Krishna in the Media Era

India's fascination with mythology is perhaps easier to experience than explain. For one thing, it remains a remarkable cultural achievement that what we call mythology remains a living tradition, unlike in other cultures where the word often refers to fictions and dead beliefs. The stories of the gods, and those of Krishna in particular, resonate with as much vibrancy in our lives today as they might have in the lives of our grandparents, and in the lives of those even more distant. There have been whole schools of powerful thought which have viewed this phenomenon unfavorably, in the name of progress, modernization and reason. Yet, the critics of what we call mythology have come and gone, while the stories, and our adoring value for them endure, for it is in them, with them and through them that we have made the better ideals of reason and progress our own too. From the days of Phalke and Gandhi to the present, our myths have been a medium as much as a message. What we see in them, is more than entertainment and certainly a lot more than mere superstition. What we see in our mythology is our vision of the gods, and that means, naturally, our vision of everything.

The excitement around the recent movie "Krishna aur Kans" (to be released soon in America under the title "Hey Krishna") may be mostly about its scale of production and animation techniques, but what the film represents is a lot more than that. For nearly 100 years, Indian cinema has been doing something remarkable when it comes to mythology, negotiating the cultural balance between sanctity and secular entertainment. In the 1920s, mythological cinema was sometimes seen as an allegory for the independence struggle. In the 1930s, movies about saints and their devotion underlined the need for social reform. In the 1950s and '60s, even as Hindi films moved to other themes, mythology remained a glorious, star-filled genre in the south, forever elevating actors like N.T. Rama Rao to an image on par with their divine roles, and more importantly, finessing a sensibility about mythology that has rarely been equaled. Closer to the liberalization era, the Doordarshan epics of the 1980s, and the numerous TV and animated productions ever since, have led to more mythology than one could absorb in a lifetime. It is easy to see all this in terms of a commercial or political narrative, but there is an abiding, and intriguing question that remains at the heart of the genre: What do the gods mean in the age of mass media?

A generational perspective might illumine that more than a textual one. We are told that in the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for audiences to respond to the images on screen as if the gods were right there (that happened with NTR too, but there it was perhaps as much him as it was Lord Krishna getting the worship). Even in the 1980s, one heard of Sunday morning domestic piety as viewers lit incense and lamps near their TV sets to welcome Lord Ram. In the present animated mythology era though, we have a different sensibility also at play; the gods as merchandizing-ready superheroes. Hanuman, Chota Bheem, Lava and Kusa, and of course, Krishna, are not just gods, but also pop culture icons on a scale earlier generations, even with Amar Chitra Katha dreams, did not have to contend with. Critics might see this as too much commerce or subliminal Hindutva, but I believe the yearning for the divine (even if tempered by the craving for entertainment) is too human, universal and important to be dismissed so easily. At the same time, one cannot value every piece of animation, TV melodrama or violent fantasy equally in the name of our heritage and culture.

What a film like "Krishna aur Kans," with its substantial commercial and creative investment, might achieve at this moment is a return to a more careful sort of story-telling about mythology rooted not in the transmission of pedagogy or peddling of ever-more bizarre action fantasy, but in the cultivation of sensibility. For nearly two decades, we have been faced with a barrage of careless, and sometimes tasteless, productions that have sought to tantalize young viewers with sordid violence and cheesy posturing while placating parents with some sort of promise that the children are learning their heritage. There have been exceptions, of course, but one cannot help feel that there is a need for something to cut through the clutter, on screen, and in our minds too. We might not go to the multiplex to watch a mythological in the same spirit as we go to a temple, but we cannot ever watch Hanuman or Krishna without some lingering sense of the sacred about them.

Knowing what that meaning is precisely takes more intellectual investment than what he have given it until now. As Diana Eck writes in her new book, "India: A Sacred Geography," "what is at stake is not the capacity of the gods to be present in the world, but rather the human capacity to apprehend that presence," a point as relevant to our entertainment perhaps as our religiosity. And what we need to learn to apprehend perhaps, more than ever, is not just the heroism of the gods in battle, but their kindness and decency in the mundane as well.

The Krishna who fights will entertain us, but in our hearts, what we desire is still the Krishna who delights. For that, merely knowing the story like a series of events is not the point. It is only in experiencing the story of Krishna, year after year, and by employing the best of our cultural resources to enrich that experience through art and vision that we honor Krishna, and everything we have seen in him for hundreds of years.

First published in The New Indian Express.