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Romancing Material Culture in Urban Public Spaces

India, since the 1990s, has witnessed a strong urban-centric pattern of high growth. Urban India is, however, not just about economic change. The social and cultural aspects of economic growth, though subtle and difficult to capture, are an integral part of this process. This paper attempts to explore the changing dynamics of an urban Indian environment in conjunction with material culture as observed in public spaces. It focuses on the complexities of economic and socio-cultural processes that indicate or lead to a culture centred on consumption. The paper discusses the results of a survey conducted in 2003 on Valentine-s Day in Pune, providing evidence of the emergence of material culture. It explores the issues of acceptance and incorporation of an imported celebration like Valentineâ??s Day, and discusses the evolving consumption patterns.

Romancing Material Culture in Urban Public Spaces The Case of Valentine’s Day in Pune

India, since the 1990s, has witnessed a strong urban-centric pattern of high growth. Urban India is, however, not just about economic change. The social and cultural aspects of economic growth, though subtle and difficult to capture, are an integral part of this process. This paper attempts to explore the changing dynamics of an urban Indian environment in conjunction with material culture as observed in public spaces. It focuses on the complexities of economic and socio-cultural processes that indicate or lead to a culture centred on consumption. The paper discusses the results of a survey conducted in 2003 on Valentine’s Day in Pune, providing evidence of the emergence of material culture. It explores the issues of acceptance and incorporation of an imported celebration like Valentine’s Day, and discusses the evolving consumption patterns.


ndia, since the 1990s, has witnessed a period of high growth in its economy, with a strong urban-centric pattern of growth. The economic aspects of this growth have more empirical foundations, and are easier to detect. The urban India is not just about economic change however. The social and cultural aspects of these changes, though subtle and difficult to capture, are an integral part of this growth. An urban individual’s rise in income is a quantitative term, but the ramifications of this rise are in terms that are not purely economic. The changing lifestyles and attitudes, new patterns of behaviour and assimilation of novel forms of consumption are as much a part of this rise in income.

In the urban Indian scenario, individuals are increasingly resorting to consumption to construct multifaceted lifestyles. Consumption thus becomes a statement of changing behavioural patterns and identities. When these changes cascade across the society, there is a collective transformation in the lifestyles and cultural norms of the society itself. Consumption, as defining lifestyles then does not remain restricted to the elite alone, but assumes a larger influence on a wider audience. It goes on to create an edifice for a culture centred on objects, a culture that is discerningly material in form.

This paper attempts to explore the changing dynamics of an urban Indian environment in conjunction with material culture as observed in public spaces. The structure of the paper has been demarcated into three broad sections. The first section begins with a theoretical perspective of material culture in public spaces, using an interdisciplinary approach. It focuses on the complexities of processes that either indicate or lead to the seeping of material culture in our urban environment. The second section elaborates on the results of a survey conducted on Valentine’s Day in the city of Pune, providing evidence to the emergence of material culture. It explores the issues of acceptance and incorporation of an imported celebration like Valentine’s Day in the city, and discusses the evolving consumption patterns. The third section briefly attempts to place material culture as observed in an urban Indian environment in the larger discourse on material culture.

I Material Culture and Public Spaces

Material culture [Miller 1987, David Howes 1996], in its broader sense, represents the increasing presence of material objects and allied services in a society, and their consumption on a mass scale. From an economic perspective, material culture would warrant an increased production of goods and services, which simultaneously would result in the deepening of the markets. But there are factors beyond the purview of economics [Fine and Leopold 1993], which need to be in tandem with the process of market deepening. The socio-cultural processes involving gradual changes in attitudes and lifestyles are equally critical for facilitating the process of market proliferation. The media too plays an important role in this process [DeFleur et al 1989]. The material culture then becomes a culmination point of a “society” that has come to assimilate a culture centred on objects. In this section, we attempt to shed light on the complex processes that lead to this culmination.

