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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > India: How Popular Television is Legitimizing “Hindu†Mythological Tropes (...)

India: How Popular Television is Legitimizing “Hindu†Mythological Tropes to Produce a Monocultural Past

Sunday 31 August 2014, by siawi3


20 August

Ather Farouqui

The arrival of Big Synergy Productions’ mega show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ on the national scene did not only change the fortunes of many people including Amitabh Bachchan but also pioneered a new genre on Indian television, reality television—an aspirational and populist mode of entertainment selling the instant “rags to riches dream†while also providing ordinary work-a-day people an active participation in the erstwhile inaccessible entertainment industry. This of course has been a global phenomenon with the West leading the way, churning out a profusion of reality TV programmes showcasing heady, loud consumerist exhibitionism and the rest of the world following suit, as is the norm. With KBC the Indian population adopted or rather appropriated a more desi version of the grand American dream which came into its own—undoubtedly one of the factors being the towering personality of the host Amitabh Bachchan with his impeccable diction, salt-of-the-earth charm and celebrity élan. The television phenomenon that is KBC saw the middle classes changing their primetime schedule for the entire week to accommodate every episode of the quiz show and derive vicarious wish fulfilment from the winnings of regular people like themselves. There was an instant connect with the audience, of course through intelligent programming and an accessible format, but also due to the immediacy of the identification the audience felt with the participants who were mostly drawn from the middle- and lower-class demographic. The programme ushered in a new era where the masses not only slogged for professional development in their respective fields but also were always on the lookout for information and trivia that could enhance their knowledge in the event that they clinched the rare opportunity to appear on the show that was the latest addition to the accruing list of the many aspirations of emerging globalized India. We were told and told well that not losing hope is the moral of the story and that “kuch sawaal aapki zindagi badal sakte hain.†Now if we were to look more closely at these sawaals which govern the fate of so many people, we will notice an emerging pattern that was invariably employed in designing the questions that were essentially meant to gauge a person’s general knowledge and awareness. In this series of questions, on closer examination, generally one would find a question based on Indian mythology for every few questions, especially at a point when a new padaav or level had to be cleared.

The problem is not that there are questions from Hindu scriptures; it is only right for one to be aware of the plurality of myths, legends and beliefs that make up our cultural past. The problem lies in the complexity and frequency of the questions derived only from the Hindu universe which are asked in such a matter-of-fact manner that it assumes that everyone would know. I do not mean to offend anyone who believes in the sanctity of these topics which legitimizes their entry into this game, but my only concern is the a priori assumption made in the process where they expect participants derived from the length and breadth of India and from different cultural and religious backgrounds to know the Hindu pantheon in all its multifarious complexity. If we were to extend this expectation, one would be able to gain a better perspective of the mind-set that demands you to know about these things if you aspire to make it big in this country through a field where the national epistemology comes into question. For anyone who wishes to acquire a good knowledge of the home and the world, it has become imperative to gain a firm knowledge of the ancient and mythical Indian history which is also often referred to as the golden age of this vast land. The Indian scriptures in all their literary richness are extensive texts that cover under them a multitude of stories that are separated by time and space and are so very huge in number that anyone who has not been directly involved with them through an academic or theological process cannot be expected to know the minutiae of so many different, pluralistic, overlapping narratives. As an extension of this, one should also understand that it is not possible for people from religious backgrounds other than the Hindu to be aware of such things, especially when the complexity of the questions is such.

Interestingly, in a recent discussion that I had with some people on the registration process—wherein they select potential contestants for the show via a recorded phone call and three questions are asked of them; all three have to be answered for the contestant to make it to the next stage—I was told by most that there was usually a question concerned with Indian mythology in the mix. Now this is something that I found to be hugely problematic as it filters out anyone who did not invest in acquiring knowledge of Indian, primarily Hindu, mythology. I was even more astounded to realize the degree of normatively that was assigned to this epistemological violence and that this radicalization has continued with impunity. This inclusion of questions from the scriptures of one religion in the first level itself where it is being given a 33% weightage makes it very difficult for anyone from outside that scriptural canon to make it to the show. Not only is this filtering aprioristically problematic but also very unjust to those who are otherwise endowed with great intellect but not interested in gaining a deep knowledge of the Indian mythology, apart from obviously the other communities who cannot be expected to be engaged in such great detail with the same.

