the real bharat versus the reality of india – the manifesto of a trash-can-voice by parnab mukherjee

Privacy can now be sold. I , for sure, was on the show for money..

Bobby Darling on Sach Ka Samna (The Sunday Express, August 9, 2009)

Things literally change every week. Our audience-15 to 24-is the most fickle, twisted audience. It’s an enormous audience of 300 million, more than combined population of USA and Japan…….looking for unlicensed thrill like breaking a red light when a cop is standing there….Morality is no longer defined by good or bad, but by what they want . As that famous philosopher Abhishek Bachchan said: ‘right here, right now.’ It’s what Airtel calls the most ‘impatient generation.’……….It’s not enough to be successful, you have to be seen to be successful. Some years ago, Anil Ambani was chosen as the MTV Youth Icon. Why not Mukesh? Because Anil hangs out with Amitabh Bachchan and is on page three, that’s why.”

Excerpts from Ashish Patil’s (MTV General Manager) quotes on Hindustan Times Brunch Sunday Magazine (August 9, 2009)

Laughing out loud isn’t really bad for health. But laughing out really loud might at times cause harm to your body parts especially if you are pushing thirties. I have just finished a bout of that body breaking laughter…I have just finished reading a series of articles that justifies the current semi-urban national obsession for television reality shows. And it seems that our idea of bullying, heroism that is shoving somebody’s head on a bottle full of leeches, discussing intimate details of one’s jilted love life, picking up a husband like shopping therapy, letting go a series of obscenities to prove a point, rolling down on a barrel from a mountain elevation after a full breakfast, singing Bhojpuri songs to Salman Khan in between a series if inane questions…all these and more have been justified in the name of “progressiveness” and “growing up.”

If I have to learn hunger from Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao and soak in notions of being a celebrity by taking part in series of so-called stunts from literally heights and depths, then I would prefer not to learn such a thing at all. A friend in media recently said where would rural folk have gone without reality talent shows. My My My. Poor village folks where would they have gone without our so-called talent hunts? Well, they would have gone anywhere but to be a prisoner in a format where skills are not nurtured, a parallel training mechanism is not provided, where merely your economic status vis-à-vis your talent is sexed up so that viewers get tears in their eyes and in that bleary-eyed state, we believe that finally the panacea has reached us. And our social responsibility of supporting unknown talents is being gloriously fulfilled. Call it collective megalomania.

Are we bullshitting ourselves?

Let me proceed further with a dozen extremely boring recap of some contemporary nuggets culled from the recent media outpourings.

The reality television mandarins may not and will not know the following insignificant details gleamed from the contemporary media (and it really does not matter whether they do or they don’t):

1: According to a recent study of the International Food Policy Research Institute defining parameters and rankings of the Global Hunger Index, our nation ranks 66 among 88 countries. Our food grain production has oscillated between 175 million tones to 212 million tones in recent years.

The per capital cereal consumption in urban areas have fallen from 12.1 kg in 1993-94 to 11.6 kg in 2006-2007 (the corresponding figures in rural areas are 13.4 kg and 11.7kg respectively). And as National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) puts it this decrease is steep yet the other nutrients have not entered the diet. Hunger, but naturally, stalks.

2: In Uttarakhand’s Champawat(a former royal capital of the Chand dynasty) district, Debidhura is a small dot in the map. Every year on the day of the Rakshabandhan, seven groups from nearby villages play out the Bagwaal in front of the shrine of Goddess Barahi Devi. This tradition in which stones are brutally hurled at one another dates back to the 14th century, when the Chand kings fought out a battle between the opposing castes Fartiyal and Mahar. This year, a crowds of a lakh gathered to see the ritual that went for about 10 minutes. At the end of it 50 people bled and a handful others had minor bruises.

