Can DD Re-Run Sustain Its Epic Magic?

With Coronavirus-forced lockdown across India, a captive audience huddles in homes before the television sets, morning and evening, gorging on serials based on Hindu epics, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and B R Chopra’s Mahabharat telecast by public broadcaster Doordarshan.

Their revival after 33 years requires flash-back, but more of relating it to the present that is vastly different, not just in terms of availability of hundreds of other TV channels, but also in sociological and political terms.

Take TV-watching first, spread daily over 10 to 12 hours. Broadcast Audience Research Council data indicates that even before the government announced the serials, as on March 25, it was 72 billion TV-watching minutes, an eight percent jump since January, dictated perhaps by a prolonged, nasty winter. Sixty-five million had watched the serials when first released in 1987-89. Seventeen million watched them over the last weekend. With nearly a billion people estimated to watch, new records may be established.

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Following the Indian experience then, the two serials were individually telecast on 91 national TV channels worldwide with at least nine languages sound tracks. Children in Indian families knew more of the epics’ characters than their elders of that generation. Given the rising diaspora, the appeal is worldwide, though Indians abroad are unlikely to await Doordarshan’s telecasts.

Undoubtedly, these epics have influenced the Indian society down the ages, possibly without any break. That makes it unique compared to other epics and old civilizations. Their impact on religious, social and spiritual mores, if not always political, can hardly be minimized. Ram-Sita and Ravan visit not just during the Dusserah festival. Shenanigans depicted in Mahabharat have willy-nilly influenced the ways of the political class. The impact could transcend philosophy and sociology and go deeper now since religion and politics are getting increasingly mixed.

Roads went empty when they were first telecast — now it is Corona compulsions — not just across India, but also the rest of South Asia, despite different faiths and cultures. Their narratives share the region’s locales (from Gandhara (Kandahar) and Takshashila (Taxila) to Assam (Kamrup) and to Lanka. Although the entertainment world and its mores have changed radically, a repeat, partial at least, is likely.

Of the two, Ramayan that changed India’s TV scene forever was the more popular show when compared to the thematically more complex and technologically superior Mahabharat that followed. Without comparing or contrasting them or seeking to pre-judge their contents that are already well-known, it is possible to say that their respective popularity during repeat telecasts now may indicate which way the present-day India is thinking.  

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The government announced Ramayana’s telecast plans “on public demand” without elaborating and took a while to add Mahabharat along with some other serials. Given the present times, with path cleared for building a grand temple at Ayodhya where Ram was supposedly born, the speculation is that its emphasis is on Ram’s greatness rather than the battle of Kurukshetra.

The idea to capture the popular mood as people struggle to stay active in their home confines apparently came from one or more media advisors who understand both the collective public psyche and the likely political impact the two serials, especially Ramayan could have.

Such advice was not forthcoming in the 1980s. Till Ramayan came, Doordarshan had by and large been religion-neutral. A politically naïve Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was convinced that Ramayan serial would help his Congress Party to balance the tilt the government had caused enacting a law to undo the Supreme Court’s Shahbanu verdict that was meant to appease the Muslim orthodoxy. He was also persuaded to initiate Shilanyas at Ayodhya.

Rajiv and the Congress fell between the two stools. All these moves squarely favoured their Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rivals. Indeed, Ramayan helped build a popular mood, not in favour of the Congress, but for L K Advani’s Rathyatra. India was to pay a heavy price when Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992.

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Then, as now, the Congress never realized its follies. It wanted Ramayan’s prominent actors to join politics and contest election. Deepika Chikhalia who played Sita and Arvind Trivedi who played Ravan chose BJP, not the Congress.

Ramayan can be said to have been the BJP’s launching pad for its Hindutva agenda and complete change of political discourse. Fearing loss of Hindu votes in elections, the Congress has given a go-by to secularism, its biggest political asset. Conceding political ground all along the way, it has itself adopted Hindutva’s softer version in the recent years.  

Fast-forward to the present as millions watch Ramayan and Mahabharat. They were outstanding, absorbing products then. But time has taken its toll and technology and public taste have changed. They are slow-moving despite the colour and spectacles and in part, the action they offer. It’s comic book experience for the kids. To the adults, in the two hour-plus daily dosage, benign smiles and syrupy dialogues Ram, Krishna and other characters deliver, beyond a point, is irritating.

