In 1987 and 1988, India’s official (and at that time, only) TV channel (Doordarshan) broadcast serialized version of the famous Indian epics, the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. The series were hugely popular and with no competing TV choices, there was the kind of nationwide common viewing experience that is less and less common in the internet and cable TV age. I dont know if Left-liberal Indians (mostly Hindus themselves) were agitated at that time (i dont remember it being an issue, but I was not really reading Indian media at that time) but over time a narrative has developed that the broadcast of these serials led to a rise in Right wing Hindu nationalism, which culminated in the demolition of the Babri masjid by a Right wing mob in 1992. THe subsequent rise of the BJP to power is then the next step in a sequence that began with the broadcast of these “Hindu” serials.
As India has gone into lockdown due to Covid19, Doordarshan has announced that it is going to rebroadcast these serials. This step has revived the complaints about these serials being the first step in the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, exemplified by tweets like this one from “engaged historian” Audrey Truschke:
To me, as an outsider, this is quite fascinating. It seems that there is a significant segment of the Indian intelligentsia (which hapens to be the dominant faction in terms of foreign coverage of India; Western news organizations almost all pick up their own view of India via these “native informants”) that believes that:
- Pre-BJP India (“Nehruvian India”?) did not create too much popular entertainment based on “Hindu themes” (and that was a good thing). (I do think this view is not really true; so-called “Hindu Devotional” films were a well established feature of Indian cinema as far as I can remember). Or at least, these themes were restricted to a small subset of movies (just as there were “Muslim socials” and other niche genres) and were not a nationwide phenomenon.
- The production of these serials was an unwelcome act. They stimulated a certain vision of Hindu identity and that vision has been very bad for India.
The point of this post is not to discuss whether these serials were good or bad. I am just fascinated by the fact that this view exists and is (or was) fairly mainstream (or at least, very respectable and prominent). I really think this is a relatively unique aspect of Indian intellectual life, which does not have exact parallels in most other cultures. In my more-leftist days I would have regarded this state of affairs as an uncomplicated good thing (i.e there is a country where the majority religion and its major mythological themes are NOT considered desirable material for popular entertainment, or at least, are considered “problematic”, and not just by some tiny “woke” academic consituency, but by people who are considered mainstream arbiters of culture and national identity).
Even then, I knew that this is not at all the case in Islamicate culture (in which Islamic themes, stories, mythological material, historical dramas, etc. are perfectly mainstream), but when I think about it, it is not the case in Western culture either. Biblical serials, movies etc are completely mainstream, albeit with full artistic freedom and willingness to experiment and play with them as desired. In addition, certain epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey foremost among them) are considered foundational elements of Western culture and no one (outside the tiny wokesphere) would think twice about making a serial about them or admiring them in any shape or form. But in India there is a strong (perhaps no longer dominant, but still, prominent) constituency that can and does reject both Hindu religious themes and specifically, TV serials based on the two greatest Indian epics. It seems that the objection to these serials is NOT based on any notion of the presentation of these serials themselves being excessively “right wing” in some way. I don’t recall seeing any pieces that analyze the serials and notes how their portrayal of these well known epics was especially slanted or propagandistic. In fact, one of the two (Mahabharat) had a Muslim Bollywood screenplay writer (Rahi Masoom Raza) writing the serial and both serials are sometimes the target of actual Right wing complaints that they were too “secular” (“secular” has some idiosyncratic and peculiar meaning in Right wing Indian discourse, but more on that some other day). Just the fact that the serials were based on Hindu themes and became wildly popular seems to be the complaint.
My own view now is that even as a liberal/leftist, this is overkill. More to the point, it is not a realistic option. There is no such thing as “Hinduism-mukt” Bharat on the horizon; a small elite may have imagined this was actually possible in a weak sense (ie they did not imagine an India without H induism, but imagined one where traditional Hinduism is mostly an embarrassment and a modern “Leftist” Hinduism takes its place). And perhaps a subset of leftist Christians or Muslims also felt the tug of “improving” the religious character of the country by getting rid of “superstitious, casteist” Hinduism and replacing it with more modern religions. Whatever the case, this whole discussion is somewhat unique. Leftists (and modernist liberals) look down on (and actively criticize) traditional religion in almost all countries, so this is obviously a matter of degree, not of kind..but it is an interesting extreme nonetheless. On general principles, I would consider it an unrealistic dream.
I am wondering how this will evolve in the future? Share your thoughts in comments.
Incidentally the original serials were made in long ago times, with very limited technology. The production values are quite primitive by today’s standards and in fact (as someone commented on twitter), the entire look and the acting style is lifted straight from “nautanki” (folk theater) and doesnt work as well on TV. The standard for mythological movies is now “Bahubali“, not the 1980s TV serial, so it remains to be seen if the new generation will take to it as avidly as the 1980s audience did (the new generation also has MANY more entertainment options). Still, in a lockdown, and given the theme, it may be a hit again. We shall see.
I will also take the opportunity to plug my favorite version: Peter Brooks film version of his theatrical production of the Mahabharata. The full version is availabe for free on youtube. It takes occasional liberties with the classical text, but it is artistically VERY well done, worth watching.
An example of more contemporary production values: