In the monsoon of 1968, a young Canadian teaching English in Chandigarh visited Kerala as a tourist, and travelled along the coast from Kochi up to Kannur. Three things fascinated him: the land’s beauty, a tale about a dead relative, and the Malayalis’ passion for newspapers. Later, for his doctoral research, he returned to study the Nairs, and wrote a classic on the decline of Nair dominance in Travancore. Luckily for us, he also began studying Kerala’s newspapers.
Four decades later, a column to familiarise readers with research on Kerala media can be launched only with a hat tip to Robin Jeffrey, the Canadian -Australian professor. His most recent article on Kerala media was the only article by anybody on the subject in reputed, international scholarly journals in the past five years. It appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies in 2009.
In that article, Jeffrey mounts a vast canvas from 1800 to 2009, mixes soft sociological snippets and data in his characteristic style and, with a broad brush, paints a three-stage theory of print history and politics. Sketching the development of printing, newspapers and politics in Kerala, Jeffrey marks three stages through which the region passed -print as rare medium (1600 -1870s), scarce medium (1870s -1970s), and mass medium (1960s onwards).
In the rare stage, printing presses existed, but newspapers were unknown or exclusive, with circulation less than 1 copy for every 1,000 people. During this period the presses primarily produced school textbooks, missionary literature, and almanacs. Bookshops were yet to appear, and books were sold door-to-door by touring sales agents.
Sketching the development of printing, newspapers and politics in Kerala, Jeffrey marks three stages through which the region passed -print as rare medium (1600 -1870s), scarce medium (1870s -1970s), and mass medium (1960s onwards).
In the scarce stage, newspapers emerged, but penetration was fewer than 30 copies for every 1,000 people. Jeffrey believes that “the railways, international telegraph, steamships, and the Suez Canal made printing equipment more easily available, increased the movement of people, and raised expectations about what ‘news’ was and how quickly it should be available.” By 1903, there were 15 publications in Travancore with a total circulation of more than 11,000 copies, reaching the land’s libraries, clubs, schools, reading rooms, and tea shops. Yet due to their scarcity, periodicals were prized and sought after, and due to “the authority of the printed type and the sobriety of the printed page,” print seemed authoritative. Thus, “as a scarce medium, print reached and influenced people and, in turn, alerted and troubled political authorities.” As evidence, he cites the role of print in exciting caste antagonism and the Nair -Ezhava riots of 1905, and the government’s suppression of Swadesabhimani, Malayala Manorama, and Desabhimani. Jeffrey’s takeaway is that in the scarce era, print had power.
In the third stage, print became a mass medium. The circulation of Malayalam newspapers increased from 3,41,000 copies in 1960 to 2.8 million in 2002, and there were 94 copies per 1,000 people in 2001. Jeffrey attributes this transformation in Kerala to mass politics, rather than economic development or technology. He adds, however, that in this stage, “print exudes far less magic or social electricity.” Mass circulation publications require “bigger, faster presses and a larger staff, who have to be paid regularly and may have no ideological commitment to the publication. Agents and hawkers distribute the publication for reward, not satisfaction.” Consequently, large organisations are vulnerable because “they need the state’s help to ensure security of production centres and distribution systems; they need public utilities; and they need advertising, and lots of it. … To survive and prosper, mass circulation newspapers must abide by the rules of the system.”
Based on this narrative, Jeffrey questions Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities that “print-capitalism” and “print-language” lead to nationalism. According to Jeffrey, in Kerala’s case, neither the arrival of the printing press nor the growth of capitalism and Malayalam print fuelled intense Kerala-level nationalism.
More useful to understand Kerala’s trajectory, Jeffrey believes, are the ideas of Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist. Habermas had viewed the evolution of printing in three stages—in the first, print was a handicraft; in the second, the publisher was a dealer in public opinion with little commercial purpose; and in the third, profitability trumped the publicist intention.
When much of India jumps directly from little exposure to print (rare stage) to satellite television and electronic media (mass stage), they will miss the experience of the public sphere that is typical of the intermediate scarce stage. If so, will that malnourish politics in those parts of India, Jeffrey wonders.
Jeffrey notes that these correspond to the three stages he too sees in Kerala. Predictably then, he meets Habermas repeatedly in Kerala history—the Habermasian “public sphere” in socially turbulent 20th century Kerala, and a “refeudalisation” by the end of that century. Habermas had said that in the mass media age, “the publisher appoints editors in the expectation that they will do as they are told in the private interest of a profit-oriented enterprise,” and that “the world fashioned by the mass media is a public sphere in appearance only.” Echoing him, travelling companion Jeffrey says about Kerala that “the proliferation of media, and of audiences that consume them, does not signal increased political activity. It may, indeed, signal its decline.”
Jeffrey ends with a poser. When much of India jumps directly from little exposure to print (rare stage) to satellite television and electronic media (mass stage), they will miss the experience of the public sphere that is typical of the intermediate scarce stage. If so, will that malnourish politics in those parts of India, he wonders.
Jeffrey’s article is a brave attempt that has not got the scrutiny it deserves. In a book review in the Economic and Political Weekly, Praveena Kodoth briefly discussed some points in Jeffrey’s paper; a fuller critique from a media scholar is called for.
There is something in Jeffrey for all. Theory buffs might find his discussion of Anderson wanting but can pause and reflect on the usefulness of Anderson and Habermas. For young local historians, it may not be easy to rapidly match Jeffrey’s breadth of scholarship on print culture, but the door is wide open to critically examine his evidence and dig up facts that test his contentions. For journalists, who are forced to lip-sync, but reluctant to dance, to the chants of capitalism and mass media, Jeffrey’s article is a warning that the age of print power might be behind them.