A similar ritual as a part of the Chhindwara district’s (Madhya Pradesh) annual ritual commemorating Gotmar Festival (celebrated annually on the day after the full moon of the Bhadra Manth of the Hindu calendar on the banks of river Jamna) came under the scanner of the Madhya Pradesh Human Rights Commission. In this ritual men from nearby hamlets: Sawargaon and Pandhurna hurl stones and also vie to cut down a tree planted in the centre of the river every year.

3: The number of cases pending in Supreme Court is 55,592. In High Courts, it is a staggering 38,74,090 (Civil-31,03,352; Criminal-7,70,738; Highest pending cases: 91,11, 858 in Allahabad High Court). The number of cases pending in Sub-ordinate courts is a mammoth 2,64,09,11 (Civil: 75,39,848; Criminal: 1,88,69,163; of which 51,60,174 cases are pending in Uttar Pradesh District and Sub-ordinate Courts).

Now, let’s look at this statistics which are updated till December 31, 2008, a little more carefully. Figures of the same time period also reveal that out of 886 sanctioned jobs for High Court judges and 16,685 for the Subordinate Court judges, the number that is working is 606 and 13,556 persons respectively. Even in Supreme Court there is a vacancy for 7 slots.

What is the disposal rate of the judges concerned? Average disposal per judge is 2,504 cases in 2008 (for High Courts) and 1,138 cases (for the Subordinate Court) respectively. So what would be the utopian solution? That we need 1,547 High Court judges and 23,207 Subordinate Court judges if dream to clear this backlog in a year.

4: In Mogiligidda village in the Farukhnagar Mandal of the Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh apart from the usual debt cycle of borrowing money for the seeds and fertilizers, a farmer has to pay Rs 2,000 per month to buy water for their fields. If you look at Punjab, the scene is scary. Almost 89 per cent of the Punjab farm-related households is battling debt (per family as per reports of Punjab Agricultural University it is a monumental Rs 1.78 lakh and the average income per family is Rs 3,200 per month and the suicides like Vidarbha continue)

5: In the first six months of the current year, 1,128 incidents of Naxal violence took place (as opposed to 1,591 incidents in the entire 2008) In these incidents 255 civilans, 231 members of the security force and 199 Naxals have been killed. In more than 180 (including 17 in Orissa, 24 in Jharkhand, 38 in Bihar, 20 in Andhra Pradesh and 18 in Chattisgarh) of India’s 626 districts, the Naxalites/Maoists wield considerable influence. Many of the affected districts come under Union home ministry’s Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme yet much more deployment is needed.

Yet, amongst all these Premlal-a farmer of Durretola in Rajnandgaon district donated one acre of his land (bearing the entire expenses for the registration and transfer) for a primary school to continue it’s operation.

6: After 19 years, CRPF’s 177 battalion have moved out of their camps around the Jamia Masjid Qadeem in Meer Sahib mohalla in Sopore in north Kashmir. Nearby, Bandipur is not so lucky with 26 buildings, 1,675 kanals of land, 13 kanals of private land and 996.99 kanals of government land has been still occupied by the forces.

7: In the village Dhuliana in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh it is a cluster of trees on which Thakur Durga Singh and his followers were hung by the British on December 29,1857. Shishodias still keep his memory by worshipping the trees. The trees at Mahamaya Mandir in Sikhri-Kurd village in Modinagar is worshipped by the Gujjar villagers as a mark of respect to the martyrs hung on it by the British. There is a smiliar story to be told in Dasna.

8: Between January 1, 2006 to March 31, 2007 in 14 tea gardens of the Doars stretch more than 571 persons(317-men and 254 women) have died out of hunger-related symptoms. Between March 2002 and February 2003, at Dheklapara, Kathalguri, Mujnai and Ramjhora, 240 members of the labourers’ families have passed away. Between 2003 and 2007, at the Kathalguri, Ramjhora and Vernobari tea estates, more than 45, 36 and 79 persons respectively have died of hunger-related symptoms. The death march continues in Raimatang, Chilchula, Samsin, Kalchini, Dheklapara, Bamandanga-Tundu, Shikarpur-Bandarpur, Chamurchi, Surendranagar, Redbank and Raipur. According to UTUC, in different lockout tea gardens the death percentage varies from 6 to 22 per cent.