Truth be told, the younger generation, though not uncaring, is less reverent of the elders. The latter are more insecure than their peers were. If amusing, it was fashionable to imitate the ‘correct’ behavior, addressing parents as ‘pitashree’ and matashree and brothers as ‘bhrartashree’. Not now, at least in urban India.

A lot has changed in the three decades-plus. India is more urbanized. Families are nuclear. TV has made them ‘Westernized”. They are used to faster, varied entertainment that is bolder, ‘open’, even explicit, dealing with bold subjects that were taboo earlier, going by censored mainstream cinema and the uncensored web-entertainment.

The telecasts are both media milestones and political events. How are they likely to work in these times laced with Corona-scare? For once, mythology can help forget history that is currently in the process of being re-written.

Would they help Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP, the initial beneficiaries consolidate the Hindutva agenda?

In theory, it’s a big yes. But who knows how a billion minds across a vast territory work? Rajasuya and Ashwamedha rituals conducted to establish military supremacy across a vast territory in northern India figure in the two epics. It is rather early in the day to speculate if the telecasts would deliver their modern-day political equivalents.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Is Hindutva Hanging By A Thread In Bengal?

Hindutva is no longer the rabble rouser vote bank as it was in the last national election. When the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party won an emphatic victory in the recent Delhi assembly election, opposition leaders were quick to point that the Bharatiya Janata Party will have to recalibrate its strategy of polarisation now that it had been roundly rejected by the electorate of yet another state.

However, it would be extremely difficult for the saffron party to abandon its majoritarian agenda in the forthcoming state elections. For the BJP, hardline Hindutva, strident nationalism and communal talk is an article of faith.

Hindutva seems to have worked for BJP in the last election. It probably sees the current run of defeats as aberrations. Besides the Hindutva strategy helps divert attention from bread and butter issues at a time when the economy is tottering. An election is the occasion for the BJP to propagate its ideology.

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In fact, the BJP’s high-decibel poll campaign in Delhi with its focus on the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act was meant not just to consolidate the Hindu vote in the Capital but also to send out a message across the country that this agitation is led by minorities and that the amended citizenship law actually enjoys popular support.

Among the opposition leaders, West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee appears most vulnerable in this regard. Determined to add West Bengal to its kitty, the BJP has opted for a brazenly communal narrative to dethrone Banerjee. Having met with remarkable success in the last Lok Sabha election when it surprised everyone by winning 18 seats and increased its vote share to 40 percent, the BJP has every reason to persist with this strategy. It remains undeterred by the fact that its attempts to focus on Article 370 and triple talaq did not cut much ice with the voters in Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

It will not be surprising if the BJP’s polarising and divisive rhetoric gets more shrill as it begins preparations for next year’s assembly election in a state which has a 27 percent Muslim population.

The very fact that the BJP has re-elected Dilip Ghosh as president of the party’s West Bengal unit, is a clear message that the saffron party has no intention of going back on its communal agenda. Known for using vitriolic language, Ghosh is constantly stoking controversies with his inciting statements. Ghosh was in the eye of a storm recently when he described the anti-CAA protesters as “illiterate and uneducated” who are being fed biryani and “paid with foreign funds” to continue with their agitation. He constantly refers to the issue of infiltration in his speeches and has, on several occasions, thundered that all Bangladeshi Muslims in the state will be identified and chased out of India!

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Not only has the BJP campaign reopened the old wounds inflicted in the communal riots during the state’s partition of 1905, it has also been helped by the fact that Mamata Banerjee is seen to be appeasing the minorities. The Trinamool Congress chief who is personally leading the prolonged protests against the amended citizenship law as well as the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, has given the BJP enough fodder to push ahead with its communal agenda.

Undoubtedly the Delhi defeat came as a rude shock for the BJP but, at the same time, its leaders believe the party increased its tally from three to eight seats and improved its vote share from 32 to 38 percent because it made the anti-CAA protests as the centre piece of its campaign.

It’s still too early to say if the BJP’s strategy will succeed but, at present, Mamata Banerjee has the first mover advantage over her political rival. While the saffron party lacks a strong party organisation in West Bengal and has no credible chief ministerial candidate, the Trinamool Congress chief is already in election mode.

