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The secularism of celebration

The secularism of celebration

Author: Amrita Shah
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 22, 2001

Sociologists claim that the farther the contemporary Indian travels from his roots the more he seeks to return to them. Technology oddly plays a significant role in bridging the gap. Over a decade ago the forces of Hindutva showed how the media, for instance, particularly the new media, could be used to sell a revivalist message.

The strategy was sophisticated and included the more familiar media forms such as audio cassettes (the fiery speeches of Sadhvi Rithambhara) and influencing press reportage. But it was the then relatively new forms of video and cable television that were most effectively used by organisations operating under the Hindutva umbrella.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its allies, such as the Shiv Sena, made a series of video films (Bhaye Prakat Kripala, Pran Jaaye Par Vachchan Na Jaaye, Ajinkya and so on). The films used music, sound effects, the latest editing techniques, multiple images and so on to create a highly emotive atmosphere in which a mixture of fact, myth and distortion was presented as history. One film for example ''recreated'' the rebirth of Rama in the Ramjanmabhoomi (in reference to the ''miracle'' of an idol being discovered on the premises); another presented the 1990 call for kar seva in Ayodhya as a crusade involving hordes of martyrs; and still another placed the emergence of the Shiv Sena as the central event in one of the most bizarrely encapsulated forms of Indian history one is likely to see.

In startling contrast to the video blitz but an essential part of the strategy was the appearance on local cable TV channels of political representatives, addressing voters not as representatives of a religious ideology but as activists involved in solving the practical problems of their constituents. The multi-pronged strategy went a long way in creating a Hindu consciousness and in translating it into an electoral advantage.

Today, the media has proliferated even further and taken on new and fast evolving forms. It is interesting, however, to see how new technology still serves to revive the old. A telling example is the prominence acquired by festivals in contemporary urban society. Rituals and celebrations have always occupied a primary position in our country. But if there was any possibility of successive generations - influenced by modernisation and the anonymous fast-paced life of the city - giving up the traditions of the past then that possibility appears to have been nipped in the bud; and a major contributing factor has been the array of new media technology.

Television was probably the first to jump on to the festival bandwagon. For commercial purposes (what better way to attract advertising than a festival bonanza) and to provide hooks for and variety in programming the plethora of television channels have done an enormous deal to make festivals a significant feature of our times. Hype, constant reminders, discussions on rituals, customs and fashions, advertisements, the inclusion of festivals in plots of soaps and even coverage of live celebrations by local cable TV channels have been some of the means employed by television.

The web-site craze, although shortlived, also contributed to the festival fever. Various sites, particularly those devoted to women and non-resident Indians placed a significant emphasis on providing festival-specific information on customs, appropriate recipes, shopping and so on. But even more effective have been the proliferation of the means of easy communication. With the net have come spin-offs such as e-cards, e-rakhis and e-gifts. But even more revolutionary in this respect has been the arrival of the SMS. The convenience of this cheap and easy messaging service has probably seen more greetings exchanged during the Diwali season last week, between people who probably may never have wished each other on a festive occasion, than ever before.

On the face of it the phenomenon seems to promise a resurgence of old traditions, superstitions, religious chauvinism and rituals. On the other hand it could lead to a more secular outcome. The widespread coverage given to all sorts of festivals these days has served to expose members of various communities to the ways of people different from themselves and increased participation from across communities. The lavish disco dandiya celebrations in Mumbai during the nine days of navratri for instance, attract a heterogeneous crowd.

While, on the one hand, it is the specifics of festivals that are getting so much play, on the other, there is a tendency to lump all festivals - from Valentine's Day to Holi - in the same basket by emphasising that, ultimately, they are all about shopping and having a good time - aspects with a more universal appeal.

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