Kaala, Sarkar and being “Social media Ready”!

What is common between Kaala and Sarkar – both Tamil films released in the past few months? Many. But, beyond the obvious like both films featuring mass heroes with political ambitions, storyline with a political thread etc, etc. there is an important commonality. Both Kaala and Sarkar show Social media playing an important role in the scheme of things of the respective protagonist to take on his adversaries. In Kaala, when pushed to a corner by a scheming politician over usurping common man’s land in the name of slum rehabilitation, the hero (Rajinikanth) takes his fight to Social media and brings entire Mumbai to its feet. All the galvanising of people and spreading of message happen through Facebook videos, Tweets and WhatsApp forwards! Sarkar goes a step further. Even with just couple of hours remaining for voting, the hero (Vijay) is shown attempting to garner support among the remaining voters through Facebook live videos! Before that, he uses tweets strategically to set the narrative. As a non-conventional politician who is thrown into the thick of political action all of a sudden, Vijay and his young team’s “Go to Market” is basically Social media in the film!

 

Whether society mirrors films or films mirror society is still an open debate.  However, it is clear that the respective film makers of Kaala and Sarkar drew inspiration from the Jallikattu protests which happened in Tamil Nadu in the year 2017! Much to the surprise of all, Social media played a very important role and engineered a revolution in Tamil Nadu or so it is widely believed. For the first time, politicians came up to this rude awakening that their opponents can be just some faceless Twitter accounts and trending hashtags and not necessarily the conventional microphone wielding, venom spewing opposition faces!  As it happens normally, writers and film makers take their own creative liberties of what they see around themselves and do a bit of indulgence.  So is the case in these 2 films!

In India, we are already in election mode. Come May 2019, we have the Lok Sabha polls coming up where Narendra Modi is seeking a historic re-election. The moot question is, like how they show in films these days, can Social media be the game changer for parties in their quest to win in 2019? Like in these movies, can politicians and parties win by just harnessing the power of Social media?

I remember way back in 2008, it was Barack Obama who first demonstrated the power of Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter for his presidential campaign. Since then, Social media has been drafted into political campaigning everywhere and it’s been gaining ground slowly and steadily.  So much so, we saw how companies like Cambridge Analytica were exposed attempting to influence swing voters by just targeted messaging over Social media like Facebook.  In India, I guess the early ones to hop on to the Social media bus were Narendra Modi in 2014 and Arvind Kejriwal for 2015 Delhi elections. They used Face Book and Twitter effectively to communicate to the young and urban voters that time! Today, my guess is that almost all parties have a backroom of Social media warriors across the country/state to manage their presence in Social media! And lo, new careers and job options have opened up – Social media managers, Data Analysts, Hashtag managers, video editors and so on!

While Twitter and Facebook have been prominently used in in the past for campaigning, I feel that in India for 2019, WhatsApp will hold the key. With over 200 million users of WhatsApp in India (as of Feb 2018) which is 4 times of what it was in 2014, WhatsApp is easily the fastest growing medium available. Combined with the rapid growth in smart phone adoption and data consumption thanks to cheap data plans, one doesn’t have to look further to deliver targeted messages. So move over SMSs and recorded voice messages!  WhatsApp forwards are here! Even the main stream media feeds on what is happening on WhatsApp these days!

One logical question would be if Social media remains an urban phenomenon and hence will it have any impact in rural India at all?  The growth in internet access and WhatsApp penetration have been traditionally higher in urban India than rural India. However rural India I’m sure is catching up. As per a survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in mid-2017, “One-fifth, or 20%, of rural respondents said they used WhatsApp daily as compared with 38% of urban respondents. But the growth in the share of active WhatsApp users has been sharper in rural India, doubling in a year’s time.”

With the adoption and usage of smart phones and WhatsApp being the highest among youth, targeted political messaging becomes easy, quick and probably cheap with WhatsApp! And as election approaches, WhatsApp groups are all busy engaged in political debates usually triggered by a forward message or a news clip! And this is how narratives will be set moving forward.

I am not for a moment saying that as they showed in Kaala and Sarkar, candidates and parties can win over the voters by just using Social media alone! Real life is more complex. However, a smart party/candidate would not ignore the potential of smart phones, Social media and WhatsApp in particular in their media mix for 2019. And would rather focus on the same seriously.

