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Magazine Web Edition > January/February/March 2003 > India's Bold New Religious TV

TELEVISION

India's Bold New Religious TV

Less than 15 years ago, great movie makers like B. R. Chopra molded religion into blockbuster mega-drama and took the limelight of Indian TV by storm. It was a hard act to follow, but a new generation of independent producers are at it again.

RAJIV MALIK, NEW DELHI, INDIA



Unita Bagga is a 52-year-old New Delhi housewife who starts her day at five in the morning watching TV. Not what you might expect from a deeply religious person who, only a few years ago, might have strongly denounced television as a worldly distraction. Sunita didn't change. Indian TV did. It got religious. The TV Sunita watches in that early morning time is Sanskar, one of India's two new, full-time religious channels.

This noteworthy transformation of Indian television, which has manifested most significantly within the past two years, began late in the 198os. Back then there were only two TV channels, and both were produced, owned and controlled by Doordarshan, the government television network. In 1987, Doordarshan broke away from secular business-as-usual and commissioned famed movie maker Ramanand Sagar to produce a television version of the famous Indian literary epic Ramayana. Sagar created a 70-episode series that was so hugely successful the network followed a year later with another Indian magnum opus, the Mahabharata. This Mahabharata, produced in 94 episodes by B. R. Chopra (see sidebar), was technically superior to the Ramayana and even more popular. Far beyond even high expectations, this masterpiece completely mesmerized all of India during its showing in 1988 and 1989. The Ramayana, Mahabharata and their producers were showered with innumerable awards. A new age in Indian television was born. Yet, no one could have anticipated how this era would develop in the years that followed.

When Hinduism Today asked me to take a peep into this world of religious TV, I thought it would be interesting. It turned out to be an adventure. First, I had to learn a little history.

Doordarshan made a bold move in televising the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and knowledgeable sources credit then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for making it happen. With the dawn of the 1990s, the staggering popularity of these two lone epics had stimulated uncomfortable growing pains for Doordarshan. Higher standards had been set in technical production, and mind-boggling levels of viewership had to be matched. Through the years, Doordarshan tried and failed to repeat the miracle of those awesome late 80s. Slowly the media giant was forced to gravitate back toward its more reliable secular repertoire. Yet a taste for religious television in India had been acquired. If Doordarshan could not serve up more, somebody would.

As I sat comfortably in my New Delhi office planning the pursuit of this story, it looked like it was going to be fun and easy. Almost immediately, however, I was challenged with some obstacles. It took me nearly two months just to set up interview appointments by phone with all of the necessary TV broadcasting elite in Mumbai. The two main religious channel owners were naturally suspicious of my requests for an in-depth account of how they operated internally. They were only further intimidated when I said I planned to fly down and pay them a visit. I found out later that they thought Hinduism Today might be considering the creation of some third, rival channel. I also later learned that each was miffed that the other was being given equal coverage. After much discussion,everyone was finally content to submit to what in the end turned out to be a most enjoyable and beneficial affair for all involved.

Mumbai was drenched with rain during my week of interviews there so much so that even the city's daily life and business were greatly disturbed. Vehicles stood still in the streets, and getting from one place to another was almost impossible. It all had the makings of good television drama.

My first two days were spent in the conservative office/studio complex of Aastha Television. Then I was off to visit the folks at Sanskar, Aastha's competition. Following this, I had the good fortune of speaking with program executives at Zee Entertainment, a non-religious channel which nevertheless has produced a highly regarded one-hour religious program every day for the past ten years. It was the people at Zee that introduced me to renowned film producer Ravi Chopra, who in turn was gracious enough to arrange some chat time for me with his father, Sri B. R. Chopra, Indian cinema's "grand old man." This latter interview, completely unplanned, turned out to be the high point of my journey.

Aasthav nestled in Worli, an industrial suburb of Mumbai is well equipped with hi-tech studios for recording, dubbing and video taping. When I was there, the whole complex was abuzz with the sights and sounds of Hinduism in action. Videotapes of bhajans and lectures were busily being edited and, before my very eyes, entire programs were being assembled. I even attended the taping of a numerology session being shot live in one of their twelve studios.

The brain behind Aastha is Kirit C. Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director of CMM Broadcasting Network Limited, which owns and operates the Aastha Television Channel. Mehta, who is physically disabled due to polio, is a man with tremendous willpower. Talking with him (see sidebar), I could actually feel his will at work as he vivaciously described his vision of the aastha (faith) of Hinduism coming alive in the minds of his viewers. Mehta, a Jain, originally wanted to produce a channel featuring Jain programming exclusively. However, because he could not get the necessary financial support from the Jain community, he created Aastha, which is today 90% Hindu in content.

In contrast to Aastha's huge complex, Sanskar's office/studio, near Nariman Point in the heart of Mumbai, is modest, to say the least. I found brothers Dilip and Dinesh Kabra, Sanskar's joint owners, to be practical and humble souls. I had met Dilip, the elder brother, in Allahabad during the Mahakumbha Mela. We were both there as journalists. Dilip even interviewed me at that time for Sanskar, asking me to tell their viewership about our magazine, Hinduism Today. So our rapport was instantaneous.

"I interviewed you in Allahabad," Dilip said as I walked into his office. "And now you are interviewing me. Wonderful are the ways of God in settling the affairs of men."

Dilip immediately organized interviews for me with two popular bhajan singers: Anup Jalota and Vinod AgarwalÑboth featured on Sanskar. He also arranged for me to attend an evening program of bhajans by Anup Jalota taking place that evening in a popular five-star Mumbai hotel. It was most touching to witness the deep, heartfelt devotion of a packed audience fully immersed in divine music and thoughts of God right in the middle of a city much more famous for glitz, glamour, late-night parties and discotheques. I left the bhajan performance convinced that regardless of Western influence,Hinduism would never die.

As might be expected, devotional musicians like Jalota love this swelling wave of interest in faith-based television. "These people who have dared to start these channelsÑI bow before them," says Anup Jalota. "May God bestow upon them wisdom and strength so that they can keep doing this noble work."

Kirit Mehta and Dilip Kabra both maintain that religious channels in general, unlike entertainment channels, develop a deep and enduring relationship with viewers. It is a relationship based upon spiritual commitment. Both channel administrators lament that they suffer greatly from lack of funds and that their financial ambition right now is simply to break even.

Dinesh Kabra, Dilip's younger brother, in charge of marketing and promotion at Sanskar, says the first and largest challenge is always simply making contact with advertisers. "Today there are at least one hundred channels upon which media planners can advertise," says Dinesh. "They must get the best possible value for their money and need to be convinced that advertising with us will fetch them good results. Naturally, they ask about our viewership. Since a rating system has not yet been devised for new entrants like us, we cannot give them solid figures. Obviously, this makes it tough getting accepted."

For Zee TV, the one religious hour they feature does not have to make money. The rest of their entertainment channel does that. Zee program director Prakash Menon says, "The whole Zee TV family is very religious. We are telecasting our religious programming purely as a service to our viewership. We understand the importance of divinity. But being an entertainment channel, we have limitations."

For both Aastha and Sanskar, attracting youth and understanding their needs is a primary concern. Mehta asserts that any religious education given to the children is better than what they are getting now, which is nothing. And, he stresses, they are interested, contrary to public opinion.

The programming for both channels has been criticized for poor content, lack of focus and low-grade technical presentation. Yet even the worst critics concede that what has transpired thus far is a laudable beginning. Advocates far outnumber faultfinders. Today, right now, any time, you can tune in to the best of India's bhajans and discourses in the comfort and convenience of your own home on your own TV. What is lacking in creative originality and slick presentation is made up for by the "reality effect" of being present at a live event.

