Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But like everything which is historical, they (identities) undergo constant trans-formation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous 'play' of history, culture and power (Hall 1989: 70).
As both the above passage and the title of this paper suggest, cultural identities are in a state of constant flux, and are negotiated by individuals throughout the course of lived experience. The identity of the elite female in Mumbai, as represented in Femina magazine, is no exception. This paper seeks to address some of the many ways in which what it means to be an elite female have been depicted over time in the pages of Femina magazine.
Femina is something of an institution in India, as it has been in circulation since 1959, and subscription rates for 1997 topped 150,000 (INFA 1997: 242). Published by the Times of India Group, it is also Indian-owned, as opposed to more recently arrived magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Glamour. Although Femina's images have generally always been of elite female lifestyles, particularly as they are lived in Mumbai, mainly urban, English-educated middle class women read Femina until the late 1980s. It was at this time that Femina was transformed into a magazine on par with its peer publications in Europe and the United States and its readership became a body of elite young women. This shift in readership is reflected in the price, which jumped from four rupees in 1986 to fifty rupees in 1998. Despite this shift, Femina magazine has always been a site in which elite female identity is produced, negotiated and sometimes even contested. At the core of the Femina project as I envision it, lies the question of what it means to self-identify as a female elite in Mumbai.
Appadurai's theory of rupture will help me to contextualize elite female identity within the sphere of the global. Indeed, it is precisely what Appadurai would call the deterritorialized (1996) nature of elite females in Mumbai that makes them subscribe to cultural identities that are, as Hall suggests, "subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power" (1989: 70). Appadurai's theory of rupture partially addresses the concept of deterritorialization, which he refers to as the "loosening of holds between people, wealth and territorizes" which, he adds, "fundamentally alters the basis of cultural reproduction" (Appadurai 1996: 49). As an agent of cultural transformation in terms of the ways in which its images are presented to elite women throughout urban India, Femina can be seen as part and parcel of the deterritorialization of the elite female.
It is precisely because elite females in Mumbai are so fundamentally deterritorialized in terms of their identity that it is useful to conceptualize elite female identity in Mumbai through the lens of imagination. 'Imagination' is a productive concept within which to frame elite female identity precisely because of the ways in which elite females' lifestyles so often cross the line between fantasy (as depicted in the elite fashion magazine) and 'reality' as it is lived and experienced in their daily life in Mumbai.
In the context of his theory of rupture, Appadurai repeatedly refers to the concept of the transnational imaginary, which "is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order" (Appadurai 1996: 31). As a means by which to more concisely describe the notion of the imaginary, Appadurai postulates a series of -scapes, which together comprise the imagined world(s) (1996:33). For the purposes of this paper, the most significant of these are mediascapes, which refer to the movement of global media in its various forms throughout the world, and ideoscapes, which are constituted by certain sets of ideas, including but not limited to, democracy, individualism and representation (1996: 34).
Appadurai's theory of rupture, along with his concept of the transnational imaginary, serves to illustrate how elite females in Mumbai are constantly in the process of constructing an elite world from their own imaginations. This, in turn, is reminiscent of Anderson's concept of "imagined communities", which are constructed by and for their members in a mutually constitutive process (in Fox 1990: 7). Femina magazine can be seen as such an imagined community, as it is part of a larger dialogue between what Fox (1990: 7) describes as the fuzziness of "how people conceive of themselves or are conceived of by others, and how people live out and live with these conceptions". In the case of Femina, this dialogue is largely situated within the realm of the image, which is heavily influenced by forces including economic policy, the diaspora, media, language politics and ideas about beauty. With this in mind, I will now turn to a discussion of what it has been to be an elite female in Mumbai, as depicted in the last fifty years of Femina magazine.
From its inception in the late 1950s, Femina has always been informed, albeit implicitly, by transnational flows of global capital and individuals, the South Asian diaspora, the media and language politics. In the 1960s, Femina's first full decade of publication, the South Asia diaspora was already enormous in number throughout the world; in the United States it totalled over 20,000 new entrants from the subcontinent each year (Lal 1999: 43). Travel, both within and outside of the nation's boundaries, was also becoming a more common phenomenon, at least for the urban elite, as Air India carried 1,345,000 passengers in 1964, a substantial increase for 1947's 255,000 (Manorama 1966: 345). As such, we can see the emergence of a group of elite individuals whose boundaries extend beyond the realm of the nation.
