How To Think Of Dharma In The Advertising Space—Here Is An Inspiration From Not-So-Distant Past
Some mediocre hate-mongers have occupied the heights of advertising industry in India.
We need to go beyond reacting to such Lilliputians. We need to create. And here's some inspiration in that direction.
‘Appa, but you know Dhuruva story?’, the eight-year-old boy said. It was both a statement and a question. The father was at the table, cutting a particular advertisement from a newspaper. The boy had to put that cutting into a paper bag that with a specific label. ‘Yes. I know the story’ answered the man, without lifting his head. ‘And we have Amar Chitra Katha of Dhuruva along with Ashtavakra’, the boy persisted. ‘Yes. We do’, the man said, his attention fully on the paper. ‘That is in colour too.’, the boy continued, ‘so why are you cutting this advertisement?’
The boy’s father now looked up from the paper and looked straight into the eyes of the boy. Handing over the rectangular advertisement to the boy he said, ‘One day, perhaps not in my life time, but one day surely, you will understand why this is important. Now put this inside the cover that says, ‘Great children of India.’’
Now, after 42 years, I look at the paper cuttings my father had collected and sorted under separate labels. What a treasure! It's not just about the memories. In the present context of the 'advertisement war' on Dharmic traditions, such cuttings make us realise what kind of Dharmic advertisements we once had.
‘Markandeya – destined for an early death but granted eternal life’: a full page advertisement. For Markandeya? No. Actually it was for Mafatlal Group. After a beautiful depiction of the Puranic episode of Markandeya in full, the advertisement ended:
Indian legend and lore are filled with tales of little children. Traditional tales told and retold at our mothers’ knees. Lessons of wisdom and innocence that mould and shape our lives, our personalities from the earliest years. Instilling in us the ideals of courage, devotion, purity, goodness. Tender teachings that touch our daily lives and inspire us in so many ways. Teachings which have influenced the attitudes, decisions and policies of Mafatlal Group. For we too, are guided by the ideals garnered from this rich tapestry of tales … and inspired by the principles they have fostered and nurtured over our growing years.
The series – am not sure if we have collected them all - also contains ‘Nachiketa – the son who faced death to keep his father’s word.’
And Prahlada, with a sub-title 'A child’s devotion braved a demon’s wrath.’
When talking about India's great children, who can forget Aruni-Uddalaka. Yet, we have managed to exclude his tale completely from the millions of children stories that are churned out through books and digital media.
Here we have an advertisement that shows the brave disciple who would use his own body to protect the seedlings in the field of his Guru: ‘Aruni-Uddalaka – his obedience and courage knew no bounds’.
If we talk of devotion to Guru then we also have to think about Shravana, who dedicated his own life in living and in death to the service of his old parents. You do not want your child to say 'but I have a life of my own mom' in your old age. You'd rather that he be an example to his or her own children. If that is the goal, then the character of Shravana should be part of what we teach our children at an early age.
The advertisement introduces him as a boy who lived 'a life of self-sacrifice rewarded for all eternity.’
Then there was a series on the great women of India. Consider what the advertisement featuring Chennama has to say:
To Chennama belongs the glory of being the first Indan woman to take up arms against the might of the British when their power was sweeping everythung before them in mighty surge. Her signal victory over the British commandant Thackeray converted Kittur into a citadel of freedom and held the British at bay for a long time. Even when she was overwhelmed by sheer numbers, she fought to death - forsaking all hopes of victory.
The following passage was common to all the advertisements showing the great women of India:
Down the ages, India has produced women of immenses stature - from all parts of the country and different communities and social strata. These included saints and seers, poets and musicians, all gifted with extraordinary moral, spiritual and intellectual powers. Their living thoughts have gone into the creation of India's ethos. They are also the vital element behind the evolution of the operating philosophy of the Mafatlal Group.
That last line was the advertisement. It was an advertisement saying that our values are the values of India—eternal India.
Among the great women of India one also finds Avvaiyar and Akka Mahadevi – thus covering the linguistic diversity while showing the unity of the eternal values of the land.
For Avvaiyar, the Tamil poetess, the advertisement informs the readers:
Kings and courtiers vied with each other to invite her to their courts and eagerly sought her counsel on matters of state. On many occasions she successfully mediated among them to avert wars. Her following in royal circles not withstanding, she lived and worked among common people, who affectionately called her the 'venerable matron'. School children read Avvaiar to this day, testifying to the perennial power of her ideas.
There was also a series on Adarsh-Tampathis and Darshanas and Seasons and Jyothir Lingas. The connecting passage in the series of Jyothirlingas read:
Through the centuries these temples have been important centers of pilgrimage. People from all over the country travel to worship at these shrines dedicated to Shiva. The Jyothirlingas have thus played a significant role in bringing together people from north and south, east and west. People from different social and linguistic groups united in common purpose that transcends all barriers. They are fine example of the unifying power of religion and our country's basic unity in the midst of such overwhelming diversity. This thought is also the vital element behind the evolution of the operating philosophy of the Mafatlal Group embedded in its policies and projected through the activities of its diversified operations.
