The Debate on How Urban Middle-Class Identities Have Changed
“Materialism is the new karma”. (Pavan K Varma, 2005)
Whilst numerical estimates of the Indian middle classes vary drastically, media images contribute to their portrayal as affluent consumers- participants in the IT boom in urban centres such as Hyderabad and those revelling in India’s status as a call centre “superpower”, particularly thought to symbolise a new urban middle-class. Varma’s quote encapsulates the astonishing effect mass culture is thought to have had upon Indian identity, especially those who occupy this middle ground of consumption. This spectrum ranges from the lower middle-class youth, such as the aforementioned call-centre workers whose parents often experience a very different lifestyle, to the upper middle classes whose educational heritage has enabled them to maintain their class status over a longer period. Hence it is clear that the notion of an “urban middle class” within the Indian context is uniquely problematic, being internally differentiated- encompassing great variety in factors such as culture, language and religious belief, while of course attempting to reconcile the existence of the caste system as a further, but importantly distinctive form of hierarchy to class.
As Fernandes notes, the very question of defining what Beteille termed the “most polymorphous middle class in the world”, itself represents a site of political debate in both academic and public discourses. Additionally there is a marked transition between what is considered the “old middle-classes” and the “new middle-class.” Whereas the former has its origins in the “colonial encounter”, the latter, since liberalisation policies initiated by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s came to fruition, has become increasingly defined by its consumption patterns, most apparent in an era of a global economy. Fernandes writes that this overwhelming focus on consumption has somewhat neglected the impact of structural socioeconomic changes in the middle classes.(Fernandes, 2000). At various points these intersect with shifting economic conditions, such as kinship changes affecting the upwardly mobile, however they are not always resultant of the status jockeying of these newly prosperous classes. (Vatuk, 1972). Thus while the transformative effects of liberalisation may appear to have directly visible effects upon the restructured labour market, in the context of family life- locale specificities and historical factors, as well as the advent of urbanity must all be considered. For instance a shift in the values of the Malayali middle-classes can be partially attributed to the implementation of colonial legislation instigating the abolition of polygamous practices such as the Marumakkathayam system of inheritance amongst Nayar communities, whilst increasing nationalist sentiment contributed to the diminishing importance of unique matrilineal forms in Kerala in favour of the patrilineal inheritance that...