Yet even within India's borders, transnationalism was already a reality in 1966. Examples of this can be found in both the cinema and the use of language. In 1966, the Central Board of Film Censors examined a total of 2848 films, 1,728 of which were foreign (Manorama 1966: 354). As such, images of transnationalism and globality were available throughout urban India, particularly Mumbai. To further illustrate urban India's emphasis on globality, it is useful to note that English language newspapers commanded the highest circulation of any language throughout the 1960s (Manorama 1966: 356).
Contextualized within the realm of the Femina magazine, however, transnationalism is written on the bodies of women rather than in the form of statistics. A discourse analysis of all of the issues of Femina magazine for 1965 revealed interesting trends in fashion, commodity fetishisms, and topics of discussion. For example, the most commonly occurring images of a woman in Femina that year looked like some variation of the following(show images): she wore her hair tied back in a bun (407 images), dressed in a sari (1,008 images); she wore her hair in a beehive upsweep (243 images), wearing a dress (240), or she had long, flowing hair (192) and wore a salwar kameez (48) (Femina 1965).
example help to illustrate that the fashion magazine can serve as
a site in which identity is negotiated in light of forces of globalization.
That a beehive upsweep, for example, can look so glamorous with
a sari is self-evident within the pages of Femina from 1965. The
types of commodities advertised in issues from the same year also
reflect a negotiation, albeit one between the elite female as individual
and the elite female as member of a family. This is most easily
recognizable in terms of commodity advertisements: while there were
96 ads for cosmetics, 79 for clothing, and 23 for lingerie, all
commodities that are directed toward the elite female as an individual,
these were outnumbered by advertisements for cloth and wool (168),
food (121), and detergent (48), all of which are targeted for family
The advertisement's juxtaposition with a photograph of a beautiful young woman in shorts and a tank top crafting a sculpture emphasizes for the viewer the link between modernity (in the form of the female body on display and an unusual hobby that would be discursively constructed as international) and the beauty product, in this case, a hair removal cream. These images combine to present an image of a global lifestyle that is linked to a beauty product.
A second advertisement related to beauty is for Pond's Angel Face powder. It juxtaposes three images of the same woman under the line 'be everything you want to be: Pretty, Pleasing, Poised'. Under each adjective is a picture of the same woman in different clothing: in the first she wears a shirt and trousers, which is discursively constructed in the advertisement as 'pretty'. In the second, described as 'pleasing', she wears a salwar kameez and holds a small white dog, which in the mid-1960s was a marker of eliteness par excellence. In the third, labeled as 'poised', she wears a sari and holds a jar of Angel Face powder. The three images combine to present the viewer with an image of a woman who can move between identities, albeit via the use of the advertised beauty product.
In the third image, which depicts elite space, four rooms of an apartment in Mumbai are shown. In the first, a wineglass (that consummate marker of globality) is strategically placed on a table overlooking a beautiful view of Mumbai. Notably, an interplay between the global and the local can be seen in the image below it, which depicts a large oven (which is not a typical item in Mumbai) in a kitchen. The caption below it reads, "A dream kitchen- and all done by a local carpenter!" That the exclamation mark should be there at all points to the fact that local carpenters presumably should not have the global knowledge necessary to build what is discursively constructed as 'a dream kitchen'. Yet, it also raises the notion that global capital and goods are perhaps not necessary in order to lead an elite lifestyle, which may be purchased from the local carpenter.
The general themes of global knowledge and transnational style were also present in issues of Femina from the 1970s. This was likely informed by the growing numbers of the South Asian diaspora, which was well over 175,000 in the United alone in 1975 (Lal 1999: 45), as well as by increasing numbers of transnational travellers from South Asia. In 1972, Air India flew 1,900,488 passengers to international destinations (Manorama 1975: 405). However, physical mobility was not the only transnational presence throughout urban India, as 1,137foreign films were approved by the Censor Board in 1975 alone, and English language newspapers were still the most popular (1975: 412-3). In addition, sales of television sets until 1977 numbered 676,615 (www.indiantelevision.com)
Throughout the 1970s, Femina had reached a circulation of 115,886 and was the fourth most widely read periodical in India (Manorama 1975: 416), which is extremely notable given it's focus on eliteness and globality. Images of women from 1977 issues of Femina reflect changing fashions both in India and the world outside. The most common hairstyle shown in Femina in 1977 was long and flowing (360 images), followed by the bun (243), and short (192). The most popular item of clothing in terms of frequency was still the sari (312), followed by the dress (289) and the ghagra choli (68) (Femina 1977). These changes in fashion and hairstyle indicate not only an international influence in urban India, but also the dialogic negotiation between what Hall (1989) names as history, culture and power.
