Thursday, 27 September 2007

SEARCHING AN ICON

Among my million problems in life, there is a minor one. I do not have an icon. There are some people whom I have admired. But an icon? No, I can’t think of anyone. Remember those devout fans of Amitabh Bachchan in Calcutta? They literally worshipped Big B’s idol. Bachchan has been an icon for many who were younger in the 1970s and even later. Now, the faces of icons from filmdom have changed. So has been the case on sport fields. Here’s an idea…what about a temple of Mahendra Singh Dhoni now? With India winning the T20 Cup, he’s an icon too. I won’t be surprised at all if the Indian hockey players regain iconic stature after their Chennai performance – thanks to Chak De India. So I thought of deciding on my icon. I should not be all by myself.

However, I was wondering who is an icon? In general sense, someone who is an enduring symbol of something positive. It could be honesty, success in profession or some other achievement that could inspire others to follow that path. But we Indians are not just followers. We are a nation of worshippers. Our icons attain god-like status. Sania Mirza becomes an icon; Sachin Tendulkar becomes an icon and they are worshipped. The craziness they arouse, go much beyond their achievements that have brought them fame.
At the same time the worshippers take no time to get mad with their “gods” if they fall short in anyway.

I asked noted sports commentator Kishore Bhimani about this whole business. “We judge sports as a religion. This is a unique Indian problem. Nowhere in the world the top achievers become god. I am certain if Dhoni stands for election, he would win. And so far as burning posters and effigies of sports persons or painting their house with black – are all the other side of the coin,” he says. “Any player can go through a bad phase. But owing to our high expectations, we forget that,” he adds. I wonder whether we are uneducated in terms of our appreciation of the games. Bhimani disagrees: “ We are perhaps the most educated nation when it comes to sports. But hero-worshipping is part of our Indian psyche. You cannot change or rectify it. Being media persons, you and me could impartially evaluate the situations at the most.”

Life is not just sports and our icons are varied like the varied areas of human activities. For professor of English literature and poet Sanjukta Dasgupta, Tom Dunn was her literary icon when she was a student of literature. “But my icons change with the mood and with time. So as a teacher now, my icon is Rabindranath Tagore,” she says. Dasgupta is certainly influenced and inspired by Tagore’s writings “spanning the whole trajectory of our lives.” In his lifetime Tagore too had his share of harsh criticisms, particularly from literary stalwarts like Sajanikanta Das. Doubts were expressed about Tagore’s multi-faced abilities. I mention this to Dasgupta. But the judge of Commonwealth Writers Prize and an acclaimed scholar herself, Dasgupta “never had any doubt about the literary icons.”

But why do we need icons in the first place? Poet Mallika Sengupta offers a reason: “We need them as trendsetters. They are the embodiment of our unfulfilled dreams.” For her, Tagore again comes as the first name as the icon. “I admire Tagore for reflecting a woman’s view point in his writings. Before him there were hardly any female literary icon and it’s because of Tagore women were inspired to take up pen,” Sengupta justifies her choice. She however, had reservations about Tagore’s initial writings where “he came out as a conservative person,” who was opposed to women’s liberation. “Tagore criticised the idea that women would come out of their homes and get into the wider world. But after he went to Europe, Tagore witnessed the freedom enjoyed by women there and his own views changed drastically. This ability to change oneself for better is indeed a sign of greatness,” the poet adds about her icon.

I still had my doubt. Isn’t that nation unfortunate which need icons and heroes? Sengupta counters: “Many years back our country had several icons – political, social and the like. Weren’t we little better than what we are now? Why else do we crib about lack of political and social role models and youngsters blindly following sportsperson and losing touch with finer aspects of life?”

Indeed, we do not have another Mahatma Gandhi among us. But one wonders how far his ideals are relevant in today’s materialistic world. “Gandhi stood for truth, and non violence. Even if his thoughts go to the background for a while, they cannot fade out completely. We need to resort to them at times of crises,” says U R Ananthamurthy. He disagrees with the perception that we need icons in our lives. “We do not need icons. But the values practised and preached by certain individuals promote them to an iconic status. So was the case with Gandhi or Martin Luther King,” he adds.

