God Things and Small Sizes: Convergence and Ganpati

As we have stressed here before, the changes described in Convergence Culture are occurring on a global scale, though the rate of change differs from country to country. Everywhere, we are seeing convergence as working on top of existing layers within the culture — old practices continue, old media survives, yet both are transformed by the emergence of new media technologies and new sets of cultural practices. Convergence is marked both by continuity and transformation.

I was reminded of this play between old and new recently when I received the following e-mail from Parmesh Shahani, a CMS alum who recently returned to his native India after spending three years in the United States. Shahani had been a key player in the development of our Convergence Culture Consortium and continues to be involved in our activities — offering us a view from Asia on the trends in consumer culture we are monitoring.

This essay describes some of his impressions of the ways that new media technology is transforming Ganpati, one of the key religious and cultural festivals in Bombay. Western observers might want to compare it with the ways that new media has or has not been embraced by various religious groups in our own countries. I asked Shahani if I could share the following field notes with you.

God Things and Small Sizes

By: Parmesh Shahani

God is Everywhere

Greetings from Bombay, India. I have come back here right in the middle of the Ganpati (Lord Ganesh) festival fervor – a ten-day spectacle that begins with millions of people in the city bringing statues of the elephant god to their homes and community pandals (lavishly decorated statue stages, erected on almost every street corner in the city) – and culminates in the immersion of these statues into the ocean, accompanied by street processions, fire crackers, color, and noise, noise and more noise.

It is the final day of the event, and I am walking to Chowpatty beach near my home, the biggest immersion site in the city. It’s been several years since I’ve been in India during Ganpati time and one of the changes I notice is that each pandal I pass is ‘sponsored’. The one on the street corner near my house sports banners from Silver House (a local jewelry shop in the adjoining market) as well as ICICI bank and Britannia Tiger biscuits (huge pan-Indian brands). Just then my cell phone beeps; it’s a text message from my cell phone service provider (Hutch) about Ganpati ringtones and wallpapers that I might wish to download. This is again something I hadn’t experienced before.

Flashback to one week ago. I am on a 6 am flight to Calcutta, and each TV screen in the Mumbai airport departure lounge is tuned in to Star News (Murdoch’s Indian news channel), beaming the early morning Ganpati aarti (ceremonial ritual based on the lighting of oil lamps) live from the city’s Siddhi Vinayak temple. I visit the temple website and am quite impressed. They have a live darshan (viewing of the aarti) webcast, online booking of pujas (prayer rituals) and prasad (sweets consumed by devotees after first being offered to the deity) delivery both within India and abroad (via FedEx or other courier services). There are several ways that patrons can make donations to the temple: Union Bank of India, IndusInd Bank, BillDesk, ICICI Bank NRI Services, Remit2India, Itz Cash, Wallet 365… There is also a service to process donations and prasad requests via SMS, or text messaging. The temple has tie-ups with most of the major cellphone companies in the country for SMS alerts of prayers and aartis, downloads of Lord Ganesh wallpapers, ring tones, logos, e-cards, and so on.

Siddhivinayak is by no means the only temple to provide such extensive and intensive digital devotion possibilities – different versions of the above model are being adopted by other temples in the country (for eg: Tirumalai in south India). And it’s proving to be immensely popular. Siddhivinayak’s online darshan, for instance, has 4 million hits per month. In contemporary India, it seems God is not just in the details, but in the detailed choices that one has to access him with.

My mother is surprised that I want to walk all the way to the beach to see the immersion. It’s so much better on TV, she urges. And she is probably right – almost every TV channel – local or national, cable or terrestrial (over 500 in the country now, and still counting) is beaming out assorted Ganpati images. Sahara News has a 4 way split screen, – showing live immersion-casts from 4 major immersion points in Maharashtra state (of which Bombay is the capital), other channels have reports from other parts of the country or abroad; there are celebrity pujas, interviews, talk shows, Ganpati teleshopping and Ganpati dance contests… I switch to MTV hoping for some variety, only to see Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan vigorously shaking his hips to the Ganpati song from his forthcoming film – Don, just as my cellphone beeps and offers me the very same music video download for 9 rupees.

I enjoy my walk, feeling the cool monsoon sea breeze on my face. In a few days, the city will become boiling hot once more as the rain season subsides. Several processions pass me by: small handcarts with baby Ganpati statues on them, being guided by 10 or 12 family members, and large trucks, with 50 and 60 foot tall statues surrounded by their giant entourages, security guards and private videographers.

Just opposite the large Times of India billboards at Chowpatty beach, (featuring humongous images of Ganpati, what else?) there is a VIP entrance where special guests can view the beach proceedings from a raised platform, and on plush sofas, while sipping on delectable non alcoholic beverages. Alas, I don’t have an invitation. Instead, I am squashed and squeezed with the general population (and we’re talking hundreds of thousands here) as the crowd inches its way to the beach, and chants of Ganpati Bappa Morya (Lord Ganpati, come back again) fill the air. It is claustrophobic and stinky but there is electricity in the air and beaming smiles all around and I realize that despite my discomfort, I am smiling too.

