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Book review: Drama for development: cultural translation and social change

April 7, 2013 post is part of the media and change series

Skuse, Andrew, Marie Gillespie & Gerry Power (eds). Drama for development: cultural translation and social change. xxiii, 324 pp., tables, bibliogrs. New Delhi: Sage Publications India, 2011. £45.00 (cloth)

John Postill. Review for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI), Volume 19, Issue 1,pages 195–196, March 2013.

Drama for development assesses the work of the BBC World Service Trust (WST). Since its 1999 inception, the Trust has faced the ‘daunting challenge’ of translating developmental goals into local radio and television drama (p. 3). The result is a ‘bricolage’ of top-down and grassroots communicative forms in widely differing cultural and political contexts across Asia and Africa (p. 5).

Although strongly shaped by two of its co-editors’ anthropological training in Britain (Skuse and Gillespie), the volume brings together WST practitioners and theorists from a range of disciplinary and national backgrounds. Its declared aim is to break new ground in the small but dynamic field of drama for development. This aim is amply fulfilled through three introductory chapters followed by ten case studies that are destined to become a key resource in this area for scholars, students, and practitioners in the sociology and anthropology of media and development.

The cases range from long-running radio dramas such as Afghanistan’s New home, new life (Skuse, Skuse and Gillespie) to Nepal’s pilot production Sweet tales from the Sarangi (Skuse and Wilmore) through past TV soaps like Jasoos Vijay, woven around an HIV-positive detective in North India (Lapsansky and Chatterjee, Frank et al.). WST dramas may not command global audiences, but in their own national contexts they have often made a significant impact. Thus Jasoos Vijay was one of the ten most popular shows on Indian television during its 2006-7 heyday, whilst over two-thirds of Rwanda’s population follow the radio drama Urunana.

The book’s main strength lies not at the macro-level of post-Cold War geopolitics (see below) but at the micro-level of drama production. Its careful exposition and analysis of the challenges faced by both expatriate and ‘local’ staff casts doubt on the grand claims of media gurus about the epochal changes wrought by new media. Collectively, they capture a mature site of cultural production as it struggles to leave behind the ‘high expectations’ of earlier communication models and move towards more modest but realistic ambitions (Sugg and Power).

One rich vein mined in the book concerns the limits and possibilities of cultural translation. For example, Hintjens and Bayisenge show how the radio drama Urunana created ‘safe spaces’ for listeners to discuss sensitive issues such as HIV and pregnancy across ethnic divides in post-genocide Rwanda. But as Skuse and Gillespie argue, safe spaces are not always readily available, as drama for development is not the clean slate imagined by earlier practitioners (and some donors to this day). Thus in conservative countries like Afghanistan, pushing the generic and moral boundaries too far can result in audiences turning away from the drama. Over time WST writers had to learn how to ‘mimic’ Afghan oral genres, including gossip, to engage their audiences. Likewise, the innovative social realism of a WST radio drama aimed at Nepali audiences would sometimes baffle listeners steeped in South Asian traditions ‘in which the cosmic, the mythic and the fantastical may be equally important as the real’ (Skuse and Wilmore, p. 167). By contrast, the visual and narrative conventions of the Bollywood-inspired Detective Vijay were familiar to Indian audiences, albeit with the intriguing twist of its male hero being HIV-positive.

The book’s editors and contributors are not afraid to level criticism at some of the field’s stakeholders (e.g. Britain’s High Commission in Islamabad hoping to ‘change the national consciousness for a few thousand pounds’, p. 233), but they do so diplomatically – as befits the media worlds they both describe and inhabit. There is none the less a telling contrast between the measured critical stance of Skuse (see, e.g., his remarks about the WST’s ‘neoliberalism’) and more uncritical positions in other places (e.g. Sugg and Power’s casual description of the early 1990s BBC as merely ‘helping’ Russia and other post-communist states ‘along the road to a free enterprise civil society’, p. 34). Students, lecturers and practitioners alike should find this and other contrasts in the volume to be useful triggers to debate and comparison as the field continues to change and rising nations – notably China – seek to apply new forms of ‘soft power’ across the developing world.

Drama for development is a powerful reminder that we should not overlook radio or television in our fascination with the newer technologies, for both ‘old’ media remain as central to the lives and aspirations of billions of people across the global South – and indeed the North – as they were in pre-Facebook times.

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