On March 27, Prakash Javadekar tweeted, “Happy to announce that on public demand, we are starting retelecast of ‘Ramayana’ from tomorrow.”
In 1987-88, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan would result in what many compared to a curfew. The prospect of a long national lockdown with its de facto curfew had given the minister for information and broadcasting a perfect stage to recreate the past. But when on March 28, he went on to tweet a picture of him enjoying the serial on TV, the backlash was both swift and deafening.
Hungry, thirsty and defeated, thousands of migrant labourers were stranded as they tried to find a way home. When contrasted with their plight, Javadekar’s photo—which saw him smiling and wearing flip-flops—was considered thoughtless by many social media users.
It didn’t take long for the memes to crop up. They called him “Mr Antoinette”, rubbishing his imploring caption: “I am watching ‘Ramayana’, are you?” When Javadekar deleted the tweet, his Ramayan dream, we felt, had been reduced to a puddle.
Shortly after he was publicly ridiculed, however, numbers came in which vindicated the minister. In just two days, Ramayan had clocked a total viewership of 170 million. According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), 42.6 million people were tuning in to every episode. On April 16, according to a DD India tweet, Ramayan smashed world records with a single day viewership of 77 million. Ramanand Sagar, it was certain, had given Prasar Bharati a fresh lease of life again, but when Star Plus too began telecasting the show on May 4, Javadekar’s clumsy gambit, it seemed, had worked.
Several users have uploaded Sagar’s Ramayan on YouTube, but even collectively, online viewership can’t compete with the numbers Doordarshan has seen.
In the late 1980s, Ramanand Sagar had done something altogether novel. Through television, he had taken the Ramayana and told its story to a mass audience for the first time.
The average viewership of an episode is then said to have jumped from 40 to 80 million in no time. The fact that his Ramayan still has the power to enthral millions tells us something about Sagar’s art, but its history also reminds us of malicious appropriation. While our entertainment reveals who we are, it can sometimes warn us about who we might become.
A man on a mission
I was four when Sagar’s Ramayan premiered on January 25, 1987. I remember my family had invested in a colour television around the time, and one of my earliest memories is of hiding behind the couch each time Ram met a rakshas (demon) in his path. We gathered every Sunday at 9:30 am. In a fairly religious household, Ramayan was not entertainment, it was a ritual. In the 78 weeks it took for Sagar to televise the epic, I accessed culture for the first time. I learnt how stories were told.
My family’s piety never allowed for critique. No one, for instance, ever mentioned that in the English press, the show was being derided for being kitschy and soppy. Playwright G.P. Deshpande’s putdown in the Economic and Political Weekly, I’m sure, would have offended us: “There is little to be said in favour of the Sagar presentation of the Ramayana […] Sita cannot even weep properly.” For Deshpande and other critics like him, Sagar’s Ramayan was, at best, a flimsy pastiche of calendar art and shoddy special effects. It didn’t help that the serial felt fairly sluggish too.
The significance of Ramayan, however, far outweighed its aesthetics. Watched by one in eight Indians, the serial earned more than any other programme on TV (Buniyaad, Khoj, etc.) At its peak, there were 135 advertisers willing to shell out Rs 40,000 each for a slot on the show. TV sets were garlanded. Weddings, funerals and trains were delayed. The deserted streets would make you think the country was in lockdown. India wasn’t just watching Ramayan, it was also taking part in it.
In his recently released book, An Epic Life: Ramanand Sagar, Sagar’s son, Prem, writes about the moment his father was struck by ‘divine’ inspiration. Having ordered some wine in the French Alps, Sagar set his eyes on a colour television, and realised his life’s mission: “…to bring to mankind the virtuous story of Maryada Purushottam Shri Ram.”
A Hanuman devotee, Sagar used Valmiki and Tulsidas as references, but he wasn’t altogether a stickler. “I have also tried to bring in our times,” he once told Mark Tully. Referring to how the people of Ayodhya assent to Ram’s unfair exile and Bharat’s hasty coronation, he said, “It’s a great privilege to have the vote, but the vote must be safeguarded.”
Sagar was obviously political, but his politics is better explained by his presence at the ‘Virat Hindu Sammelan’, which was held in Milton Keynes on August 28 and 29, 1989. Funded by the UK’s Gujarati business community and facilitated by RSS members, the gathering included Lata Mangeshkar, who exhorted the audience to awaken as Hindu, and preachers, who while speaking about the Babri Masjid, said Hindus had both shāstra (scriptures) and shastra (weapons). With two Labour MPs present, offering sanction, the sammelan allowed for an undisguised articulation of the RSS’s intent. They consecrated bricks that day, promising to use them when constructing a Ram mandir in Ayodhya.
‘Mandir yahin banayenge‘
To understand Ramayan’s impact on India’s consciousness, it is essential to briefly consider the Ayodhya chapter of our history. When on the night of December 22, 1949, a Ram Lalla idol was mysteriously placed inside the Babri Masjid, Hindus across the country celebrated a miracle. Muslims, on the other hand, felt their mosque had been desecrated. As riots erupted, Jawaharlal Nehru ordered that the gates of the mosque be locked and guarded. On February 1, 1986, however, Faizabad district judge K.M. Pandey said in an order, “Heavens will not fall if the locks of the gates are removed.”
