The richness and diversity of South Asian religious life is hard to capture in one book, but the editors of this volume have gone a long way towards that goal.
The contributors cover print, audio and visual media by means of detailed case studies ranging from the Muslim qawwalis blaring out from speakers on street corners to sacred soaps on television and mythological figures on film.
H. Daniel Smith provides an interesting insight into the so- called "God posters" that have become a ubiquitous part of Indian culture. The Hindu tradition of darsan, which emphasises the importance of gazing on sacred images, combined with the advent of cheap colour lithography, has resulted in a huge industry. On office calendars or taxi dashboards images of religious leaders, saints and deities are everywhere. Unlike many commentators who see the artists as mere copyists, Stephen R. Inglis looks at the influence of key painters such as C. Kondiah Raju, the "founding father" of the modern God poster.
Two chapters discuss the huge cultural impact of one comic book series - Amar Chitra Katha, literally "immortal illustrated story". It was founded in 1967 by publishing entrepreneur Anant Pai, whose moral vision for India's children and shrewd business eye resulted in a remarkable success story.
Frances W. Pritchett's excellent essay uncovers the ideological subtexts behind "Uncle Pai's" mission to educate and improve. John Stratton Hawley's readings of particular stories show how the underrepresentation of Muslim and strong female figures reveals a strong Hindu and patriarchal bias. The illustrations - especially Lord Krishna as a kind of divine Michael Jackson with Mira swooning at his feet - are a particularly welcome addition to the volume.
John T. Little's concluding chapter on the use of video by the Swadhyaya movement reinforces the conclusion drawn by other contributors that, far from devaluing religious experience, modern media forms enhance and add to the cultural diversity of India's spiritual traditions. While this is an optimistic and comforting conclusion to draw, one is left feeling frustrated that the contributors did not tackle the more difficult yet ultimately more urgent questions about how new media forms are being deployed to serve conflicting communal and political ends in India today.
Anita Roy is commissioning editor for cultural studies, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia
Editor - Lawrence A. Babb and Susan S. Wadley
ISBN - 0 8122 3304 2 and 1547 8
Publisher - University of Pennsylvania Press
Price - £34.95 and £15.95
Pages - 308