The existing literature uses the term material culture interchangeably with the phenomenon of consumerism. But “a consumerist society or consumerism or consumer revolution are concepts popularly used to explain, and often condemn, the mores and practices of present-day society, with its presumed opposition between the creation and satisfaction of real and false needs” [Ben Fine, Ellen Leopold 1993]. This concern notwithstanding, there is an equally disconcerting feature of consumerism, where it is suspected of promoting a market-driven expression at the expense of genuine emotion [Miller 1987]. This paper however, does not attempt to discuss the desirability of material culture in the Indian context. Neither does it pass an ethical judgment

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 on the celebrations of Valentine’s Day discussed as an example of material culture. It rather concentrates on the ways through which material culture seeps into an urban environment, and how the society responds to it. This paper also argues how urban India, post liberalisation, is a huge cauldron of such socio-economic changes and cultural upheavals.

Individuals consume objects not only for their utility, but also for the consumption of intrinsic meanings that these objects signify. In the context of consumerism, a third world country like India “imports” ready-made commodities or concepts. The underlying meanings of these objects and concepts are already assigned and established in the developed world, where these concepts have originated. It could be blue jeans or Rolex watches or a celebration package like the Valentine’s Day. In their attempt to expand their markets, the developed world (multinationals) transfers these packages to a third world consumer. As a “second hand” user of these ready-made concepts, a third world market or consumer does not really get the opportunity to assign meanings to these objects of consumption. The transfer of meanings and symbols inherited from the west acts as a benchmark of consumption standards, even working as a force of standardisation of urban culture. The rapid speed of urbanisation and pressures of globalisation rarely provide third world urban societies with the space and time to evolve their own patterns of urban culture and consumption.

Consumption in the Indian context then needs to be identified at two levels; first is the fundamental realisation of the “idea of consumption” itself, involving awareness and acceptance of the concept. This would be followed by the consumption of the concept through its objectification. The former does not produce a direct economic transaction, but is necessary as a preparatory ground for the latter. Here there are two important aspects regarding our consumption patterns that demand attention.

First, we have the cascading bandwagon effect [Featherstone 1992], which comprises the introduction of a commodity or an idea in a niche section of the society, from where it progresses to mass consumption. But considering the diversity of purchasing powers in our urban markets, the bandwagon effect assumes a different dimension. A product could gain mass consumption through its affordability. But when the product has a substantial awareness created through media, and its symbolic significance has been accepted by the masses, there is a latent demand for the product. Even if the product or idea per se remains unaffordable, this demand is then tapped by cheaper substitutes or variants of the original. In either case, the introduction of the product deepens the markets. For example, expensive fashion statements like Tommy Hilfiger or Gucci are introduced in niche, elite markets. But within a short span of time, the brand moves to the masses, and on to the streets, with every coat or jacket having the name inscribed on it, often with “wrong spellings” [Mishra 1995]. It should be noted that this phenomenon is largely restricted to low technology intensive commodities such as apparel, footwear, sunglasses among others. They are fashion statements nevertheless, and people take cognisance of the fact that they could construct their lifestyles through indulging in these forms of material culture.

Second, we have the creolisation effect [David Howes 1996] where a commodity or an idea is inherited, an indigenous set of meanings are added on to the concept. For example, we could consider cross cultural cuisine like a “pizza with tandoori topping” or “Chinese bhel puri”, or Bhangra pop, or a linguistic concoction like Hinglish. This transformation is catalysed by the media, which makes an impression on mind spaces through repeated reinforcements. Through this indigenisation, the product then finds a place in the consumption basket of the masses on a regular basis. It does not remain a novelty any more. The acceptance of one wave of cross cultural commodities or ideas paves the way for a second wave. Individuals, who have indulged in the first set, are likely to respond favourably to the subsequent set of new commodities on their introduction. This is another phenomenon which deepens the markets, increasing the mass base of the product. Again, low technology goods are more prone to such assimilation.