This connection between knowledge and power has been dealt with in great detail in the academic discourse and also outside it. One person who theorized this connection in perhaps the finest fashion was Michel Foucault who in Discipline and Punish and the initial volumes of The History of Sexuality argued how the control over knowledge systems has direct repercussions on the way power operates in this world, which he also extended into an analyses of the connection between truth and power and the way the latter influences the former, thereby highlighting the very subjectivity of truth. This idea has been thoroughly dealt with in critical theory where we were shown how histories are written according to the convenience of the dominant class and epistemology governed by its own ideological state apparatus. As Karl Marx reiterated time and again, the ideology of the dominant class always becomes the dominant ideology, a fact which can be seen in the way this world functions where the veracity of truth becomes questionable on account of it being controlled by those in power to suit their purpose. Perhaps the best and the most relevant examples of this can be found in our own backyard where the subjective politics of knowledge is on display every time one bothers to question what is handed down to us as the gospel truth. For instance, ever since the independence of India, much of our jingoistic posturing has essentially been focused on reviving a non-existent golden idyllic age when everything was uncontaminated by any foreign influence and was hence the most ‘Indian’.

This widespread move of going back to the classics to situate a point which was principally superior in terms of value and national significance has had far reaching repercussions in the national academic discourse. It has also had a great effect on the literary production in a land where we often see contemporary literature revisiting and retelling the Indian scriptures to appropriate the tales and make them more topical. This can be seen more clearly in modern Indian drama where we often see plays beginning with an invocation to some or the other Indian God in whose praise there are complete scenes depicting a puja or chants to the same effect. Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana, for example, begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha who is asked to bless the performance by the Sutradhar, a similar rendition of which we also see in Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal. This belies a need to endorse or be endorsed by a nationalist thought that gives precedence to ancient Indian philosophy. Of course, this can be a subversive exercise as well, but taken collectively, the profusion of such tropes work insidiously rather like inane advertisements on TV that through repetition affect the subconscious mind and goad the audience into buying their products. The need to control and modify a nation’s history and cultural experience in order to sync it with the dominant ideology finds greater resonance in the epistemological framework where a change in the government often sees a revision of the history syllabus in the NCERT books, as was seen when Murli Manohar Joshi in his capacity as the HRD Minister set out to change the syllabus when the NDA last came into power.

It is this practice of controlling the knowledge systems to suit one’s ideological inclination that is seen at play in ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ which requires one to be well-informed about classical Indian philosophy in order to become a part of the hijacked Indian dream that gives precedence to development over everything else, as can be deduced from the recently concluded elections that were overwhelmingly driven by the same agenda. The nationalist obsession of harking back to the mythological narrative is what makes this mode of thought exceedingly problematic. Interestingly, under the theological category only questions from the Hindu scriptures find place in the contest that sees very few questions based on other religious beliefs. This majoritarian approach that is utilitarian in its principle of the greater good for the greater number excludes a vast number of people who are genuinely intelligent and well-informed but cannot become a part of the middle-class dream for lack of a firm grip on Indian mythology. And the excluded group includes Hindus as well, those that are well informed on most counts but do not feel the inclination to invest time in exploring the Indian mythological universe. Or perhaps it is assumed that everyone that lives in this country should know, via a process of osmosis, everything there is to know about ancient Indian myths and legends related to the Hindu pantheon. In a country that is inherently diverse and plural, this fascist approach must be located and addressed. Epistemological violence is the worst means of mass mobilization where power fabricates truth to make people believe in whatever it wants them to. Unless we formulate our curriculum to provide equal space to all communities in a country that thrives on diversity, we have the regrettable answer to the question “kaun banega crorepati?†.

The author is a pioneer scholar in the field of Urdu language and its education and has for long been arguing that instead of modernising dini madrasas, the government should provide Urdu education as part of the secular curriculum of school education. He has written his M.Phil and Ph.D dissertations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His book Muslims and Media Images, (OUP 2009) presents a frank and no-holds-barred discussion on an important theme that has become a victim of oversimplification. The paperback edition (2010) of the author’s book, Redefining Urdu Politics in India, with a new Introduction argues how the once-secular Urdu language has now been relegated to only Muslims and confined within the realm of madrasas. It is a timely intervention in the wake of the Right to Education Act; 2010.He is currently the General Secretary of the Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind).