Friendship day: Celebrated in India, the day has been made up for purely business reasons


August 3, 2013

Friendship Day, celebrated in India on the first Sunday in August, is an odd event. Its history suggests it was made up for commercial or promotional purposes.

August 3, 2013

Friendship Day, celebrated in India on the first Sunday in August, is an odd event. Its history suggests it was made up for commercial or promotional purposes.

MUMBAI: Somewhere at the back of a drawer or bottom of a cupboard you have a couple of ageing wristbands. The rubber ones are turning sticky and the braided ones unraveling, yet you don't throw them away. When you come across them you might groan at the memory of having once been young and ready to tie or have bands tied on you on Friendship Day, but something stops you throwing them away.

Friendship Day, celebrated in India on the first Sunday in August, is an odd event. Its history suggests it was made up for commercial or promotional purposes. It has no established traditions, no fixed rituals and even the date is not fixed – other countries celebrate it on other dates. It is not a big money-spinner and is celebrated by only a small demographic of young people, usually in schools and colleges.

And social media like Facebook should have brought about its end by offering an alternative, more efficient and year-round way for its ostensible purpose of acquiring and celebrating friendships.

Yet Friendship Day persists and, according to Pramod Arora, joint MD of Archies, it is even spreading. Far from killing it off, social media helps promote it and it is not just a metro phenomenon now, but has spread to smaller cities – "anywhere which is an educational hub", he says.

He adds that it has also crept into BPOs; the kids there are just out of college, so are still attuned to celebrating it, but now have more money so might add going out to a pub with friends.

Such small-scale festivities might disappoint the founders of India's first Friendship Day. This was the Anuvrat Movement, founded by the Jain spiritual leader Acharya Tulsi in 1949 as a way to develop the newly independent nation.

The answer, he felt, was not to force people to try for major life changes at which they might fail, but get them to commit to taking several small vows ( anu vrat) that they might keep.

The vows Acharya Tulsi listed were on the lines of not stealing, not eating meat and not drinking, which would make visiting pubs with friends a bit of a problem. The Anuvrat Movement had some success through the 1950s, and in 1958 they decided to go big with the call for a 'Friendship Day' to promote international peace and happiness.

It was launched at a big function in Delhi on January 11 with no less than the President of India, Rajendra Prasad, as chief guest. According to a report in the Times of India, the attendees included the ambassadors of different countries in Delhi, representatives of the UN, Unesco, the Indo-US Friendship Association, the Bharat Scouts & Guides and the Nations' League of Penfriends.

The meeting that day called on people across the world to celebrate a day of friendship at the start of every year and discuss ways to reduce tensions. Muni Shri Nagraj, an Anuvrat leader, explained that apart from calling for friendship between nations and between individuals, they were calling for friendship between states and between North and South, which ToI explained was a pointed reference to the language battles (between Hindi and other languages) going on in parts of India at that time.

This event doesn't seem to have continued, but by coincidence in the same year another international friendship was launched that was, somewhat improbably, to have a bit more lasting power. It took place in the truly remote location of Puerto Pinasco, a small town in the South American country of Paraguay. The town is remote even in that country, more than 500 km from the capital of Asuncion. But on June 20, 1958, it happened to host a meeting of local notables led by Ramon Artemio Bracho who, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to launch a world crusade for friendship from this not particularly promising location.

In an email (kindly facilitated by the Embassy of Paraguay in New Delhi) the Cruzada Mundial de la Amistad, as the organization which came from this is known, explains that what transformed this from any number of lofty proposals floated by local Rotary-type organizations that are often forgotten by their next meeting, was what they aptly — though the influence of a Spanish-English Internet translation engine should not be discounted — describe as, "a miraculous event, an unintentional contact with a radio station of the United States of America, the KGEI 'Voice of Friendship' from San Francisco".

KGEI was a shortwave radio station established in 1939 that had played quite a notable role through the Second World War since it was the one American radio station whose broadcasts could be heard across the Pacific. But by 1958 it was owned by a Christian broadcasting organization, which used it to transmit to Latin America under the name called La Voz de Amistad (the Voice of Friendship).

It may never be known if it was this link with friendship that impressed them or if it was just a low news day, but when KGEI picked up word of this world friendship crusade from a tiny town in Paraguay, they decided to promote it to other radio stations. "Subsequently joined Radio Canada International, Radio Nederland of the Netherlands and Radio Stockholm Sweden, and thus the good news of the crusade became practically all over the world," writes Cruzada Mundial proudly.

It is not very clear from their email what CruzadaMundial did to promote world friendship since their listed activities — "visit to prisons, sick of hospitals, visits to educational institutions, emotional acts in different social and sports organizations" — sound largely the same as any Rotary Club. Whatever the reason, the idea of a Friendship Day at the end of June or start of August survived and has even become quite big in Paraguay and neighboring countries.

Arora of Archies gives a very different reason for observing international friendship day at the start of August. "It was meant to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima," he says. The bombing, which took place on August 6, might seem a rather macabre starting point, but it can be seen why the worst event of any war ever might be a spur to promoting friendships as a way to stop all wars.

This might be why the United Nations has been, somewhat fitfully, observing an International Friendship Day around this time, though the Cruzada Mundial claims this as a result of its lobbying (a somewhat more commercial type of lobbying might have been why in 1998 the UN, along with the Disney Corporation, named Winnie the Pooh as Ambassador of Friendship for this day). Yet predating all these campaigns, there was an attempt to start a Friendship Day that was both more prosaic and in tune with the way it is celebrated in India.

Leigh Eric Schmidt in Consumer Rites, his study of the marketing of holidays in the US, writes that in 1919, Joyce C Hall, the founder of the Hallmark greeting card company, "floated the idea of a Friendship Day for the first Sunday in August, a date chosen as a slow period between other holidays, and the Greeting Card Association buoyed up the occasion with the raft of promotions".

The association explained candidly that the date had no prior associations so was the ideal blank slate for a holiday mainly meant to create some mid-year business. This works slightly differently in India. Arora explains that the value of Friendship Day for the greeting and gifting business is that "it starts the season for us. After this comes Rakhi, and then all the main festivals for the year". Of course, it is true that some of the friendships that flourish on this day are meant to be a bit more; "youngsters do use it for wooing", admits Arora.

This recalls perhaps the best-known example of Friendship Day in popular culture, and one that played a key role in promoting the event. This is the film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai where, early on, Shah Rukh Khan's character is shown handing out Friendship Day bands to any girl he fancies in his school. The film was released in 1998 not long after Archies started pushing Friendship Day in 1995 (Hallmark, which is now partnered with Archies, but was with a rival then, also started advertising it around 1997).

Friendship Day demands little of us, other than having to endure some mushiness about friendships being forever, which is patently untrue since most of the time we can't even remember who gave us those bands that are lying at the back of our desk drawers. Yet the memories that go with them are pleasant, of a time when we were young and ready to believe such things matter, and perhaps it is in the reminder of this that Friendship Day finds its real value.

Courtesy: ET