A Prodigy, Packaged And Sold

Don't just blame Budhia's coach, we're all guilty of making him run
A Prodigy, Packaged And Sold
A Prodigy, Packaged And Sold

No, this is not yet another piece on Budhia Singh—whether he should have been allowed to run 65 kilometres. Nor is this a part of the debate surrounding his coach and his motives. Not because I don’t have an opinion on the issue. Indeed, like everyone else, I do. This piece is more to do with the questions that a story like Budhia’s pose. It’s about young children and their journey to success and fame, and the role that all of us play in it. 

The world has, forever, known child prodigies—Mozart, Beethoven, Ramanujan, Jodie Foster, Lata Mangeshkar, Zakir Hussain, Nadia Comaneci, to name a few. Do the lives of all these stars raise the same questions? Perhaps yes, because the core issue remains the same—how much push and how soon? 

What makes a child prodigy a potential star? Clearly, these are children who are special. But given today’s hunger for visual gratification, ability and talent are not enough. A musician must possess an X-factor, as must a sportsperson or a designer. At times this X-factor comes not with looks and clothes, but with age, rather the lack of it. A child who performs beyond his or her age pulls at our heartstrings and fascinates us—like Budhia. 

But fame is effervescent. Ensuring continuous visibility is, therefore, imperative, especially if money has to flow. Not only must child prodigies catch the public eye, they must remain there. Hence, package them and turn them into stars. If we don’t, they might meet the fate of Sanka Raviteja who, at nine, won the Asian Youth Chess Championship and brought home the silver from the World Youth Chess Championships, 2004, in Greece. He has since faded from public and official memory. His parents are still trying to pay off the debts they incurred to take him to Greece. 

It’s a vicious cycle. News is created as are newsmakers— they have to be, if TRP ratings have to soar and newspapers have to retain and increase readership. As audience and readers, we’re force-fed on news and newsmakers and grow addicted to them. The more addicted we become, the more we seek. And while we watch others, there creeps upon us the latent desire to be like ‘them’. If as adults we cannot be there, we try vicariously, through our children and protégés. 

Television shows such as India’s Child Genius: The Search for India’s Smartest Kid tell us that visibility and fame are within our kid’s reach. No wonder parents and coaches push their wards into daredevil sporting events or reality shows like Boogie Woogie where they dress and perform like adults, and for which they must suffer endless hours of arduous practice. Ramanujan did not need a show like this. Nor did Zakir Hussain’s name need to be texted on mobile phones for him to be acknowledged a prodigy. 

The other big message being beamed is that there is no space for the ordinary, the average. Those who cannot be seen or heard are losers. And who wants to be a loser? So, as adults we push, as children, we strive. Budhia’s coach, Biranchi Das, is but a product of our times. If he and Budhia are to be famous and rich, he realises, they must be visible. Budhia’s X-factor, his age, has to be packaged and sold.
Had Budhia been made to work in a glass factory or in a zari loom, we would have immediately labelled it child labour. But it’s not a term we would use to describe Budhia running a marathon (although he was bought for Rs 800), or what other young and talented kids are doing to make news everyday—riding motorcycles well before they are eligible for a licence, practising dance and music for hours. Or working as child stars. Accompanied by their parents, they move from studio to studio, shoot several shifts and, in between, try to complete their homework, in cars or on location. Take seven-year-old Shreya Sharma, ‘famous’ on the small screen as Sneha in Star Plus’ Kasauti Zindagi Kay. "Even after spending maximum time shooting, she is brilliant in studies and stands first in her class," says her proud mother. 

No doubt talented children must be encouraged. As adults, we owe it to them. But there is only a thin, almost invisible line that separates encouragement from pushing, and pushing from exploitation. Maybe the fault also lies in our limited understanding of child labour, reflected in the child labour law, which bans employment only in hazardous occupations. Perhaps Budhia’s case will force us to take a fresh look at the law. Clearly, no child must be made to perform any act harmful to him or her, physically or psychologically, and unsuitable to his or her age. 

That notwithstanding, Budhia’s case represents the malaise that has set into our society, a malaise in which all of us play a role as adults, as readers, as audience, as media. Because we all love a star! Time we examined the Biranchi within each of us. 

(The writer works with HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.)

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