The deepening of the markets and the changing lifestyles of individuals are ably aided by the emergence of new public spaces in the urban environment. A city like Pune, for instance, has been among the fastest growing cities in the country [Sivaramakrishnan et al 2005]. This growth is markedly visible in the transformation of its markets in recent years. Avenues of consumption are witnessing increasing participation, driven by a pro-consumerist transformation of the urban landscape. The city has been witness to a rising culture of malls, cyber cafes, multiplexes and food courts, which form novel additions to the existing public spaces. Restaurants have been supplemented with food courts, shops with malls and theatres with multiplexes. The restaurants, emerging from an indigenous process of urbanisation, are now vying for attention with multinational brand names, which are of recent origin. Not to mention the mushrooming of the unorganised retailers like ‘chaiwallahs’ and ‘wada-pav’ vendors, often in the vicinity of malls and multiplexes [Dannhaeuser 1989]. This diversity not only signifies the coexistence of markets with different cultural origins, but also reflects the strength of the markets to cater to diverse demands and purchasing powers. The markets discern opportunities, and accordingly increase their breadth to accommodate a wider audience. Through this changing urban landscape of Pune, with its diverse new and old marketplaces, new public spaces are evolving, and the old established ones are getting reorganised to offer a combination of consumption and entertainment.

These consumption-oriented public spaces differentiate themselves by a remarkable ambience and “convenience of location” [Chua Beng Huat 2003]. The ambience and its sophistication is determined not only by its physiognomy, but also by the collective impressions created by the individuals thronging the places. The focal point of these spaces is consumption rather than social interaction.

It is in this context that the market-driven celebration of Valentine’s Day in a city like Pune needs to be examined. Pune, with a population of over three million, is not a metropolis. It is a fast growing second ranked city after Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra. There are many cities in India, which are not metropolis mega cities, but are following in their footsteps. They are an extraordinary mixture of the old and the new. The attitudes, particularly of youth are changing probably faster in these cities than in the metropolises where the waves of modernity are relatively well established. Pune thus, is an example of the possible changes in other semi-large cities of India, though some changes could be region and culture specific. Some sections of the society in these cities may be at a nascent stage of accepting material culture, while some may already be participating in its

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

diverse forms. In either case, it cannot be denied that material culture by itself has struck a chord with our urban populace.

The choice of Valentine’s Day as an observable phenomenon of material culture is based on the following rationale:

The celebration of Valentine’s Day is a relatively recent phenomenon, introduced in the urban Indian set up as part of our embrace of globalisation. Firstly, it is a form of popular culture [Strinati 1995] with a distinctive market overtone since its onset. The compatibility of the day with the markets has ensured the continuation of the celebrations year after year. Secondly, it has been virtually devoid of the religious context from where it has arisen. This de-linking from religion has made it more inclusive in terms of participation.

In a society like ours, where celebrations (Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali) are rooted in religious and cultural heritage, the role of the markets has historically been a subordinate one. But over the past decade, even these celebrations have embraced a more consumerist character, while retaining their cultural roots. In comparison, Valentine’s Day represents an extremity where its religious origins have been severed, and the markets exclusively determines the nature and forms of celebrations. The day is thus representative of absolute commercialisation of celebrations.

In the case of traditional indigenous celebrations, a continuous stream of participants is ensured as people get initiated from within the family or community. The significance and the manner of celebrations are communicated as part of this initiation. When celebrations get de-linked from this background, the onus of generating participants is taken over by the markets and media. In the case of Valentine’s Day, the particular community targeted for generation of participants comprises of the youth. In the midst of a rapidly changing urban environment, as the youth seek to align themselves with an increasingly consumerist ambience, they are creating their individuality, aspirations and a multicultural identity. As “consumption is an activity that best captures what is meant by lifestyle” [Miles et al 2002], the youth form the most receptive targets for a market driven celebration like Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day in a way epitomises the pervasive presence of markets in defining our lifestyles. The “orchestration and synchronisation” of romance by the markets and media on a particularly chosen day, forms a highly visible occasion for observing the patterns of consumption emerging in our society. It is likely that the day could also be celebrated privately, but it has a demonstrated visibility in our public spaces. It forms one of those occasions when material culture can be unearthed from the private domains, as it transcends into public spaces on a mass scale assuming observable forms of market-oriented celebrations. It is representative of our growing tryst with the markets.