Although both Aastha and Sanskar unabashedly draw most of their educational content from a grand wealth of ancient knowledge stemming from the Vedas, the central scripture of Hinduism, they both refrain from openly acknowledging this obvious Hindu source. When I questioned them about this directly, they explained that today's industry insiders are loath to use the "H" word because they feel it diminishes viewership. If a station calls itself Hindu, they assert, all of India's non-Hindu "isms" will be less inclined to watch.

They also contend that reference to Hinduism will imply to many a more sectarian, "narrow-minded" or "old-fashioned" approach to religion in general. With the Indian economy striving to go global, as it is in today's faster moving international society, the thrust in television broadcasting, as well as in other forms of communication, is to attract the more "open-minded, free-thinking modern man," both from within India's borders and beyond.

For these people, "spiritualism" is a more accessible and magnetic term to use in identifying television content. Further validating this perspective, advertisersÑespecially international advertisersÑare making it abundantly clear that they prefer the secular rather than the Hindu identity. Finally, the television producers rationalize, Hindus watching these religious channels will know that their content is Hindu and will not have to be told.

The producers of Aastha and Sanskar are swimming boldly upstream, against the tides of easy financial success. No oneÑnot even their competitorsÑwould deny their courage. Though for the future they promise to broaden their presentation by including programs loosely classified in a category often termed "New Age" or "spiritual," they are in their heart of hearts deeply Hindu and are doing this work for no other reason than to express, share and propagate the Hindu dharma. No one has asked them to do what they are doing, and the obstacles they face are formidable. Producing these channels at great cost, no profit and for very little thanks, they step courageously into an uncertain future, fueled only by boundless respect for Indian spiritual traditions and a tireless urge to serve. They are clearing a path for others to follow.

Television and electronic media are taking on a new role in modern times. They are no longer just vehicles for news and entertainment with a little education thrown in to ease public conscience. Though this change is most evident in channels like Aastha and Sanskar, almost all of India's television channelsÑeven the most secularÑnow have at least one 60-minute, early-morning time slot dedicated to bhajans, discourses and yoga teaching sessions. It is a quiet revolution of a unique sort, taking place almost imperceptibly in mothers' kitchens and family living rooms. It's India's own version of "reality TV"Ñreligious realityÑcoming to life.

I feel strongly that the day will come when being openly Hindu will increase and not decrease the viewership of an Indian religious channel. When Hinduism is more fully appreciated for its vast treasure of ancient wisdom, it won't have to be sold. It will sell itself. For this, education is needed. And what better place to educate than on television.

Viewer's Speak OutAbout Religious TV

"These channels are really a boon for our children. There have been so many attempts to divide Hinduism. No one has succeeded yet. These religious channels are doing their part during these modern times to help pass the Hindu heritage on to the next generation. These two channels, Aastha and Sanskar, are very appropriate. They are like healthy blood in the body. If Aastha and Sanskar are there, our life is bright."

Sri P.R. Dawar

Naturopath

"On Sanskar and Aastha, I watch bhajans for two hours a day. I am a fan of Sri Anup Jalota. I also like the pujas of Mahalakshmi, Ganesh and Sai Baba. I want to learn new bhajans. My mother watches these channels with me in the evenings and encourages me to learn to sing."

Riya Purushottam Kalawant

Ten-year-old student

"Children will do what they see their parents doing. Because my husband and I watch these programs, my daughter has also developed an interest in them. My friends and their families also watch these channels, and we keep on telling others about the sadhus that give the lectures."