I understand that BJP is already making itself “WhatsApp ready” for 2019. Traditionally the party has been depending on its “Panna Pramukhs” to do booth level mobilisation of voters and they will be now replaced by “Cell phone Pramukhs” it seems! Whether being “WhatsApp ready” will take them ahead of the others in the elections remains to be seen, but it is clear that they have a head start and it can be crucial in close contests!  In 2019, it could very well be Abki Baar WhatsApp ki Vaar!

Kaala and Sarkar may be ordinary films but the makers have provided worthy lessons for political leaders and parties on the importance of being “Social media ready” to take on their opponents. The question is when will parties become “Social media ready” to address common man’s issues? To see that day, like many fellow Indians – “I am waiting”!!!

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Single party majority sarkar or Coalition sarkar?

Last week, parts of a speech of our National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval made headlines. Speaking at the Sardar Patel memorial lecture, Doval said that India needs a strong, stable and decisive government for the next 10 years. He also predicted that weak coalitions will be bad for India.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of another speech made by Y.V.Reddy, Former Governor of RBI some time in 2017. “Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments… So, in a way it is consensus based… in Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government,” Mr. Reddy told a Washington audience on September 27.

From the two specks of wisdom, we can assume that while the former spoke from security point of view, the latter did from economic point of view.  While I don’t remember many reactions to Y.V. Reddy’s opinion then, Doval’s speech has triggered a lot of rebuttals, primary one being, this piece from The Print’s Shekhar Gupta where he has argued that majority governments in the past including that of Rajiv Gandhi’s in the 80’s and the present one of Narendra Modi have not been better off significantly than the few coalition governments we had in between!

Without going back too much back in time, I would like to focus on the present majority government of the BJP in this post. By the evening of 16th May, 2014 when it was clear that BJP against all expectations and pre-poll predictions, was hitting the half way mark on their own, there was euphoria all around. Even among the non-BJP loyalists, there was visible excitement of how a majority government can decisively take the country forward without having to constantly look over its shoulders. By nature, coalition governments formed mostly through post poll alliances come with the spectre of instability. So, here was a government finally which had the numbers on its own and a two third majority with its allies. So, can’t blame the public at large including the author if they thought that Acche Din finally arrived for India!

In India, we have had a long history of taking one step forward and few steps backward. Unfortunately this did not change even with a single party government with a decisive leader at its helm as we found soon enough in 2014. We soon found that adequate majority in Lok Sabha is not enough and that the government needs numbers in Rajya Sabha also to be effectively called as a “true majority Sarkar”! And for that, the wait needed to be longer – another 5 years or so!

As per me, the virtues of a single party majority Sarkar got exposed when this government failed to get the amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill passed. In his 1st meeting with the Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi was reported to have got the feedback from most of the CMs (including of the Congress) that the tough and impractical clauses in the Land Acquisition Bill presented the single biggest challenge in getting many infrastructure projects off the ground.  The government went about making changes in the provisions and tried to pass the bill. But couldn’t get the bill passed through in Rajya Sabha where the Congress and the Left blocked it effectively. The majority government then tried to use the Ordinance route many times but finally gave up, coming under the cloud of Rahul Gandhi’s Suit Boot Sarkar jibe! As we speak, in spite of this Government’s intent and drive towards kicking off many infrastructure projects, land acquisition continues to be the biggest impediment in meeting deadlines for large game changing projects!

Here, I feel that a coalition Sarkar of the stable type as NDA-1 run by Vajpayee or the UPA-1 run by Manmohan Singh, would have handled this differently. By engaging with the respective oppositions through dialogues and agreeing to give and take on a few provisions. Since many Congress CMs were on board on the changes to the Land Acquisition Bill, dialogues with the Congress party leadership through some of these CMs would have probably done the trick leaving the Left isolated on this.  As we all know now, in the initial days of this government, its single point agenda was to isolate the Congress. What if the government had given the status of the Leader of Opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha as a quid pro quo to getting their support to a few important bills in the Rajya Sabha? Machiavelli or our own Chanakya would have been proud, isn’t it?