The material culture propagated through Valentine’s Day involves relatively low cost items like cards, roses or gifts. This may sound insignificant in comparison with the usual connotation of material culture, interpreted in terms of homes filled up with capital intensive consumer durables purchased from mega stores. These low cost items are part of material culture nevertheless, and could be the precursors for people to indulge in costlier durables, as and when incomes rise.

Varied forms of non-indigenous consumption patterns have been successfully introduced and incorporated in the consumption basket of the Indian consumer. In contrast to this, Valentine’s Day stands out as a mark of friction with what the market has offered, considering the protests against it. Thus, Valentine’s Day not only gives an insight into the rising influence of the markets in our socio-cultural spheres, but also is reflective of the flexibility and resilience of the markets to adjust to the opposition.

II Valentine’s Day Survey Results

Research Methodology

The survey conducted in Pune on Valentine’s Day (February 14, 2003), was an exploratory study of college students and young professionals. The survey was conducted on campuses of various educational institutions as also the emerging public spaces like coffee shops, malls, restaurants and other “hang out” places. The educational institutions chosen adequately reflect the cultural and social diversity of the population, besides representing the geographical breadth of the city. They include eight important arts, science and commerce colleges, three engineering colleges, four management institutions, SNDT University, one college of architecture and all the post graduate departments of the University of Pune. Structured observations were also made on the general atmosphere on the campuses and other places visited.

Issue of Participation and Acceptance

The issue of participation and acceptance of Valentine’s Day needs to be studied at two levels. First, whether people identify with the occasion and are willing to participate in it. And second, whether the modes introduced by the market as the signifiers of celebration, are also accepted. The survey on Valentine’s Day was conducted to study the aforesaid.

Often, the acceptance of Valentine’s Day is equated with the visible participation in the event. In other words, only giving a card or a rose on the day, are considered as accepting Valentine’s Day. This restrictive definition needs to be reviewed. The acceptance of those who celebrate is visible, but there may be others also willing to celebrate but were unable to do so. They could be prospective participants and passive supporters nevertheless. Their current non-participation does not indicate their aversion to the concept of celebrating Valentine’s Day.

The entrenchment of the day thus needs to be redefined not in terms of participation alone, but in terms of awareness, in terms of how many people know about Valentine’s Day. From this pool of aware individuals, current and future participants would emerge. The participation is a fluid measure, since those who are not participating currently may do so in the future, and vice versa. But awareness, on the other hand, would be a more substantial measure of acceptance and give an idea of how well is the day entrenched. The participation in celebrations, as a matter of fact, is a manifestation of this awareness.

The survey results were overwhelmingly affirmative of the day’s awareness with a substantial population actually celebrating, using the modes of celebration characteristic of this day.

Critical levels of acceptance seem to be in place for the material culture as propagated by the day, through active and passive supporters. The media has played a role in this, and so have the companies involved in the production of the modes. The media space generated, and the publicity ensued, create an awareness for the day and the modes of celebration in vogue. Thus, what

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 appears as mere dissemination of information in the media, actually culminates into awareness for the day. Awareness also gets created on account of seeing friends and peers celebrate as well as witnessing others celebrating in restaurants, coffee shops or other public spaces. The producers of the modes, card manufacturers for instance, take it further through advertising and marketing of the individual modes and encourage active participation. The economics of celebrations and the underlying profit motives of these producers ensure that celebrations are translated into consumption of the modes. But the benefits are not restricted to the companies alone, and there is an extensive spillover to the unorganised sector, comprising of florists, restaurants, etc.

Modes of Celebration

The following modes – cards, flowers, gifts, going out to eat/ drink, going out of town – were identified as indicative of celebrating Valentine’s Day:

From the total sample surveyed (659), 328 respondents were identified as celebrating the day, using a combination of these modes. Importantly, there was not a single respondent who celebrated the event without opting for either of these specified modes.