No, Bombay’s devotion for Ganpati has not changed in the few years that I have been away. (It might have even become stronger… and the presence of such a huge mass of people, just two months after terrible bomb blasts have ripped through the city’s trains, must surely be read as an act of defiance as well as devotion.) But what has certainly changed is the experience of Ganpati.

The array of choices made possible by media in the Bombay of today has enabled a qualitatively different experience of the spirit of Ganpati: a transmedia experience that is more complex, more extensive and more intensive than ever before. Secondly, all these different levels or touch points at which the Ganpati narrative can be experienced by individuals merge in and out of and influence and are influenced by what was essentially conceived as a communal spiritual experience by Indian freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak about a century ago. The experience is thereby transformed into something that more personal, more portable and more pedestrian (in both senses of the term), to borrow language from Mimi Ito. This personalization of the communal is what I find especially exciting, more so in the light of our existing C3 research, where we are studying the reverse phenomenon – the communalization of the personal – through our work on college dorm culture. In both instances, I reckon, we will find that what Grant Mcracken calls multiplicity, is taking place. People are able to experience something personally as well as communally at the same time. It is never a case of either/or; always a case of bothness, or rather, severalness.


Small is Beautiful

Ganpati is the god of wisdom, of intellect and of logical solutions, and I am sure that he is very happy to note how intelligently marketers have adapted to India’s fascination with smallness and customized their products and services accordingly. What works in India is the micro, the small, the miniature, the bite sized. Microfinance initiatives (small loans of less than US$ 200 to poor entrepreneurs, mostly women) from larger Indian commercial banks like ICICI are a hit. Consumer goods companies have realized that their biggest market often lies in single serve sachets, priced at between 1 cent to 5 cents, and shampoos, biscuits, tea, or mouth fresheners have all proven to be extremely successful in this format. (Companies like Lever and P& G have quickly capitalized on this).

A CK Prahlad note that today, the penetration of shampoo in India is 90% and about 70% of the shampoo sold in the country comes from single serve sachets. Similarly, the cellphone market in India largely operates on a pre-paid model – and this includes everything from monthly access and bill payment to value added services. Indians don’t want the burden of regular monthly fees but are very willing to make tiny one off expenditures to try out something new. Some exciting experiments taking place in this space include:

– Ringtone scratch cards in different denominations (Users text message their pin number as well as preferred ringtone code to their cell phone company and the tone is downloaded to their phone)

– Astrology, feng shui, Bible on demand, personality tests, travel planning and other lifestyle services

– Reservation services like cinema ticket booking (where movie selection, ticket purchase as well as cinema theater entry, are all done using the cellphone screen and without any paper ticket involvement); railway ticket booking, etc.

– Creation of cellphone based communities such as book clubs

– 3D wallpapers, games of all kinds, especially based on cricket and Bollywood, videotones, text message tones, full movie trailers and videos, full songs, visual radio… the list is endless.

Fast Company

It may be productive for folks in the US to keep an eye on India’s TV 18 group for a workable model of a 21st century media company that can successfully navigate the confusing waters of convergence. It’s a interesting story – they began as a tiny content production house a little more than a decade ago, ramped up and launched their first cable channel via a joint venture with CNBC, and followed it up with an English news channel CNN-IBN (another JV that brought CNN to India), as well as Hindi news channels (Awaaz and Channel 7). Now they’re getting into overdrive by integrating the internet into everything they do – they are the only ones to actually ‘get’ the spirit of citizen journalism in the country, and constantly integrate these reports within their regular programming. Their existing TV brands are supported by what I consider to be India’s best news websites (live video streaming of the main channels, all kinds of interactivity and participation opportunities for viewers – check here for instance) and these sites all have robust communities present on them. More importantly, they seem to have realized that one can’t think of convergence as something you add on top of your existing media efforts, it has to be at the very root of how you conduct your day to day operations. For example: a friend of mine – Rajeev Masand – is the Entertainment editor of CNN-IBN and he also anchors the weekend film review show called Now Showing. He continuously addresses his online community on the show… he checks the bulletin boards regularly and responds to the most interesting comments, both on the web as well as on TV. A lot of the innovations he’s launched within the show format have come in as suggestions from the online community.

I’m pretty confident that these guys are going to give current Indian media giants – the Times of India and (Murdoch’s) Star group – a pretty good run for their money. Here are some of the their latest moves:

– Launched a new technology site

– Launched a new travel site.

– Acquired edgy internet design company Urban Eye

– Acquired a cricket site

– Acquired a comparison shopping website

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For coverage about its digital devotion activities, see this and this.

Several references in this note are from the Contentsutra blog, which provides an excellent converge of India’s media convergence scene.

An interesting article on satchet marketing can be found here Also see ‘The Market at the Bottom of the Pyramid’ by CK Prahalad.

I’ve borrowed the terms ‘Personal, Portable, Pedestrian’ from cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito’s book by the same name. Check out her blog on digital media use in the US and Japan.