Maverick: Faith and the Marketplace
By Farzana Versey
Covert, September 16-30
Every time I hear about someone spotting the image of an idol in a potato or other benign vegetable or fruit, envy churns in my stomach. The only thing I seem to spot is insects crawling out. That gives me no scope for a scoop. The others will pose with their benediction.
God and faith have become the fastest selling items. There is an ad being aired on television these days. A young man clicks a hip young woman on his cellphone camera. He shows the image to his friends. One of them says, “Dude, yeh paap hai.” Courtesy and civilised behaviour can now be judged only through a moral prism and that we get through epics. This is an ad for just such a channel, one among many that have sprouted offering devotion in a dish TV.
No one sulks about interpretation or abuse. Images of Ganesha have always lent themselves to artistic whimsy, but the idols meant for worship and immersion had a well-defined look that included a pot-belly. This year’s Ganpathy has washboard abs, apparently dictated by the trend of the worshippers who want god in their own image rather than the other way round. One sculptor in Ahmedabad even said he had brought in a new avatar.
In one of the largest pandals in Mumbai devotees got insured against terrorist attacks. This might sound like a pre-emptive strategy. It is, in fact, one more gimmick. Play on fear, challenge the worshippers, make them feel like they are worth it while they pay and pray for a gym-toned prosperity in a set designed by a Bollywood art director.
One Durga Puja pandal has been outsourced this year to an American company. The New York-based Media Morphosis has appointed actor Mithun Chakrabarty as its brand ambassador. “This is an effort to marry creativity with commerce on a corporate platform,” said an official. No mention of religion.
Some Muslims returning from Haj could well be part of a racket that sold fake Zam Zam water for 25 Saudi riyals per bottle to European and Southeast Asian countries with an ‘imported from Mecca’ label. This water is considered pure, both in its properties as well as for its spiritual value, and is never sold for profit. When it was found in the market there was an alarm and, on being tested, was found to be spurious.
Whenever I drive past the Mahim mosque stretch in Mumbai, I see tens of people on their haunches waiting for food from restaurants. The leftovers of the rich? No. The boys from the eatery bang on the passing cars and ask you to pay. Here poverty and faith are both on sale.
Is there any need for a place of worship then?
None other than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran instructed that the 70,000 mosques in the country should promote tourism to “copy” what the Christians had done with churches.
Wonder what his reaction would be to the 30-metre long inflatable church on the beaches of Italy. Nuns relocate to beach cabins in the holiday months; an altar is set up in a tent, vacationers join in the prayers, priests are ready to take confession.
If this isn’t enough, there is news from an ancient Armenian manuscript that Jesus played cricket as a child. No one seems to have cashed in on it as yet. Perhaps an IPL match on the seas?
India is the land of saints and charlatans. Naked sadhus with mobile phones have been photo-shopped far too often. Now we need more. Just like that corporate guy in the sponsored ad for a money-raking devotional channel who tells his boss, “Karam kar, phal ki chinta mat kar.” Don’t worry about the fruits of labour, he says, sitting in an air-conditioned cabin ensuring that his salary gains momentum in the stock market. He reads the fine print. As the graph shows an upward trend so does his faith. The boxes in temples, churches and mosques depend on how far you have got in life.
Your values depend on how large your plasma screen is and how true-to-life are the colours of your mythology.