Reading into India Today’s Cover of Baba Ramdev

“A skimpily clad, heavily photoshopped actress on a cover isn’t subjected to this level of nonsense because it conforms to standards of beauty as ingrained by years of silly ads.”, muses Ritesh Uttamchandani on this much-talked-about photograph by Bandeep Singh as part of our series of perspectives.

Photograph by Bandeep Singh. Courtesy India Today

Photograph by Bandeep Singh. Courtesy India Today

Four years ago, the OPEN magazine, my fomer workplace, published a cover story on vagina tightening creams and vaginal surgeries. For an outsider, the discussions about the cover image ranged from the absolute hilarious to utter disgust. What finally went on the cover was a pair of glossy pink lips, placed vertically instead of the usual horizontal placement. Personally, I’d say it was nothing short of remarkable, but the cover didn’t create as big a storm as Bandeep Singh’s Ramdev photo. The last time an Indian magazine flew off the shelves purely on the merit of a cover photo was probably Stardust with a topless Mamta Kulkarni on it.

The photo in question is nowhere close to a startling image by itself. A fairly ordinary photo about a rather peculiar and widely seen man, there’s rather little or none one can speak about when it comes to aesthetics or technique. At best, one can argue it could have been lit better, or how the heavy falloff behind the masthead was unnecessary. But the reactions and the backlash say a lot about the viewers. Some called it gross, some ugly, some vulgar, some disgusting. Some instead chose to pass judgement on Ramdev—thief, conman, sleazeball. Some ridiculed India Today’s choice of cover story—at the time of the Nice Attacks, Kashmir, a national magazine chooses to put out a rather unremarkably written profile of a man consistently in the news from over five years now.

It is not uncommon for news magazines to have profiles of ‘interesting’ celebrities, filmmakers, actors, newsmakers, whistleblowers or sportspersons as cover stories. I’m yet to come across a diktat stating that a magazine has to only report/feature major events/issues of a given week. The consistent pegging of stories and timing them to film releases or upcoming events often makes for very boring and forgettable stories. Just because everyone is doing it is no longer a strong enough reason!

A case in point was OPEN’s profile of Ramdev, done around the Anna-Kejriwal Ramlila issue. I was personally offended by the grainy nature of the sourced photo but what bothered me was the man’s flamboyantly grassy armpit. I never was in a position to air these views but as a consumer of the magazine I felt, well, grossed out.

Truth is, my idea of beauty and what qualifies as a cool cover image was shaped by fashion magazines. Indian men are also potty trained by their parents, society, illustrations in schoolbooks, advertisers to look for fair and lovely women and the women too are now being coaxed to look for tall, fair and handsome men. Leaving balding short men like myself to a life of unhinged loneliness in the fragrant company of multipurpose Patanjali hair oil.

A major complaint about Bandeep’s photo is that it is gross. What is gross about body hair, or a beard? Or having oddly shaped eyes? Another grievance is that if you look closely you can see Ramdev’s bunched up jewels. Again, would you rather airbrush his scrotum out of the photo? Or fine tune them and tone his saffron clad butt? A skimpily clad, heavily photoshopped actress/model on a cover isn’t subjected to this level of nonsense because it conforms to the standards of beauty as ingrained by years of silly advertisements.

To be a little more honest, if you observe at a newsstand, (if you are still the kind who consumes information from sources besides your smartphone and walks to the paperwallah), all one sees is the top one fifth of most magazines—just the title. Sometimes, fighting through that stack, you see the forehead or eyes of a person staring at you. Intelligent placement of a product at newsstands is also something that marketing teams of publications strive for and with the advent of listicles and half-assed opinion-oriented news sites, sales of print publications have declined further.

To me, it seems like a huge risk taken by the editorial board to proceed with a visual of this nature, where no matter how much space is left between the magazine that sits atop IT on a news rack, all one sees is a saffron bum and the masthead. Social media’s backlash has, in fact, guaranteed that the bum is now flying off the shelves. SK news paper agency, named after its modest owner, Sunil Kumar, confesses that after a very long time, people have come to his stall, asking for a copy of the magazine. This is the power that local news magazines have forever had, over imports like TIME and others. There is no denying the fact that just like The Hindu down south, HT and Dainik Bhaskar in the North, TOI in Bombay, IT has made equally deep inroads and has its own space in the reader’s psyche—and it’s not limited to a state or a region. The photo and the shortsighted backlash have successfully incited that dormant connection.

Many are also of the view that the magazine has a pro Hindutva/ Saffron agenda and is hence merely following suit. An unreasonable view at best, I’d like to point out that it would be rare to come across a non aligned publication especially at the current stage that India is. Every publication has their own ideology, their own agendas, sociopolitical leanings just like a liberal does. Just the way Arvind Kejriwal is hugely responsible for getting the dormant electorate of this country to indulge in conversations over breakfast and participate in politics, Ramdev with four or five patent Yoga postures, is responsible for heralding yoga into social consciousness. There is no denying that however controversial he may be, he is a little difficult to avoid. And so are his products. No matter how bogus they are, or good, or pointless, Patanjali has made marketing thinktanks at Unilever and other FMCG makers rethink their strategies.

Take a drive through small town India, and very often one can see footlong horizontal placards pasted or tied to electric poles that say ‘Patanjali’. This is the simplest form of advertising. It doesn’t scream out loud that you need to be fair else you are bound to have a dark husband and you will be cursed with dark babies and you are all set to rot in darkness. It doesn’t bend a consumer down to feel bad about his or her own self to buy a toothpaste or a soap. This is the age of the self, of the individual as a brand.

Everyone loves their own image as seen by themselves and is miserly in appreciating the self image of another. The individual decides and works hard to shape how others see and behold him/ her. What we often forget though, is that just the way beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so does obscenity.

Ritesh Uttamchandani (@riteshuttamchandani on Instagram) is an editorial, documentary & news photographer, who has formerly worked with The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and OPEN. Visual nuances, untold stories & travel are themes that dominate his work. He curates @katha_collective, an Instagram-powered photozine.

Follow the full series on perspectives by two other photographers Raj Lalwani and Bandeep Singh talking about the same issue.

Tags: Ritesh Uttamchandani, Visual Musings, india today, Perspectives, August 2016, Baba Ramdev, India Today Cover