Timeless celebrities: the people who are our real stars
Raghu Krishnan reviews a book on Indians who captured public imagination and from whom the limelight will never go away.books Updated: Dec 23, 2012 14:50 IST
Preminder Singh Sandhawalia begins his book, Celebrity, Its Changing Face in India Through The Ages, with Socrates and ends it with Arthur Vichot. Arthur who, you may ask. The author quotes from an AP release from Adelaide where Steve McMorran narrates how a group of cycling fans used the power of social networking to turn a virtual unknown into a celebrity: "We will pick an obscure European pro rider who is doing the Tour Down Under. Someone who no one has heard of before, who will not get a Tour de France spot and is making a minim wage fetching bottles for his team leader. We will make an effort to cheer him like crazy every time we see him...The Vichot phenomenon spread with the speed of internet wildfire. An Arthur Vichot fan club was quickly formed with a membership of more than 800. Vichot was more than a little surprised to arrive in Australia for the first time and find he was already a star. He was mobbed by fans wearing "Allez Vichot" T-shirts. He posed for photographs with a line of fans. He finished the race 94th of 133 riders".
It is through examples like this that Sandhawalia warns us that the word celebrity has got diluted to such an extent that it no longer need refer to a famous person or the state of being famous, as the Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines it. Today a celebrity can be manufactured courtesy social networking. Reading Sandhawalia's book, this reviewer was reminded of the apocryphal tale of the king who irritated his tailor so much that the latter decided to teach him a lesson. And so, one day, when the king had ordered for a particularly fine robe to be made of a kind which no one had ever worn before, the tailor and his assistants arrived at the palace with an empty box. The asked the king to strip, opened the box, took out the non-existent imaginary gown and pretended to put it on him. Each time the king wanted to question them about the robe he could neither see nor feel, the assistants would praise the tailor for creating such a marvelous dress and tell the king that he looked really regal in his splendid new attire. The king was persuaded to parade himself before his subjects and the people were asked to gather on the streets to watch their ruler walk past in his unique attire. Everyone kept silent remembering the announcement that the ruler's attire was unique and one of a kind until a small boy opened his mouth and loudly asked, "Why is the king walking around naked?"
What makes Sandhawalia's book so readable is that it is interactive in a sense that the author almost appears to be having a dialogue with the reader instead of trying to impose his views. He begins by defining society, achievement and the perception of a celebrity. While today the Socratic method of philosophical query has come to be accepted as the pre-requisite for all western intellectual activity, Sandhawalia reminds us that the ruling class in Athens of that ancient era did not take too kindly to being questioned all the time, and sentenced Socrates to death. What makes Sandhawalia's book so readable is that it is interactive in a sense that the author almost appears to be having a dialogue with the reader instead of trying to impose his views. He begins by defining society, achievement and the perception of a celebrity. While today the Socratic method of philosophical query has come to be accepted as the pre-requisite for all western intellectual activity, Sandhawalia reminds us that the ruling class in Athens of that ancient era did not take too kindly to being questioned all the time, and sentenced Socrates to death. Today, public opinion polls are an integral part of every democracy to an extent where, during the 2012 US presidential campaign, the campaign strategists to President Obama and the Republican candidate Romney quietly organised their own confidential straw polls among small but representative samples of voters to get a feedback ahead of the November election on not just how the electorate was responding to the substance of their articulated policies but also to their campaigning styles. Going by Sandhawalia's reference to the obscure European pro rider whom social networking cycling fans manufactured into a celebrity, one is tempted to wonder whether we could even have an Arthur Pichot moment in US presidential elections! Unless we have already had one, going by the fact that an adviser to a former president was called "Bush's brain" by political commentators in America!
Sandhawalia takes us down the pages of Indian history to narrate how the celebrities of the past who have stood the test of time have achieved something extraordinary or exceptional in terms of capturing the public imagination, changing social consciousness or pushing the frontiers of knowledge. He cites towering personalities like Vyasa and Gautama Buddha who sought to understand and teach the purpose of life in the age which he calls the Epic Era and then goes on to the spiritual quest of Kabir and Nanak in the mediaeval and Islamic period of Indian history. He refers to the unique transformation of the ruler Ashoka from a ruthless conqueror to an unstintingly compassionate advocate of reverence for all forms of life throughout the length and breadth of what was then the greatest empire in ancient India. He describes how the ultimate book on governance was drafted in ancient India by Chanakya under the nom de plume of Kautilya and quotes the historian Abraham Eraly as saying that "Compared to the monumentality, detached professionalism and surgical precision of Arthasastra, Machiavelli's pamphlet, The Prince, written about 1,800 years later, seems like the work of an ardent amateur". Sandhawalia takes us to the Mughal Empire of mediaeval India and to the reign of Akbar who treated all his subjects of all religions with respect at a time when Europe was witnessing some of the bloodiest sectarian wars in human history. And then he takes us to the era of the Raj when the rulers were British but the heroes were men like the social-reformer Ram Mohan Roy, the spiritualist Vivekananda, the architect Lutyens and the 20th-century mathematical genius Ramanujan who was described by an American biographer as "the man who knew infinity" and was yet part of the same tradition which saw Aryabhata coceptualising the zero and approximating pi in 499 AD. Finally, Sandhawalia takes us to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who used the moral force of satyagraha and ahimsa to liberate India from the British Empire "on which the sun would never set", or so its protagonists proclaimed.
But is independent India the culmination of all the physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual efforts of the celebrities listed by Sandhawalia? The author wryly notes that, in the year 2011, a survey of those in the age-group of 18 to 25 in 18 cities in India came up with the response that the top celebrities of this day and age were Sachin Tendulkar, APJ Abdul Kalam and Shah Rukh Khan, in that order. Tendulkar was India's greatest batsman but his contribution was limited to cricket where his Test average was way below that of Bradman. Abdul Kalam had not made a scientific breakthrough per se but was popular because he had set up a website to interact with the aam aadmi, especially the youth. "And Shah Rukh Khan", as Sandhawalia quips, "is an entertainer who will remain in the limelight till the next Bollywood heart-throb comes along."
Somehow, the likes of Tendulkar, Kalam and Sharukh, especially the first and the third, don't quite stack up when compared with the legends Sandhawalia lists. The author notes that the pre-occupation of today's masses with entertainment comes as no surprise. He even quotes from Neal Gabler's book on "How Entertainment Conquered Reality": "In the end, both entertainment and consumption often provided the same intoxication: the sheer endless pleasure of emancipation from reason, from responsibility, from tradition, from class, and from all the other bonds that restrained the self." Sandhawalia attributes this pre-occupation with entertainment to his estimate that out of India's total population of 1.21 billion, only 153 million are the highly-educated and informed "Perceptive Few" while the vast majority of 1,057 million form the "Masses". "We may no longer have the Greats of old who we still admire, but we now have Stars whom the Masses adore briefly", Sandhawalia says at the end of the penultimate chapter. Which does seem a rather elitist way of looking at things. However, the real message of Sandhawalia's book could lie not in the last two chapters but in the earlier ones where he has narrated how, time and time again, the eternal celebrities of India have transformed the country by reaching out to the masses. It was after drinking kheer prepared by an ordinary member of the masses called Sujata that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. As Sandhawalia himself points out, there is always movement across the line demarcating these categories of the Perceptive Few and the Masses. Which should surely give us hope for the future.
Celebrity, Its Changing Face in India Through The Ages by Preminder Singh Sandhawalia
Authorhouse, PP 165, Rs. 894 on Flipkart after discount