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Activist interrupted

Rajani? Tendulkar died last Thursday. At 48, and suddenly. Priya was cut short in mid-career, mid-crusade, almost in mid-conversation.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2002 16:46 IST

Rajani’ Tendulkar died last Thursday. At 48, and suddenly. Death is not a corrupt bureaucrat or a manufacturer of faulty pressure-cookers; it doesn’t wilt and withdraw when challenged by a determined resister. The allotted span of an individual’s life is not as predictable as the time-slots of TV programming either. Thus, without so much as a ‘Sorry for the Break’, Priya Tendulkar was cut short in mid-career, mid-crusade, almost in mid-conversation.

I didn’t get to know her as well as some of the friends I’ve made on the proliferating platforms of activism. But it was clear that hers was not a scripted feistiness. At every conference, seminar or workshop, she was as combative as she was on television. Maybe Priya and Rajani were the same person. Maybe she felt obliged to continue to play the part off screen. Whatever the truth, even her casual ‘How are you?’ sounded like an interrogation.

Gazing at her fiery good-looks, listening to her articulate interjections, I would invariably find myself mulling over the two trends that Priya/Rajani had unintentionally spawned. One, the glamorisation of the do-gooder, and, two, the TV star as activist (or vice versa).

The pre-Murdoch generation simply can’t understand the astonishing success of ‘Rajani’. It had singlehandedly rescued Doordarshan from the soul-desiccating boredom of Lavani Dances in Latur and Drip-Irrigation in the Deccan. It had even out-audienced the devotion-with-Special FX ‘Ramayan’. Rajani made consumer activism so sexy that adulterated kerosene almost acquired the riveted eyeballs of adultery. Moreover, Priya was so convincing as the crusader that viewers actually believed that anyone could get an immediate replacement, refund, or even divine retribution for their stay-down pop-up toasters.

Before its Rajanification, do-gooderism had languished in the kirana shop of our consciousness like a sack of bajra. Priya Tendulkar released it from its commodity karma, and turned it into a brand. Suddenly, it acquired a face, an identity and a glossy Press Pack. But ironically, the serial’s own specialty was denied admission to this new club of causes-with-a-designer-label. Consumer redressal remained in the lowly league of malaria and malnutrition, instead of sashaying amidst the displacement divas, the oil-slick chicks, the HIV League.

Despite this injustice, discrimination and marginalisation — to borrow from the bleeding-heart liberals’ lexicon — ‘Rajani’ was the first brush-stroke in the makeover of the do-gooder. Her new avatar is activist, and it is as different from the earlier social worker as Jairam Ramesh is from Jayaprakash Narayan.

Social work used to be the domain of the bored or the boringly committed. Repackaged as activism, it became one of the hotter professional options. It was the difference between the Khadi Bhandar and Fabindia, or any of the latter’s clones where the price of a tribal blouse is twice as much as tribal’s annual income - in a good year. It’s the difference between buying ‘dalia’ at the bania, and buying shredded wheat at a health-food store. Between Kolhapuri chappals from the mochi and from Mochi - or from a craft studio in the Village. That’s Greenwich, not some local gaon.

There are many other markers of the post-‘Rajani’ metamorphosis of the do-gooder. Social workers had diplomas in rural resource management from Delhi’s LSR College; activists have degrees in Sustainable Development from the LSE. Or almost. Social workers went to the interiors; activists go to international conferences. The staples of social work were sweat, slush and stipends; the 3R’s of activism are Rights, Resources and Rapporteurs.

Social workers usually trod a lonely path, but activists depend more on networking than AIDS control does on safe-sex behaviour. Which brings me to the second trend pioneered by Priya Tendulkar, television as an anchor of activism. If ‘Rajani’ was pitted against the mass-hysteria of the ‘Ramayan’, its successors are pitted against the saas-hysteria of culture spelt with a ‘K’ or even a ‘Kk’. So they have wisely chosen the news channels.

Even when dealing with Gujarat or Kashmir, Barkha Dutt’s ‘We the People’ programme almost looks and, definitely sounds, like ‘We the Activists’. And when gender is on the agenda it is ‘We the Activists at our National Convention’. That’s when the network takes over the network. More empowerment to its elbowing.

Priya Tendulkar started it all. Looking on from that studio in the sky, she will almost certainly participate in absentia. Having always wrested a piece of the action, she’s hardly likely now to rest in peace.

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Alec Smart said, “Is Jaya ‘J’ because Krishna is dallying too long with Kaveri?”

First Published: Sep 22, 2002 00:43 IST