9: According to the 10th Five Year Plan, 61.7 per cent of the urban poor do not receive piped water supply and 65.9 per cent do not have toilet facilities

10: The debt of Indian states have kept mounting. For example, consolidated debt ratio of Tamil Nadu as of July-August 2009 is almost to the tune of Rs 74,456 crores as opposed to Rs 28,685 crore in 200-2001. Almost 4 lakh people have lost their jobs due to economic slowdown

11: In this country, 42.6 million people live in slums. This constitute 15 per cent of the total urban population in the country. Almost 22.6 per cent of the urban population of the state/union territories face slums. In Maharashtra, 1.6 million children stay in the slums.

And 12: Most of the displaced people in this country are dependent on Common Property Resources . Whether they are tribals or Project Affected Persons (PAP), resource becomes their central livelihood and even if they are adequately or inadequately compensated life never becomes the same again. Moreover, the Land Acquistion Act, 1984 (LAA) under which people are displaced is based on private property alone. Only individual patta holders have any semblance of rights to get compensation.

So, rehabilitation is/cannot be just a patronizing welfare measure or a onetime process.it begins before the land takeover and continues long after resettlement. Fro cultural alienation to failure of internalising the dynamics of the dominant culture to low exposure to the formal economy and a host of other causes have made the 250 million strong Indian farming milieu extremely vulnerable to market, policy and condition fluctuations. The same Punjab farmer, who was a national hero is on the verge of committing suicide (and many already has) because things have fallen apart and the centre cannot hold.

Now, pause a bit. Look at these dozen fragments with your mind’s eye.

There could be a zillion other facts that need immediate attention. There could be a zillion other interventions that are needed not just at the policy but even at the level of an audio-visua dissemination. Each of these 12 facts which I have briefly discussed above can make gripping reality television. A bunch of participant can be told to intervene, live with the communities and sometimes share the brink with them so that the nation knows that how neck-deep of a mess they are in. And this could be done without the format of a long winding documentary. It could be done in a far more interesting way. If a bunch of youngsters share the movement space with the Tipaimukh Dam activists or the displaced of the numerous Teesta projects it could make gripping reality television.

The question that is never asked is that when will Indian television undergo a change of mindset. The crux of the matter is neither superficial morality or immorality. There lies a larger question. The whole concept of a reality show belongs to a western notion of promoting a sense of voyeurism, misplaced lust, interpersonal jealousy in the name of finding talent and a sense of celebration of many shattered confidence levels in the name of promoting transparency. Star Plus’ Saach Ka Samna is based on Moment of Truth, Sony’s Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao is based on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Indian Idol is a derivation from the American Idol, The Bachelorette morphs into a marriage-swayamvar, The Weakest Link becomes Kamzor Kudi and a western quiz show format turns into a Kaun Banega Crorepati. Are we so completely un-original that our idea of reality in television has to be a derived western notion of machismo and live celebration of all kinds of humiliation. In a recent show called Dadagiri which unfolds on Bindass, contestants “mix ingredients of an omlette, spit it out in a frying pan and then cook and feed the same to one another.” Under what circumstances can we call them heroes or what in this particular act makes anybody a little more empowered than the other.

I don’t think a reality television can be half-as-cutting edge as Technology Entertainment Design (TED) which in a mainstream format is trying to engage on convergences and divegences of ideas and technologies. They would having their first India conference in Mysore at the Infosys campus. I don’t think reality televison will lose anything if they decided to take the Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota in Columbia) model of city-development and weave a reality show around it. How about implementing a televised Sunday where on the lines of Bogota; 120 kms of Mumbai streets are closed to vehicular traffic. And the entire city population is out on the road reclaiming their space for themselves.

