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NEW DELHI: Astha Dhal didn’t have much to do after her 10th board exams ended last month. The Delhi-based 16-year old who had been engrossed in studies the past few months was robbed of all avenues of entertainment once the exams ended as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nation-wide lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. With nowhere to go and not much to watch on television since all production activities had come to a halt, Dhal was in for a pleasant surprise when her parents introduced her to the re-runs of Ramanand Sagar’s legendary epic Ramayana that state broadcaster Doordarshan started airing last weekend.

Dhal has already recommended the show to her Netflix-binge watching friends and is one among the multitude of millennials and Gen Zs who have discovered the epic 30 years after their parents and grandparents had lapped it up in the 1980s.

Some, like Dhal, have discovered the series thanks to their parents, while others have followed online conversations. According to data from television monitoring agency BARC, the epic garnered 51 million viewers on Sunday - in the first weekend of telecast, the highest ever figure for the Hindi GEC (general entertainment channel) genre since 2015. On an average, each episode of Ramayana has seen 42.6 million tune-ins. Also, the appeal has been greater in urban centres of Hindi-speaking markets than rural areas - in the former, the first four episodes notched up total average impressions of 17 million compared with 11.6 million in the latter.

Impressions refer to the number of individuals in thousands of a target audience who viewed an event averaged across minutes.

“I had watched mythologies such as Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik earlier besides other versions of Ramayana and Mahabharat as a child, but there is something about this show that caught my interest," said Dhal who watches both Ramayana and the other big epic Mahabharat with her parents everyday. “It seems more natural, there are fewer ads, and less drama even while you’re told of an idealistic way of leading life. Reading or being preached at about the same things may not have the same impact."

Shashi Shekhar Vempati, chief executive, Prasar Bharti said the internet generation has no memory of Doordarshan. This, in a way, is the proverbial first moment of truth for them to experience the brand Doordarshan.

“As far as lessons from Ramayana go, it is an opportunity for them to better understand how the epic has been portrayed and understood in contemporary times," Vempati added.

To be sure, watching Sagar’s epic in these times of crisis, lockdown and stress, is an opportunity to sit down for something that you can also discuss later with the family, that too in an era when streaming platforms have prioritized individual viewing of often explicit and niche content.

“It is quite common for middle-class parents to encourage kids to read or watch classics that have stood the test of time. It adds to their cultural capital," said Surinder Singh Jodhka, professor of sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.

Watching these shows also provides a chance to link current issues with what was happening in the past.

“It’s a great way to view what may have been the socio-political scene or state of democracy at that time," said 27-year old educational professional Manali Singh based in Patna, who like Dhal, doesn’t take the epic’s teachings blindly but wants to question things like Sita being asked to take the agnipariksha by Ram. Singh watches the show daily with herparents-in-law who are ardent fans while her 30-year old brother and 23-year old sister are glued to it at home with their parents.

To be sure, there is a section of audiences flooding social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest with Ramayana memes, especially pointing to the new competition for streaming giants like Netflix that have so far, dominated younger segments. Others, however, are seeing it as the revival of old tradition and culture that India had been missing for long, calling attention to how children in the family had started looking up to the epic and how the spiritual experience was transforming lives at this time of crisis.

https://twitter.com/MadhuriBorse1/status/1243775826748821505

https://twitter.com/AzaadBharatOrg/status/1243430602331672577

“Our new generation will understand the morals and values of our ancient age. Hope Ramayana will reduce the effect of modern family drama serials," a user tweeted.

Another added, “Call it Hindutva or not but majority of people liked the concept of Ramayana being rerun and proof of it is the spike in TRP of DD national. What amazes me is that people who accuse others of intolerance get intolerant themselves by a mere TV show on Bhagwan Ram."

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