February 11, 2005
A combination of envy and irritation is driving the somewhat exaggerated debate on page 3 culture allegedly threatening to overwhelm our lives. Page 3 itself is a function of marketing and the soaring debate, only ostensibly negative, is actually marketing’s crowning success.
It is foolish to imagine that derogatory references to page 3 will cause the “Beautiful People” to cringe from making an appearance on it. A thick skin is a pre-condition for surviving the dhakka-maar scramble which guarantees space on that hallowed page.
The poet had his tongue in his cheek when he said “badnaam agar honge to kya naam na hoga?” which was his comment on our times when even damning publicity is good publicity. This is the credo by which occupants of page 3 live. What they live by is an important feature of contemporary ethos.
Page 3 was different in the ’60s and ’70s. The most important page 3 column in The Statesman, was ‘New Delhi Notebook’. Contributions were invited. Style, substance and brevity ensured publication which was occasion for celebration at your own cost at the Press Club that evening.
Over time, the editorial staff was divided between those who made it to the Notebook and those who didn’t. Reporters were in charge of distinct beats in the city. A reporter could last on a beat for upto a decade. This ensured an informed page 3. It could take 15 years before a reporter’s byline was used.
Politicians, artists, performers who sought publicity were discouraged. Seeking publicity was bad form. Since reporters were persistently targeted by commercial interests, some occasionally exposed chinks in their armour.
But publication of an item on Page 3 which was actually an advert was always fraught with danger. It was like committing the perfect crime. First, the chief reporter had to be taken into confidence. Then the item had to be navigated past the chief sub editor and the sub editor. Even the proof reader had to be in the loop. Otherwise he could blow the whistle by bringing the questionable item to the attention of the news editor who by that time had returned from his first three-whisky session at Press Club.
Falling prey to the blandishments of the market was so risky as to be not worth the trouble. But by 1990 the world had begun to change. Economic reforms made market the ultimate arbiter.
Newspapers had a tradition of at least a century behind them, but TV networks burgeoned without established norms of behaviour. Remember, the mushrooming of private TV is a gift of the ’90s. There were no networks other than DD to cover the Babri demolition on December 6 1992.
Opening of the market ushered in an era of commercial interests fiercely competing for occupation of editorial space. With the expanding middle class, a new consumerism grew. Dress designers, beauticians, advertisers and publishers roped in failed or successful artists, rock stars, sportsmen, party givers, wife (or husband) swappers, mixing chic with glitch, commercial interests changing places with editorial interests, like trapeze artists swapping swings mid-air. This broad coalition invaded page 3.
Page 3 lost its chronological slot on a newspaper. It became a cult, a new sub-culture, a way of life the country’s young were invited to participate in. It was life at an infectious, frenetic pace where wine and cocktails were becoming passe, yielding to hash, heroin, cocaine.
A blanket, all embracing star system is perhaps a gift of American capitalism. Successful people, from Henry Kissinger, Madonna, Arthur Miller to the Nobel laureates, all attending the same black tie event. The new star system in India derives from that culture. The page 3 culture and the star system sometimes overlap. But the page 3 population need not be achievers at all — just party hoppers.
The danger, of course, is to mistake the high visibility of this set for its actual size. Razzmatazz notwithstanding, this clan is marginal to the India which is taking strides in the global arena. But this class influences vulnerable sections of the newly rich, a product of our education system which churns out graduates without imparting to them a capacity to weigh evidence or form an independent opinion. Wealth without culture can produce the sort of unthinking middle clan the film Page 3 aptly portrays. Lakshmi minus Saraswati defines the new class aspiring for a slot on page 3.
Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan’s father, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, never allowed his performances to be recorded. “My music will be desecrated at the paan shop”, he feared. That was the other extreme, confining Saraswati to the durbar. I guess Amjad’s sons, Amaan and Ayaan, represent the balance I am searching for — brilliant sarod players, but not averse to shaking a leg in the parties of the socially ambitious.
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