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W&L's Indira Somani Receives Fulbright Grant to Research Indian Media

Indira Somani
Indira Somani
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Indira Somani, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Washington and Lee University, has been awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Research Grant for the 2011-2012 academic year to conduct research in India on the Westernization of Indian television programming.

Somani said the research will contribute to the final chapter of her book, "The Impact of Satellite Television on the Indian Diaspora," which analyzes how the Indian diaspora uses satellite television to stay connected to their homeland.

"With this award I will be able to finish the work that I began in 2007 when I started conducting qualitative ethnographic interviews with the Indian diaspora, specifically the generation that migrated to the United States between 1960 and 1972," she said. "No one has studied that generation of Asian Indians and their media habits before.

Somani explained that the Indians who migrated to the United States during those years did so because of the country's need for doctors and engineers. They were a very educated population and struggled to stay connected with India through various media. Then, in the early 1990s, the Indian government lifted the media laws and satellite television boomed. "Now you can buy a language package - Hindi, Tamil, Bengali or whatever your native language is - and get an assortment of channels imported from India," she said.

"The diaspora appreciates watching Indian programs because they get to see what is going on in India in real time. They can also see how their homeland is changing, which helps them not to feel like outsiders when they return there every few years. Somani added that this particular generation was introduced to television after they moved to the United States and learned to watch television in this country.

"But my studies show they are also very critical of the Indian programming. They complain that the programs are too westernized and do not truly reflect Indian culture, and that the programs portray women with disrespect. The news programs are not up to standard and focus on sports and entertainment news, such as Bollywood and cricket, and do not cover the whole country. The evening drama programs lack creativity and drag on for too long. And there are not enough educational programs," she said, according to the diaspora she interviewed.

Somani will conduct her research at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media (IIJNM) in Bangalore, and will also travel to Mumbai, New Delhi and/or Chennai, where most production companies are located. Using her 10 years of experience as a television producer, she will interview Indian producers on how they make decisions on the quality of newscasts, and how they develop story lines for the evening drama programs. "I also want to understand the designated audiences for these programs. Are they targeting the diaspora or are they targeting the Indian population?" she said.
Somani pointed out that, while her main focus is to understand the influence behind the programming, she also plans to take advantage of working with students at IIJNM to research the effect of any westernization of TV programs on the younger demographic in India.

The Fulbright-Nehru award is for four months, but Somani may stay longer since she will also be on junior faculty leave from W&L next year. "I combined the two so I can take the whole year off," she said. "I was born and raised in the United States and I have traveled to India my whole life, but the longest I've been there was six weeks in 1987. This will allow me to submerge myself in the culture and really understand the media. I don't have any family in Bangalore. so it will be brand new to me. I'm really excited about the prospects of going there and working in one of the premier journalism schools in India. This is a dream come true for me."

In her Fulbright proposal Somani pointed out that her research will be useful to media scholars and media executives in India because "if Indian media has too much of a Western influence, how will the next generation of Indians maintain their culture and identity? Also, on a larger scale, what does this Western influence mean for preserving India's culture with the younger generation?" she wrote. She also wants to communicate to media scholars that the change in Indian programming is affecting the ethnic identification of the diaspora generation. She said that, as more Indians migrate to the United States, media companies in both the United States and India need to understand how to sustain these television audiences that want to hold onto their culture, language and identity.

Pam Luecke, head of the department of journalism and mass communications, called the Fulbright-Nehru award an honor for Somani. "It's also a great opportunity for her to continue research on the Indian diaspora and culture," she said.

Somani joined W&L in fall of 2008 and teaches online and broadcast producing. She has introduced two new courses called "Media, Race and Gender" and "Cross-Cultural Documentary Filmmaking."
She is also an award-winning independent producer and director of documentaries about how Asian Indians maintain and preserve their cultural identity. Her most recent production is the personal essay documentary "Crossing Lines," and details can be found at http://www.crossinglinesthefilm.com/.

The Fulbright Program is America's flagship international educational exchange program, and is sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. In 2008 the government of India became an equal partner in the financial support of the Fulbright Program in India, and all Fulbright awards in India are now titled Fulbright-Nehru fellowships.

Since its inception more than 60 years ago, approximately 300,000 people from more than 150 countries have participated in the Fulbright Program. Fulbright alumni have become heads of state, judges, ambassadors, cabinet ministers, CEOs, university presidents, journalists, artists, professors and teachers, and have been awarded 43 Nobel Prizes.