Mrs. Soniya Kalawant

Housewife and mother of Riya

"Religious programming is successful in India because people here are interested in religion. More than anywhere else in the world, we are deeply inclined toward a religious way of life. Other religions say one thing is bad and another is good. Our religion says: 'If you do this, this happens; if you do that, that happens. Now decide what you want to do.' These new religious channels are rendering a service, but it could be better. Life is becoming busier these days, and we don't have much time to tell our kids what to do. We are losing touch with our spirituality. This is obvious. These programs could most certainly fill that communication gap. But the problem is: they are not interesting. How can you grab the attention of someone if your presentation is not interesting? This was one of the reasons my father was so successful. He knew how to grab the attention of the masses. If these channels could show good programs and give new information, I would ask my children to watch them. But if they are not interesting, a child will sit for a few minutes and then run away, regardless of what we say. We as Hindus should first strive to understand Hinduism. It is not only a way of worshiping God. It is a way of living life. The problem with a lot of us today is that we want to look good, rather than really being good. I came into film-making at the age of 23 just after I finished college. I perform havan every Sunday with my father and our family. In our house our Hindu culture is very much alive. We have tried to maintain that. Our children are very close to us. My father started all of this years ago, and I am continuing it."

Ravi Chopra: Eminent film producer,

son of veteran producer Sri B. R. Chopra

B. R. Chopra Was There When It All Began


The "grand old man of Cinema" talks about life, movies, TV and religion

Mythology is a part of life, particularly in India. Life in India still retains Hinduism and Hindu culture. For many, many years I have been performing havan every Sunday. I feel that time which I spend away from worldly activity is something good. It gives me some purification and alters my attitude toward life. I am a true Hindu, but I am also a modern man.

Whether or not the youth watch religious TV programs depends on the attitude of the father and mother. Things are different these days. The atmosphere of Mumbai is different. It is heterogeneous. I know these people. They are religious minded. Being religious and being religious minded are not the same. I cannot say that I am a very religious man. But I am religious minded. I am very much aware of the importance of religion. The Rig Veda says to be a human being first.

The film industry has its own ways, but it would be wrong to say that people drink because they follow the stars. I have been in this business for the last sixty years, and I do not drink. At my residence nobody drinks. But nobody is vegetarian in our house either.

Things are changing very quickly now, but religion is never going to die. Even in the West this is true.

My message for the Hindus of the world is to be a good Hindu. I have one principle in life. I strive to be good and honest. If I go out of stationÑeven if only for one dayÑI go with my wife. I have never seen the face of another woman in all of my life, though I have worked with many actresses. And there were many who sought to befriend me.

I have asked my son Ravi to adhere to this principle and he does. I want to be a good, honest man, and for this I seek the blessings of God. The blessings of God are very important.

Big Plans for a Big Future in "Spiritual" TV


Kirit C. Mehta and wife Neena discovered aastha, "faith," and created a religious channel by the same name to prove it

Hinduism Today correspondent Rajiv Malik sat with Kirit and Neena Mehta at their office in Worli, an industrial suburb of Mumbai. During animated interviews, they enthusiastically shared their thoughts and plans for the futureÑonly two percent of which, they say, have been realized so far. First, excerpts from Kirit's comments:

What is the aim of Aastha?

Aastha means faith. The aim of Aastha is to increase faith faith in our people, faith in our country, faith in our religion and faith in God. Faith is something which is not born. In Hindi we say that it pragats, which means it appears or happens. Anything that is born ultimately dies. This word aastha was put by God in my brain.

Is Aastha primarily for Hindus?

The biggest chunk of these programs is undoubtedly Hindu in content, because that is the major faith here in India. We are definitely propagating, telecasting and broadcasting Hinduism. We have no shame in admitting this. Absolutely not. We are also a multilingual channel, although the predominant language is Hindi. Our broader target is to reach all of the religions and spiritual movements that have come out of India: Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, HinduismÑall the "isms" that were born in India, and more.

Besides being religious, how is Aastha different from other more secular Indian TV channels?

Normally a new channel becomes popular in the big cities, then proliferates out to the smaller areas. Aastha made it first in small towns; then it went to big cities. Also, people usually watch television from about eight in the morning until eleven at night. Aastha viewers watch from before dawn until after midnight. Forty million households are connected to cable TV in India today. But the number of people actually watching is much more. In villages, where Aastha is most popular, people congregate in community halls and homes to watch television together.

Do you have any religious programs for the youth?

