The Decline Within: From Celluloid Goddess to Celebrity Gurus

[From my column OBVIOUSLY OPAQUE in VOICE, 1-15 October 2011]

Not many in India knew Udaysinh Deshmukh aka Bhayyu Maharaj till the other day. Of course, he has a following of his own in Madhya Pradesh where he hails from and Maharashtra where he counts crème de la crème of provincial politics as his ardent followers. Quite apparently, being a spiritual guru of the top shots, often at loggerheads with each other was a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for getting close in popularity and visibility to many of his ilk. He got the opportunity, finally, thanks to a fellow Maratha called Kisan Baburao Hazare alias Anna Hazare. He was roped in to broker peace between this self-designated Gandhian supporting capital punishment and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and his team on one hand and a beleaguered and battered government at the other.

Bingo,thanks to the media, especially the always hungry for bites and visuals electronic media, he was suddenly all over the place with his name trending in search engines. Google was working overtime to satiate the curiosity of Indians scattered the world and was returning hundreds of results for questions like ‘who is BhayyuMaharaj’. The Indian middle classes have just discovered its brand new God-Man who could give a tough competition to the ruling deities brokering between common men and the gods!

This was not the first time when media had succeeded in ‘manufacturing’ a new God-Man, taking the Chomskian idea of manufacturing consent to an altogether new height! It had, in fact, fared far better than that. Forget the messengers, it had successfully manufactured new gods and goddesses that too in a dark distant past with no 24*7 tv channels haunting, harassing and harnessing the Information Highway! In reality, there was not even a trace of any Information highway coming up in those times!

Yet, there was this goddess who stormed into the already crowded deity scene of Hindu mythology. This time the vehicle was not one of the customary lots reserved for the deities. (I wonder, though, if there would be sufficient species in animal kingdom for ensuring a unique vehicle to all of the 330 million of our gods but then that is beside the point!) She has come riding on a movie, titled, Jai SantoshiMaa in 1975. Though there were a few instances of ‘Santoshimaa (or one who remains happy and satisfied in whatever conditions) being worshipped in some places like other highly localized deities (in the form of village-gods or klan/kinship gods) there was nothing pan-Indian about her.

With the release of the movie, though, this all changed. SantoshiMaa was now an integral and inalienable part of the Hindu, and therefore majority Indian iconography with her posters announcing the birth of a ‘sudden emergence of a modern celluloid goddess’ cut out for the consumption by the masses unsatisfied with their predicament. The name itself was both a brilliantly chosen paradox as well as a clue to the psyche of the masses who took no time in deposing many of their old deities for this new one. This goddess’s story was quite similar to their own. She had suffered a lot, she was tormented by her family, especially the in-laws. She spent many a nights with an empty stomach and yet she could move her husband, until very irresponsible and unemployed to work and earn and thus bringing himself and her out of their miseries.

The formula has got it all right. The pains were all blamed on others. The miseries were all because of someone else. Even the remedies were to be delivered by others. All this suffering woman had to do was to invoke her religiosity to get things done by a divine providence. All this is part of a staple diet from the moral political economy of the society the film has tried to idealize. Where no one takes the blamed for his/her deeds but believes that it is all a result of the ‘karma’ or deeds of some past birth.

The success of the film, however, was not rooted in either the experiential epistemology of the masses or the film being some great exploration in the ontological traditions and legacy of the hinduism, the majority religion in India. What made her ‘click’ with the masses was its endearing, even if somehow preachy attitude’ towards the lives of the low middle class population. in both the movies the people were destined to a life of pain and agony inflicted on them by a cruel outsider. In both of them, there was a character armed with sheer goodness (and a few guns in Sholay) who stood against the villain doggedly and fought against them. Both the film and its characters identified with the poor, the suffering and the marginalized masses.

The movie had not merely created a new goddess but also a new variety of god-men as well. This variety depended on story-telling the lines of evangelism. India, suddenly, had thousands of kathawachaks (story tellers in literal meaning) organising mass gatherings across the length and breadth of India (northern India to be precise but do they really consider anyone else to be Indians)! A few of them like AsaramBapu and MurariBapu got really successful and built immense religious empires of their own. Yet, the point was unmistakably simple that these empires were built on the social capital generated by the gurus. They went to their cities, they talked to them and only then people came to their ‘ashrams’. These god-men were the ones who believed in having a mass following. They tried their best to be on the right side of the masses by avoiding becoming a part of the ‘dirty and divisive’ electoral politics. They knew that they had supporters from all the rival camps and they could not afford to irk one by supporting the other.

But then, that was in the 1970s when even a goddess, what if born out of celluloid magic, could not stand apart from the poor. The case was bound to be different in the India of the twenty first century when the television has reincarnated itself into an omnipresent and omnipotent thing, something quite similar to the status of being a demi-god. It has moved far ahead of those black and white days when any pretensions of colour were brought in by putting a multicolour screen in front of the tv screen. it was a different India with completely different sets of aspirations and inspirations. Of course, there was a Hindustan, a numerical majority within it perennially appended to the body politic of this India but it was also one which the new Indians wanted to wish away. It was an eyesore for them. They did not want to have anything to do with it.

They did not want to have anything to do with poverty as well. The stories this India wanted to listen to, the films this India wanted to watch were bound to be the stories of their desires, dreams and aspirations. This India would not have even a goddess that would get happy with inexpensive raw sugar and roasted chickpeas. It would rather have LordGanesha drinking milk, a spectacle created by the new, emergent and private media channels as early as in early 1990s. By its capacity of a turning an incident like this into a national phenomenon the new media has announced both its designs and capacities quite clearly.

Now the masses that were the preserve of the Bapus, right from the original great Bapu whom we knew as Gandhi to the minions in the business of religion were becoming irrelevant. Who needed them anyways when the media could manufacture a semblance of frenzied people looking more real than in reality, that too in no time?

The god-men (alas, there are very few god-women) of this India were bound to be different, very different from what they used to be. In fact, the new media was working overtime to manufacture their own god-men. It soon found them. It found them in swanky cars, wearing impeccable whites which often looked like saffron. Now, they derived their power not by the numbers that followed them but the ‘worth’, literal economic and political worth of those following them. The times of celebrity gurus with celebrity followers has arrived.

These ‘gurus’ unlike their predecessors often found themselves at the wrong side of the masses. Likes of ShriShri Ravishankar would now oppose the constitutional policy of reservations without worrying much of losing any support. They would also do away with all pretensions that remained of being apolitical. Now they would unabashedly join the DharmSansads (religious parliament) organized by an outright communal group Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Even worse, now they would try to fill the gaps left by the demise of some master political managers belonging to different political outfits. They would try brokering peace between warring camps, they would become middlemen fixing deals, and they would even be engaged by the governments to placate the likes of Anna Hazares taking democratic institutions to a ransom.

These are the spiritual gurus of the mew middle classes that actually need some ‘spiritual peace’ for its complicity in dispossessing millions of its fellow citizens from their rights. It needs some peace to delude itself that all is well with it. It needs some peace for wishing away the anger simmering within the India it has abandoned so royally. Alas, all it has got is the people even more rootless!

Welcome the new Bhayyu Maharajs, ShriShris, Ramdevsand countless others and think of the India that was to be a sovereign, secular socialist republic. Think of them and think of secularism that entails absence of religion from public spaces and not the saffron (or greens for that reason) jumping around.