Table 1 shows “going out to eat/drink” as the most preferred choice. On further analysis, it was found that a substantial population of these respondents were “eating out” to celebrate “in spite of not” having a boy/girlfriend. Such people were found using other modes of celebration as well. This is contrary to expectations, since the day is considered to be an occasion to celebrate romantic inclinations. The survey revealed that the celebration of the day has attained a broader definition of enjoyment going beyond the romantic.

Another important finding was that as people celebrated for longer periods, they added on more modes to celebrate year on year. For instance, the “first time” celebrators opt for “eating out” only. As they continue celebrating for longer periods, they “eat out” as well as give cards and flowers. This was the case with all the celebrating respondents, indicating a gradual initiation into the culture of consumption.

Celebrating Population and Consumption Patterns

As people continued to celebrate year after year, and added on more modes to celebrate, we wanted to examine whether the corresponding range of spending also rose year after year. It was found that 60 per cent of those celebrating this year were celebrating the day for the past two years. The survey revealed that the longer a person celebrated the more modes he/she employed and consequently spent more. Table 2 indicates the two categories of college going and young professionals who celebrated the day over time. It shows that a majority of both the categories have been celebrating the day for more than two years.

To find the spending pattern among those who started celebrating the day only since last year as compared to those who have been celebrating for more than two years, a cross tabulation of years of celebration and the range of spending was calculated. Table 3 shows the results of those calculations.

The first cluster of 54 college going students who have been celebrating the day since last year, spend in the lower range, indicating that they are beginners in celebrating the day. The second cluster of 149 students, celebrating the day for over two years, are spending much more this year ranging between Rs 500 to above Rs 1,000. The third cluster of 47 young professionals, who have been celebrating the day for over two years also spend in the higher categories. It indicates that as years go by, the participants tend to spend more and probably have formed a kind of tradition of celebrating the day.

In popular perception, Valentine’s Day is considered an event of the higher middle class and rich people, and “giving a card or a rose” a more western phenomenon. We thus wanted to find whether the day had any takers among the lower income respondents. We examined the income profiles of those who celebrated as well as those who did not celebrate. We expected that the celebrating respondents might be belonging to the higher income categories, while the non-celebrating could be from lower income families. Surprisingly, we found that the income profiles of both these groups were not different at all. This meant that those who celebrated the day and not celebrated the day came from all the income groups of the youth. Table 4 indicates the income groups of both the populations.

Table 1: Modes of Celebration

Mode of Celebration Yes

Give card 102 Give flowers 127 Give gifts 114 Make gift/card at home 37 Go out to eat/drink 197 Go out of town 55

Table 2: Years of Celebration among Celebrating Respondents

Years of Celebration College Going Young Professionals
Since last year Since 2 years More than 2 years No response Total 54 41 149 14 258 7 5 47 2 61

Table 3: Years of Celebration vis-à-vis Amount Spent

Range of Spending (Rs) Cluster I Cluster II Cluster III (54)* (149)* (47)*

Nothing 6 (11) 18 (12) 6 (12.8) 1-100 30 (55.6)* 31 (20.8) 1 (2.1) 101-500 10 (18.5) 47 (31.5)* 16 (34)* 501-1000 4 (7.4) 28 (18.8)* 5 (10.6) Above 1000 4 (7.4) 22 (14.8)* 19 (40.4)*

* The clusters I, II and III are the frequencies indicated. The range of spending indicates the 2003 celebrations.

Table 4: Celebrating and Non-Celebrating Respondents: Income Groups

Income Group Celebrating Non-Celebrating (Frequencies) (Frequencies)

Rs 5,000 and below 31 35 Rs 5,001-15,000 96 90 Rs 15,001 and above 147 163 No response 54 43 Total 328 331

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

We then wanted to examine, whether the lower income group participants did celebrate the day but spent much less and the higher income participants spent higher amounts. We felt that if the lower income category celebrators had also spent in the higher ranges it would indicate the level entrenchment of the day in the entire income spectrum. The findings are presented in the Table 5 in percentages.

Table 5 clearly indicates that the percentages in the high ranges of spending of Rs 1,001 and above are common to all the income categories. This means that a comparable proportion of even those whose monthly incomes were Rs 5,000 and below indulged in spending above Rs 1,000.