In spite of this initial setback though crucial, I do believe that the Modi Sarkar was flying high in that period. From bringing Swachh Bharat to national discourse to bringing back India at the top of investment destinations worldwide, Modi Sarkar could not make a single false move, but that was till November 2016! With the confidence in the Indian economy back and aided by windfall gains from low crude prices, one thought that the Universe was finally beginning to conspire to make India successful.  Again that was still November 2016!

In November 2016, Modi Sarkar took on the Universe and went ahead with Demonetisation. What seemed a master stroke initially to suck out black money, soon turned out to be an ill-conceived and ill – executed move that set the economy back by a year or so.  The much lauded ‘Jugaad’ mentality of Indians came to party, the result of which we could finally get to see.  As much as 99.3% of the junked 500 and 1,000 rupee notes returned to the banking system!! While it is to the credit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government came out unscathed with its credibility intact or grown even after this very huge miss-step, I wonder if a major decision like this could have been taken without taking the coalition partners into confidence if it was a coalition government. And in the same token, I do feel that the collective wisdom of a coalition cabinet would not have let this move go at least without proper checks, balances and preparations!

I certainly would not add the introduction of GST as a miss-step of this government as many are doing, as I firmly believe that GST was a long-awaited reform and in the introduction of the same, Modi Sarkar learnt its lessons and behaved like a coalition government in listening to and taking all parties on board. The result is there to see. GST is a reality now and after initial hiccups as can be expected from any path breaking reform, the benefits are trickling down with the GDP showing clear signs of recovery in the past few quarters.

A majority government led by a decisive leader provides for great optics particularly from foreign countries’ point of view. And that has its own benefits as major powers would like to believe that the Government/leader they are engaging across the table has the backing of the popular mandate. However, in practice, I have now come to feel that a coalition government led by a party with a fair share of numbers led by a decisive leader may be ideal for a diverse country like India. In that, we do get the advantage of the collective wisdom of alternate views while, the virtues of the decisive leader are also not missed out.

Or going a step further, a majority government with a decisive leader which behaves like a coalition government by not taking key, strategic decisions without passing by the collective wisdom of alternate brains!  In short, institutionalizing the “GST Introduction model” for all key decisions!

So going back to the speeches of Y.V.Reddy and Ajit Doval, both may be correct. In parts! Just that like in many aspects in India, the ideal situation may be somewhere in between!

The Convergence and Divergence of #MeToo and #ReadyToWait!

In the past few weeks, India has been swarmed by two powerful campaigns which could become defining moments in the journey of emancipation of women in India.  It has taken a while coming but come it did, provoking and evoking extreme sentiments. While both the movements have women at the thick of things, the similarity at the face of it, may end there.

The more recent of the two campaigns namely #MeToo, was triggered by actress Tanushree Dutta’s revelation of what happened many years ago when she acted with Nana Patekar. This opened the flood gates for many other stories where men allegedly used their power and position to take advantage of women. What started in the film world extended to other fields as well with journalism being the harbinger of sorts!

Those asking #WhyNow, since many of the stories date back to the 70s and 80’s, forget the outlets which were available those days for outing their stories. At work places, where women had to still prove their existential worth in those times, coming out against their bosses would be the last thing in their minds. So, I don’t buy the theory of what Swapan Dasgupta describes in his column today as the “Long conspiracy of silence”!  Rather one should be happy that the tyranny of power walls has been broken finally!  The big change now for women of course has been the availability of social media at their disposal, its potential to viral a story and make an overarching impact!

Ergo, from now on it’s not going to be “business as usual” at the workplace. The portent combination of screen shots, mobile cameras, smart phone recorders and social media portends the end of the flirtatious man! At the same time, if one looks at “most”, if not all of the horrifying #MeToo episodes, the common link has been the effect of alcohol! A man may understand even a meek signal of a woman’s “No Means No” when he is in his senses. However, I am not too sure if even a clear, no-nonsense “NO MEANS NO” will get into the head of a man in high spirits! So, even after what I will call as a successful campaign which has seen many heavy heads rolling already, self-administered red lines for women may still be what the doctor orders!

As the movement unfolds on social media, we see new names getting added to the list every day! The after-effects of this surprisingly have been pretty quick. Will this ostracization be permanent or just to cool the tempers, only time will tell.  And there could be collateral damages! The Wikipedia pages of the named celebrities are not going to be same again. They will contain these #MeToo references for sure and that as per me could turn out to be the biggest deterrent to lewd behaviour and agent for change in men’s attitude in times to come. Or so I hope!

