The unsung merits of Doordarshan in a consumerist age

Doordarshan Bharati is India’s PBS. Only, a more fusty version that continues to have a dedicated viewership due to the nonpareil content of its archives. It is a veritable Geniza of everything Indian – culture, language, music, arts and literature. The words, India and Indian, mean many things to each of us and the already diverse experience and interpretation of Indian-ness seems to now grow exponentially each year. Much has changed in the past decade; enough to feel a generational divide with those a mere ten years younger than us. Their experience and obsession with consumerism is one that my generation did not have and in any case, could not afford.

I am from the Southern part of India; a region distinctly different from the North, in both attitude and approach to life and living. In my time, those that could afford more than most were subdued and restrained with their wealth. Conspicuous consumption was frowned upon. The appurtenance of wealth was seen in maybe a big house (often with the same interiors as your own; only bigger spaces) or a car; but personal display was almost non-existent. All retired grandfathers wore Veshtis and shirts; All mothers and grandmothers wore demure, mostly cotton, saris with red pottus and flower strands in their hair for adornment; All ate with their hands. There was a homogenizing sameness of lifestyle that transcended money. Not much distinguished a rich girl from a poor one in dress, food, habit or lifestyle. At the most, one had short hair and the other had a plait. And then she was called, ‘modern’, not rich. One wore maybe a city styled ‘fancy’ chappal; the other had Bata. When I was growing up, all kids, rich or poor, wore Bata chappals. I only woke, with wide eyed astonishment, to the realization that there was something called ‘party shoes’ in my twenties. It happened with the excruciating embarrassment of the universally experienced rite of passage; and yes, in an alien culture. ‘Children’ have party shoes today! I am not a curmudgeon dinosaur (despite a sincere effort to have portrayed myself thus), but in my world, children do not need and, will never need party shoes!

Consumerism is not always a bad thing. It is a necessary driver of the economy; but, our children must be protected from its corrosive power. There is an age which indulges in it (and should); there is an age that retracts and detaches from it and there is an age that should not know it at all. It is hard to instill values of empathy, equality and sharing in children when materialism is competing for mind and heart space. This age is better served by intellectual consumption than by material consumerism. When these foundations are firmly in place; we build a citizenry of integrity who, while not shunning the consumerist experience, will be well schooled in not falling under its rapacious influence either. The ugly sights of a spurious entitlement, visible all around us today, might finally fade and die. And wealth might cease to be the sole arbiter of justice.

For those like me, for whom experiencing today’s India unfailingly provokes a perpetual nostalgia for a culture past and with a shrinking horror of the new; Doordarshan is a reassuring balm. At the end of a working day in India when body returns home with a numbed mind; nerves on edge and crumpled souls sink into the pillowed comfort of its quiet monotone narration, its languid landscapes, sublime, identifiable music and richly illustrated documentaries of our history and traditions. In the rapidly alienating environment of modern India that questions the roots of our belonging; it is Doordarshan that reminds us each time that we are indeed, home.

I wrote this, in some agitation, after listening to a stirring poem by Gurudev, that was sung by Sasha Ghoshal as the title song of a documentary on Indian Nobels aired on Doordarshan. It left me with a profound sense of loss and a helplessness that is hard to explain in words. I dearly wish for you, my dear reader, to listen to it. The translation, from the Bengali, is copied below. This was the caliber of the people that made and shaped our identities. Remembering them, their lives, their words – how can we not mandate that as a daily exercise for ourselves and for our children? Do the young watch Doordarshan, anymore?

——————————————————————————————————– ——–     When my footprints no longer mark this road – Rabindranath TagoreWhen my footprints no longer mark this road,

I’ll stop rowing my boat to this ghat,

I’ll cease all transactions,

I’ll settle my accounts and clear all dues,

All business will stop in this mart –

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


When the strings of my tanpura gather dust,

When prickly shrubs sprout in my doorsteps,

When the garden flowers put on a mantle of weeds,

When moss spreads all over the pond’s banks,

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars. 


Then the flute will play on in this music hall,

Then Time will flow on,

Then days will pass just as they do now.

Then ghats will fill with boats as they do now –

Cattle will graze while cowboys play on that field.

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


Who can say I won’t be there that morning?

I’ll be in all your fun and games then – this very me!

You’ll name me anew, embracing me as never before,

It won’t matter if you stop thinking of me then,

Or cease calling me while looking at the stars.


Essential Tagore.  Translated by Fakrul Alam, Radha Chakravarthy



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