Friday, December 25, 2009

Festivals? They are all business now

The end of anything is supposed to cause gloom. But the end of a year magically produces rejoicing everywhere. Is this because one year’s death is another year’s birth? And because a new year always means new hopes? It’s rather like the sentiment behind the saying, “ The King is dead, long live the King”.

But royal successions have not been commercialised as cynically as our festivals have been. Every celebration today, religious or social, is an occasion for high-pitched marketing frenzy. Look at Diwali, for example. It’s one of our most beautiful festivals whether you see it as a harvest festival or as a religious one signifying Rama’s return to Ayodhya or Lakshmi’s emergence during the churning of the ocean. Today the lovely act of lighting diyas is a minor formality. The big focus is on “Diwali Special Sale” in shops, gifting of expensive dry fruits and sweets hampers, and of course the bursting of fire-crackers, the more deafening the better. Families spending ten lakhs rupees on an hour of fireworks are common.

Christmas also has been hijacked. Jesus Christ was a Palestinian with a Palestinian skin tan and black hair. But devotional photographs make him look like a Scandinavian with blue eyes and blonde hair. Bethlehem where he was born could never have seen snowfalls. Yet Christmas is full of snows and reindeer and stuff. Santa Claus, who is at the centre of it all, is the ultimate affront. He was invented by Coca-Cola to publicise its product. Today he symbolises the profiteering streak of the gift industry. Noticed the avalanche of advertising by cake shops, the red Santa caps on sale at traffic junctions? That’s the low end. The high end is in jewellery shops and watch boutiques.

We have even manufactured some modern-day festivals out of sheer imagination with the prime idea of selling merchandise. Whoever invented Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was a marketing genius. The greeting card business is worth millions of dollars. Half of those millions must be getting splurged on Valentine’s Day alone because that is one manufactured festival that has got a boost from our vigilante moral police. Perhaps the vigilantes are salesmen in disguise deputed by the card manufacturers –like the hooch makers who financed Prohibition Week celebrations in the moral days of Morarji Desai.

Even our media gets the itch when the year comes to a close. Magazines come out with “Special Double Issues”, meaning issues with more jingling advertisements. All of them publish their listings of “Books of the Year” which are usually occasions for literary pundits to give a pat to their pet authors. They also have a perennial routine called Person of the Year. A brave magazine or two might choose an unknown social worker who has dedicated his life to the service of the poor and the sick. But most play a pointless game. Especially our TV channels who imitate one another in picking the likes of Manmohan Singh and A.R. Rehman and Rahul Gandhi as the “Person” or “Indian” or “Businessman” of the year. The foundation in all cases is lucrative sponsorships.

But in an age when commerce rules the world, why complain? Perhaps the only thing we can wish is for a magazine or channel to provide a variation on the hackneyed theme in the spirit of a British Ambassador who broke rank half a century ago. A Washington radio station had telephoned various ambassadors in the US capital asking what they would like in the New Year. The French Ambassador said he wanted “Peace throughout the world”. The Russian Ambassador said: “Liberation for all the peoples enslaved by imperialism”. Then the British Ambassador said: “Very kind of you to ask. I’d quite like a box of chocolates”.