We turn our attention to film actors and sports people. “The iconic status of film actors is deliberately nurtured by the industry. Almost similar is the case with the sportspersons. They are increasingly becoming products of marketing. And that’s why when they fail – the hero worship turns to hero bashing,” Ananthamurthy explains like a teacher. But for him these industry-created icons are not dangerous. “The real danger is when we think of certain wrong people as icons. I get worried when communal elements are referred to as icons. Luckily, we Indians are capable of thinking rationally and we reject those wrong elements,” the thinker adds with relief.

Noted journalist Karan Thapar, however, doesn’t sound relieved: “We don’t have any political icon. There are icons in other fields but I don’t see anyone in Indian politics. Yes, we often talk about Gandhi, but we honour him more in breaches rather than following his path.” One of the reasons for the current state of affairs, as Thapar cites, is “disappearance of honesty.” Honesty in all spheres is what makes an icon transparent. “Whether its Leo Tolstoy or Mahatma Gandhi, they have all been honest about their lives,” says Anathamurthy. “They are humble and human. That’s what makes them credible and we are attracted by their human nature. A true icon is not a god,” he adds.
Agrees Thapar: “To be an icon one has to have quality of character with which people can relate.”

The word character makes me think about some characters, who regularly feature in the media for all the wrong reasons. Yet so many youngsters follow them – from copying their hairstyle to the way they speak. The constant attention these characters get from media and the devotion with which people consume news and views about these characters are at times, to me, appalling. I ask Thapar about the role of media in creating icons. “I don’t think media deliberately creates an icon. What you see is media’s attempt to respond to a situation. The exuberance of the people when India performs well in a game or when a someone like Sunita Williams achieves a feat get reflected in media content,” Thapar defends his territory. There is “no marketing strategy” or any other agenda on part of media, he adds.

He somewhat criticises the public for their “lack of proportion” in “lavishing praise on the icons and then criticising them for their failings.” And then to substantiate his stand, Thapar cites Shilpa Shetty and Anna Kournikova. “There was blanket coverage of everything Ms Shetty did during her Big Brother days. Ms Kournikova’s fashion statement was a regular feature on television and print. But have they become icons?” the veteran asks.

So I go back to a college campus and ask 20 students about their icons. They give me loads of names. They are mostly film actors and sports persons. No one from the world of literature. No one from politics. None from medicine. Only one student mentions Manjunath, who was killed for opposing corruption.

I ask each one of them what they think about Mahatma Gandhi. They reply with respect. But except two, no one else sounds confident enough whether they can truly follow his principles. “It’s tough,’ says a girl. “There’s too much of violence and money in this world and one cannot have a stable life without power and money,” she explains. The student in her early 20s has “no clue whether truth is the greatest power of all.” It was little surprising since she wants to join some “reputed” news channel and “they deal with unbiased facts.”

Sitting below the trees of the campus, another student shows me a bunch of articles on Mahatma Gandhi that he has been collecting for some time. “For me Gandhiji is beyond an icon. His strength, his faith in truth and simplicity looks so unreal that I fear I can never reach that state. But I cannot give up my endeavour to follow him,” he says. Then, looking at the streaming cars, he says: “Perhaps, that’s why we tend to promote those people as icons whom we can easily emulate.”

His batchmate, who aspires to become a civil servant, tells me how difficult it could be to accept someone as an icon unless the integrity of that person is beyond doubt. “Not everyone can become as courageous as Manjunath Shanmugan. That rare quality in him has elevated the martyr to the pedestal of my icon,” she says with conviction.

I cite the responses to my teacher Timothy McEwan, who leads a retired life. “Do not be surprised with the responses. Do not think that the status of icons is being demeaned. Time changes everything and there has to be difference between the way your generation thinks and what people younger than you think. It happens all the time. It happened with us, it is happening with you and it will happen with the new kids too. A lot depends on the prevailing circumstances. Those big film actors who were stars for you, are today’s icons and who were leaders to us, became your icons. But call them icons or role models or leaders - we will always look up to some people as our guiding light. And remember, the process begins at home, with your parents or an elder brother maybe,” he tells me from a distant land and seemingly distant era.


I look back at my minor problem again. It doesn’t look like a problem any more. Yes, I do need to follow certain values that have been preached by the great figures. Maybe they are the souls from the past. Similarly, I can follow the values cherished by so many honest people I had known. There are many like them in our lives. And together, we can help each other in becoming good human beings and set examples without much a do. I don’t really need an icon.