The other campaign – #ReadyToWait related to the issue of entry of all women into the Sabarimala temple is not so recent. It’s been going on for few years now, ever since this issue was turned to the courts. But it has gathered a Ferrari like momentum after the Supreme Court’s constitutional bench pronounced its verdict few weeks ago. As per the 4-1 verdict, the bench opined that the discrimination of not letting women of certain age enter the Sabarimala Aiyappa temple must go. A great victory for women’s rights, right? Well, looking at the response particularly from the women on the ground in Kerala, the verdict has been a big let-down. Even as activists and champions for Women’s liberation are savouring their victory, women believers of the faith in Kerala and elsewhere are pained.

Image courtesy - TheNewsMinute

Unlike the #MeToo campaign which is being mainly fought in the social media, the #ReadyToWait fight has now morphed into “Save Sabarimala” movement and is happening on the streets of God’s Own Country! Ever since the judgement came out, hundreds and thousands of women, all learned (Kerala is a 100% literacy state, mind you) and among them many erudite, have questioned the wisdom of the bench! As per them, the issue of women of all ages not entering Sabarimala is not a question of throttling their rights. And that this judgement is not a victory for women’s liberalisation,..,… People and largely women behind protecting the sanctity of Sabarimala and its traditions have been aware for decades the beliefs around the “pratishta” of the Sastha at the Sabarimala temple. In a state which has seen the rule of Left for more than 20 years since independence, if this was a pressing issue, I am sure the same would have been brought up and amends made many years ago. Read my detailed post on the Sabarimala verdict here.

So, #ReadyToWait is not about pressing for women’s right to enter the Sabarimala temple but rather pressing for respecting their faith in not wanting to visit the temple!!! #MeToo and #ReadyToWait are about women’s rights eventually but there is this nuanced difference. The direction this #ReadyToWait movement takes, may very well be a bellwether for future in terms of going to court for getting solutions related to faith! In a country like India, which is steeped in religious beliefs and traditions which in a way defines the spirit of India, this could very well be the wakeup call. To come up with a framework and consensus as to who will decide on contentious issues related to all faiths.

Postscript: Elsewhere, one Swamy who these days is very popular on social media with ‘nithyam oru clip’ explained to his followers about #MeToo and #ReadyToWait thus:

“The convergence of MeToo and divergence of ReadyToWait and the divergence of ReadyToWait and convergence of MeToo are basically the same! There are no 2 things. Only one. That is MeTooWait

Image courtesy – TheNewsMinute

 

Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

140 Years of a habit called “The Hindu”!

On the 20th of September, the very popular newspaper from the South – The Hindu completed 140 years since its first issue! In these “cash out and exit” times, one cannot but acknowledge and revere the newspaper for 140 years of sustenance and survival. For those from South India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular and for those who were born in the pre-liberalisation era, The Hindu is not just a newspaper but a habit!

I presently live in Mumbai and I don’t read The Hindu daily these days and my Hindu reading is limited to when I travel to Tamil Nadu. On and off, I do get to read some interesting articles from The Hindu which land in one’s social media timelines!  This week, my memories flash back to my growing up days when reading The Hindu daily was a karma one performed religiously.

I probably started reading The Hindu newspaper when I was in class 2 or 3. Initially it was just the last page which was the Sports section where one would catch up on the previous day’s action mainly of Cricket and later Tennis! I have vivid memories of writer Rajan Bala’s lucid writing on some of the test matches accompanied by some fantastic action pictures from the cricket field.  Once Rajan Bala moved on from The Hindu, the cricket column was taken over by R.Mohan. Both were extremely knowledgeable of the game and with their command over the Queen’s language, brought the nuances of the game in front of our eyes in the pre-TV era. The following day in the school, we used to discuss not just the game but also the style of writing and the language used. Such was the impact of the writing on us!

Gradually, we graduated from the last page sports columns to the first page political news and also the Sunday supplements. The Hindu those days had an impeccable reputation for being factual and accurate in News reporting. So much so, the joke those days was that even if a murder happens in broad day light right in front of its office at the Mount Road in Chennai and their reporters saw it with his/her own eyes, the news will get published only after the police FIR was filed and police confirmed that it was indeed a murder!