Thus, the entire advertisement is, to this day, a call from the heart of its designer, that reminds every English-educated Indian, who is vulnerable to forget the inherent spiritual unity of India, about his or her basic cultural unity.
Think of an Indian mind, though handicapped in cultural understanding by its Nehruvian indoctrination, which, through these advertisements understands that if two of the 12e Jyothirlingas were worshipped by both Rama and Ravana, then where is the rationale for Rama-Ravana confrontation as having to do with culture or race? They both belonged to the same culture, same spiritual traditions but the ultimate deciding factor or a person's worth in this nation is not what a person believes in but his conduct.
Ultimately what do Jyothirlingas and Darshanas and seasons have to do with Mafatlal?
For a conventional mind nothing. It should have been a deeply creative mind that is so animated by the values of that India of the ages to have conceived these advertisements.
Samanvaya is a process that runs in this nation through millenia. Often we tend to forget its strength and also abuse it for political and sectarian appeasement. The real samanvaya removes monopolistic tendencies and places various beliefs in proper Dharmic perspective - containing them in the cycle of seasons - like the above advertisement showing Hemanta Ritu.
This article cannot be complete without bringing in another similar series—advertisements of Lakshmi Mills from Coimbatore. Alas here too I do not have the complete collection. But the series is called ‘Fabrics in the classics.’
The first of the series is the Vedic invocation to the fabric itself from Yajusha Mantra Prasanams. The advertisement highlights the relevant portion:
Celestial … divine … lovely borders … petal-soft cloth … labour of love. Such ennobling, evocative images and thoughts from the fairest of the fair classics inspire us into steadfast integrity and fairplay. Because fairplay is the warp & weft of the rich fabric of our tradition.
In the same series an advertisement shows Sri Krishna acting as Radha’s dress maid.
What a great way to familiarize the English-educated Indian mind with the greatness and beauty of our literature! The advertisement gives this from 24th Ashtapathi:
Gently flows the Yamuna. A full moon shed its silvery light on the entire scene. Flowers in full bloom on the banks of the river. In a secluded grotto awaits love-lorn Radha of her Krishna. Waiting becomes intolerable for her. Krishna turns up at last: there is a tiff between the lovers. Reconciliation and then union. Radha's gorgeous clothes and ornaments are in disarray. 'You are the cause of all this,' she teases Krishna. 'You better dress me all over again. ' Krishna proceeds to do so. The Lord thus becomes Radha's dress maid.
Another advertisement featured the 5th sarga of Kumarasambhava:
The Mighty Himalayas! The abode of Almighty Lord Shiva. Its icy slopes glimmer in the soft glow of the moon light. Ideal for stern, unrelenting meditation; a unique backdrop to be in tune with the Infinite. Amidst these serene surroundings stands a maiden of surpassing beauty. Clad in a fabric made of tree-bark, she is all prayer and penance. Along comes a bachelor of holy mien, in deer-skin robe. He addresses Parvathi: "O lovely maiden! What are you punishing your tender skin by wearing this rough fabric? You deserve clothes softer than swan feathers. Why do you pine for Shiva? He is ash-smeared: clad in coarse elephant-skin; sporting a garland of skulls.' But unrelenting and annoyed, Parvathi insists that no matter what Shiva wears, He is the lord of her heart.
Note the four different kind of fabrics mentioned here: the tree-bark fabric of Parvathi, the deer-skin dress of the mendicant, mendicant’s mention of a fabric softer than swan feathers and then the elephant-skin dress Shiva wears. What a contrasting imagery of fabric types!
I also remember an advertisement in the same series in which there was the depiction of Sangam episode in which poetess Avvaiyar, through a peacock feather-cued dress, made possible the marriage of the daughters of the great philanthropist Tamil king Paari. Unfortunately I could not locate it.
These advertisements are value-based, and entrenched in the pride of the spiritual culture that united us through the diversity of the country. There has been no appropriation, no perverted pleasure in deliberately teasing and provoking communities on the occasion of their festivals.
These advertisements represent an innovative way – Hindu way of advertisement, Dharmic advertisement. Unfortunately, this stream in the valley of advertisement space has since then seemed to have gone dry or subterranean like Saraswati river.
Mediocre hate mongers have occupied that space. Elites who parade the nudity of their cultural illiteracy have become Tsars of advertisement agencies.
We need to go beyond reacting to these Lilliputians. We need to create. And may this past memory become important inspiration in that direction.
The man who collected these advertisements and handed them over to me, is now a memory and hence an abiding presence.
And to that presence, I say, ‘Yes now I understand.’
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