In search of the remote control

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Sunaina Kumar chronicles how Aastha channel turned yoga guru Baba Ramdev into the country’s most popular tele-healer

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

BACK IN 2003, television in India was dominated by Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and assorted saas-bahusagas. Along came a man who hypnotically managed to disengage the masses from addictive soaps and got them hooked to another K show, Kapalbhati Pranayam with Baba Ramdev on Aastha TV.

The story of Aastha TV is the story of Baba Ramdev; the identity of the one virtually inseparable from the other. It is through Aastha that Ramdev found his calling and his mass following. His presence has kept the channel on the top spot in the morass of spiritual channels in India. It was only fitting that when the original stakeholders, CMM Broadcasting Network Ltd that started the channel in 2000, were looking at shutting it down, Ramdev stepped in, in the guise of a ‘media mogul’. The channel was acquired by Vedic Broadcasting Limited, managed by Ramdev’s aide Acharya Balkrishna in December 2007 for Rs 16 crore.

For Ramdev, who was thinking of striking out on his own, it made perfect sense to acquire a channel with the infrastructure already in place, rather than spending more than Rs 50 crore in starting a new one. For the financial year 2009-10, the company made Rs 18.5 crore revenue through advertisements and telecasting fees, while the operating expenditure was nearly half of that at Rs 9.6 crore. The net profit stood at Rs 2.3 crore. The channel refused to come on record, but a source who has been tracking the Ramdev empire reveals: “For the channel, to break even is enough. Most programmes are made on extremely low budgets. Aastha TV might be the market leader, but make no mistake,it is a tool to propagate the message of Ramdev. His Bharat Swabhiman Trust has attracted donorship primarily through viewers of Aastha.”

In the countdown that preceded Ramdev’s 4 June fast, Aastha TV was broadcasting his yatra across various states of India, as he garnered support for the ‘4 June Ko Dilli Chalo’ campaign. The events from Ramlila Maidan were also broadcasted live. Media critic Shailaja Bajpai says, “There is no one comparable to him when it comes to using the power of television and mass media. He is our foremost televangelist, and the channel has served him well.” In the genre of spiritual channels, Aastha is the undisputed leader, with a comfortable lead over its closest competitor (for May 2011, Aastha holds 36 percent of channel share, followed by Sanskar with 27 percent and Divya TV by 10 percent).

There are 27 spiritual channels in India as rated by TAM Media Research. These channels hold 0.6 percent of total viewership share. This may not sound much when compared to the viewership share of general entertainment channels, but the audience for spiritual channels is constituted of those above 25 years of age. To tap into the ever-expanding youth audience base, Vedic Broadcasting Ltd has been planning to foray into the entertainment industry with Aastha Movies and Aastha Entertainment, but the expansion plan has been stalled for some time.

‘Ramdev tells you how to get in shape to return to a purer form of living. He is a spiritual leader meets- Jane Fonda,’ says Santosh Desai

OF THE TOP 10 programmes across religious channels, all but one are on Aastha TV and no surprise here that the top three shows are all by Baba Ramdev. The No 1 show in this category is Ayurved Evam Jivan Darshan, an updated version of Krishi Darshan that features the rather somnambulant Balkrishna talking to viewers about the benefits of Ayurveda, as he strolls in the gardens surrounding their ashram at Haridwar. It provides Ramdev with the perfect opportunity to promote his Ayurvedic remedies.

Social commentator Santosh Desai says, “What separates Ramdev from other gurus on television like Morari Bapu and Sant Asaram is that his mode of offering solution is not just spiritual but physical. He tells you how to get in shape to return to a purer form of living. In that sense, he is a spiritual leader-meets-Jane Fonda of our generation.” The recent brouhaha, however, has divided the loyalty of his followers. Rajendra Joshi, a government employee and follower of Ramdev, says he is disappointed with his political ambitions. “Ramdev does not propagate faith or religion, he talks about following a certain lifestyle, which is why he will not lose his core viewership. However, I do feel that it is not his job to push political propaganda.”

While the production values of the shows on Aastha TV are highly questionable (with operating cost kept to a bare minimum), the content is a mix of discourses and Q&A on spiritual and familial matters, health shows on Ayurveda and yoga, and treatises on cultural norms. And when you need a breather from the Ramdev show, the roster of gurus on the channel offers a wide variety. Devikanandan Thakur Maharaj is popular for his Gita discourses. Pulak Sagarji Maharaj and Tarun Sagarji Maharaj talk about the dilemmas of everyday life. A recent episode of Tarun Sagarji Maharaj talks about the “dharmatama saas”, one who offers extra gulab jamun to both her daughter and daughter-in-law (this particular speech had members of the audience crying in empathy).

Television’s most popular guru has a standing affair with the camera. They say that a cameraman follows Baba Ramdev wherever he goes. The show is far from over.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.com.
sunaina@tehelka.com

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