For many in Tamil Nadu, The Hindu was the teacher for the English language! The newspaper was seen as an ultimate authority on the language. One could hardly find a mistake in the spelling or the grammar those days. These days it is no more the case, I’m told. ‘Know your English’ – a weekly column which used to appear in the newspaper was extremely popular and as kids we used to read the same with immense interest and curiosity to discover unknown aspects of English!  If today, I am in a position to write this blog in half decent English, some credit certainly goes to The Hindu!

After being in the habit of reading The Hindu, whenever I used to travel outside Tamil Nadu and got to read other English newspapers, the difference used to be glaring! One, The Hindu those days was in the forefront of adopting technology, though from a very conservative and traditional ownership background. So the typesetting and page layoutting were top class. You will never find an article in the first page with “Continued in Page ….” line. I see this even today in papers like The Indian Express! The reproduction of photographs even in the B&W era was again of highest quality. Talking of adoption of technology, I clearly remember that The Hindu was the 1st to use “facsimile” technology to transmit and receive pictures from outside when reporting events outside of Chennai. Those pictures used to carry a line (received through facsimile technology!). That fax as a technology became very common place later is a different aspect altogether. When The Hindu adopted it, it was a pioneering effort.

As far as I remember, political reporting of The Hindu used to be pro-establishment. It never used to taken an antagonistic line. But, I reckon that this changed when N.Ram took over as the Editor. Ram as an individual is known to be unapologetically left leaned and since him taking over the reins, one can clearly say that the paper ceased to be neutral.

It was under Ram’s leadership that The Hindu broke one of the biggest corruption story of the country namely the “Bofors scandal” which broke the back of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Any pretensions of The Hindu being pro-establishment ceased after that. Somehow, for reasons not very clear, The Hindu didn’t pursue the Bofors story to its logical conclusion. In fact, journalist Chitra Subramaniam who was the architect of that story had to continue her expose in the Indian Express later!

When I moved to Bombay in the late 80’s, no filter coffee and not able to read the The Hindu every morning, meant serious withdrawal symptoms! The Hindu used to be available only with select newspaper vendors that too in select suburbs like Matunga! The day’s paper used to be available only by 4 pm. Initially for a few Sundays going to Matunga in the evening to have filter coffee and pick up the Sunday Edition of The Hindu was a routine that I did not miss. Slowly, one got weaned over this habit and started getting used to The Times Of India albeit very, very reluctantly!

Today, when I go to Tamil Nadu and pick up a copy of The Hindu to read, I do see it as a pale shadow of its former self! The language is no more engaging and the political reporting has clearly moved from being neutral to be clearly biased. And I notice that this is what many of my folks also felt.  Even those who were very loyal to The Hindu those days, talk of it with a tinge of irony!

Probably this is a sign of the times where not just The Hindu, but media in general have lost their moral compass and have started to pursue an agenda. Even amidst this, I do feel that The Hindu commands a sense of respectability among its peers. With Times of India invading into the South, The Hindu is no longer the dominant newspaper it used to be till the beginning of this decade. Still in these days of 140 characters of Twitter journalism, for The Hindu to chug along for 140 years, is no mean achievement. To the habit called The Hindu, here’s wishing another 140 years of a re-engineered future!

Postscript: While on the newspaper reading habit, please do read my humorous take –‘Paper Vandhaacha?’ (Read here) on how the newspaper is intertwined with the lives of a Tambrahm mama!

Pic Courtesy: The Indian Express!

Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.

An Onam minus the Sadya!

Yesterday was Onam – the biggest festival for Malayalis in Kerala and all over the world which is usually celebrated with much fun, flowers, food and festivities. This year though, the absence of all these was palpable. Kerala is just recovering from one of the worst floods it has seen in the state’s history. It will take many weeks if not months for the state to fully get back on its feet. Roads and highways need quick mending and probably re-laying in many parts. Agriculture is almost finished in the near term. Power infrastructure needs a quick fix. And above all, personal and individual properties and assets in affected areas need to be refreshed.

