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Home > Business > Special

Being and seeing

T N Ninan | June 28, 2003

The Chinese realised long ago that what visitors see is what they believe.

So, show them wide boulevards and huge building complexes, and they will immediately jump to the conclusion that this is what China is all about: all glitz and progress.

To say this is not to get into the occasional Indian state of denial about China's vaunted progress, but to see that the truth is more nuanced, and that the showpiece part of a country is not representative of the whole.

Walk into the by-lanes of most Chinese cities and the reality there is not very different from that in India's metros. Why, even in the showpiece areas the question needs to be asked (as Arun Shourie did in Shanghai the other day) whether all those high-rise steel and glass towers are occupied, and why there are so few cars on those very impressive expressways.

But even when those questions get raised, the projected reality is more flattering than what happens in India, where the country tries its best to present its worst face to the visitor: the world's lousiest airports, rude staff to greet you at the counters, terrible taxis with crazy pay-and-ride systems, touts at every corner, and slums on the highway into the city centre.

A country that does all this must be peculiarly unconcerned about wanting to make a good impression. So the visitor to China gets impressed, the one to India gets culture shock.

This is not a piece on China and how it differs from India, but just by way of example, to understand how perceptions get shaped by what we see and don't see.

Because, leaving visitors aside, the more important questions concern the changes wrought on perceptions and interests within a country, as it sees more of itself and the world.

Before satellite TV, Indian youngsters grew up supporting Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, and their sports heroes were in football, cricket or hockey, and some of the more glamourous track and field events.

Not any more. Today's sports-conscious youngsters will, more likely than not, give you the detailed rankings on the Formula 1 race circuit, and as a television quizmaster discovered, even the full starting line-up of English football clubs, not to speak of America's basketball stars and their averages.

It could even be argued that the rapid growth of interest in golf in India is a product of the extensive coverage of the big golf events round the year. In short, we become what we see. Or as McLuhan said it nearly half a century ago, the medium is the message.

Enough and more has been written on how the rapid growth of television viewership has bred new desires and hopes, and contributed not just to the birth of new political forces (courtesy the extended serials on the Ramayana and Mahabharat) but also of course the consumer spending revolution, including such trends as the obsession with fairness creams.

Instant TV news analysis, with the protagonists taking part, has certainly shaped the nature and quality of the political debate, making it both more immediate and more remote, bringing it into your bedroom but also removing it from open public spaces.

One could argue that the same thing has happened in sport: you get those great close-ups of Schumacher battling it out wheel-to-wheel against Montoya, but in fact the sport of choice has only become more remote, and whatever chances there were of people stepping out of the house to go and watch a Ranji Trophy match in your town, or the national hockey final, has only diminished.

It used to be said that a national footprint for radio or television allowed the nation to talk to itself. That is true, of course. But it is more interesting that the proliferation of channels, in all the available languages, has liberated regional and local audiences from the remoteness of 'national' news, and made it possible to break away and let a state talk to itself in its own language and idiom.

The viewership numbers show the strong preference for television in the local language -- and therefore help define the country in a way that the English language media does not. In that sense, the more we see, the more we understand innate choices and identities.

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