There could be many other examples. In fact, that list could be unending but the idea is let us not term our fascination for reality television as our idea of liberalism. If the issue is sex then I think nation with it’s history of tribal culture and Kamasutra need not learn the politics of the touch from a Rahul Mahajan footage(pun-intended) kneading the toe of Monica Bedi.

The same goes for say a channel like Fashion Television. Again, the issue here is not semi-nudity. That is a non-issue. But do they really showcase our wearing trends.

Let us look at the channel a little more carefully. Or let’s make the FTV and the general fashion footage on our television as a case study of mirroring this vague sense of showcasing the reality-of-wearability.

I’ll tell you that my problem(and with numerous others like me..let me hazard to say the majority) with that showcasing is that it is not inclusive. How many people can afford or would like to wear those clothes? Our models don’t showcase general design.

They are these army of waif-like robots showing designs that are more geometry-perfect rather than space-liberating(both mind and body). Our pret-lines have yet to make a mark through the middle-class wallets.

Design must free itself from the elitist notions of niche-consumer. Coax the farmer through the channel to wear a designer affordable gamchha. Coax the Naga weaver to weave a middle-class pret-line and give it exposure. Coax the Moradabad brass artist to hammer out an affordable pattern and then put him on screen. Help to make the Bastar masks more wall-hanging friendly without compromising on the tribal aesthetics

Limited design is a phenomenon aimed at limited mindsets and an even more limited audience. Let the labourer wear a designer wear.

Let the taluka school kid wear a designer white made by the so-called Bals, Sachdevs, Lambas, Dhakas, Kochhars, Mukherjees, Rocky S’ (or shall we say Rocky why?), Tahilianis, Janis-Khoslas-Malhotras of the world will give us exotic non-functional clothes that reek of exclusivity and is so class conscious that mass would believe that we are wearing something so outlandish that it is best ignored. Our designers must know how to work on aesthetics of affordability rather than go by theory desire to create something so niche that it goes nowhere

Instead of fostering some vague notions of elitism, a fashion channel could liberate the students’ narrow definitions and notions of designer-success and make them understand

that all that is exclusive and high-priced is governed by exclusionist nature of escapism rather than inclusive nature of it’s mass appeal.

And if the words “mass” and “community” are missing from the design dictionary and it’s representation in a television channel (or channels per say) then such a design goes nowhere. They are one-time fossilized designs that will die with time and our tastes will wither and then languish. Our fight is to universalise and contextualise the design and not get bogged down by sales figures.

The myth of a strong black woman is the other side of the coin of the myth of the beautiful dumb blonde. The white man turned the white woman into a weak-minded, weak-bodied, delicate freak, a sex pot and placed her in a pedestal; he turned the black woman into a strong self-reliant Amazon and deposited her in his kitchen…the white man turned himself into the Omnipotent Administrator and established himself in the Front Office….Elridge Cleaver in The Allegory of the Black Eunuchs

I’ve stayed pure/I’ve accepted/That it’s my nature/To stay pure/Even if I have no/Respectable identity/But that of ovary/Approved by you…Aparna Mohanty

 It is time for yet another spate of fashion weeks. Apart from the official ones..the numerous ones that sprout in every school and college festival add to this bizarre celebration of the bawdy and the lustful consumption of the body. A battleground of the liberation and the libido. Yes, the libido wins hands down (ask a school-college-university-B-school fest organiser about their favourite event both as an onstage and backstage activity).

Even Gandhiji’s khadi was a fashion but a fashion that had a philosophy.  A philosophy steeped in a resource sharing mode. A mode in which the affordability is the king and not the exclusivity. Compare this to an experssionless girl on the ramp is walking with an expressionless face on yet another FTV broadcast. Compare this to model agencies looking for the “look” but no so much for the “sensitivity that oozes more than the look.” Model agencies have mushroomed in each city/township/smaller townships creating an imaginary not-so-long term footsteps that create this false sense of mountain and packages climbing up the fashion ladder as this singularly great achievement.

