Traditional Values, Western Culture Collide in India

Shanti Kumar
Associate Professor, University of Texas
Monday, May 21, 2007; 11:00 AM

Few issues symbolize India's contrasts and divisions more than the debate over public displays of affection, which touches on issues related to family values, politics and just how much and how fast India should mirror the West. The issue of public amorousness was brought into sharp focus last month when Richard Gere, the enduring Hollywood heartthrob, swept Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty into a scandalous embrace at a public event and kissed her a few times, garnering headlines across the globe and leading to fiery protests.

Shanti Kumar, an associate professor at the University of Texas, was online Monday, May 21 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the changing culture of India, the backlash from traditionalists, and how the conflict reflects and affects the West.

Indians Divided on Kissing A Cultural Taboo Goodbye (Post, May 20)

The transcript follows.

Kumar is Associate Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas. He is the author of " Gandhi Meets Primetime: Globalization and Nationalism in Indian Television."


Shanti Kumar: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining this discussion.


Albuquerque, N.M.: Do you think the fact that Gere is a Westerner fueled the reaction about his embrace of the Indian actress?

Shanti Kumar: Yes, but not just because he is a Westerner. The fact that Gere is a big-time Hollywood actor had a lot to do with the controversy as well.


Stanford, Calif.: To what extent can this brouhaha be seen as a clash between The Lexus and The Olive Tree, with Olive Trees being tended by right-wing haberdashers. This is the question that Wax had in mind when she set out to explore the same in her article. I disagree with her assessment. Let me follow this up with a question as to what extent is this case merely about India's bankrupt judicial system and its poorly defined archaic laws and poorly trained justices.

Shanti Kumar: I am not sure if India's judicial system is the problem here. The courts may work very slowly, but they often do work. The supreme court recently stayed the case against Shetty and Gere.


Bowie, Md.: I think the problem with Gere is that he was so over-the-top blatant with his actions to seem like he didn't care about another culture or country's rules. That was the biggest issue.

Shanti Kumar: Yes, Gere's actions may have seemed over the top to many in India. But as Emily Wax says in her article, there are many different opinions on this issue in India. Those who protested and filed the cases in the courts are only one small segment of the society.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Namaskar. Who are these people who are the religious police of India? We are not like the Saudis or Taliban. India still is very rural and backward, and it is these people who are backward that are having a problem. You and I living in the West but originally from India do not have any hang-ups. What is your view?

Shanti Kumar: Yes, there are many poor people in India, and a large part of India's population is in rural areas. They may not like or endorse public kissing, but remember they were not the ones to protest the kiss or take Shetty and Gere to the courts. The people you call the "religious police" are affiliated with the Hindu nationalist parties in India. They use incidents like this to stir up controversy and gain visibility in the media for their own political agendas.


Columbus, Ohio: The cultural divide as alluded by the lead-in is artificial, in my humble opinion. The recent "staged" furore was managed by a right-wing group. India is certainly in throes of a "change" on all fronts, but I think any serious and scholarly study should focus less on these "staged" events.

Shanti Kumar: India is a very diverse country, so there are many cultural divides on all sorts of issues. But yes, those who staged the furore were politically motivated, and they often use the media to gain publicity for their cause.

In the media-saturated world we live in, staged events are the way in which political groups try to gain publicity. So I would argue that scholarly studies must focus on how the media are being used by different groups in politics and culture.


Washington, D.C.: Emily Wax did briefly mention the aborting of millions of females, dowry system, numerous cases of rapes etc. Why is not there more outcry over these issues rather than two actors kissing each other (on the cheek)?

Shanti Kumar: You raise a good question. The groups which focus on the Gere-Shetty incident may not be interested in such issues, but there are many, many groups in India who are working very hard on such issues. Unfortunately they do not get the kind of media attention that they deserve (in fact the Gere-Shetty event was organized for an AIDS awareness campaig, but more attention has been given to the kiss than the AIDS awareness campaign in this case, for example).


Martinez, Ga.: The Richard Gere episode is the height of Indian hypocrisy. Have these holier-than-thou politicians and judges watched any Hindi movies? The women with their skirts 4 inches below the belly buttons, minimum cloths on top -- as if they have forgotten to wear something -- gyrate, swirl and jump in the name of dance. One is afraid their dresses might drop off. They should tighten their censor board before they scream about kissing in public (I am not condoning that).

Shanti Kumar: Yes, anyone who has watched a Bollywood film made in the recent past has probably seen a lot more that could be deemed controversial than the Gere-Shetty kiss.

But hypocrisy is not unique to India. Such "hypocrisy" exists everywhere these days -- including of course the U.S. (think about all the sex and exposure in Hollywood films and the controversy that is generated by events like the Janet Jackson episode during the Super Bowl). More than hypocrisy, I think it is a matter of how certain groups are seeking to use the media to gain publicity.


Washington, D.C.: As an Indian-American raised here but who has spent a lot of time in India, I have mixed feelings about the reaction in India to the Gere-Shetty incident. On the one hand, I think charging them with a crime was somewhat ridiculous. On the other, I think Gere's behavior was out of line. Perhaps it is acceptable in Hollywood to behave like that toward a colleague during what is essentially a presentation/speech, but in any other industry in the U.S. it would not be appropriate for one professional to behave like that to another. So I don't think the outrage was that extreme.

