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All in the name of God

While the 1990s saw the beginning of the confrontation between Hindutva and the secular, pluralist forces in Indian polity and society, much of the ground was prepared by the creation of a 'Hindu' public through religious serials on TV.

The phenomenal success of serials like Ramayana, Mahabharata and Shree Krishna are cases in point. If 97 percent of the population is said to have watched Ramayana, Shree Krishna fetched nearly Rs 130 crore for DD. Om Namah Shivaey commanded a minimum guarantee of Rs 53 lakh, Jai Hanuman, Rs 66,37,500 and Jai Ganga Maiya, Rs 20,25,000.

The fact that the gods make money hasn't been lost on private channels. Besides, Ma Shakti (Star), Zee also offers three series based on mythologies on its morning band on Sundays. Ramayana and Mahabharata (back-to-back at 9.00 am and 10.00 am) and Jai Santoshi Maa on Friday nights at 10.00 pm and Shree Ganesha (Sony) are treading the path shown by DD.

DD officials agree that mythological serials are tackily produced and promote superstition and blind faith. Yet, they've got the viewers glued in their couches. In fact, producer Ramanand Sagar, a pioneer in this department, complains that “five serials compared with 56 on air does not make for a large divine presence.” The more, the better, argues Sagar, who has produced Ramayana, Shree Krishna, Mahalaxmi and Jai Ganga Maiya. "I want people to come forward with scripts from other religions too, but there is none. Serials based on religion instill values and a sense of duty among viewers,'' he proclaims. 

In his book "Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India", Arvind Rajagopal captures the story of the march of Hindutva from 1987 and tries to link it with the powerful role played by television in making "Hindutva consciousness a reality." It was for the first time that the powerful medium of television took the message of Hindutva into the drawing rooms of lower and middle class Hindus. 

Rajagopal focused his attention on the formation of the Hindu public in India as interpreted by the TV serials of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the last years of the 1980s. The author concedes that by creating a "media hype, media cannot occupy the centrestage of society's politics" but media can mediate in politics. He observes that "the weekly broadcast of popular serials like the Ramayana thus began a new era not only in television but in politics as well..." and he builds his thesis by stating that the Ramayana in a sense, joined these events together "in the medium of its communication, swiveling between the lost utopia summoned by Hindu nationalists and the brave new world promised by them and by market enthusiasts alike." 

Television in the 1990s created in the minds of Hindus a utopia of the Ram rajya of the past and a glorious future for Hindus by the dismantling of "license-permit" raj, which started the era of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation. "The politics of Hindutva and globalisation are inter-linked in the 1990s by television because media emerges as a merchant of dreams of Hindus by linking the past with a prosperous Hindu future," opines Rajagopal. 

"No other country in the world has a value system so deeply and permanently entrenched in its mythology as India has," said Ravi Chopra, producer-director of the new Ramayana on Zee TV, "The way the Ramayana and the Mahabharata developed their many-stranded narratives, created their strong and well-drawn characters and gave a sense of permanence to the values each character stood for, is a unique miracle in the history of human civilisation. Nowhere else, in no other body of literature, do values play such a pivotal role as they do in the Ramayana or the Mahabharata," he said. "You have, in these epics, heroes who give their word and lose everything while keeping it, in fulfilling a given promise. You have men who choose banishment and a youth of hardship and deprivation simply as an act of obedience and consent to a promise given by a father. You have valour, family unity, respect and honour for elders, romance, elegance, art — indeed every facet of life has an exquisite expression in these epics. Most important to every generation of Indians is the value systems reflected by the relationships of the various characters," Chopra said. 

But in reality many people watched it out of devotion. They felt that God was giving them darshan." Television created a Hindu consciousness and the Indian State manipulated the consent of the people for democratic governance through the serial. "The forces of Hindutva manipulated the Ramayana" because it captivated the mind of culturally-starving Hindus under the Nehru-Indira regimes, opines Rajagopal.

After the Chopras' Mahabharata, there was a deluge of mythological serials on Indian television. Some came and went without making any impact. Om Namah Shivaey, Om Namah Narayana, Jai Hanuman, Jai Ganesh, Ma Shakti, Draupadi and many more came on various channels. But none touched the popularity record of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Many of them suffered because the presentation left much to be desired. The characters were lacklustre and the dialogues, amateurish. Production values were faulty and the packaging poor. Some of the serials messed up the characters and stories were presented without attention to their sequence or time frame. 

The average Indian's thirst for mythology has not quenched yet. At present, Sanjay Khan, who earlier made Jai Hanuman, is presenting yet another version of the Mahabharata on Zee TV. The Chopras are in mytho production once more with their Ramayana on Zee TV.

¯ MH Lakdawala

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