Soft in the head?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 17/10/2006
Television abounds in examples of how ritual, faith, wellness and stress management are marketed as a continuum.

Sevanti Ninan

Sometimes it is difficult to decide just what we are: soft in the head suckers or a highly evolved race able to fuse modernity, commerce and faith in our lives?   There is an hour long weekend show on Sony Entertainment Television that has to be seen to be believed. It peddles miracles of faith: ?Man Mein Hain Visshwas.?  Totally way out stories, every one of them, certified true with dates and locations.

Last weekend we  got  the tale of a young mother in Delhi who loved to feed a visiting, tail wagging canine called Kalu. Television glamorises its  reconstructions, so this  middle class woman from Rajouri Garden was always dolled up  when she fed the animal, from a sparkling thali with chapatis and neat katoris of subzi, on the verandah of her home.  The neighbours  did not like that, they thought the doggy was a danger to their children. So one day they descended during the feeding to pick a fight.

Her husband arrived at that point, and the matter blew up further till he swore he would not countenance her indulgence for the dog any more. It was either him or Kalu. The feeding stopped, she was miserable, and Kalu was  puzzled. He woofed and pawed on the verandah every day.

The woman then began to see visions. Of a seer who would ask why she had stopped feeding him. I am hungry, he would say. One recognised him as the Sai Baba of Shirdi but she did not.  After  this recurred the family decided they had a fresh problem on their hands.   In came a pundit to do a havan that would rid the home of  ghosts and spirits. Kalu arrived while that was going on, and walked in till the husband turned apoplectic and chased him out.

No good, the Sai Baba appeared again. This time he was angry: ? Now I will not come to you unless you come looking for me.?  Shortly after her husband collapsed at work and was rushed  to hospital. Diagnosis? Leukaemia. Swaying down the hospital corridor, dressed up but distraught, the wife saw a picture of the same seer. A nurse urged her to visit his temple nearby to pray for her husband¿s life.  During the worship she heard one of his followers narrate to the congregation how the Sai Baba had  once asked a woman for food because he was hungry. When she brought the thali he fed the chapattis to a dog which had ambled up. The woman was less than thrilled but Sai Baba explained that to  feed a hungry creature was to feed him.

The young wife saw light, and went racing back to her home to cook a meal. Then she took it to the hospital to get her husband to agree that she could feed the dog one more time. Weak from his illness and befuddled at her priorities, he said yes. Then she went looking for Kalu. Someone told her the municipalty had rounded up stray dogs a short while before. Dejected, she returned bearing the thali to the Sai Baba temple to listen to the prayers inside. And who should run along shortly after but Kalu, all the way to the same temple, to obligingly wolf down the offering.  Back at the hospital, you¿ve guessed it, the leukaemia had vanished without a trace. The show¿s  saffron-clad anchor, Nitish Bhardwaj or Krishna of yore, asks you to send in more such stories.

Television abounds with examples of  how ritual, faith, wellness and stress management  are marketed as a continuum.  Religious ritual is a recurring motif in the soap operas which have taken Star Plus to leadership of the Hindi entertainment market. And religious channels  are doing brisk business.  Believers can shop at a tele mall on a channel like Zee Jagran, where  Mukesh Khanna, the actor who plays the flying Shaktimaan, will repeatedly harangue you on the miraculous powers of the  rudraksha kavach which retails for Rs 1290. He rolls out testimonies of the miracles it can perform in contemporary India.  An engineer says he failed to get a job till he put it on. A fat little boy narrates how his studying never yielded good marks until his mother put this rudraksha mala on him and his concentration increased. A woman describes how her love marriage was going to the dogs until her mother told her to wear the kavach, and her marriage was saved.

Indian God channels are versatile. They market jewellery at Diwali time, telecast blockbuster movies, have antakshari type singing contests, and retail cow urine therapies. On weekends you can phone in to the Great Indian Astro Show and ask when you are likely to find a husband.  

When all of this sells the news channels are hardly likely lag behind. Delhi Aaj Tak immersed itself in Karva Chauth this year. And Doordarshan decided to do live telecasts of Durga Puja from various locations, six days running. Call it the Priyaranjan Das Munshi effect.

Tailpiece:  NDTV¿s Tryst with Destiny on 60 years of the media had no historical perspective at all to offer. It was a clubby here and now affair, myopic both in its choice of guests and in setting an agenda for discussion. The issues were contemporary which is fine, but some harking back to  a few milestones in those 60 yrs was surely in order? And does the history of India¿s press, as well as its prospects have to be discussed only by stalwarts of the English language media ?  The regional press has been a significant part of India¿s media history, and the language media is today far ahead of the English in its growth trajectory. But Roy brought no regional proprietors or editors on his panel, though most of them speak perfectly good English and might have brought a different perspective.          

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