On heroes and hero-worship

And why care and caution cannot be stressed enough

The hero-worship impulse in humans is so potent that if they do not have a genuine hero, they readily invent one. Even when they have a legitimate hero-figure, they tend to keep on inflating his merits and continue elevating his stature, until he or she attains a humanly impossible level.

It is always instructive to observe individuals who revere two different men from the same field fighting hammer and tongs regarding whose hero is bigger and better. On YouTube, for example, and to name but one rivalry, Rafi and Kishore aficionados can be seen slugging it out in the comments sections of songs sung by one or the other. To an extent this is to be expected, what with the urge to dominate (by proxy if not directly) being so irresistible in man. However, too often the veneration of heroes is taken to a degree where it defies all reason.

By no means does this happen exclusively on YouTube or for that matter the social media at large. Few drawing room conversations are complete without somebody magnifying his hero to unbelievable proportions. For instance, somebody would causally state (as if it were an established fact) that Lata Mangeshkar recorded 30,000 songs in her illustrious career. He is not likely to take kindly to anybody doubting this figure. He has heard it from somebody who has probably read the number from one of the numerous websites that do not think twice before reproducing the ‘information’ that originated nobody knows where. This sort of fan is motivated by the best of intentions: that of elevating Lata’s stature. He fails to realize that somebody who has sung Saawan ke jhoole pare would hardly require her stature to be elevated by anybody.

Unfortunately, it is not merely random individuals and obscure websites that are guilty of failing the fact- and sanity-check on this sort of ‘information’. Guinness World Records for many years maintained that Lata was the most recorded artiste in the world, having already sung 25,000 songs by 1974 (a number with no basis in anything). Though the ‘record’ was ultimately erased, the figure has kept doing the rounds to this day. When, three weeks ago, a renowned and well-respected newspaper (which shall remain unnamed) carried an obituary piece on Lata, it stated that she had sung more than 44,000 songs in her career. A simple calculation demonstrates that had she sung one song every day (without fail) from 1950 to 1990 (her busiest period), that would have amounted to a total of 14,600 songs. For 30,000 she would have required 80 years; for 44,000, 120 years! When the editors of newspapers do not bother with simple logic, what chance the fanatic?

The pathology of this brand of hero-worship is such that it tends to escalate with time – the ‘facts’ reported become more and more dubious, with the links between arguments and conclusion becoming more and more tenuous.

The pathology of this brand of hero-worship is such that it tends to escalate with time – the ‘facts’ reported become more and more dubious, with the links between arguments and conclusion becoming more and more tenuous. These things typically start benignly enough, before exaggeration gets the better of one’s judgment. A Mehdi Hasan fan of this ilk would not stay content for long with his belief that Mehdi Hasan was an accomplished, trained singer with an impressive body of work to his credit (something few sensible men would doubt). Soon he starts opining that Hasan is better than this singer or that one, based on queer chains of reasoning. He may additionally tell you that Hasan must be the last word in semi-classical music because it is on record that one fine day (or night) he broke a glass merely by singing; just as Tansen all those centuries ago used to make it rain by singing Malhaar. Well-meaning but particularly die-hard Muhammad Rafi fans are apt to tell you that at a particular part of O duniye ke rakhwaale Rafi had hit a note nobody had ever managed to hit before him, and which nobody has achieved since. Who is one to doubt such a fascinating report, but one does wonder about its source when presumably Rafi himself had no clue he had hit an unprecedented note.

What is the harm in such benign (sometimes outright amusing) exaggeration, you might be wondering. Well, adding absurd arguments dilutes one’s case because it detracts from one’s valid arguments as well. While genuine heroes are immune from getting their greatness diminished by the absurdity on the part of a passionate devotee, all that this exaggeration does is demonstrate how foolish the exaggerator is. It is always advisable to resist the temptation to be silly.

But there is much more to it than that. Being reasonable or otherwise is a habit that does not make a distinction between significant and trivial matters; nor does it confine itself to one’s thinking about any department of life in isolation. While for obvious reasons I would like to avoid going into details, intricate religious systems have developed as a result of devotees of great men elevating the latter to the status of super-human beings (sometimes even making them deities) by exaggerating their quite real merits. This has had consequences that are much more serious and unfortunate than a random individual merely sounding silly.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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