Arvind Kala The Times of India Thursday, December 15, 2005
An interesting social phenomenon is consolidating itself in India. There's an explosion of both television godmen and Page 3 celebrities. Driving their growth are India's religious, news, and entertainment channels whose hunger for novelty and fresh faces has given national fame to some charismatic TV preachers, and created celebrities out of an assortment of stand-up comics, fashion designers, and rich partying Indians. In that sense, India is seeing a democratisation of religion and celebrityhood. The effect on religion has been electric. Spiritual leadership in the pre-TV age was the preserve of a few godmen like Sai Baba or Rajneesh, and they took years to establish themselves. Today, religious leadership is open to any articulate godman who can connect with TV audiences and hold their attention. Swami Ramdev, the son of a poor Haryana farmer, has gained a national following overnight due to his daily TV appearances in millions of Indian homes. Just as godmen have proliferated, so have Page 3 celebrities. Before TV, India's celebrities were largely film stars and cricketers. Today, they include TV stars themselves, plus singers, fashion models, mimics, look-alikes and even Tarot card readers. Best of all, TV glamour coverage feeds on itself. TV makes people famous, and the more famous they become, the more TV needs to cover them. So TV sustains celebrities and is partly sustained by them. But it is the TV godmen who have overturned the world of Indian religion and spirituality. Exactly the same thing happened in the US 30 years ago. Like India, the US religious scene was staid, with religious worship limited to the church-going. Then evangelical Billy Graham appeared on TV and his passionate speeches so riveted America that churches found themselves sidelined. Anecdotal evidence suggests we are seeing a replay. India has no data on the numbers that visit temples, but the attendance must be falling. When people get spiritual lessons on TV from the living-room sofa, they need a local temple less. Not surprising, because a temple or family priest is always less inspiring than a TV preacher. The local priest is usually an inheritor of his father's job while a TV preacher is articulate and highly motivated.
In the US, TV evangelicals there have acquired a larger-than-life image. TV preachers in India seem to be on the same road to fame. Swami Ramdev, for instance, is courted by the BJP, just as Billy Graham was wooed by US presidents. Celebrity-wise too, TV has made it easier for people to become famous. Before TV, actors, dancers, stand-up comics, or mimics had no market for their talent. They would display their talent at family get-togethers or small functions. But now, their talent is seen and judged by millions of TV-viewers, not by a few art or drama critics. What could be more democratic than that? One successful TV personality is stand-up comic Shekhar Suman who earns so well he paid income-tax of Rs 35.93 lakh in 2000-2001. Other TV stars are also in such demand that they charge a couple of lakh rupees to attend the launch of a product or service. As the number of celebrities expands, marketing them will become a business. In UK, companies not only market celebrities, they even hawk celebrity look-alikes. They provide look-alikes of David Beckham, Marilyn Monroe, or Sean Connery to liven up corporate parties. In India too, look-alikes and sound-alikes of Shah Rukh Khan or Shatrughan Sinha hold audiences in splits and they've become mini-celebrities themselves, and this is due to their popularity with TV audiences. The same electronic democracy decides a TV preacher's success or failure. To succeed, he needs the adoration of viewers. But even if he gets it, he can never be sure it will last. His followers can always be taken away by a more mesmerising preacher. The competition is intense. In that sense, television has triggered a dispersal in religious leadership with consequences which will be profound. It's a free-for-all. Earlier, godmen were dependent on state patronage and donations from a few wealthy disciples. Today, a successful TV preacher can get pots of money from thousands of new disciples. As the saying goes, the old yields place to the new.