The Kerala media’s penchant for excessive, celebratory coverage of annual events was in evidence once again last week.
Going by standards established by the media, especially since the advent of private satellite television two decades ago, there was plenty to celebrate. The three-month-long Sabarimala pilgrimage season, which is said to attract 50 million people, a majority of them from outside the state, came to a climatic end on Thursday. The week-long annual School Kalolsavam (art festival), in which about 10,000 high school and higher secondary students vied for honours in a variety of events, ended on Friday.
The Sabarimala season, spread over two sessions, begins in November and ends in January. No one knows for sure how long the temple, nestling in the western mountains, has been attracting devotees. The Hindu religious establishment ties up its history with that of the erstwhile royal families of Travancore and Pandalam both of which rose and fell in the modern period.
A clue to its antiquity lies in the principle of absolute equality that is part of the Sabarimala tradition. The temple is open to all, irrespective of caste and religion. The devotees wear the same simple clothes and address one another as “Swami” or “Ayyappa”, both terms used to refer to the deity himself. A visit to the shrine of Vavar, a Muslim saint, located on the way to the temple, is an indispensable part of the pilgrimage.
It is unimaginable that such egalitarian practices could have originated after the Vedic establishment gained control of Kerala society and enforced the caste system, probably around 8th century AD.
The government’s Devaswom department has under its control more than 1,000 temples, big and small, in the Travancore region. Sabarimala is the biggest money-spinner. Preliminary estimates put the earnings of the just concluded season at a whopping Rs1.2 billion.
The hereditary Thantri of the temple, the authority on rituals, is said to receive each year a few million rupees by way of gifts and offerings. The senior and junior priests, who are selected each year by draw of lots, also take home substantial sums.
The government collects payments from the Devaswom authorities for various services rendered by its agencies for the pilgrims. Haindava Keralam, a Hindutva website, describes the levies as loot.
Most Malayalam channels made elaborate arrangements for coverage of the main activities at Sabarimala during the season. These included several live transmissions, accompanied by drab descriptions by hapless commentators who have to keep talking even when they have nothing new to say.
The School Kalolsavam was a one-day affair when it began in 1956. The participants numbered about 200. There were no television cameras around.
The Kalolsavam grew in size year after year. With the addition of new events the prizes to be won grew too. It became a major event in the school children’s calendar when a festival title became a veritable passport for a film career.
That induced parents to make heavy investments to provide special coaching for the children in various items. Losers often appealed against the festival judges’ decisions. There have been occasions when the courts decided the winners, overthrowing the judges’ findings.
Somewhere along the way TV cameras arrived and started carrying the festival proceedings into homes. This year several channels established temporary studios at the festival venues. From there they kept up a continuous flow of sound and pictures.
Some channel stories dwelt on the vulgarisation of the festival due to the excessive parental interest in the proceedings. The reports glossed over the fact that excessive media coverage is also contributing to the process of vulgarisation.
On the last day, rival TV crews were involved in a melee. As they fought for the privilege of being the first to put the winning Kozhikode team and its trophy on the screen, the duplicate trophy which was in its possession broke.
The coverage of the assault on writer and social critic Zacharia by activists of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, youth wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, at Payyanur, was quite modest. According to informed sources, party managers worked overtime behind the scenes to contain the fallout of the incident, which even many devoted party followers were obliged to deplore.
Commercial sponsors are the driving force behind all excessive media coverage. No improvement in the situation can be expected so long as there are advertisers to back up such vulgarisation.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 18, 2010