Mass:  for these broadcast czars and model hub is a dirty word. There are other words like clique, coterie and clusters.

And therein is the rub.

We want to flaunt our “have-happening” clothes to the “no-so-happening have nots” so as to prove our class equations, gender superiority(irrespective of the masculine or the feminine slant or the macho or the midriff cuts)

 After all aren’t we in a popular culture which had once no other issue to ideate but to ask: choli ki pichhe kya hai…choli ki pichhe? In our choli, chunri, banyan, undies(you may call it underwear) revolution that the largely forgotten Kashmir earthquake survivors’ are grappling with yet another winter without much to cover themselves.

 And therein lies our irony. An irony which seems to unavoidable as market forces play out the peak and the recessionary cat and mouse game.

After all, a remote breast giver or Purulia or the Jarwa in Andaman and Nicobar islands are hardly bothered about Queen Victoria and her not-so-great secret.

The idea is our television representation of reality need not be a derived idea. It could be real. As real as the inhabitants(Baltis) of the Turtuk town in Ladakh. The town by the Shyok river oscillated back to India on December 15, 1971 during the Bangladesh war and remained probably the only part of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir that came back to India. How about a reality show with them on the centrestage? How about taking the camera to Nadia which celebrates also celebrates independence day on August 17 and 18 (because it came back to India from East Pakistan due to a anamoly in the map drawn up Sir Cyril Radcliffe) and discuss the significance of the day to them. The same could be done with the residents of Cooch-behar.

In our quest of reality, we are a nation at constant crossroads and giving Ekta Kapoor brand of TRP-inducing tears and reality show brand of sado-maschistic outpourings a sense of credibility is a great disservice to your tastes. We don’t need to do a Temptation Island in this country because our cultural notions are far more deep entrenched than flesh-baring brand of liberalism(again the idea is not to censor flesh but to show it on imperative occasions).

And our diverse cultural chutney without the reality television tastes so damn good. Yes, it still does. Because we are wedded to the reality. Reality in our basic philosophical grounding is not something so divorced from instinct, palpability, respect, the-sense-of-immediate, the sense-of-now…that we need to artificially simulate. After all there is a difference between textures of life.

Look at poverty in India and conversely the same in New York or London. Our poor has their republic within the republic. And they also take part democratically in the republic that is not theirs to alter the course of history. Unlike a man standing in London and declaring himself with a placard “working not begging” or a woman in Times Square streets completely smashed by time and self-belief. Not that we don’t have them but in even in our more acute poverty we are not teethering at the brink. No, not even in these recession-filled days.

The logic would also extend to kids too. Now, that the constituency of adults have reached all kinds of artifical TRP simulations, there is a flood of kids reality shows on the idiot box. There have been suicide attempts, near-deaths and-deaths-aping-Shaktiman (though, of course that is not a reality show..it goes on to show..how the larger-than-life distinctions get blurred) and numerous mind games of voting each other out, the entire SMS orgy and finally real tears shed to stimulate more tears (as if we have less causes to shed tears from). The box looked idiotic before, at times brazenly inane but now a dangerous voyeur.

As Dylan Thomas still echoes in the lines of Was There a Time

Was there a time when dancers with their fiddles
In children’s circuses could stay their troubles?
There was a time they could cry over books,
But time has sent its maggot on their track.
Under the arc of the sky they are unsafe.
What’s never known is safest in this life.
Under the sky signs they who have no arms
have cleanest hands, and, as the heartless ghost
Alone’s unhurt, so the blind man sees best.  

We are a nation that does not need our share of Cheryl Cole, Danii Minouge and Simon Cowells…..of course the problem is we are so obsessed with cultural cloning that we don’t even know how our social Frankensteins will shape up to be.

That is why the difference between Know and No has to be hammered into our consciousness.

Yes, hammered into.

To share your thoughts please write to parnab@culturemonks.in.

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