Similarly, the types of commodities advertised reflect subtle changes in the notion of what it means to be an elite female. The majority of ads were still for practical consumable goods, such as kitchen equipment (96), food (83), and medicine (71), yet new commodities such as stereos (17) and cassettes began to appear (12) as well (Femina 1977). In addition, articles on new subjects such as fitness and weight loss (26) began to appear next to increased numbers of articles on self-improvement (96, as compared to 53 in 1965). This is very much in keeping with international trends on the manipulation of the body at the time.
Issues of Femina from the 1970s also construct women as actively sexual, which may or may not be linked to the larger project, in terms of fitness and weight loss, of constructing elite female bodies. Articles on sexuality in 1977 numbered 23, which far surpasses the two that were present in 1965 issues of Femina. Notably, one advertisement for lingerie in 1977, exhorts women to "be as brief and sexy as you choose", something that would have been thoroughly out of place ten years before.
Interestingly, this focus on the elite female body as sexual is also accompanied by an increasing focus on the body as transnationally mobile. One advertisement illustrates this particularly well. This particularly interesting ad is for a facial cleanser, and takes the form of a comic strip in which a young woman is being interviewed for a job as a flight attendant, which was then a particularly elite occupation. She eventually gets the highly coveted position, but not before she invests time and money in her body in the form of the facial cleanser. As such, this ad can be constructed as representative of a link between eliteness, beauty, and the work that must be put into both by women.
Indeed, the large number (96) of articles on self-improvement in 1977 issues of Femina all point to the concept that women need to work hard in order to achieve an image of beauty which corresponds heavily to an image of eliteness. As Hegde contends,
These three themes as Hegde outlines them form a constellation through which women negotiate their own identities while reading Femina. Images of eliteness, femininity and beauty in Femina all help to shape what it means to be a woman in urban India; articles that emphasize the fact that these three are a project upon a every woman should ideally embark further shapes elite femininity.
It is perhaps not incidental, then, that issues of Femina from 1986 contained such an enormous number of articles on social issues (144), and how individual women were working to improve them through their charity work. A bit like the American fashion magazine Cosmopolitan's 'fun, fearless female', Femina's 'woman of substance' represents what Hegde calls "a personality prototype" which depicts a "superwoman" (Hegde 1995: 184) who easily negotiates her own identity in the sea of choices around her.
Yet in order to contextualize the 'woman of substance', it is useful to discuss the realm of the world outside of the pages of Femina. The 1980s saw a number of changes relating to globalization and economic growth. Periodical journalism production had shot up from 6,166 in 1952 to 16,874 in 1980 (Manorama 1985: 552), providing individuals with a wide array of information and images to choose from. And while the choices in cinema were about the same as always, by 1981 all films were shot in color, a significant change from previous years (1985: 548).
But the most important change of all in the 1980s was the introduction of color television in 1982, a decision made by the Government of India in order to broadcast the Asian Games (Manorama 1985: 545). At this point, however, only government networks, such as Doodarshan, were permitted to broadcast (www.indiantelevision.com). Yet the presence of a constant stream of images throughout the 1980s, mostly in the form of mythological dramas such as Ramayan (1987-8) and Mahabharat (1988-89), doubtlessly affected images of beauty, femininity and notions of eliteness.
Images of women from Femina in 1986 overwhelmingly depict long, flowing hair (673), with the bun being a distant second (408). The most popular item of clothing is still the sari (432), followed by the salwar kameez (337), and trailed by shirts and trousers (96). The most popular commodity advertised in Femina in 1986 was kitchen equipment (168), followed by food (128) and clothing (121). Yet new advertisements begin to crop up in the eighties, including those for birth control (6), jewelry (31), and books (3).
Articles from Femina in 1986 were disproportionately (120) about international subjects, such as transnational travel, the lives of women in other countries, and visits of international figureheads to India. Interestingly, the number of articles on family (16) and children (21) begin not to dominate the content of Femina in the 1980s. Instead, we see an increasing focus on fashion (97) and fitness (49).
This dual focus on the body and marking it as beautiful is present throughout advertisements in the 1980s. One particularly notable one, for vinyl flooring, depicts elite space as it shows a young woman in a filmy robe brushing her hair in front of a baroque vanity. This ad situates beauty, space and lifestyle in the context of the global and, notably, in the body of the woman who is representative of all three as the focus of the ad.
