How romantic are Indian parents really

Globalized feelings

Romantic love in the age of new media
by Christiane Brosius


The historical and socio-cultural intertwining of Europe and Asia is the theme of the Heidelberg Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”. Since October 2007, the scientists involved have been investigating how ideas, institutions, objects or people migrate across time and space and are transformed in the process. "Beaming Romantic Love Across the Globe" is the name of the project by the researchers who are currently investigating the transformation of romantic love in India and Nepal. It turns out that the new media transport dreams around the globe - but the dreamers often enough wake up in a world that does not allow such concepts.

Love is a great feeling. She finds herself opposite parents, siblings, nature or the gods. It is known as love in solidarity between friends, as passionate or platonic love. And it is found as sensual, erotic, passionate love and thus as a mutual desire combined with wishes for intimate recognition, respect and trust.

The boundaries between these different qualities of love are sometimes blurred. Sociologists like Niklas Luhmann and ethnologists like Ritty Lukose understood romantic love as a phenomenon of modernity and modern subjectivity, in which private and public are further related and differentiated. The awakening of love is, at least in Western cultural history, an expression of individuality and inwardness. When the individual recognizes and opens himself up in the other, for example the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, the modern subject emerges, a relationship based on freedom and familiar intimacy between two people emerges, which despite their foundation in a modern secular society also have highly religious traits can.

For several decades, certain forms of expression of loving affection have become increasingly globalized. They then act on traditional, local forms and reshape them. In such processes it becomes clear: the origin and location of “culture” can no longer be examined along - and within - clearly defined territorial boundaries. Rather, culture must be understood as a practice that is constantly changing. In terms of theory and method, this poses completely new challenges for cultural scientists, especially ethnologists, to think about these forms of translation or crossing borders.

The ethnology of the transcultural
The concept of transculturality, which is at the center of this research initiative, is particularly well suited to this challenge. With it, extensive contacts and relationships between cultures and often “invisible” transformation processes that take place in the contact zones can be tracked down. Transculturality can mean such a “contact zone” as a concrete object of investigation as well as an analytical method of interdisciplinary research. It concerns the spatial, media and imagined mobility of people, images or institutions, but also the method of viewing cultural and media events, personalities or institutions as something that has arisen from the encounters of different traditions and is constantly changing in the process. Contact, interaction and interweaving make the transcultural into a relational concept that approaches cultures from several sides and includes the process of negotiating cultural identities that is by no means always conflict-free.


The window of a gift shop on Valentine's Day of 2009 in New Delhi

The new chair for “Visual and Media Ethnology” has dedicated itself to researching such socio-cultural transformations. With the inclusion of new media, he makes use of the tried and tested method of participatory observation, interviews and intensive collection and survey of material. The “visual and media ethnology of the transcultural” tries to use images and media in particular as essential elements of a “dense description” of cross-cultural, transnational and nonetheless specific local processes and practices.

Usually, ethnology covers the cultures of local, mostly non-European societies. The ethnologist lives with the people in the village and tries to understand the kinship and economic system or religious and ritual practice. However, transcultural media ethnology assumes that images or films influence even the most distant societies and enable new forms of expression.

Media ethnology not only looks at the products distributed via the media, but above all also at the actors in such products and their world views, hopes and fears. This in no way removes media ethnology from a specific locality. Rather, it shows how media are used on site and globalized images and concepts are culturally appropriated in order to have an impact beyond the location. Concepts such as spatialization (e.g. in urbanization) and de-spatialization (e.g. in migration) come to the fore.


Advertisement for a candlelit dinner: Escape to a private island in the public of a luxury hotel, Nepal 2010

New ways of ethnological research
An example of such media-induced transcultural processes is the concept of romantic love. This shows how a seemingly “natural” and universal concept is circulated globally through the media, but still takes a foothold in different cultures. In the Indian context one encounters remarkable locally specific and even conflict-laden forms of acceptance of romantic or passionate love. These show how much a supposedly universal feeling is involved in the cultural, social and economic change of today's, especially urban Indian society.

How can one examine such an intimate feeling? This research project focuses on the production, circulation and reception of images and the material culture of romantic love. Images such as greeting cards for Valentine's Day or other media such as movies, love songs, poetry and poetry, which play a prominent role in India, are systematically compiled. Such “gray” material often does not find its way into libraries and archives, but is indispensable for an understanding of popular cultures and everyday worlds.

