn to language” engages with some of its most characteristic cultural expressions – in the new emotional, metaphorical and totemic meanings of contemporary consumer culture.

© Malcolm Evans 2010

NOTES
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Tavistock, 1970, p.xv
J.L. Borges, Selected Nonfictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 1999

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Chinese Medication Pack

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

Bái jiāhēi 白加黑 is a popular over-the-counter cold medication in China, and its success can at least partially be attributed to its effective use of codes both on the cultural level and within its product category. The brand name itself means “white plus black”. The brand slogan is translated as “White pill for day, not sleepy; black pill for night, sound sleep.” Both the packaging and the pill colors utilize powerful and intuitive codes to communicate with consumers- white symbolizing day and black symbolizing night. Together they give a sense of a holistic treatment aligned with the natural cycle of one day. Balance and harmony with nature are important concepts in Chinese culture, as is symbolized by yin and yang. This cultural appeal most likely enhanced the effectiveness of the black and white codes as opposed to other colours such as yellow and blue.

Chinese Medication Cold Pack

Bái jiāhēi ‘s choice of codes, furthermore, differentiated the brand within the product category of over the counter (OTC) cold medications in China.  Although there were competitors with similar offers, some even using the same concept of day time and night time relief with colour-coded pills, Bái jiāhēi emerged as the market leader.

© Vladimir Djurovic 2010

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