In terms of globality, it was in the 1990s that Femina, and India as a whole, changed the most. In 1991, Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, under the guidance of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, pioneered the liberalization of the previously closed (and stagnating) Indian economy. The 1990s were also marked the entry of international programming on Star TV, as well as the growth of some 60,000 cable operators by 1996 (www.indiantelevision.com). As such, a whole new body of images were available to viewers, as well as a whole new array of products with the advent of the open economy. In the world of cinema, 1990 also marked the first year that an English film, 'Titanic', topped the box office charts in India. Although some argued that the film was in fact essentially a Hindi film plot in terms of its story of forbidden love, its success was nonetheless noteworthy.
The 1990s also brought the discursive construction of the- beauty queen as a global ambassador with the victory of two Indian women, Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai in international beauty pageants in 1994. Femina magazine took advantage of this historical moment by displaying the winners in a variety of fashion layouts and interviews. In the, pages of Femina throughout the 1990s, both Sen and Rai were emblematic of Femina's 'women of substance' through their beauty, achievement in the international realm, and by virtue of their sheer globality in the eyes of urban India.
its competition with 39,149 periodicals in the 1990s (Manorama 1999:
560) Femina managed a healthy circulation of 142,233 in 1995 (INFA
1997: 243). Its status as something of an institution no doubt helped
this. Images from 1998 issues of Femina showed a marked contrast
to issues from previous decades in terms of the sheer volume of
products advertised, the depiction of women, and its focus on the
manipulation of the female body.
The types of commodities advertised and written about were vast. They included such diverse items as websites (288), bathroom accessories (123), perfume (104), hair dye (79) and colored contacts (86). With the exception of the second, all of these were entirely new commodities, and not appeared in any issue of Femina before the advent of liberalization.
Articles showed some, although not as much, variation from previous decades. The most commonly written about subjects were fashion (121), recipes (120), self-improvement (97), weight loss (99), men (74) and sex (57). This diverse body of articles is representative of what Hegde refers to as the "superwoman" (1995: 84) aspect of Femina, as they cover such a diverse array of topics, yet all relate to a complex of characteristics that the 'woman of substance' should have in her life and personality.
'woman of substance' appears in various forms throughout issues
of Femina in 1998. In one example, a fashion layout, a very thin,
very tall model pours water onto the head of a male model as he
stands immersed in a swimming pool. In the background, two heavily
muscled men lounge on the edge of the pool. The woman is contructed
as actor in this image; as such, issues of gender and power are
addressed, at least implicitly. Yet this is precisely the point
of the layout, at least for the purposes of this paper: elite femininity
can be (and is) transformed at will by elites, and the globalized
image presented in the layout only serves to underscore this.
This referencing of eliteness has been constant throughout Femina's history, yet is especially noticeable in the post-1991 era of the liberalized economy. For example, an article on interior decorating proclaims,
While this article does not differ so much in content from the 1965 article on the 'dream kitchen', the use of the phrase 'setting the style' deserves some comment. The above passage directly references the interplay between multiple global cultures in the lives of elites, and states that they can successfully (and eclectically) be combined to create elite space.
As the above examples show, images of women from the post-1991 era are firmly in keeping with elite female fashion magazines published in London, Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo, yet retain their own uniquely Indian flavor. An interesting example of how eliteness is discursively constructed as both eclectic and global is a 1998 jewelry ad that features a woman in an aggressive, yet beautiful, pose in a green tank top. She wears an intricately patterned pendant of 'traditional' North Indian design, yet the caption reads "positively not Grandma's style". As such, the ad functions to illustrate how elite females can choose to transform and imagine their identity(ies) in any form they choose.
This seems to be fairly characteristic of the dialogical globalization process as it is encountered and lived by individuals throughout the world. As Finkelstein notes, fashion is "always relevant to its social context" (Finkelstein 2000: 235). Following this line of thought, it may be that the sort of eclecticism that Femina depicts, whether in the forms of commodities or the manipulation of the female body, is merely symptomatic of a smaller world. In this smaller world, one which globalization has inevitably altered through a process of transformation of forces that once fostered disunity into, at least for elites, forces that unite via shared interests and beliefs. As a vehicle for the display of eliteness throughout its fifty years of existence, Femina magazine is emblematic of just such a process.