Shanti Kumar: Okay, but we must distinguish between outrage and organized protests by politically-motivated groups. We can all debate whether or not Gere's behavior was out of line, but as you rightly point out trying to criminalize that behavior is also very troubling.


Dublin, Ohio: Modern India's approach to eroticism is so, so tasteless and puerile. Ancient India was so much more emancipated. The people who are raising hell in India on this issue are no different than the Taliban. And even here in the U.S. we have similar elements. This is not something unique to India as is being made out. We have here in Ohio groups with similar attitudes.

Shanti Kumar: Yes, this is certainly not unique to India. But I am not sure if it is a question of morality in ancient India versus modern India. It is more a question of the morality of different kinds of groups in modern India today. While there are many groups in modern India whose approach to eroticism is tasteless and puerile, there are also many other groups in modern India whose approach you may find "more emancipated." Wouldn't you agree?


Houston: India has one of the highest incidences of AIDS and of female and male prostitution. Isn't this contradictory to this "Victorian Age" position? And to what extent are these mores colonial in origin? Isn't India where Kama Sutra originally was written?

Shanti Kumar: The issue of the colonial origins of many of these mores and cultural values is a very important one. There are many academic books that focus on the issue of how the rise of Hindu nationalism is closely tied to the colonial discourses of religion in India. In that sense, Hindu fundamentalism is, in fact, a very modern phenomenon.


San Diego: Do you think that the reaction of the Hindu right to the Gere-Shetty kissing incident is part of a larger reaction against global secular society and its values -- for instance, there is also a growing sense of backlash against public sexuality in many Muslim countries, where the U.S. and other Western nations are perceived as promoting immorality. In other words, has the increasingly sexualized global media created conditions ripe for conservative elements to exploit?

Shanti Kumar: You raise a very important issue about the connection between globalization and the ways in which global media culture is being exploited by religious conservative movements around the world (including, I might add the U.S.) While the increasingly sexualized global media culture may create conditions for conservative elements to exploit, the same global media culture also provides the avenues for the more "liberal" elements to question and counter the conservative elements in society.


Fairfax, Va.: Is this really a matter of "traditional" vs. "Western" values, as implied by the chat title? I am always suspicious of the term "tradition," especially because it often enough is deployed as a way to argue for one's contemporary agenda. And if we use everybody's favorite example, the (no longer applicable) story of the Indian screen kiss, weren't the censorship laws first drawn up by prudish Brits? It seems a more complex story than tradition vs. Western, or (ugh, ugh, sorry previous chatter) "Lexus" vs. "Olive tree."

I would say there seems to be a lot of right-wing politicking that makes religious claims/claims to tradition in both the U.S. and India, and it's interesting to try to focus in why they both are so obsessed/fearful about the personal lives and choices of individuals -- especially as cities ostensibly become more "cosmopolitan," the U.S. more "diverse," the world more "globalized."

Shanti Kumar: Yes, we should always be very suspicious of dichotomous terms like "Western" versus "traditional" because they force us to choose between two false alternatives. The reality of modern life in India -- and elsewhere in the world" is much more complex than convenient titles (yes, like "Lexus versus Olive Tree). It is often the case that what we in the "West" see as "Western" influences in India are seen by many modern Indians as aspects of their own "modernization." (Modernization does not necessarily equate with Westernization.)

If you are interested in my views on this issue, please see my article on the Gere-Shetty controversy.


Washington, D.C.: How can we provide our children here in the U.S. with the knowledge and traditions of the core Indian culture? Do you have any thoughts about how we best can attain these?

Shanti Kumar: One of the best ways to teach our children is by making them feel part of a larger global community where they recognize that the world is much more complex than simple debates like "us versus them" or "traditional versus modern" or "Western versus non-Western." It is very important for students in the U.S. to take courses in schools and colleges that introduce them to the diversity of cultures that exist in India and in other countries around the world.


Washington, D.C.: I am amazed at the inaccurate, stereotypical views many Americans continue to have about India, and I think Ms. Wax's article suffered from this type of bias to some degree. Do Americans just not realize that in a country of one billion, everyone is not the same? And can the U.S. please get over its primarily bi-focused stereotypes -- India is either "Kama Sutra/yoga/spiritualism" or "poverty/starvation." People here seem to think there isn't anything else!

Shanti Kumar: You are right that India is a country of more than one billion where there a great diversity of viewpoints. But I must say that unlike many American journalists who have written about this topic, Emily Wax did a much better job of trying to situate the Gere-Shetty controversy in the larger context of the debate over cultural mores and values in India. Yes, it is very hard to get away from the convenient dichotomies of "Western" versus "Indian" or the common stereotypes about "poverty" and "spiritualism." In an increasingly global media culture, we must all try very hard to move away from such stereotypes and convenient dichotomies -- and that is the challenge not just for journalists, but also for academics and readers.


Shanti Kumar: Thank you all for a great conversation on this very important topic. Goodbye.


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