By Peggy McInerny
International Institute, October 2, 2013 — Purnima Mankekar, associate professor of gender studies and Asian American studies at UCLA, has a wide variety of interests, most of which are grounded in ethnographic research.
Like many UCLA faculty, Mankekar herself is representative of the transnational citizen so apparent in large cities today: people who live and work in more than one country. In her case, it is India and the United States.
Yet over time, her identification with her “home away from home” in India has changed from Dehli to Bangalore as a result of her research. In many ways, that change is the result of the very topic that she studies: the circulation of ideas and images between Asia and the rest of the world.
Mankekar’s most recent work, a co-edited volume with anthropologist Louisa Schein of Rutgers University entitled “Media, Erotics and Transnational Asia,” was just published by Duke University Press. She is now putting the final touches on another manuscript, “Unsettling India,” which will also be published by Duke, hopefully next year.
In addition, Mankekar is conducting longitudinal ethnographic field research on call centers in India with Akhil Gupta, UCLA professor of anthropology and director of the Center for India and South Asia.
That project examines how working in these centers impacts the lives of the young Indians who staff them and how the outsourcing industry itself has led to cultural changes in India. Launched in 2009, the project is ongoing, although Mankekar hopes the co-authors will be able to share findings in the next year or so.
The ubiquitous presence and influence of media
Mankekar’s work focuses on the how media shapes peoples’ perceptions, both of themselves and their countries. “Media is so ubiquitous in our lives — it’s all over us,” she remarks, “it suffuses our world.
“I was really lucky,” she continues. ”I entered a Ph.D. program in anthropology at a time when anthropology was opening its doors to adjoining disciplines, including literary criticism and media studies.”
After teaching in Stanford University’s anthropology department for 13 years, Mankekar came to UCLA, where she now works in two interdisciplinary departments: Gender Studies and Asian American Studies. “I love anthropology,” she notes, “but I feel intellectually freer in an interdisciplinary environment. I don’t feel bound to any particular disciplinary set of tools — it’s very liberating.”
She points out that the rigor of interdisciplinary studies can, however, be even higher than that of a single discipline, as a researcher must satisfy the methodological requirements of all the various disciplines that his or her subject involves.
Mankekar’s first book, “Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood and Nation in Postcolonial India” (Duke 1999), was the culmination of two years’ of ethnographic research on how lower- and working-class women in India perceive and interpret television shows in that country. It demonstrated how their perceptions shape these women’s ideas of gender, family and nation.
“I’m not interested in just texts or the production of certain films,” she explains, “but in audience engagement. So for me, anthropology was fantastic — it opened a lot of doors and provided a lot of methodological tools.” Mankekar’s most recent publication, “Media, Erotics and Transnational Asia,” looks at how transnational media in Asia today is recasting people’s erotic lives.
That is, it looks at how media affects people’s wants and fantasies (e.g., for people, status and things) and, by extension, their sexual desires — as well as the idea of “Asia” itself in the 21st century. Different case studies consider the process from the vantage point of India, Indonesia, Taiwan, China and Cambodia (specifically, the Hmong population).
“We have a tendency to think of media as flowing ‘in’ to Asia from the West, as being unilinear,” Mankekar says. Rather, she says, there is an ongoing circular movement of ideas and images between Asia and the rest of the world. Moreover, that circulation is taking place within a long-established history of such circulations, not just as a result of the Internet or satellite TV.
Bollywood, points out Mankekar, is a good example of the circularity of contemporary media flows, as its films are increasingly popular outside of India. One can see the same circulation of other cultural products, she says, pointing to how Korean soap operas and pop music, as well as Japanese anime, have become popular in the West.
Mankekar’s next work looks at how, in our transnational era, media forms connections between a home country and its diasporic populations. “Unsettling India” considers how film, television and print media, as well as commodities (such as those sold in Indian grocery stores), impart experience and knowledge of the Indian “homeland” to the diaspora.
As one shopkeeper she interviewed in the United States commented, “People don’t just come here for rice and spices, they come here for India shopping.” Yet, observes Mankekar, these connections flow in both directions: diasporic images of India also flow back to the homeland destabilizing the very idea of India in the process.
Interdisciplinary lectures will feature both UCLA and outside faculty
In addition to her research, Mankekar is working with colleague Daniel M. Neuman to organize the 2013–2014 public lecture series of the Center for India and South Asia.
Neuman, an expert in Indian music, is professor of ethnomusicology and interim director of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA, where he previously served as dean of the School of the Arts and executive vice chancellor and provost.
Their goal, she says, is to organize lectures that address a range of different topics and disciplines and that feature both UCLA faculty and outside experts. This fall, for example, UCLA Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Aamir Mufti will speak about the Urdu (and Punjabi) poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz on October 16.
Later in the month, acclaimed Stanford physician and best-selling author Abraham Verghese will give a talk entitled “The Pen and the Stethoscope.”
As the year progresses, Mankekar hopes to convene an informal “town meeting” with students, graduate and undergraduate alike, studying South Asia in order to solicit suggestions for speakers. She is also keen to involve students as presenters and to lead question-and-answer sessions. If her research is any indication, be prepared for an interesting lineup of speakers and topics in months to come.