Is there someone, anyone, anyone at all, we can look up to in India today? Someone we can draw inspiration from?
There are those who have their heroes and heroines – living figures – in politics. Our Prime Minister inspires many. Other political leaders also hold their voters’ imagination. The Yogi of Gorakhpur appeals to his voters’ political as well as religious imagination. If wall posters are any indication, many politicians in Tamil Nadu are seen as semi-divine deliverers of Tamil identity, Tamil pride. ‘Deivame’ (my God-incarnate), ‘Idayame’ (my very heart).
The many – and their numbers rise – devoted to one or other guru in India will take no time coming up with the name of an inspirational figure. Sri Sri Sri Ravi Shankar… ‘So calming, so soothing…ayyo’, Sathguru Jaggi Vasudev… ‘Have you heard him? So simply he speaks, so easy to understand…’ , Baba Ramdev … ‘Sir, I owe my good health to him only…’.
The world of the cinema and, to a lesser extent, of sport has its icons. Throbbing hearts are I suppose inspired hearts.
But behind many of these inspiration stories a transaction takes place, a certain commerce. It comes as the tool-kit of the inspiration-fixer, the image mixer. It comes as the stock-in-trade of projection, of gift-wrapping, of adroit marketing. Strategy sets to work here, the strategy of marketing. A makeover is afoot that goes beyond simple air-brushing. What is attempted, with great success, is a Botox of the subject’s personality. The amount of time some of these inspirational figures spend with the image fixer or spend in front of a mirror, of a camera lens, says it all. The pictures we see on giant hoardings, posters or in repetitive on-line pop ups are not as-is what-is pictures. They are very carefully planned, rehearsed, with many a re-take, many a repeat. The arms are crossed just right, the smile must not smile so wide as to become a grin, not be so thin as to look un-friendly. The serious face must look sincere but not look grave. There should be some compassion in the face, but no weakness, courage but no arrogance.
Strategy makes up for stature, style for substance.
And it makes inspiration a technology.
InsTech is our new IT.
We see that InsTech at work and how!
The post-independence innocents who had roads, airports, public buildings, schools, colleges and even universities, townships, parks, bridges, lakes, canals named after their heroes or parents or themselves, were in the high school of inspiration-making. The British raj that gave us hill stations named Wellington and Dalhousie, townships like Forbesganj and Daltonganj were in InsTech’s pre-school. And the pre-Mughals and Mughals who named places like Tughlakabad, Shahjehnabad, Aurangabad, Moradabad, Ahmedabad after themselves in InsTech’s very nursery.
Today, when inspiration-making is a full-time course in the open university of India’s public life, the world of the media is where this new discipline does its field work. This media is not just print media expanded to visual media and private media to social media but, to borrow and adapt a phrase from aviation, it is open media, like open skies, open air waves. Not just the newspapers and the screens, from the big to those on home walls, on desks, perched on laps, held in the palms of one’s hands, this open media is where inspirational speeches are made, inspirational gestures exhibited, inspirational slogans shouted, inspirational promises made. Every street, every open wall space is, of course, InsTech’s seamless canvas.
InsTech works multi-mode miracles. It can also work to provoke the opposite.
Very often the gambit flops. To cite Tamil Nadu, again, inspiration-making is highly interactive. No sooner is a poster up that deft fingers work on it. And they go, invariably, for the eye.
Why the eye?
For eyeless, the person looks particularly helpless, hopeless. And since everything else about the person’s face on the poster is air-blown chic, forehead cleaned of wrinkles, cheeks of stubble, chins of down, noses of blackheads, nostrils of cilia, teeth of plaque, that face, bereft of eyes, looks like a caricature. Not just helpless but clueless and in need of, not capable of giving, support. Blinding used to be a medieval punishment, followed by other forms of torture, ending invariably in execution. When the person being projected by inspiration technology is disliked, the reactive public turns to that medieval torture. Its act, vicarious and impotent though it is, activates the public’s talents at de-constructing strategy by its vicarious satire.
In our post-inspiration age, inspiration technology wants to give us, like Bt cotton and Bt brinjals, Bt inspiration. InsTech can succeed up to a point. Beyond that point, the human need for inspiration will turn to the organics of the ‘real thing’ and behind the artifice, find it.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal