Of Do-Gooder Celebrities and Stereotyped Bleak Image

Many people would be thrilled by a visit from pop star Ricky Martin. This is not necessarily the case in Calcutta (Kolkata), India. Western superstars, such as Martin, periodically travel to the city for charity-related sojourns. Many Indians suggest that despite the stars' good intentions, the media hype surrounding their visits dramatizes the city's stereotypically bleak image. Critics note that by reinforcing the notion that Calcutta is hopelessly mired in poverty, high-profile charity visits mask any actual social progress and may even discourage potential international investors. – YaleGlobal

Of Do-Gooder Celebrities and Stereotyped Bleak Image

S. N. M. Abdi
Thursday, September 16, 2004

LATIN pop singer Ricky Martin's hush-hush visit to Kolkata has turned the spotlight on the Sabera Foundation which provides food, shelter and education to 137 under-privileged children and destitute women at Kanganberia, on the outskirts of the city.

The Puerto Rican superstar has millions of fans round the globe — his records have gone platinum in more than 33 countries. But he spent a few days in Kolkata earlier this month chatting up three little girls he sponsors, watching sci-fi films and playing football with them in a slushy field.

And it wasn't Ricky's maiden visit to Sabera. He first came visiting in June 2002, three years after he became an international sensation with the song Living La Vida Loca. But the influx of Hollywood's jet-setting 'bleeding hearts' has outraged many influential Bengalis who accuse the celebrities of reinforcing the city's stereotyped bleak image.

Charity-related high-profile visits to Kolkata by Ricky and film stars Melanie Griffith, Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise and supermodel Esther Canadas have been heavily criticised.

"Like Mother Teresa, the new breed of do-gooders are branding the metropolis as a doomed city without any civic infrastructure, inhabited by beggars, orphans, drug addicts and prostitutes", said Biman Bose, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that has ruled West Bengal since 1977.

"If such a pathetic picture of Kolkata continues to be painted the world over, how can we expect investors to have any faith in the city? Their charity is costing us dearly. We can do without it," he said. "They are free to ease their conscience but why at the cost of our city's image?"

Writer Amit Chaudhuri says that while he appreciates foreign celebrities getting involved in charity work, the media hype invariably blurred the "far more intensive social work being done by indigenous organisations for many decades".

The Hollywood stars flying in and out of Kolkata have one thing in common – they are friends of well-known Spanish musician Nacho Cano, who started the foundation in Kolkata five years ago.

Cano says he came as a tourist but was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he set up the charity, named after a little girl he saw digging for food in a rubbish dump, and stayed to nurture it. Besides feeding, sheltering and education under-privileged children and destitute women, it also runs a computer centre and a music academy for street children.

Two years ago, a 300-person, 30-table dinner and cultural show was held at Griffith's Los Angeles home to raise money for Sabera. The event was co-hosted by Cruz, president of Sabera's US branch. An album featuring Martin, Banderas, Mick Jagger and Sting was also released. Griffith, accompanied by her country singer sister Tracy, visited Kolkata twice in 2002. The new Kolkata influx includes Australian cricketer Steve Waugh, who is the chief patron of Udayan, a rehabilitation centre for 300 children with leprosy problems.

Other celebrities include Real Madrid footballer Raul, and English soccer captain David Beckham, who joined 21 other international players to collect cash for Bengal's disadvantaged children. A frequent visitor to Kolkata, Waugh has raised Rs2 million for Udayan by auctioning cricket memorabilia. He has adopted several orphaned girls.

According to Sunanda Dutta-Ray, a former editor of the Statesman, "Bengalis crave to be noticed. It doesn't matter who notices them and why, so long as the person is a foreigner, preferably white. A white celebrity like Mother Teresa or Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin is heaven's own gift, even if their presence in Kolkata is itself a severe indictment of the city", he said.

"In terms of naiveté and the colonial cringe, even in this 55th year of independence we are not too far removed from the apocryphal African chieftain whose funeral oration for a missionary proclaimed, 'His skin may have been white but his heart was as black as ours'."

He said that this obsession explained why the majority of people in a survey by news magazine voted Mother Teresa as the greatest Indian since independence. She was voted ahead of the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other nationalist leaders.

Some Indian commentators attribute Mother Teresa's popularity, seven years after her death, and the warm welcome accorded to the new crop of Good Samaritans from overseas to rising disenchantment with public figures in India. Politicians, especially, are being increasingly viewed as parasites and shirkers, irrespective of their ideological affinities.

But staunch critics like Mr Bose and Mr Dutta-Ray accuse many Westerners of deliberately distorting and dramatising all that is wrong with Kolkata to garner cash and sympathy.

© 2004 Khaleej Times