Sunday, April 14, 2013

Will Babasahab Ambedkar Go The Way of Neruda, Che, Gandhi et al?: Thoughts on Ambedkar Jayanti


After lots of research it's found that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar is not only the Greatest Indian but also the World’s Greatest Person... Dr. Ambedkar, who fought for civil rights struggle for abolishing caste, made the new India possible. Dr. Ambedkar was not only the father of the constitution of India but also the liberator of all oppressed people. No other icon than Dr. Ambedkar can represent that cultural heritage in the modern period. Dr. Ambedkar always stood for equality, justice, liberty and fraternity and fought his entire life to integrate all Indian for strong democratic Indian nation. Dr. Ambedkar was called Indian Lincoln by the Zion's Herald, New England Methodist weekly, and when the first interview with Dr. Ambedkar was published in the U. S. A....plenty of reason can prove him the "Greatest Man in the World"

‘Ambedkar Greatest Indian After Gandhi’—as per a survey conducted by Outlook magazine in conjunction with CNN-IBN and History18 Channels with BBC in August 2012.

Being an admirer of Babasahab Ambedkar (14 April 1891-6 December 1956), the 'father of Indian Constitution', and the pioneering leader of the marginalised and the depressed in the pre as well as post-independence India, the above slices should make me more than happy. However, I would rather like to take them with a pinch, nay, with loadful, of salt. Human societies, across the time and space, have always found a way to appropriate icons in such a way that symbolism of the icon overshadows all his or her substance. Who can ever forget the rather grand civilizational appropriation of Gautam Buddha by the Sanatan Hindhu religion as an avatar of Lord Vishnu. 

Gautam Buddha, the greatest rebel against Santan Hindu Dharam and
crusader against idol-worship has been appropriated as an avatar of
Lord Vishnu with perhaps largest number of statues of him made of across the world
Image Courtesy: http://www.viewzone.com/buddahyearx.html

And, also, the making of the perhaps the largest number of images and statues of Buddha across the various corners of the world in the backdrop of Buddha’s struggle against idol-worship, one of the key points of his departure from the traditional Hindu tenets.

In the twentieth century, when the iconic Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) was killed in the Bolivia War, none less than Jean-Paul Sartre, the iconic French philosopher, called him "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age".” But soon the image of Che, the ‘international revolutionary icon’, cast such a spell that he has been sported on T-shirts, tattoos, coffee cups and beer mugs all over the world. Michael Casey notes in his book Che's Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image, as mentioned on the Wikipedia page on Che, that Che has become "the quintessential postmodern icon signifying anything to anyone and everything to everyone.
Courtesy of the exhibition “Revolution and Commerce:

Portrait of Che Guevara by Albert Korda”

Above image and caption Courtesy:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/21/books/21kaku.html?pagewanted=all


In an article titled “Brand Che: Revolutionary as Marketer’s Dream” by Michiko Kakutani, (In The New York Times, April 20, 2009), the writer mentions Casey’s book thus: “In this bracing and keenly observed book, Mr. Casey traces...how Che went from being a symbol of resistance to the capitalist system to one of the most marketable and marketed brands around the globe, how the guerrilla fighter became a logo as recognizable as the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches. (my emphasis)

The same ‘fate’ awaited Gandhi and Pablo Neruda, among others. Gandhian symbolic attire of ‘Khadi’ went on to become the ‘uniform’ of Indian political activists devoid of any philosophic tinge that Gandhi had attached to it. For the middle class educated activists Gandhi and Gandhism became the best way to do lip-service in the cause of social service in the post-independence era. On a more concrete commercial front, in an article “Gandhi: A brand the world flaunts!” written by Satrajit Moitra (rediff.com, 2October 2009), wrote: “ From Swiss luxury giant Mont Blanc to Bollywood blockbuster 'Lage Raho Munnabhai', Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace and non-violence, has now become a brand the world proudly flaunts.”


Photo courtesy: http://business.rediff.com/slide-show/2009/oct/02/
slide-show-1-gandhi-the-brand-the-world-flaunts.htm#9


In this photo-feature, one of the captions read, “On his 140th birth anniversary, Gandhiji, once called the 'Naked Fakir', lives on in luxury brands, tees and even many popular flicks - he's now very much a part of the RemixGeneration's psyche.”  The captions are noticeable for the rather ‘uncritical’ manner in which they were written perhaps sharing the ‘pride’ that the world ‘flaunts’.

 

If you happen to visit websites like cafepress.com, zazzle.com or many such websites selling ‘artworks’ or such items, ‘Neruda Coffee Mugs, Neruda Tee Shirts’ etc from $ 17-18 upwards. One can also buy ‘Neruda baby bodysuites’, ‘Neruda Wall Art’ etc, besides such collectibles related to many other icons of our time. In the seminal study titled, Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture Industry by Teresa Longo, the writer details the various direct, indirect, subtle and outlandish manner in which Neruda has been commercially used to sell anything and everything. As the blurb states: “In this compelling collection, Teresa Longo gathers a diverse group of critical and poetic voices to analyze the politics of packaging and marketing Neruda--and Latin American poetry in general--in the U.S. Renowned and emerging scholars of Neruda, poetry, and cultural criticism examine how the ways in which Neruda is published and read create and essentialize images of Latin American culture.” (http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Pablo-Neruda-US-Culture-Industry/Teresa-Longo/9780815333869).

Photo Courtesy:
http://www.resourcerags.com/astro/sst_pablo.shtml

Further, in her research titled ‘Bread, Truth, Wine, Dreams: A Study of Pablo Neruda as a Mythic Figure in Latin American Popular Fiction’ submitted to Texas State University, Elva L Baca, who also refers to Longo’s work, mentions how Neruda’s own Chile has used him for ‘selling real estate’. (https://digital.library.txstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10877/3262/fulltext.pdf)   

In the light of various surveys and view-points establishing Ambedkar as the ‘greatest’, I was rather surprised that many of the ‘Ambedkrites’ seemed more concerned about the rationale for making the survey ‘after-Gandhi’, and giving Gandhi a presumptive superior tag to Ambedkar rather than looking into the whole market-driven agenda of making a brand out of a icon who fought deep-rooted prejudices and bias to give voice to the marginalised. While the political symbolism and identity politics have understandably created statues and named roads and institutions after Ambedkar, one wonders how a suitable strategy can be developed to save Ambedkar from becoming a 'market-brand' and to see to it that the ascendency of the relevance of Ambedkar does not meet the fate of market-appropriation that some of the greatest icons of the 20th century have met, in order to not deviate attention from him as the focussed and genuinely substantial icon of the marginalised, which he is deservedly is. 



'Need to Save Ambedkar from Becoming a Market-Brand"
Photo Courtesy:
http://www.iloveindia.com/indian-heroes/br-ambedkar.html

Because, I am sure, those who really understand the politics of Babasahab Ambedkar are not going to be just satisfied by his images used to sell commercial products (because that is the 'ultimate' tribute which the capitalist-market economy can give!)—or just become tools of fashionable politically correct drawing room discussions.