Within half-an-hour of Pandey allowing Hindus access to their revered Ram Lalla, the padlock that had guarded Babri Masjid was removed. By February 14, a day Muslims had observed as a ‘Black Day’ to protest the Faizabad order, riots had already broken out in Delhi, Meerut and Anantnag. Doordarshan, strangely, had telecasted the breaking of the masjid’s locks. Less than a year later, as if to explain what the fuss had been about, India’s only broadcaster saw the premiere of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan.
For the majority of Indians who found themselves somewhat addicted to Sagar’s operatic Ramayan, the serial perhaps wasn’t so much a reminder of Hindu supremacy. Watching an epic, predicated on self-sacrifice and fidelity, was a distraction from the malice and greed that they thought had come to surround them. Ram Rajya was, at best, a desirable but very distant utopia. Organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), however, found in Sagar’s Ramayan a perfect catalyst for their cause.
A chief mobiliser of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, VHP general secretary Ashok Singhal once told an interviewer that the televised Ramayan was “a great gift to our movement”. The serial, he went on to add, inspired many young recruits who came to form the Bajrang Dal.
For scholars like Arvind Rajagopal, author of Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India, Ramanand Sagar wasn’t oblivious of the storm his art would brew. Not just did he incorporate RSS ideology when writing his show, he also planted the idea of ‘Janmabhoomi (birthplace)’ as a motif. Rajagopal said in an interview:
“In one scene, Lord Ram reveals he’s carrying earth from his birthplace —this is not in any version of the Ramayana I’m aware of—and spoke to a specific political moment, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It’s an example of how the series reflected politics, and vice versa.”
While for Rajagopal, “the Janmabhoomi issue transformed Ram into a symbol of a militant campaign claiming to span the country, and standing unanimously for nation and citizen,” historians like Ramachandra Guha have further argued that Sagar’s Ramayan “contributed enormously” to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by having made the deity incarnate:
“One of many gods worshipped by Hindus, Ram was increasingly being seen, courtesy of the serial on television, as the most important and glamorous of them all.”
Hindu cadre could now dress like Lord Ram and Lakshman when collecting bricks and money for the Ram temple they wanted to build in Ayodhya. Even the chariot L.K. Advani rode during his 1990 “Rath Yatra” was already a familiar prop, a signifier Sagar had made identifiable.
The return to Ram
On November 9 last year, when the Supreme Court delivered its Ayodhya judgment, allowing a Ram temple to be built on a site that had been disputed for centuries, one assumed that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had seen its culmination. Ayodhya, however, seems to have a habit of staying in the news.
On March 25, the same day India went into lockdown, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath travelled to Ayodhya and moved the idol of Ram Lalla from a tin shed to a temple-like structure made of fibre. “The first phase of construction of the grand Ram temple was completed today,” tweeted the CM. Two days later, Javadekar announced the telecast of Sagar’s Ramayan. History makes it hard to think that the tweets of these party colleagues are independent of each other. Ram, it would seem, was again being used to rally troops whose morale might be defeated by isolation.
On Thursday, April 2, when Narendra Modi said he’d be sharing a video message with the nation at 9 am the next day, Suresh Chavhanke, an RSS member, tweeted back, “Time, 9am is overlapping with Ramayan.” Proving its obvious popularity, the telecast of the show was delayed on April 3. Back in the late 1980s, the BJP once had to delay its meeting in Ahmedabad because it coincided with the Sunday morning airing of Ramayan. Seeing hundreds watching the serial together, BJP and RSS leader Jay Dubashi told Arvind Rajgopal that Ramayan was not ordinary, it was not “just entertainment”.
Dubashi was undoubtedly right. Ramayan, with its unwavering moral fulcrum, also doubled up as social critique. A tale of loyalty and devotion, it was both family saga and a holy grail. For the Hindu right, however, it was always a convenient tool for propaganda and recruitment first. For some, Ramayan nostalgia might be a yearning for a simpler time that allowed consensus, but for the BJP, Ramayan, like Dubashi said, wasn’t “just entertainment.” Even today, it’s something more political.
Last year, Yogi Adityanath’s UP government apportioned Rs 447.76 crore for the Ram Nagari Ayodhya project. In the 61 hectares bought with these funds, the state plans to erect a 251-metre high statue of Lord Ram. When built, it’ll be the world’s tallest, giving devotion to the kind of measure Sagar had attempted with his sprawling epic drama. In the 1980s, Ayodhya, for Sagar and the BJP, was still a paradise they had lost. In 2020, however, Sagar’s show is arguably a reminder of how it was regained.
In her book, Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India, writer Amrita Shah reminds us that the televisation of Ramayan and its cousin, Mahabharat, was not without controversy:
“With the decision to telecast the Ramayana and consecutively, the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, concern mounted that in secular India, where 15 per cent of the population consisted of non-Hindu religious groups, the state was also propagating the ideal of a Hindu Nation.”
It now seems strange that the decision to greenlight Sagar’s Ramayan was that of a Congress government.
The more cosmopolitan Rajiv Gandhi is said to have believed the Ramayana was more cultural than religious, but his information and broadcasting minister in the mid-1980s, Vitthalrao Gadgil, felt a telecast of the Ramayan could only benefit the BJP.
All of 33 years later, we have another I&B minister who evidently feels the same way. Sagar’s Ramayan stirs a nostalgia that the BJP quite obviously profits from. It had once made its members believe there could be heaven on earth, that Ram would again return to his earthly abode. The party, it seems clear, is resolved to bring back that yearning for ‘Ram Rajya’ again.
The rest of us can perhaps only hope they will spare us the hellish detours this time.
Shreevatsa Nevatia is a journalist and author of How to Travel Light: My Memories of Madness and Melancholia.