Bharat, a new vision, a new imaginary

Hamsini Shivakumar and Kanika Yadav of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, write how brands and publishers are painting the image of the ‘new Bharat' in content

Hamsini Shivakumar
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The label India for our metro and big cities and the label Bharat for small towns and villages is a convenient shorthand used by media and marketing teams. After the 1991 economic reforms, the spirit of individual enterprise and hard work was very much celebrated and rewarded as the way for people to reach the top and achieve their dreams.  In many ways, this was the transfer of the promise of the USA, the American Dream. A land in which individual ambition, enterprise, and hard work is rewarded and the sky’s the limit for those with vision and drive.

Thirty years later, it is the turn of our small towns and rural India to move forward into a similar future. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the Government to provide security and stable jobs, why not grab your future into your own hands and script it. Those who have shown that this is possible are the new icons of Bharat.

NDTV has launched a new show, The Icons of Bharat to celebrate the dreamers and doers of Bharat and to spread the message that it is possible for the residents of small towns and villages of India to be enterprising and to make their own dreams come true.

Set up in a ‘Shark Tank’ inspired format, Icons of Bharat is a show that aims to inspire audiences through stories of sixty farmers, micro-entrepreneurs, and home-makers. The ventures of participants vary from affordable events management companies to exotic vegetable farms to speciality chocolates. From among these sixty, one icon will eventually be crowned as the “Shresth Icon” or the best icon of Bharat by the mentors/judges that include Anand Kumar, Rashmi Bansal, Prafull Billore, and Srikant Sastri. Furthermore, all the icons get to host their respective skill courses on the Ffreedom App for the audiences to learn from. Thus, they are not just successful people, they are teachers who can create a whole new tribe of such entrepreneurs. The circle of change thus grows wider and larger.

In order for the show to be engaging to viewers and exciting for entrants to send in their entry, it needs to offer a vision and an Imaginary of what this new Bharat is and can be. The Naya Bharat Imaginary is made up of images and icons that are visible in the Show’s sets and set design.

The iconography of the show can be categorised into two types. The future-facing images are the ones representing modernity. The most widely accepted symbol of modernity today has to do with technology and high tech. Others are to do with green energy and sustainability. Some of the images of high-tech visible are drones, harvesters, and windmills. 

Small town and rural India’s talent is deeply engaged with crafts and craftsmanship of various kinds and these are also represented - beads and mirror work, wooden yarn frames, bamboo crafts, mirror paintings, old hands over a potter’s wheel, rows of steel chai cups, and gullaks. 

Given how a majority of the contestants on the show have initiatives that focus on innovation in the field of farming, fishing, livestock, and poultry- it is not surprising that icons related to these dominate the imagery. With agriculture providing livelihood to almost 60% of the Indian populace, it is an obvious choice for the visual representation of India.

Contemporary agricultural practices in India developed and fine-tuned since the time of the Green Revolution are in urgent need of innovation due to factors such as high volatility in climate patterns, water scarcity, etc. This makes the success stories from Icons of Bharat highly relevant. Such a show contributes to the formation of an ecosystem where farmers are involved in informed decision-making regarding their produce and farming techniques.

To graphically represent this, age-old symbols of agriculture are replaced or mixed with new symbols. The show, therefore, features drones going over green fields. Harvesters and tractors are shown mostly without humans to hint toward increasing automation. To both signal the shift towards and promote renewable energy, windmills feature in multitudes right under the show title.

A whole lot of symbols from associated fields such as poultry, honeybee keeping, and fisheries not only cover parts of India other than the North but are also suggestive of a more holistic form of agriculture. So, images of hens, fishes in trawls, hive boxes, etc. feature side by side those of windmills and harvesters.

Why are these images significant in the construction of a new imaginary or vision of ‘Bharat’?

The graphic representation of the farmer and by extension of India has moved from an emaciated figure pushing bullocks to till the land.  This was the ‘kisan’ image for many decades after our Independence. The prosperous and forward-looking farmer’s image was changed to a healthy and happy figure presiding over his tractor, with his family standing around him.

But that still limits the farmer to subsistence farming and it no more suffices to capture the ambitions of the younger generation hailing from farming backgrounds. So, now the push is towards making the farmer an entrepreneur. Farm produce can be shaped in a way to both create and fulfil demand. It can skillfully be combined with animal husbandry to further boost profits.

A farmer should now move from just hard work to smart work. This is true for the contestants too - most of whom are educated individuals who have had set careers before they started out with an organic farm or a raw fish delivery system, for example. Therefore, we observe that iconography is dominated by technology and automated machines. It replaces the farmer spraying pesticide manually or spreading seeds by hand.

The second segment of icons with beads and mirror work, wooden yarn frames, bamboo crafts, mirror paintings, old hands over a potter’s wheel, etc. too represent small business models at one level. The contestants by extension illustrate ways to modernise these for generating profit. But they are more in continuity with the existing symbols of India and they provide the connecting link perhaps between India and Bharat. The rows of steel chai cups or a pair of wrinkled hands over a potter’s wheel or a smiling lady clad in ghaghra-choli taking her cows out to the pasture are mass symbols. They forge the popular connection because they are easily recognisable and familiar as they have been used endlessly in post-independence India. These symbols prepare the base on which the first category of symbols can perform.


To be an icon in the new Bharat, one has to be innovative and resourceful. Most of all, one needs to be enterprising. The agricultural model that India has known no more fits the bill. Similarly, the handicraft sector cannot survive until it is supported by and linked to modern supply chains and markets. The transformation of a farmer or keeper of buffalos, goats or fishes from a worker to an entrepreneur requires a shift of mindset and capabilities to deal with the market and modern supply chains.

A good chunk of audiences sitting at home watching the show get access not just to an inspiring business model but also to the skill set required for the said model. The icons, therefore, are all linked by an entrepreneurial spirit born out of necessity as well as creativity. While the icons in the show have planned for or stumbled upon their respective ventures after formal education or a separate career- the audiences can nevertheless take lessons and become part of the new ecosystem.

On the levels of symbolism to paint the new imaginary, this is achieved via a balance of familiar symbols as well as new symbols marked by modernity. The existing symbols bring a sense of familiarity with more representations of humans - hands, faces, etc. While the new symbols push humans into the background and celebrate more thinking-oriented roles as opposed to labour-oriented ones. On the whole, the message is, that just hard labour is not the answer.  Only hard work can take care of survival, but to thrive, Bharat needs to turn to smart work.

Hamsini Shivakumar Leapfrog Strategy Consulting Kanika Yadav Bharat a new vision a new imaginary