We aren't living in 13th century India, where wandering saints pined for the divine. Yet, can you write Bhakti off? Hardly. It has weathered all 'isms' to enter markets in a commercial avatar that keeps pace with time.
Thus we have the Gayatri mantra or the Hanuman Chalisa as ringtones on mobile phones. Leiber, a fashion brand, recently arrived in India with the Ganesha Minaudiere, a handbag studded with 12,000 Swarovski crystals and priced at Rs 2.6 lakh. The Rs 200-crore Akshardham temple in Delhi is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's largest Hindu temple, which gets more than 70,000 visitors a week. Add to these godmen, astrologers, prayer meetings, healing centres, talismans”¦. well, the list could go on.
In the mobile telephony realm, devotional content is one of the prime money-churning value-added services. "Today, 40-45 per cent of our revenues are contributed by devotional music content. India's mobile music market is estimated to be worth $800 million by 2009," says Hemant Jain, vice-president, Hungama Mobile. Hemant attributes this growth to the increase in the number of new mobile connections from rural markets.
The segment has been treated to innovations that have enhanced its potential. People can now offer pujas through their mobile phones, watch live aartis from temples and download their favourite bhajans. "We have developed an interactive devotional application, which once downloaded allows the customer to choose a deity. The user can then use the mobile phone dial pad to select the lamp, play the aarti and perform the puja," says Hemant.
Earlier this year, Hungama also started a promotion programme with one of its telecom partners, branded as 'Deity of the Day'. "On Monday, Shiva is worshipped across the country, except in West Bengal, where Kali is worshipped on the day," says Hemant.
Apart from music, mobile service providers offer spiritual content to their customers on monthly subscription, and they get regular alerts through SMS. These services provide content from religious texts, thoughts from spiritual leaders and the Art of Living, discourses from ISKCON and astro alerts. For instance, People Infocomm Mauj Mobile started 'Gita Shloka Service' last year, and mobile users can set their favourite shlokas [Sankrit verses] as background music or ringtones at a monthly subscription of Rs 30.
MUSIC FOR THE SOUL
Though Bollywood numbers are still on top of the demand list, spiritual music-songs, chants and meditation hymns-come a close second. "Today, spirituality is an important part of an average 28-year-old's life," says Adarsh Gupta, COO of Times Music. The market is huge, says Bhadrik Veera, director of Krunal Music, pegging the religious segment at 70 per cent of his company's total business. During festivals, the revenues jump up by 20 to 30 per cent. "Over the last decade, there has been a steep increase in the number of clients not only in India, but also in the Middle East and Europe," says Bhadrik.
The country's diversity helps the market segment enrich its coffers. "Options are galore for devotional albums in multiple languages. There's an audience for on-track bhajans as well," says Vinod Bhanushali, president (markets), Media and TV Publishing, T Series. In Bhojpuri, Maithili and Nagpuri belts alone, the market has recorded over Rs 3 crore turnover. "Add to this the turnover from the duplicate CDs and cassettes, and the profit figure will be in double-digit numbers and in crores. There are 30-40 music companies in Delhi, Lucknow, Varanasi, Patna and Ranchi selling devotional CDs and cassettes," said Ashok Shivpuri, noted Bhojpuri lyricist.
For all those who believe God has a form, the markets are more than ready. "Religion as a segment contributes to about 30 per cent of our topline sales. Ganesha is popular in Europe as well," says Sachin Jain, senior brand manager, Lladro. The Spirit of India Collection from Lladro includes Goddess Lakshmi (Rs 1,90,000), Veena Ganesha, Bansuri Ganesha, Dancing Ganesha (Rs 55,000) and Radha Krishna (Rs 2,47,625) among others. Though sales are highest during festivals, the business is lucrative throughout the year. "We started out by organising exhibitions during festivals. But, looking at the increased demand, we decided to open a shop in Mumbai," says Ratan Sakpal, retail manager, Ma Passion, which makes idols with precious stones. The reserve auction price of a Ma Passion Ganesh idol in Adventurine (popularly known as Indian jade) is Rs 25 lakh.
