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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Our many Ramayanas: The Sunday mythology club

In 1986, Doordarshan broke with tradition to cast a mythological religious drama. Television was never the same after Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.

Written by Arvind Rajagopal | New Delhi |
Updated: November 10, 2015 11:53:30 am

TV star Arun Govil and Deepika Chikhalia in TV serial Ramayan. (Source: Express archive photo)

TV star Arun Govil (L) and Deepika Chikhalia (C) in TV serial Ramayan. (Source: Express archive photo)

Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India.

The weekly Ramayan tele-epic produced and directed by Ramanand Sagar was what established Doordarshan as a medium across north and south India, despite its reliance on the Hindi language. Audience estimates grew from four crores to eight crores in a few months. City streets and marketplaces were empty at the time of the broadcast; it was not wise to schedule a public event during that time, as BJP leaders themselves found out when no one turned up for a party conclave held on a Sunday morning at the time of the show.

For Doordarshan, the serial was a breakthrough. Ramayan won record audiences across Hindi and non-Hindi regions, and turned Sunday morning, which had been a “soft spot”, into primetime. More importantly, people who regarded television as a source of naach-gaana, and as morally dubious, came to regard it as acceptable and even auspicious. Thirdly, the Hindu mythological, which many people assumed was outdated, was shown to eclipse all other kinds of programming.

Last but not the least, a government medium, which until that time had avoided primetime devotional programming for a general audience, took the plunge into catering to the majority religious community. And there was no turning back. After the Ramayan came the Uttar Ramayan, then BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, followed by another serial by Ramanand Sagar, Shri Krishna, which was followed by several others, each lasting several months. The “Hindu mythological” had carved out a slot for itself on Indian television.

Although the genre was called “mythological,” it also fashioned itself as a true account of the past, and viewers frequently described it as such. Thus the Ramayan was called dharam granth and itihaas too, both a religious text and history. Meanwhile, another serial designed as historical, Tipu Sultan, was labelled as “fictional” following protests by Hindu organisations.

Arun Govil as Ram (C) and Sunil Lahri as Laxman (extreme right) in TV serial Ramayan. Arun Govil as Ram (C) and Sunil Lahri as Laxman (extreme right) in TV serial Ramayan.

After the Ramayan serial, Hindu myths and rituals embedded in tele-serials became a standard part of the government media fare and thus a legitimate aspect of public culture. The Ramayan’s overwhelming popularity helped to allay criticism that the serial was stoking majoritarian sentiment. And it earned Rs 40 lakh a week for Doordarshan. Although it was established to promote national developmental goals, state television quickly became focused on maximising revenue, and during this time, Hindu mythologicals attracted more viewers than most other programmes.

The fact that people across the country set aside their other duties and watched the show at the same time seemed like a celebration of their common heritage. It was often said, Muslims watched it too, as to prove the telecast’s non-partisan nature. The atmosphere following the Shah Bano judgement and the Babri Masjid Andolan was hardly peaceful however. Thus, such a view did not seek to distinguish between the defensive tactics of an anxious minority and free participation in a pluralist society.

Ramanand Sagar’s version of the Ramayana showed ancient India as a society where the rishis and munis not only worshipped, but also what his script described as “scientific experiments”, that had military and national security implications. Rakshasas were shown as primitive creatures hostile to such experiments, and using weapons of magic against the more scientific weaponry of the rishis. The sages described the subordination of lower castes and of women as benevolent protection aimed at fostering collective improvement. Apart from being a dharam granth, the Ramayana appeared in Sagar’s re-telling as a political entity familiar to the modern imagination. It was almost as if a modern developmental state had been projected back into the golden age of Hinduism.

Audiences could understand the Ramayan as offering a benign tale of a bygone age, as a devotional lesson, or as a way of talking about the kind of leadership a society needed. Meanwhile, many English-educated elites suddenly became conscious that what they had felt was their rightful leadership was turning into cultural marginality. This division between the elite and the majority, which had long been articulated by Indian language intelligentsia, came to the surface with the serial’s popularity.

No one predicted the response that the Ramayan generated. It should be remembered that it was the Congress that launched the serial, just as it was the Congress that launched the campaign to re-open the Babri Masjid. Arun Govil, who played Lord Ram in the serial, was brought out in full costume along with Deepika Chikhalia, who played Sita, to campaign for the Congress in a UP by-election, and Rajiv Gandhi offered Ram Rajya to voters as a campaign promise in 1989. Whatever gains accrued for the Congress from these moves, the net beneficiary was the BJP, who between 1984 and 1989 grew from two to 85 seats in the Lok Sabha, aided, of course, by its national campaign to wrest Ram Janmabhoomi away from the Muslims.

The Ramayan functioned not only as myth and as history. It also appeared to some as a manifesto to assuage the pride of Hindu civilisation and to ensure that Hindus were once again at the centre of the polity. This was, in fact, the declared aim of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Processions to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya were led by volunteers dressed to look like Ram and Lakshman in the tele-epic. Battle scenes from TV became models for Hindu militancy, and the serial itself began to echo themes from the campaign, with Ram saying prayers addressed to his “janmabhoomi,” represented by a lump of earth he carried with him in the forest.

Where reality ended and illusion began was hard to say. With the tele-epics, media and politics began to merge into each other. Illusion could be turned into reality for a while, if fortune was on your side. As LK Advani remarked in 1993, “For the purpose of securing the non-committed vote, you must, at least, create an illusion that you are likely to come to power.” Previously, the future had been the subject of state planning. In the 1990s, it turned into projections of market reforms, with televised Hindu dreaming alongside. Opinions may differ about where this has led us, but there should be little doubt about how we got here.

Arvind Rajagopal is a professor of media studies at New York University.

*The story was originally published with the headline The Sunday Mythology Club

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