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<eyebeam><blast> the paradoxes of urban life in India

To both Indian and foreign reporters, one of the most striking features
of the public response to "Ramayan" was its religious dimension: the
ceremonies of worship that developed around the weekly broadcasts and
the spontaneous expressions of reverence that greeted the public
appearances of the stars. News stories described the purificatory puja
of television sets, the burning of incense before the screen, and pious
fans' prostrations before Arun Govil and Dipika Chikhlia (Ram and Sita).
More critical responses, especially in English-language publications,
ranged from bemused condescension at the incongruity of "worshipping" an
electronic gadget, to disgust at what was seen as an embarrassing
cultural anachronism. Arvind N. Das wrote in the Times of lndia:
"Through the electronic Ramayana .... the Indian juggernaut is moving at
a frenetic pace - backwards". In an interview in the Illustrated Weekly,
one reporter pressed Dipika to evaluate the religious response of

"Reporter: In the mofussil towns, and even in the cities people have a
bath and do pooja of their television screens before watching the
serial. Do you think this is right?

"Dipika: There's no right and wrong about it. It's a matter of their
belief. We haven't asked them to do it, it's the way they feel."
(Illustrated Weekly 1987: 15)

Notable is the reporter's disdain for what she regards as rustic
religious customs, now seeping back from provincial towns into "the
cities." Such critics are often out of touch with the religious customs
of their own urban neighbors, and choose to overlook, for example, the
purificatory puja of motor vehicles, printing presses and other
mechanical devices, which is common throughout the country. Equally
prevalent is the custom of bracketing religious performances with
auspicious rites. When a kathavacak is preparing to expound the Ramayan,
care is always given to the seat he is to occupy, which must be purified
in order to be worthy of the divine sage, Veda Vyas, who will speak
through the storyteller. Similarly the crowns, ornaments, and weapons of
Ramlila actors are worshipped before the start of the pageant. Since the
Ramayan serial became a weekly inhouse katha or Ramlila for millions of
families, the TV screen has become the new seat of the storyteller and
ritual stage for the lila, and its perch in the family sitting room has
to be sanctified.

Of course, a more reflective critic might also have noted that backward
Indians are not the only people who "worship" TV sets. Behind the modern
secular smile of condescension lies a joke at our own expense, for the
television set became the central altar of the American home some three
decades ago - the main focus of the common room, displacing the
hearth/fire altar as the nucleus around which family members gathered
for communion and sustenance. It is only a highly compartmentalized
notion of religion that blinds us to the ritual dimensions of such
activities. Neil Postman's assertion that television is unsuited to
religious experience because it is "so saturated with our memories of
profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and
entertainment worlds that it is difficult to be recreated as a frame for
sacred events" suggests the over facility of the conventional
sacred/profane dichotomy; in any case, it is clearly inapplicable to the
Indian situation. Millions of Hindus did indeed feel a need to sacralize
their TV screens each week in order to make them "a frame for scared
events," yet they apparently found no more difficulty in doing this than
they do in sacralizing their town squares for Ramlila plays each
October, their kitchens for monthly ekadasi rites, or piles of cow-dung
for govardhan puja.

Philip Lutgendorf


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