As television began to dominate living rooms of middle-class Indians in the 1980s, a serial based on the epic Ramayana was broadcast on the State-run Doordarshan channel. It became so popular that entire neighbourhoods would gather in front of one television screen in the area, people would drop errands and rush home in time to view the show, and the streets were deserted when the show aired. By some estimates, one in eight Indians watched the show, and advertisers rushed to fill in the slots. It broke viewership records both in north and south India.
The maker of the serial, Ramanand Sagar, took inspiration from Valmiki’s Ramayan, but let his imagination run riot. The serial was often melodramatic and over-the-top in its aesthetics, but the serialised epic held viewers’ attention week after week.
While the serial was conceptualised and put on air by the Congress government hoping to capitalise on the Hindu vote, it ended up benefiting the Sangh Parivar, which at that time was busy campaigning for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan laid the foundation for Hindu nationalism and reshaped the public sphere in India irrevocably. It contributed to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by acting as a magnet for scores of young recruits for the Bajrang Dal.
It brought the epic closer to everyday life and introduced an idea of Ram’s birthplace that was in sync with the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. While harking back to a prehistoric golden era, the serial changed the character of Hindu nationalism forever in the public imagination.
The actual campaign for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was done through the Hindi language print medium, but television provided the perfect catapult for it. Ramayan was followed by Mahabharat the next year, setting the tone for Hindutva in pop culture.