Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 8, 2005

First published November 7, 2005

 in Times of India

It’s Magic

Published in Times of India, Consumer Section, 8th October 2005.

There are two types of magic in this world. The first one is called ‘imitative’ magic. The second one is called ‘contagious’ magic. In the first type of magic, you imitate what you want using symbols and rituals. In the second type of magic, you believe that an object contains the power of a person or thing even after being separated from it.

A classical example of imitative magic is the practice of distributing sweets on our birthday. Sweets = Joy, happiness, positive feelings. By distributing sweets on our birthday or when we are sharing good news, we are imitating what we want: that the person receiving the sweet shares our happiness of the moment. More importantly our good news does not leave a bitter/sour feeling in the recipient’s mouth.

When we come back from any pilgrimage, we always bring back ashes or water or tiny lockets with the image of the presiding deity or saint or some food item from the shrine. We believe that the sacred power of the deity is transmitted with the objects we bring back and by sharing the object with family and friends we can share that sacred power. This is contagious magic.

Sir James Frazer introduced these two concepts in his famous book, `The Golden Bough’. He used these ideas to explain `pagan’ beliefs and customs. It is fairly obvious that these principles extend beyond `pagan’ communities to `non-pagan’ ideologies. We, however, hesitate to do that.

The word `magic’ leaves a bad taste in our mouth. Just like `myth’. We are rational, reasonable creatures. We don’t want anything to do with `magic’ or `myth’. We want our world to be full of real and rational things. But the fact is that our world is full of magical and mythical things. Look at the ads on the television screen and what you will find it is all about magic, either imitative or contagious.

Let us first define magic. Magic is doing something that does not make rational sense. Since all things natural are rational/scientific, magic = unnatural / irrational / unscientific. With this definition in mind, let us ask ourselves why do we buy or want to buy a Mont Blanc pen. We need a pen to write. That is the rational thing to do. A good quality pen is preferred. And it may be more expensive than an ordinary pen. Ink pens are classical, but ball points are convenient. They have to look pretty if one is carrying it around. But paying Rs. 10,000/- or maybe 20,000/- or maybe 50,000/- for a pen. Are you crazy? For what? A signature? And yet we do that. We want a Mont Blanc pen. Not for any rational reason but because we know and those around us know, or should we say believe, Mont Blanc is more than the pen. Its advertising has transformed it into something greater than a writing tool. It has acquired a personality of its own. And that personality comes at a premium price. We are buying something that we `believe’ is there. Show that pen to someone who has never heard of Mont Blanc, someone who has not been exposed to the magic of the `Mont Blanc’ advertising, and he will never ever pay the price commanded by it.

Advertisers call this branding. Making a product more than what it is. Branding transforms soap into a personality. A powerful personality. An embodiment of beliefs. More than something that is used to reduce surface tension and remove dirt. It becomes the carrier of affection, love, protection. Branding transforms a product into a symbol, a representation of something else. And so when people pick it up from a shelf, they submit to its magic and buy the myth.

You want to be the intelligent, efficient housewife. You use the sympathetic magic of Surf. It is the symbol of efficiency and dependability. Kyoki Surf ki Kharidari mein Samajhdari Hai or Surf Excel Hai Na. You want to appear as the concerned yet cool mom. You use the imitative magic of Maggi noodles because now it gives `vitamins’ and `proteins’ within two minutes. Who wants to be the boring mom who insists you eat your greens or chew on that apple? You want to express the sincerity and enduring nature of your love for a woman, you buy a diamond. Rationally it is a shining rock. But after the imitative magic projected by the advertising, you believe diamonds are forever, hence love is forever. Now unless you give a diamond to your wife, she will find it difficult to believe that you really will love her forever. That’s magic.

Today there are bikes that carry the personality of John Abraham, diamonds that carry the beauty of Aishwarya Rai, mobile services that contain the earthy wisdom of a good married couple a.k.a. Ajay Devgan and Kajol, male underclothes that contain the virility of Bobby Deol, a whole range of products that contain the charisma of the great all-powerful Amitabh Bachchan. It is no more about the product. It is about the magic they contain when they come in contact with the gods, I mean, the stars, we admire.

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