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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 18:00 GMT
Shifting sands of celebrity culture
By Zina Saro-Wiwa
BBC World Service's Hello World!

Indian hockey stars Halappa Arjun and Viren Rasquinha
India's hockey players are among its new celebrity stars
In the grounds of a Catholic school in Mumbai (Bombay) early one morning, two women are coaxing a beautiful young sports star to strip to his waist.

But it is all in good taste. The two women in question work for India's English-language celebrity title, Society magazine, and the young man in question is hockey star, Vireen Raskina.

In India, hockey is the new cricket. Or at least, Society is hoping it will be - once it has shot its players in a sexy and attractive way.

The softly-spoken Vireen is quite happy to bare his torso. "We are helping make hockey more popular," he says.

"It is cricket that is currently the popular sport. We need to create stars to encourage the sport."

Sexual liberalisation

Society is the current market leader in celebrity magazines, with a circulation of 100,000.

But a magazine that purports to represent Indian high society and success is not an easy thing to pull off, especially if it is in English.

Sex And The City
Urban India is getting far too influenced by American series like Sex and the City
Shobhaa De,
Society magazine founding editor

According to Shobhaa De, ex-model, author, TV presenter and founding editor of Society, it appeals to the "metros" or city dwellers.

And these metros are undergoing a bit of a transformation.

India's new affluence has led to an explosion in celebrity culture.

"The past decade has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of socialites, veejays, models and hoteliers," says Society's editor, Priyanka Sinha.

"Somewhere we've been bitten by the materialist bug," Ms Sinha says. "So Society looks at the new celebrities who are emerging from the social churning that's arisen since India's economic liberalisation."

With economic liberalisation has come a degree of sexual liberalisation.

Society's pages show evidence of a racier side to Indian culture - although not as much as some TV channels.

"Something we've written about is 'item girls' - backing dancers - they are the newer trend," Ms Sinha says.

"Item girls do some raunchy numbers, gyrating and pole-dancing, and wear teeny-weeny clothes.

"It's important to acknowledge and draw attention to these changes. But we are a family magazine and Indian sensibilities are delicate. India is a bundle of contradictions."

Caucasoid pretensions

Society wants to present the face of a global India at ease with modern mores and values.

AR Rahman
AR Rahman fears a loss of India's traditional music

But Shobhaa De, who has been accused of being too liberal in the past, argues that this is leading to India becoming too Westernised.

"Urban India is getting far too influenced by American series like Sex and the City," she says.

"It's at odds with contemporary India. Modern India must come up with its own sexual conduct."

Gerry Pinto, another glossy magazine editor, believes there are too many "Caucasoid pretensions" among Indians, with fair skin highly prized.

"Indians always align themselves with the middle class and with whites," he says.

"We have a history of representing ourselves as white."

Skin-bleaching creams are very popular, he says.

Music and society

Meanwhile, another split in India is between north and south, with northern Indians featuring much more prominently in magazines than southerners.

"It's not a conscious divide," Ms Sinha says. "There are certain people who are already established who are already interesting to readers. These stars are often from the north."

India's southern states, like Tamil Nadu, are often overlooked

The one notable exception is composer AR Rahman - described as the Indian Mozart by Andrew Lloyd Webber - whose music and appeal manages to cross India's many divides.

Rahman has sold over 70m records worldwide, and for 13 years has written soundtracks for Bollywood films, including the Oscar-nominated Lagaan.

But there was a time when Indian music was not so hip.

"I want people to feel cool to buy my music," Rahman says.

"They should go to the shelf and their first priority should be Indian music... Indian music has its very cool incarnations - mixing traditional singing with hip hop or funk for example."

But Rahman is now seeking a return to a more Indo-centric sound.

"Modern music's gone way beyond comprehension now," he says.

"I think now it needs to go back, reverse. You want to go back to listening to some good melodies and some basics."

Shobhaa De shares Rahman's cultural concerns.

"Parents have to define and redefine what's right," she says. "I hang on fiercely to what is best of our culture, our clothes, our festivals.

"One must be able to communicate what is worth taking from America [but] being proud of our culture is great - our generation has failed to pass that on to the younger folks."

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