TEMPLES GO HI-TECH
Waiting in winding queues for temple darshan may not be popular with the jet set. Realising this, shrines have introduced alternate options for the absentee devotee. For instance, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams offers detailed darshan options, along with fixed timetable for sevas.
TTD has approved a Rs 1,925 crore budget for 2008-09. The Venkateswara temple, the richest in the world, plans to make Rs 230 crore just by selling hair offered by devotees to the deity. Up north, Mata Vaishno Devi temple is estimated to generate about Rs 474 crore annually. Online donations to the temple alone fetched Rs 2 crore last year.
Siddhivinayak Temple (www.siddhivinayak.org) in Mumbai offers live viewing of the pujas. One can also download aarti videos, Ganesh audios, jigsaw puzzles and a lot more. The temple's revenue in 2006-07 was estimated at Rs 27 crore, while its prasad sales are reported to go up to Rs 2 crore a year. "Considering the hectic lifestyles that most Mumbaikars lead today, what's the harm if they can pay Rs 50 and get a quick darshan? There are no clandestine dealings here. There's an increase in the amount of donations, but there's also a rise in the temple's charitable activities," says Kishore Joshi, former trustee of the temple.
Following the Siddhivinayak example, many temples in UP and Uttarakhand, like the Kashi Vishwanath temple, might soon facilitate online viewing of pujas.
Websites of temples apart, there are also online portals such as eBay and Indiatimes that have various add-ons on faith, just clicks away. Indiatimes, for instance, has a full-fledged astro portal that includes making of janampatris, tarot reading, vaastu and feng shui. And then, there are online companies like the Thiruvananthapuram-based Hindupurohit that performs pujas in temples on behalf of their clients. "We send them the prasadam, along with photographs and video clippings of the puja," says Kollur Krishna Iyer, director of Hindupurohit. "We have no personal meetings with the clients, some of whom are non-Hindus."
BHAKTI ON TV & MOVIES
There was a time when an hour's slot was reserved for devotional or mythological programmes on television every Sunday. Today, there are TV channels wholly devoted to religion and spirituality. Sanskar, Aastha, Sadhna, Shalom, God, MiracleNet... the list is ever-growing! Such channels are the resort of those who cannot attend satsangs, which are no longer confined to holy places like Varanasi, Ayodhya, Allahabad and Chitrakoot. People from late 20s to mid 80s can be seen hooked to the TV channels learning about spiritual lifestyle and ideals. Most popular of such programmes is the one by Swami Ramdev, viewed by crores across the country. According to estimates, one in every four Indian consumes this bhakthi-yoga cocktail every day. "The religious sermons keep the mind healthy while the physical exercise keeps the body fit. I personally feel this two-in-one combination is the best," said Rajeev Kumar, one such viewer.
Despite trendier options, programmes on religious stories still have market. "You have to present such shows in the right format, with the scale and grandeur befitting our great epics," says Indrani Mukerjea, founder & CEO, INX Media, which is telecasting Jai Maa Vaishno Devi, which Indrani says is being shown on community televisions in Jaipur. "Women and children flock to see the episodes. That's the kind of appeal a well-done devotional programme has," she adds. 9X also launched Mahabharat on August 15.
The universal appeal of such devotional programmes also leads to regional language adaptations. "For instance, Om Nama Shivaya has been telecast in many regional channels in India," says Dheeraj Kumar, director, Creative Eye Ltd. Dheeraj insists that religious programmes on television are more than just a lucrative business proposition. "The idea is to spread the essence of our culture and heritage," he maintains.
Yet, everything boils down to the TRPs. Almost all television channels have realised that live telecast of festivals like Kumbha Mela, Ganesh Chaturti and Navratri are definite TRP generators. ETV Marathi's Ashtavinayak Darshan has introduced an interactive element in the spiritual programme, in which abhishek is performed on behalf of the viewers by the programme crew.
The current enthusiasm for religious programming on television has a weak parallel in the movies, with the animation segment exploring the potential of the genre on celluloid. My Friend Ganesha, Hanuman and Dashavatar are some recent examples. Industry experts say that most moviegoers prefer 'spiritual' entertainment to preaching. Market players are harping on these sentiments, and minting money, keeping Indians 'religiously' entertained.