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Like Kejriwal, she has stopped taking personal potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and is instead emphasising her governance record. She has also taken the lead in articulating the dangers of the amended citizenship law, the NPR and NRC. Mamata Banerjee is taking no chances as she realizes she can ill-afford to underestimate the BJP as she had done in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

But before it goes for broke in West Bengal, the BJP will test the waters in Bihar which is headed for polls later this year. Not only does the state have a 17 percent Muslim population, the opposition (the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress) has staunchly opposed the CAA, reason enough for the saffron party to polarise the electorate on religious lines.

Besides, the BJP is banking on its alliance partner, Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (U) president Nitish Kumar to act as a buffer against its strident campaign. Though Nitish Kumar has endorsed the CAA, he has not framed his support for the law on communal lines. Moreover, the Bihar chief minister measures his words carefully and is not known to use extreme language. This, the BJP feels, should help the alliance offset any possible adverse repercussions of the saffron party’s high-pitched tirade against those opposing the CAA.

However, if Mamata Benarjee can repeat AAP’s massive success in Bengal, voices in Bengal may start questioning Hindutva. Hindutva may be hanging by a thread.

GAURI LANKESH’S MURDER, HAVE WE TURNED BACK ON OUR TRADITIONS?

blog.  India is the land which has taken pride in reading the verses of Natya Shastra that speaks of specific commitment to free speech. The noted author Salman Rushdie,  who had faced fatwa from Muslim dominated nations over his controversial novel The Satanic Verses, had made references to Natya Shastra at a public event. The scholar, who has widely read Hinduism highlighted how most ancient Indian texts have an explicit and extreme defence of freedom of expressions as you can find anywhere in the world. Given this rich history of the diversity of ideas and critics, it is ironic and a shame that India today is facing threat from the Hindu extremist camps, which should most be defending the greatness of ancient Hindu virtues. Although the investigating teams have not identified the killers of Gauri Lankesh, and there is no evidence pointing to the involvement of any group on the face of it, but the fact cannot be ignored that Gauri and the Hindu brigade never saw eye-to-eye. She had faced defamation charges for allegedly maligning BJP leaders. That does not mean the BJP is involved in her murder but the silence of BJP only adds to rumours and failure to protect journalists like Gauri. Gauri’s end was no different to rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, campaigner for the anti-superstition bill, his associate and communist leader Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi, who campaigned against idol worship and Brahmanical rituals. These people had to literally bite the bullet as they questioned and irked modern day religious extremists and self-styled vigilantes of traditions which they little understand. It is the time that the custodians of Hindutva look back and imbibe the crux of Hindu philosophy which is based on the ideals of tolerance. A reading of the scriptures confirms that Hindu Gods gave sufficient importance to a diversity of ideologies. The difference of opinion was welcomed even on religion and Shastra, and nowhere in the Hindu scriptures is there any mention of killing the opposing voices. Most Hindu scholars and saints who truly followed these Shastras, have promoted and imbibed peace and extreme level of tolerance. Fatwa verdict has never been part of Hinduism as the core basis of the religion is non-violence and the dictum of ‘live and let live’ which has been an intrinsic rule. However, with a sudden rush in hyper political dramas and brainwashing, the scenario has changed dramatically. Not only has this interfered with the social fabric of society, but has also unleashed the politicisation of religion in every nook and corner. It wasn’t too long ago when we looked with dismay at countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh where free speech and free thoughts were met with death threats. Now India stands in the same category. Most Indians took pride in the fact that unlike neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan where more than a dozen secular bloggers, activists and filmmakers were hacked to death by Islamic extremists, our society was liberal enough to allow everyone to speak their minds. We Indians thanked our stars for not being born in Saudi Arabia, where the likes of Raif Badawi, activist and founder of website Free Saudi Liberals were put in the jail and punished with flogging for apostasy. It’s shameful that we have put ourselves in the same league of nations that boast extreme religious intolerance. In the blind race to make India a ‘Hindu nation’, we have forgotten what Hindu scriptures preached.  Those who espouse Hindutva may need to go back to read the Shastras. // ]]>