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Is pop culture popular?
There are many different kinds of culture and the present controversy over “apasanskriti” may have resulted from a
confusion of specific terms and their meanings, argues Subha Dasgupta.
A tool for communication can quite easily be transformed into an instrument for creating a gap in communication. In the
recent controversy regarding culture and its decadent forms, we have witnessed a veritable Tower of Babel when
ministers, artists, lawyers, judges, the press and the public came forward with a profusion of terms into which each put
his own content. The question, what precisely is “apasanskriti” or “decadent culture,” was asked again and again. Did
“popular culture” by extension become “pop culture”? And if the latter was decadent then did not “folk culture” and
mass culture,”. also by extension, become decadent? These are being asked without acknowledging the qualitative
differences in the semantic contents of the various terms.
“Pop culture” cannot be used as a synonym for popular culture and a singer who is popular cannot simply be called a
“pop singer. Pop” may be a derivative of the term “popular,” but usage has invested the term “pop” with a restricted
meaning. Today the term refers to a particular movement which appeared in England and in America in the early sixties
and the proponents of which used a particular form and subscribed to a particular philosophy. That was the time of the
beatniks and the hippies when the socially adjusted average middle class modal personality and all that he stood for, his
ideals of culture, art or music were suspect. Pop art, as against established art forms, used images from comic strips and
advertising posters, often enlarged them and set them in outstanding colours. Pop music, descendant of rock n’ roll and
of folk rhythms, was characterised by a rejection of over retinement and smoothness, careful orchestration and in general
of accepted rules in music. It was often played to ear-splitting saxophones, heavy beats and to teenagers shrieking out
their togetherness—something a minister might object to on grounds that it can create a law and order problem. This
kind of music did incorporate a sort of drug experience, but it was also quite often a vehicle of protest against a
progress-at-all-costs oriented materialist society. Disco music also is a product of a particular period, a relatively modern
one, and is characterised by the use of a variety of musical instruments and of violent rhythms. Again one cannot speak
of “pop” and “disco” in the same breath except as two distinct movements belonging to popular culture.
Popular culture, in fact, is an all-embracing term referring to the people, to a culture whose sole arbiter is the people.
Within its ambit it harbours different microcultures and .to refer to any such unit simply as popular culture may. lead to
ambiguity because of the marked differences inherent in each. A popular Hindi film and the song of a Baul are both
examples of popular culture and their mere juxtaposition highlights the diverse composition of popular culture. A
popular Hindi film is a product of mass culture which is collateral with mass society and has its own history of evolution.
Although initiated earlier, mass culture dates from the middle of the nineteenth century when there was a concentration
of people. in urban or semi-urban places. Their days had broken up into units of work and leisure and it was primarily to
fill the leisure hours that a new entertainment industry had begun to grow. Technology came to the assistance of this
industry by producing new means and techniques for the rapid and
wide-scale transmission of its products and gradually individual cultural groups began to be replaced by a more
standardised culture. Aimed at the majority, the products of this standardised or mass culture developed their own
formulae. They could not be too complicated or demanding, they had to conform to the experiences as well as the
expectations of the majority, they could not offend any particular taste or belief, they had to be adaptable to mass
production and lastly, they had to be technically skilful and be able to produce variety within a known framework.
Unlike other popular cultures, mass culture was not in any case a culture where the people assisted in its production. It
became a culture fabricated for the mass with economic or other motivated ends in view, but without the participation of
the mass in the production.
A Baul song on the other hand, is a manifestation of folk culture. As opposed to mass culture, folk culture and its
expressions can be possible only in a pre-industrialised state where the community is still self-sufficient and does not
accommodate external interferences. An expression of particular ethnic groups, it is shaped by the group’s social and
aesthetic traditions, its religious beliefs and precepts, its cosmogony and its rituals. The end product is an embodiment of
life-experiences where the experiences themselves are linked in an organic manner. A Baul song, for instance, is not only
an expression of the Sahajiya faith but also connected with the Baul’s belief is a series of quotidian experiences. The song
also relates trivial daily experiences to a reality which the singer conceives as universal and primordial. It is this organic
quality of folk culture that permits one to talk of it as living culture while the mass cuture that is diffused by the mass
media is an imposed synthetic one. In folk culture again is it possible for each and every individual to participate in
cultural expressions. When these expressions are sought to be transferred into the orbit of mass culture they are emptied
of their content.
Different socio-political groups operating. from their different ideological bases propagate yet another form which claims
to be a part of popular culture. Their objective is primarily to popularise their beliefs or ideas, but simultaneously in
relation to mass culture, they serve to create alternate cultures and foster alternate tastes. It is interesting to note in this
connection that socio-political groups in this region use the appellation “gana” before their-cultural products, a term
which may be translated as "mass" or “people’s” in English. The proponents of such culture would certainly not agree to
their product being called mass culture after the way we have defined the term. They rather give themselves the right to
determine what culture the people ought to have. The fact is, there is no generally accepted equivalent term for “mass
culture” in the Bengali language. Maybe there lies the starting point of the confusion over terminology.
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