The negative influence of the West on our youth is partly our fault. We have encouraged it. But at the same time, Western countries and their people are beinginfluenced by the Indian way of life and the "exotic East." Aastha tries to show both the East and the West from a positive point of view, so that people can judge for themselves what is good and what is bad. The problem is that, until now, the youth have not been getting any sort of religious education. Once you give them somethingÑeven a little bitÑyou will find that they want more. The youth have a lot of interest in religion.

What is drawing youth toward Aastha?

They have problems. They have a lot more problems than older people do. Old people have fulfilled their worldly responsibilities. The children are just starting. We are making a great effort to produce yoga and meditation programs for the youth. In these programs we are trying to show how religion and science go together, hand in hand. Any presentation of religion that has a scientific approach will definitely attract the youth. They want to understand the meanings of the rituals they see others following blindly.

Were not their parents the same way when they were young?

There is a basic difference in the last three generations. The first generation had blind faith. The second generation were fence sittersÑneither here nor there. They just did what their elders did. This new generation wants clear answers to their questions and logical solutions to their problems. In yoga, they want to know, straight away, how they can attain liberation.

You have often referred to your TV channel as "spiritual" rather than "religious?" What does "spiritual" mean?

India's future religious programming will be socio-spiritual, and promoting it this way is our mission. The word religion will not be much used. Spiritualism will be our key word. The prevailing attitude will be: "We cannot change the world. We can only change ourselves." This is not to say that we will be shy about promoting traditional Hinduism. We will not. But for various reasonsÑsocial, political and economicalÑwe do not want to propagate it all the time. Rather than preaching the teachings of Hinduism as a religion, we will talk about its best practices, such as tolerance, charity and other such positive things. However, we must also teach basic Hinduism in simple terminology.

You recently covered the Kumbha Mela. Can you tell us a little about that?

We have covered a lot of religious festivals, including the Kumbha Mela. Before the Mela, we were there when the roads were being built and the infrastructure of the special city was being planned. During the Mela, we provided partial coverage, live. We had four teams filming four hours every day for two months. We were working right with the UP government on this, and it was very successful. Hundreds of people told us that they had come to the Kumbha Mela only after watching it on our channel. During the next Mela, we plan to provide live broadcast of the whole thing right through.

Does Aastha face difficulties?

For us, the biggest challenge is having enough money to go worldwide. As Bill Gates had a dream of putting a computer in every house on Earth, we have a dream that every house around the globe should be watching Aastha. But we have had so many stumbling blocks and so many problems: government licenses, foreign companies, foreign transmission, Reserve Bank of India permissions and more. Yet never has our work stopped. Where will the money come from? We do not know. But it is coming and we are growing. In the beginning, I used to read all of the mail myself. Now it is just too much.

Do you have any competition?

There is Doordarshan. But in the name of secularism, Doordarshan has never featured spirituality-based programs. This niche has always been absolutely empty. Private players won't enter this field either. For them, the whole issue of religion is just too sensitive and causes too many problems, besides the fact that it does not make money. It is true that this channel is not yet profitable. But it could be. I see "pay TV" as our ultimate revenue model. With a strong subscription base, we could make this channel a wholesome, well-financed platform of communication, completely free of commercial advertising. The worldwide Hindu and Indian population is vast. There should be no difficulty in raising revenue from subscriptions.

Can you speculate on the future of Aastha?

This work is at a nascent stage. We have not done even two percent of what we have envisioned ourselves doing. We are holding more than five thousand years of wisdom from hundreds and thousands of saints and sages, and we have not even begun to put a fraction of that forward. This channel will become a part of every Hindu household, just like water, electricity and gas. The cable operators say that we are a very different channel for them. They say that once they start providing Aastha to the viewer, it stays. Once it enters a home, it enters forever.

Can you share some of the inspiration that helped create Aastha?