Valentine’s Day as Modern Indian Culture

The survey attempted to find the respondents’ awareness regarding the recent political campaign against the celebration of the day. 91.4 per cent of the respondents were aware of the campaign. This awareness of the protests and reactions to them is also a subtler form of the diffusion of the day. However, 73 per cent of the respondents thought that the protest was not agreeable. This gives an idea of the extent of passive support for the day. Eighty-three per cent of those who celebrated did not agree with the protestors, while 62 per cent of those who did not celebrate disapproved of the protest. Table 6 presents the responses to the anti Valentine’s Day campaign according to income groups.

Table 6 indicates that among those who did not celebrate the day, the respondents in the lower income group (below Rs 5,000) show a higher tendency of acceptance of the protest.

The respondents were asked whether they deemed Valentine’s Day as part of modern Indian culture, 78.5 per cent of respondents, independent of whether they celebrated or not, stated that the day was already a part of modern Indian culture. This result represents the other pole of argument from the protestors, who believe that the day is tampering with our indigenous cultural fabric. The respondents’ perception that Valentine’s Day is already assimilated into modern Indian culture demonstrates the change in their attitudes and a progressive shift towards more consumerist forms of expression.

Among the 367 who stated that Valentine’s Day is part of modern Indian culture, 223 were celebrating the day. We find that such a perception occurs mainly in the higher and middle income group. The perception that it is not part of modern Indian culture is mainly coming from the lower income group. This probably indicates that the lower income individuals, celebrating and spending equally on the celebration of the day still perceive it as an exotic new event.

Along with Valentine’s Day, other special days have also been promoted such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Friendship Day, etc. These days however, do not cause any protests. It is only Valentine’s Day that generates a heated debate, even taking a violent turn on occasions. One of the reasons for such a response could be that this day touches the moral fabric of our society the most. The day is deemed to promote higher levels of awareness about girl-boy premarital relations. Herein lays its attraction as well as the opposition. When however, the day is celebrated as a socialising event or an excuse to enjoy/ consume, the opposition in terms of cultural norms may weaken. This is perhaps when the day is more accepted as modern Indian culture. The day then is another reason, an opportunity to go out, or to have a good time.

Non-Celebrating Population and Its Responses

It can be inferred that the overwhelming reason that deterred people from celebrating was the absence of a girlfriend/boyfriend. This is an important result, since it could imply their participation on finding suitable partners. And since they are not averse to celebrating the day, they could associate with the day through socialising with friends. Socialising here, might also act as a precursor for celebrating the day in the future with their respective partners. Another cluster of passive supporters is of those whose non-participation is on account of their friends not celebrating, indicating the stalling of celebrations due to lack of social cues. In both these cases, there is little objection to the day, neither is there any incongruity with regard to what the day represents. There is no dissent in these clusters against the idea of celebration neither are they being held back by the campaigns against the day.

In contrast are the clusters of those who believe that the day is a marketing gimmick, and those who believe it is against Indian culture. These are more rigid responses, and these respondents are unlikely to participate in the celebrations in the near future. However, there is a behavioural difference in the reactions of the two clusters.

The people, who believe that the promotion of the day is a marketing gimmick, have arrived at this conclusion individually. Hence, although there are substantial numbers who believe in this, their opinion is less influential and is not being circulated to prevent people from celebrating. Though they are averse to

Table 5: Spending Range and Monthly Incomes

Spending Rs Below 5,000 Rs 5,000-15,000 Rs 15,000 and Above Categories (Per Cent) (Per Cent) (Per Cent)

Nothing 9.36 12 11 Up to Rs 100 35.54 32.3 19.0 Rs 101-500 19.35 32.3 33.3 Rs 501-1,000 19.4 5.2 15.6 Rs 1,001 and above 16.1 17.7 16.3 Total 100 100 100

