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Telly Me the Future

The most popular astrologers on news television and their turf wars.

Written by Ruchika Talwar | New Delhi |
May 12, 2013 6:00:33 am

The most popular astrologers on news television and their turf wars.

If there’s anything that can stop you dead in your tracks while surfing TV channels,it is the 56-year-old Acharya Indu Prakash Misra. He is an arresting figure in dramatic embroidered gowns,a shaven head,gold earrings,Tag Heuer spectacles and an Armani watch. A close second would be Prem Kumar Sharma,58. He favours Cartier spectacles,a Rolex watch,a Mont Blanc pen and comes armed with two BlackBerry Z10 phones,an iPhone 5 and several iPads,MacBooks and HP laptops. What they have in common,apart from their extravagant accessories,is that they are both tele-astrologers with a prominent presence on Hindi and regional television news channels. Mishra appears on India TV,the channel that favours sensation and horror over hard news,in his hugely popular daily show,Bhavishyvani.

Sharma,a qualified mechanical engineer,is a regular on PTC News,the channel promoted by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and widely watched in Punjab,Haryana and abroad. “I’ve appeared on several channels before: Aaj Tak,Zee,Jain TV,S1,India TV,Sahara Samay,News 24. Those shows got me clients from far and wide. But now I appear only on PTC. Since I charge so much,I should be available to my clients,” says Sharma. In his Delhi office,he sits opposite an ornate picture of goddess Durga and above him,hangs a price list of his services. ‘Personal consultation (30 minutes): Rs 15,000; site visit for vaastu: Rs 2-2.5 lakh; pooja: Rs 1-5 lakh. All credit cards accepted.’

They represent a new breed of Vedic astrologers who have achieved prominence on Hindi news channels; they are flamboyant as well as hard-nosed entrepreneurs. The most low-profile of them is P Khurrana,54,who prefers to keep things simple. Before the Hindi movie Vicky Donor made waves,he was known for his astrology shows. Now,he is better known as Ayushmann Khurrana’s father. He doesn’t display fancy gadgets,not even a laptop,to predict your future. He dresses simply,sans the tilak or rudraksh beads,and is known for his punchy,poetry-laced style of predicting your future. He appears thrice a week on Live India’s popular programme,Kal Aaj aur Kal.

They may differ in style and content but what they don’t share is respect for their rivals. Each claims to be the most accurate,simple and popular,whose show consistently grabs the highest TRP ratings. In reality,some are paid by the channels,while many pay the channels to earn a daily slot. The shows run on channels that are not strictly news-based but have a loyal viewership for astrology shows. “Had India TV not given me this platform,my astrological wisdom wouldn’t have got its due,” says Misra. Sharma,on the other hand,says he is loyal to PTC but is contemptuous of the medium. “TV channels sap you. Else,they dump you,” says Sharma,who claims to have been practising jyotish for 35 years.

It could be the troubled times we live in,but faith in astrology has grown exponentially,and clairvoyant wisdom is being freely distributed on television,especially on non-English news channels. Amongst the earliest tele-astrologers was Bejan Daruwalla,who no longer appears on TV but his replacements are numerous and clearly in great demand. Pankaj Sinha,a.k.a. “Astro Uncle”,appears daily on Aaj Tak,Ramit Malik practised astrology for years before he appeared on the P7 news channel,when word-of-mouth was his only marketing strategy. Appearing on TV,that too a news channel,gets you “eyeballs”. “TV makes you famous. Viewers judge you by your remedies. But the revenue departments of TV channels are ruthless,” says Malik,who now has a show on Zee Jagran.

What dilutes some of their value is a fairly open secret that astrologers can buy a 30-minute slot on a TV channel for Rs 3,000-10,000 per episode. In return,their contact details are flashed on the screen. Most astrologers who do so appear 3-7 times a week. A sales manager at News24,a Hindi news channel which features astrologer Suresh Pandey throughout the week,divulged the dynamics of scheduling such shows. “Astrology shows are the Page 3 of television. Pay and be famous. Time slots are chosen primarily to target housewives. Switch on your TV and find out about the future between your breakfast and evening tea,” he says. Another salesperson for P7,again requesting anonymity,says: “Astrologers are given the themes by the programme’s producer and the market research team. They create their content accordingly. On special occasions like Navratri,eclipses,Diwali etc,we have longer programmes suggesting planetary remedies (upaay). We retain an astrologer according to the response we get from our viewers.”

If the astrologer’s contact details are displayed on the screen,then the slot is bought. If you see regular advertisements during the telecast,the channel has paid the astrologer. The one who has taken the world of saleable TV astrology by storm is GD Vashist,who claims to be an expert of the famed Lal Kitaab,a seminal treatise by Pandit Roop Lal Joshi on astrology. Vashisht has a notorious reputation of buying any astrology show slot that gets too popular. He operates like a corporate entity and even has a call centre in place. When I called up for an interview,“Bittu” answered the call and told me that ‘Guruji’ doesn’t meet anyone without an appointment. That’ll be Rs 11,000.”

Vashist can be seen on many channels at any time of the day or night,selling “Lal Kitaab Amrit”,his personalised predictions based on Lal Kitaab. He has earned flak from his peers for hijacking their shows and no one is angrier than Ashok Agarwal,a businessman-astrologer from Ludhiana who appears sporadically on TV,and is currently on Zee News. Agarwal claims to have studied Lal Kitaab from Madan Lal Sood,the only student of the author. “I’m Arjun. Vashist is not even Eklavya,” says Agarwal summing up his disdain. PTC’s Sharma also spoke about two of his popular TV slots being purchased by Vashist.

Amongst the pioneers of TV astrology is Ajai Bhambi,62. In his simple cotton kurtas and churidaar,Bhambi is also identified by his silver mane. He claims to have started TV astrology with Know All About Your Future in 1999 on Jain TV,which was a panel discussion amongst astrologers he anchored and which served as a launch pad for some panellists. Bhambi doesn’t do tele-forecasting any more. “TV made me popular but its revenue model has changed. They don’t pay astrologers anymore,and I can’t afford to buy their slots,” says Bhambi who now has a tie-up with Airtel. “I pioneered TV astrology. Now I am pioneering mobile astrology. I’ve had my fill of mundane astrology,” he says,flashing his shiny Samsung Galaxy phone.

Each astrologer claims to have a TRP of 20 or above. When contacted,TAM (Television Audience Measurement) refused to share programme-specific TRP data but gave a rough estimate about the growth of astrology as a genre. TAM recorded an all-India viewership for these shows of a little over 7 crore during week 1-13 in 2012. In the corresponding period this year,the figure rose to 8.16 crore. Astrology programmes have found new markets in small towns with up to 1 lakh TV sets.

Why do only non-English news channels brandish astrologers? Jeetu Singh,senior producer of Live India’s astrology and vaastu programmes,says: “English channels do not have a mass appeal. Sanskrit shlokas will not gel with English.”

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