This research material is fed into the database structure of the cluster, the “Heidelberg Research Architecture”, and compared there with international databases using new methods of annotating and networking. In addition, we conduct interviews with shopkeepers and designers of greeting cards, students and schoolchildren, examine forms of exchange in Internet forums such as “Facebook” and “Youtube” and collect quantitative and qualitative data on the change in private-public urban space and the emergence of a youth and consumer culture.


The new media are spreading romantic love with all its attributes around the globe - the seemingly universal romantic concept is by no means accepted everywhere as a “natural” expression of a feeling.

Of course, romantic love is not entirely new in India, because romance has been at the center of Indian cinema culture for over a century. In addition, love plays an important role in myths and poems, songs and plays. She adopts devotional forms of Hindu love for God, the "bhakti", which is partly influenced by Islamic traditions. With the economic liberalization of the nineties, however, new places of consumption and leisure emerged in cities in India, for example cafes and pubs, shopping streets, parks and cinemas, where couples in love can build their "islands of privacy" in a new way. With the Internet, further possibilities of “getting to know each other” or so-called dating (meeting two lovers), talking about love and friendship, family and marriage, career and education, but also new topics such as separation and divorce, have established themselves.

It is precisely in these media and places that an idea of ​​romantic love that is migrating from Europe or the USA to India is expressed. In order to obtain a differentiated picture of their appropriation in new contexts, of glocalization, as Roland Robertson called it, research stays are necessary through which the ethnologist learns to recognize and evaluate cultural and social contradictions, conflicts and negotiation processes. Because behind a seemingly global, universal facade of romantic love, there are diverse, sometimes paradoxical interpretations and aspirations.

The majority of adolescents, even in Indian cities, continue to prefer arranged marriage and see it as a support, especially in times of change. The art of understanding “love in India” lies in a knowledge of different sensitivities, self-images and life plans of people - in their stories and in their history.


Lifelong honeymoon: A Valentine card (2010) that symbolizes unlimited mobility and Italian flair.

Valentine's Day in India
Valentine's Day is a focus in the investigation of the “glocalization” of romantic love. Its origin is seen in the 3rd century AD, in the figure of a martyr and bishop, Valentin von Terni, who trusted a man in love and had to pay with his life for his faith. It was not until the 14th century that valentine was increasingly associated with romance in England and France and Valentine's Day was established on February 14th.

The 18th century introduced widely circulating cards with slogans and images, which in the 19th century were mass-produced for consumer goods, especially in England. Images of couples in love on cards, photos or in films open doors and people's hearts to the concept, addressing them “directly”.

On the other hand, precisely this display provokes contradictions and sometimes eventful conflicts. Because love is not just about feelings between two people, but also about negotiating social, cultural and economic boundaries. Since these boundaries concern gender roles, caste membership or religious freedom, conservative forces and a startled public often interfere. Valentine's Day not only stirs up those in love, but also the drastically changing Indian society.

First of all, young, often unmarried couples express and celebrate their mutual affection on Valentine's Day. With this intimate declaration between two people, however, family, caste or religious community are deliberately excluded. Love is becoming a private matter, but it is expressed publicly - previously largely unthinkable in India. Love traditionally appeared rather covertly. The parents often looked for the “right” partner together with religious experts. The feeling of being in love could set in after marriage, but it didn't have to. Often the candidates didn't even know each other until their wedding day. Romantic love as an ideal played itself out at best with the gods, or in literature and song culture, perhaps also in the aristocracy.


Only in a few cases are those in love in intimate positions portrayed by Indian models. Mostly people of Caucasian origin and in western clothing are shown. This couple was also placed in a European city. (Indian Valentine Card from 2010).

With economic liberalization and a growing consumer and leisure culture, however, the importance of private, intimate feelings also grows, often in conflict with social sensitivities and in fear of possible sanctions. The longing among young people for recognition of this subjective inwardness and sexuality, which is not only geared towards reproduction, corresponds to the longing for greater individual flexibility and freedom.

