Business of religion

Business of religion

A school teacher asks her class, “Children, can you tell me what is common amongst Rama, Guru Gobind, Mahavir, Prophet Mohammad and Jesus Christ?” One kid shouts from the back of the class, “They were all born on government holidays.”

The point that writer Ambi Parameswaran is trying to make through the joke is that kids in our schools know very little about multiple religions that co-exist so vibrantly in our country. Why is it important to learn about religion not only for school children, but also for students of business schools? Because religion permeates every aspect of our lives, especially commerce, which is the focus of Parameswaran in the book, For God’s Sake. Not surprising, since Parameswaran comes from the world of advertising, having been an executive director and CEO of the advertising agency, DraftFCB Ulka.

The book starts with Parameswaran’s agency shooting the now famous commercial for the bathing soap, Santoor. He realises that they had forgotten to give the young mother in the film a bindi on her forehead. He was distraught but subsequent reactions to the film proved that he was worrying needlessly. But the incident pushed him to further enquiry, which led to some very interesting findings.

From almost 75 per cent of women in ads in 1977 sporting a bindi, it was down to 30 per cent in 2007. Women in ads were wearing the sari much less. It was the same in Indian films. But quite interestingly, women in television serials were sporting designer bindis and saris of all kind with gusto.

He then narrates another case story involving their client in Chennai, Vivek & Co. Tamils have strong beliefs about the importance of timing in everything in life and Margahazi, roughly December 15 to January 15, is seen as a month of penance and so no new ventures are initiated — no weddings, no purchases. Vivek & Co decided to turn this logic on its head by launching their New Year Sale, offering unheard of discounts. It became a mega success, proving that consumers were willing to park their religious shibboleths aside for a few days if the bargain was good.

He tries to explain why India hasn’t made that much progress in psychiatry as compared to other fields of medicine. It is because in India even the more affluent use religion as a mode of achieving mental peace; with gurus, astrologers and numerology experts playing the role of psychiatrists.

The book is replete with such observations and insights, exploring along the way television programming, music, films, books, auspicious dates, weddings, tourism, micro-religious type-casting, information technology and more.

Parameswaran does not restrict himself to Hindu traditions and beliefs alone. Halal meat being offered in all non-vegetarian meals on IndiGo flights, an insurance product tailored to meet tenets of Islamic banking and the demand for fancy burqas from Dubai are commented upon.

The story about a nail polish brand Inglot, introduced by a Polish company, is very instructive. Pious Muslim women are supposed to pray and wash their hands five times a day. Nail polishes were off limits for them since they prevented nails from getting in contact with water. Enter Inglot, the ‘breathable’ nail polish, and it is cleared by the clerics because of its permeability!

The book narrates how the world of television, films and publishing have capitalised on people’s religiosity and what more can be done. Kalnirnay, an almanac published by the Salgaionkar family, reached a print run of 1.4 crore in various Indian languages at its peak. Religion as a segment contributes 30 per cent of the total Indian sales of Lladro, the Spanish porcelain luxury brand.

Leave aside the big ones like Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Diwali and Rakhi Purnima, even obscure festivals like Karva Chauth and Akshay Triitiya can be turned into money-spinners. (Think of this gem that the author encountered in his own agency: A different coloured sari for each of the nine days of Navratri to be worn by all women employees!)

The book also deals with how technology is changing and in many cases amplifying the commercial exploitation of religious beliefs and practices. Balaji Temple at Tirupati managed to earn substantially more by selling the hair collected from devotees tonsuring their head through e-auction. There are portals like that perform puja on your behalf in temples all across the country and deliver the prasad to your home. Others offer full kit for Haj and Umrah.

A refreshing and rewarding aspect of the book is that there is no attempt at being politically correct. Most of the research having been commissioned for commercial purpose, the findings are presented with total honesty, without any political agenda. While there is no attempt at making the book weighty or academic, there is enough background material and intelligent social commentary on every issue, from the birth and evolution of the  sari and eating of beef by Hindus in Vedic times to the premium commanded by second-hand cars from Parsi owners, to stimulate thought and invite further enquiry.

For God’s Sake
Ambi Parameswaran
2014, pp 258
Rs. 499