Not many found it strange when Shankar Rao, a minister from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, built a temple for Congress president Sonia Gandhi this year.
Rao worships Gandhi in her avatar as “Telengana Talli” or the beloved goddess of Telengana, given her decisive role in bifurcating Andhra Pradesh and creating a separate state of Telangana, India's newest state. The Congress party and its president were instrumental in the formation of the 29th state of India last year, and hence this temple is in her honour, said Rao.
The idol of Sonia Gandhi follows the sculptural style found among deities in Hindu temples of South India. Gandhi’s idol is nine-feet-tall, cast in bronze and weighs 500 kg.
Rao’s act is termed many things – rationalists call it bizarre while rival politicians describe it as pure sycophancy.” However, such a show of devotion is not uncommon in South India, especially by the fans of movie stars and supporters of politicians.
In the neighbouring southern state of Tamil Nadu, politics has been led by Dravidian political parties whose motto has been rationalism. In the 1950s, Periyar an iconoclast, founded the self-respect movement that critiqued caste segregation, Hindu rituals and the worship of “stones” as gods.
Ironically, idolatry continues even in these modern times in Tamil Nadu that has a prominent culture of deification of larger than life movie stars, many of whom have turned political leaders of the state. Tamil Nadu has temples and shrines for the late matinee idol turned chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR to his fans and followers) across the state.
Tamil writer Vaasanthi says, “Tamil Nadu has an inherently venerating culture. Deifying heroes comes naturally to a people who seek idols to emulate. After the advent of the Dravidian movement on the plank of atheism, political leaders and movie stars took the place of gods in common people’s lives”.
A patriarchal and masculine society exhibits “subconscious guilt towards women” and “making goddesses of women worthy of worship only in a divine form is not uncommon,” says Chennai-based writer Janaki Venkataraman.
J Jayalalithaa, the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, is hailed as ‘Amma’ or mother and is an icon for her followers. Life-size cut-outs, banners and slogans in her praise can be seen across Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai. Her images seem to offer benediction, much like a divine being.
“Film heroes and heroines who have mass appeal are venerated by the less fortunate, impressionable youth who yearn for a role model and aspire to see themselves in these politicians or movie stars,” says Vaasanthi.
In 1995, Chennai was witness to thousands of posters of Jayalalithaa depicting her as Tamil folk goddess Adi Parasakhthi (Goddess of feminine energy). Photo-shopped images of her wearing a dazzling golden crown and royal silk robes, holding a sceptre, were a familiar sight in the state. When some of her party cadres printed posters of her as Virgin Mary, members of the Christian community objected and the cadres had to remove the offending posters following protests.
Chennai-based contemporary writer Charu Nivedita says civic and political changes have influenced popular tastes in the state. South Indians “have an emotional nature that can be naive”.
He says the influx of pulp cinema, supported by a political and entertainment culture has led to an erosion of its classical aesthetics. “Cinema has contributed to a culture of deification of film stars”, he says.
In Tiruchi district in Tamil Nadu, crazy fans built a temple for popular actress Khusbhoo. Called ‘Khusbambigai Deivalayam’ (Pristine Shrine for Goddess Khusbhoo) it was later razed down by protesters following her statement on the need for taking precautions during pre-marital sex in 2005.
“A goddess by nature has to be pure and virginal. Any modern or sensible utterance by an actress over exaggerated versions of purity is condemned by her followers,” points out Venkataraman.
At Thirunindravur, on the outskirts of Chennai city, L Kalaivanan built a temple for matinee idol, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran (MGR) in 2011.
Though he did not have much money, Kalaivanan managed to get funding by ardent admirers of MGR who was chief minister from 1977 to 1987.
On the very first day, reports said more than 3000 devotees turned up for the puja or worship.
Kalaivanan bathed the idol of MGR in milk and rose water, imitating sacred rituals followed by priests in Hindu temples. There are similar shrines for MGR across the state where followers continue to pray with offerings of coconuts, fruits, flowers and milk for worship.
“It was after the advent of the Dravidian movement that theatre and film actors became idols”, says Nivedita. “The culture of the people became mediocre and philistine and values slowly diminished from politics, society and cinema,” he says.
| Fans pour milk over a giant poster of movie star Rajnikanth
Adulation and megalomania are the fallouts of such a culture that thirsts for heroes, say sociologists.
Tamil Nadu’s top heroes like Rajinikanth, and of the current crop of movie stars, Joseph Vijay are worshipped as demi-gods today. Fans garland their posters and throw flowers, coins and cash notes when their heroes appear on screen in frenzy imitating rituals of temple worship.
Telugu film star turned politician NT Rama Rao was an icon, especially for playing roles in films as the Hindu god Krishna. During his election campaign, supporters showcased large images from his films in his avatar as the god Krishna.
In 1993, the matter went to the courts in Andhra Pradesh after someone complained that the depiction of “NT Rama Rao as an incarnation of Lord Krishna” amounted to “exhorting voters in the name of religion to vote for his Telugu Desam party”.
Congress party supporters in Chennai had garlanded huge posters of party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and offered oblations by pouring milk over his posters last year.
Tamil film romantic hero Srikanth admits such deification feeds a sense of accomplishment and narcissism amongst actors. “For movie stars such hero worship and crazy antics seem to affirm their popularity among fans”, he says.
Rationalists may call it crazy, but for their ardent fans in south India, politicians and movie stars are both gods worthy of worship.