Valentine's Day is a catalyst in this. Ironically from Victorian England, not exactly known for emotional and physical openness, the day of love reached the American states around 1880 and was celebrated almost everywhere in Western Europe around 1900. In Asian countries, Valentine's Day began its triumphant advance towards the end of the twentieth century as a bearer of new, "modern" feelings and lifestyles. Valentine's Day did not stop at Islamic countries in the Middle East, but was treated much more confrontationally and restrictively, for example in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where shops were banned from selling red roses and cards around February 14th.

Despite the emphasis on intimacy and privacy, much of the preparations for Valentine's Day in India take place in public spaces. Valentine's cards, red roses, chocolates, teddy bears and other gifts are on display in the gift shops of the affluent neighborhoods for weeks before February 14th. Romantic events are offered in newspapers and brochures: candlelight dinners, visits to the cinema or excursions to romantic destinations. In this way, time and place are marked as “special” - by lovers, but also by market interests and consumer practices.

Love and consumption
In India, Valentine's Day was introduced around 1990 - at the same time as new media technologies such as satellite television and mobile phones were introduced. There it quickly became a product of a growing wealthy class of buyers and an urban youth culture that is increasingly looking for self-confident niches in public space in order to present itself outside of private space. After years of capitalist abstinence during the socialist planned economy since India's colonial independence in 1947, the neoliberal economic policy appealed to a new type of citizen - the Indian middle class: no more saving and modesty, as it was still propagated by Mohandas Gandhi or Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, were the motto, but consumer and pleasure orientation.

This middle class now comprises around 250 million people, but is by no means a uniform group. Rather, it is made up of members of different income levels, regions, castes and religions as well as educational levels. All seem to share the hope of an Indian version of the “American Dream” of previously unimaginable careers and lifestyles. The principle of caste membership, which has often determined traditional lifestyles, now seems to be pushed into the background. not relevant anymore.

The language of leisure and consumption has opened the doors to a new language about love relationships. This can also be seen in the Valentine's cards, which clearly express what it's about: couples hugging, kissing, smiling at each other, by the sea, on a couch, in a café or in front of the Eiffel Tower. Red lips that smile at the viewer, recently even western-clad women who drink a glass of wine with their partner or go on a Vespa excursion, or consumer objects for women as fetishes of a strongly sexualized love.

It is noticeable that the cards mainly depict western-looking couples when it comes to romantic-erotic gestures. This may mainly be due to the fact that the “public” representation of affection has not yet found an “indigenous” language - with the exception of Hindu gods or movie stars. In addition, romantic love is still largely identified with westernization, and so light-skinned, blonde or red-haired couples seem more suitable for certain affectionate, erotic depictions.

Such Valentine's greeting cards mark new worlds of experience and forms of communication. In its 2007/08 annual report, Archies, the largest card maker, promises buyers “ideas that will help people maintain and improve relationships. We know the perfect way to get your relationship off to a good start. (...) When words fail to express the right feelings, people turn to Archies. There is no better way. ”It is even more trend-oriented to send the Valentine's card via e-mail or SMS. In this way, rituals of love in the new mass media are given new standardized forms of expression, which, however, do not seem to be detrimental to authentic feelings.

Critical voices from various camps argue, however, that love becomes a consumer good on Valentine's Day. The greeting cards have become the target of conservative groups who burn these cards in public, for example. The public and media increased excitement since the year 2000 even led to violent attacks on lovers who show themselves in public. In this case, images and media play a central role. Young couples in love are not only attacked in public parks, but also filmed - they are usually threatened with presenting the photos and films on the Internet, for example on YouTube, to a broad audience as "obscene acts", which are supposed to judge their "reprehensibility".

The fear of many couples of being "discovered" and humiliated in the media by their neighbors or parents is great.Because the honor of the whole family is often identified with the violation of previously applicable social norms and morals. It shows that romantic love is spread worldwide through the new media, but is by no means accepted everywhere as an accepted form of expression of a feeling. The new media reflect and transport dreams, but often enough the dreaming awakens in a world that does not allow such dreams.



Prof. Dr. Christiane Brosius has held the Chair for Visual and Media Ethnology in the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University since 2009. Her research fields include urbanization and media youth culture, propaganda of Hindu nationalism in India and transnational migration. She is co-founder of the online database "House of Pictures", an initiative for the visual popular culture of South Asia (
Contact: [email protected]

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Last change: December 29, 2010