Table 6: Responses to Protests

Correct in Their Protest Not Correct in Their Protest

Celebrating Population Income Group Below Rs 5,000 4 27 (87) Rs 5,000-15,000 20 70 (73) Rs 15,001 and above 12 130 (88)

Non-celebrating Population Income Group Below Rs 5,000 20 15(43) Rs 5,000-15,000 31 53 (59) Rs 15,001 and above 44 111 (68)

Table 7: Reasons for Not Celebrating

Reasons for Not Celebrating Frequencies

1 It is not a part of Indian culture 72 2 My friends are not celebrating 28 3 I don’t have a girlfriend/boyfriend 97 4 I am afraid/pressurised to celebrate 8 5 Because I think it is just a marketing trick 67 6 Other reasons 59

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 celebrations themselves, they are not desisting others from doing so. Fundamentally, they are not opposed to relations being established between boys and girls; their only concern is the manipulative way in which the day is promoted.

On the other hand, the people who believe that Valentine’s Day is not a part of Indian culture form the pool from where the active protestors emerge. This cluster is vociferous of their opinion and hence, would wield greater influence on people yet to form an opinion of the day. Here, the opposition is to the explicit boy-girl interaction facilitated by the day, which they perceive as degrading the moral values within the society. Since their opinion is built on their perspective of the society, into the society they would promulgate their opinions and protest against what they believe is external invasion of the indigenous societal regulations.

An important observation in many colleges was that the college students had declared the “traditional day” or “rose day” on Valentine’s Day. This could be termed a step in adding an indigenous meaning to the concept, giving evidence to the concept of “creolisation” discussed earlier.

III Indian Urban Environment and Material Culture

Centred on consumption, material culture has been inextricably linked with affluence [Ransome 2005], or with the presence of high disposable incomes as a prerequisite for such a culture to evolve and flourish. Naturally then, the analysis of material culture, its emergence and proliferation has largely been restricted to high-income economies [Slater, Tonkiss 2001]. On a comparative note, the prevalent image of the third world with its low per capita does not lend itself to this image of consumerism, and is perceived to be beyond the possibility of being consumerist. The existing literature on consumerism and material culture even refers to the third world as societies “for whom consumption remains a matter of life and death” [Ben Fine, Ellen Leopold 1993]. Such extreme views comprehensively relegate the third world beyond the orbit of consumerism or material culture. This myopic view has certain limitations to it.

Firstly, such a generalisation does not do justice to the enormous depth of economic, social and cultural changes in a third world urban society as observed in India in recent years. Consequently, there is a need to examine consumerism in urban India independently and not in conjunction with the parameters of consumerism in the developed world. Though the developed west has been the harbinger of consumerism, there is a need to argue of the possible presence of material culture even in a third world context, and the forms it is assuming, and the factors that are facilitating it.

Secondly, such an argument demarcating the domains of consumerism dichotomously into the first and third world fails to recognise the dynamic nature of consumerism. It ignores the fact that material culture, as indeed consumerism, develops progressively and displays variations even among affluent societies where consumerism is a mature phenomenon. With reference to American and west European societies where current studies of consumerism are rooted, Baudrillard refers to west European societies as “still at the competitive and heroic stage of product selection and use where the systematic replacement and cyclical synchronisation of models has not yet been established” unlike in the American society. “More simply, the majority of people” in west Europe “are still far from achieving the economic status where only one repertoire of models would be available, as all commodities would comply with the same maximum standard” [Baudrillard, ed Poster 2001]. Thus, consumerism has been heterogeneous in its nature even in developed societies, differentiated by a lack of uniform economic status and varied product selection.

A third world nation, with its evolving patterns of consumption, offers a different set of complexity altogether. In India for instance, sections of society have not yet reached a stage of product selection, and are still in the stages of product awareness. The lack of affluence is definitely a limiting factor in catalysing this progression from product awareness to product selection. Yet rising income levels, particularly in the urban domain, have accelerated this progression, and in the process, have made “affluence” a relative term.



[We acknowledge Sujata Patel for her valuable suggestions. We also thank Ishita Ghosh, Pankaj Kumar and PGDFT students for helping us in the survey.]


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Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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