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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Model Mahatma

K~'s first piece for Hindustan Times--something I'm really really proud of!! The turn of phrases are beautiful..........



Phoenix, Arizona (US), March 19, 2005|15:34 IST
A small, scrawny man in a dhoti unhurriedly climbs the steps of a hut. He sits down on the hard floor of a severely frugal room, and then he smiles - into a web cam.

Suddenly that smile is transported from an austere ashram in Ahmedabad to a giant LCD in Times Square; a cell phone in Rome; a flat screen in France; a laptop in London. Millions of people all over the world listen, mesmerised, as a trembling voice spreads the message of truth and love, barely audible amid the thunder of applause.

The aura is electrifying. Telecom Italia has found a compelling spokesman - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

'Telecom Italia Gandhi', a 60-second advertisement that recently won the Epica Awards, Europe's premier creative awards, has just started airing in Italy. The spot closes with an interesting inquiry, "Imagine the world today if he could have communicated like this". This simple statement, however, triggers a slew of complex issues.

If Gandhi were born into this mind-boggling plethora of media choices would he really have communicated any better? Could he have touched the minds of edgy megalomaniacs through cell phones, palm pilots, blogs and podcasters? Would modern means of mass communication amplify his message or dilute it?

It is somehow hard to imagine Gandhism unscathed by the mockery of late night comics. It is impossible to visualize the mahatma pausing for commercial breaks, getting powdered for the camera, or sharing prime time with Brittney Spears' antics and Aishwarya Rai's giggles.

Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi are present day inheritors of the Gandhian tradition. However, in this frenetic age of information explosion their message too is buried under debris of pluralistic ideologies and a million messages clamouring for attention. All three have access to a surfeit of multimedia and yet their sphere of influence is marginalized. Burma still bristles with violence, Tibetans live on in exile, and Africa continues to burn.


Gandhi, undoubtedly, is considered one of the most effective communicators of the 20th century, but his brand of journalism belongs to an era untouched by television or Internet. His lure lies in the mystique of austerity. His weapon is his message not his medium.

Gandhi was journalist when idealists, not advertisers, ran newspapers. In a public career that spanned nearly four decades, he edited six journals. None, including Harijan and Navajivan, made profit or boasted a circulation of more than a few thousand copies. Yet such was the power of his message that people flocked in thousands just to hear him speak. Camera did not make Gandhi look good, his rigorous brand of asceticism did.

Gandhi is up for grabs but nonviolence is not the reason. As Salman Rushdie puts it, "He has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a freeloading concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented to fit many different purposes..."

In these sloganeering times, few people really pause to ponder the true nature of Gandhi's legacy. It was his bold vision and conviction that accelerated India's struggle for Independence. It was his charisma and leadership that inspired confidence in a country riddled with two centuries of subjugation. Seventy-five years ago this extraordinary man walked 325 kilometers from Sabarmati to Dandi just to defy the might of the British with a handful of salt. Today, he is modeling for brands like Apple Macintosh and Telecom Italia.

Such is the sway of mega bucks. Even the saintliest of the dead can be invoked from history to sell big brands. Gandhi's principles do not count any more, his maverick image does. Ironically his message has been packaged to fall in line with the corporate philosophy of consumerism. His brand image is now protected and marketed by US-based CMG Worldwide Inc, whose roster of deceased celebrities includes matinee idols like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Any cause or company seeking to use the image of India's prophet of abstinence now needs permission from the consumer capital of the world.

Half a century ago Gandhi was a brand unto himself, a communicator powerful enough to be his own medium. Today he is a coveted salesman for cash-flush corporations. His homespun dhoti, trademark walking stick, and round spectacles are curios from a bygone age. Satyagraha and ahimsa: These are words high school kids reluctantly mug up for a history exam. We have never needed a Gandhi more, and yet, the only Gandhi we know is a votary for consumerism.

"Out of my ashes, many more Gandhis will rise," said Mahatma Gandhi. Today, his prophetic words have acquired a paradoxical ring – many more Gandhis have risen – variously packaged as "Telecom Italia Gandhi" and "Apple Gandhi." It is time to claim our mahatma from the market and give him back to the masses. That is where he is held sacred, that is where he truly belongs.

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