Understandably, not just in Kerala, but even all over, the festivities around Onam in the back of such a huge natural calamity were muted. Usually on Onam day, one’s social media time line is flooded with greetings with pictures of colourful Pookalam (Artistic arrangement of flowers), Ona Sadya (the traditional feast) and stuff like that. The Ona Sadya is an inherent part of the festival. Strictly vegetarian, even pictures of the Sadya are enough to incite one’s taste buds. So much so, one could easily mistake Onam for being just a festival of food!

However, yesterday, it was pictures of different kinds. Pookalam was mainly of the map of Kerala with a message to rebuild the state! Greetings were with the King Mahabali making aerial surveys of the flood ravaged state or moving around in boats and shedding copious tears for Kerala to spring back to normalcy soon. And almost no picture of Sadya in sight!

In Mumbai where I Iive, the Kerala Bhavan at Vashi in Navi Mumbai hosts the typical Ona Sadya on the day of Onam. Last year, I remember the waiting for a place before the banana leaf was minimum an hour! There are few other places in the city which also have the Ona Sadya! This year though all these organisations gave the festival and its Sadya a miss, understandably. There is no doubt that it was the saddest Onam in a long time!

Even as Kerala was reeling under the impact of the floods, the many fault lines that exist in the society surfaced with impeccable alacrity.

Centre Vs. State: Even as the relief work was underway, with co-ordination from multi-level agencies, the squabble between State and the Centre over funds allocation in public left a bad taste. It is understandable that in India, politics is in the centre of everything. In a federal structure, it is not always that the same party rules the Centre and the state. But as citizens what we expect in times of calamities like this is for parties to raise above their political identities, put a united face and commit to relief and rehabilitation efforts in unison. Instead of having their own channels of communication with the Centre regarding need of funds, was there a need for the CM and the state finance minister to routinely communicate through the media regarding shortage in allocation of funds? Added to this was the unnecessary confusion over the US$100mn financial aid from UAE. Was there a bickering needed in public between 2 governments (centre and state) regarding the stance to be taken? Didn’t we at the end of the day showcase ourselves as being churlish in the eyes of the world?

Ruling party Vs. Opposition: For the initial few days, it was heartening to see the leaders of the ruling left and the opposition Congress visiting affecting areas together and expressing their solidarity to the public. As we saw later, this unity was short-lived.  The opposition leader of the Congress Ramesh Chennithala couldn’t resist himself from hitting out on the Chief Minister and the government for mis-handling the flood situation and for not being pro-active enough! So much for the solidarity!

One State Vs. Another State: In times like these, social media does a great job in mobilising support from people far and wide. Help poured by way of money and material from states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and others to Kerala. Even as this was happening, Kerala filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that the sudden release of excess water from Mullaperiyar dam by Tamil Nadu was one of the cause for the floods. We now hear that Tamil Nadu is preparing to file a counter affidavit refuting Kerala’s claim and putting the blame on Kerala’s non-readiness to handle torrential rains of this year’s magnitude. This tu tu-main main I am sure, will continue till the cows come home!

Right Vs. Left: We all know that in India, the hegemony of the Left is being questioned left, right and centre these days (pun unintended)! The Right is trying desperately and aggressively to catch up on the lost time to dismantle established narratives. Even admitting this as par for the course in a diverse country like India, one felt that the spinning by certain quarters of the Right that the floods were caused because of the recent attempts to allow entry of women to Sabarimala was stretching a bit too far! The argument was in bad taste and not surprising that it was taken out of circulation quickly.

And there were more – North Vs. South, Kerala Vs. Others and so on.

I am not for once suggesting that these fault lines didn’t exist before and are a recent phenomenon. I do believe however that the proliferation of media in general and social media in particular has emboldened these fault lines like never before.

This is indeed unfortunate and in the times to come one hopes fervently that the same proliferation of media and social media will help to unite us a society and make us more mature in responding to situations like this.  We are in a democracy and it is within our right to question and criticize our governments and for opposition to pillory the Government. However there is a time and place to do so. It could well be after the rehabilitation process is complete. And not squabbling on the full glare of media when people are struggling in relief camps with big question marks about their tomorrow. Even if governments and parties do so, the least as public we can do is to not give such squabbles traction in our day-today social media conversations (read as forwarding on WhatsApp/Facebook/Twitter)

As Onam passed by minus the traditional Sadya this time, that is some food for thought for us as a society!

Pic courtesy: Mathrubhumi English