We wanted to utilize our money in a fine way. So we are doing this. Spiritual donations are of several types. There is anna daan, or the donation of food, which would be effective only until the food is digested. The punyam (good merit) from this only lasts that much time. Then there is the donation of clothes, which is effective until the clothes wear out, earning punyam for a little bit more time, but not much. Then there is the donation of something big, like a house. The punyam connected to this might last for years but would finally be gone when the house fell down. The best donation of all is gyan daan, the donation of knowledge. It lasts not only one lifetime but many. So I asked my husband, "Why not undertake this job of gyan daan?" He thought it was a wonderful idea. Now, there could have been several ways to perform gyan daan. We could have distributed books, for instance, but not everybody can read books. The obvious option for us was to perform this service through the media. In two years time our dreams of doing this have come true. I fully believe that if one's intentions are good, then good happens. Even our karmas are created, based on our intentions. How Aastha has come up is truly a miracle. That is why we continue to put our heart and soul into it. We have realized that due to faithÑwhich is the meaning of aasthaÑmuch can be achieved. The whole world should have faith, and the whole world should progress. Things may be difficult to achieve, but they are never absolutely impossible. Our story is like a dream story that you might see on television.

Preserving a Heritage of Devotional Bliss


Against all odds, Dilip Kabra holds his own with TV media giants

Brothers Dilip and Dinesh Kabra own and operate Sanskar, which like Aasthais strongly disadvantaged on a playing field long dominated by well established, secular television giants. Dilip talks with Hinduism Today corespondent Rajiv Malik about the challenges, rewards and prospects of this difficult work.

What is Sanskar trying to achieve with religious TV?

We are a part of a civilization that is devotional by temperament. In our tradition we stress bhavananda, the bliss of devotion, and not bhogananda, the bliss of material life. From the influence of this attitude through the ages, barbarians have become civilized and civilized men have become saints. Yet today we are not fully following this path of bhavananda. More can be done. Religious media can help by being a sort of modern-day guru. To be more precise, TV stations like Sanskar can act as mediums between India's great gurus and the masses. There is also here a wonderful example of time management for today's rush-rush generation. While one person may spend years striving diligently to understand a certain scripture, we can if we do our job intelligently take the essence of that scripture, distill it down and provide it for him and others in one concise ten-minute TV segment. There is a great power here. Our duty is to select the correct material and present it in the right way. If the right message reaches the right people which are primarily the youthÑour job is done. And, of course, we do not have to create anything new. Our great rishis have given us more than we could ever possibly use.

Who is your primary audience?

Seventy percent of our audience consists of women. In rural areas and villages, after the husbands leave for work, the wives watch us. Even while working around the house. Bhajan is a big part of bhakti (devotion). Our perspective on life benefits from the discourses, but bhajan is important for devotion. When a circus comes to a village, music will be played first to gather a crowd. In the same way, we provide the best possible bhajan first to establish a bond with our viewers. Then the holy men will speak.

What do these holy men say? What is Sanskar's message?

We feature Hinduism. If you ask why we feature Hinduism, I say that it is because Hinduism is the fundamental civilization of man. Where culture, devotion and religion come into play, we must work very cautiously. We must know the subject which we are delivering. Only in this way can we be correct and successful in educating the people. Today our channel is considered to be a spiritual channel. This is some mark of our success.

How is Sanskar doing financially?

Everything is going fairly well right now. I am convinced that if we present the right content with the right attitude, we will get the right support. On this channel, content is king. If we sacrifice content for money, then problems will arise. We are running this channel at a very low profile. A ten-second advertisement on a premium channel would cost perhaps $4,000. That same slot on Sanskar is only about $25. We are competing with these big commercial channels for everything: advertisement, viewership, even resources and employees. Of course, this makes it difficult.

Do these difficulties cause a quality loss in your broadcasting?

Our strongest point is that we carefully choose, analyze and edit what we present. Our viewers expect to see something that will touch their hearts and minds. If we become successful in establishing intelligent devotion, then we will be successful in making an impact. The impact will bring the viewers and hold them.

With limited means, a lot can be done. A bhajan singer does not spend money on writing scripts or verses. A monk requires no overhead. We have lots of plans for the future. There are many surprises in store. Stay tuned.


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