Fortune-tellers do business worth Rs 15 crore a month in the
By Tapash Ganguly
Acharya Satyananda is a favourite fortune-teller of the
high and mighty of West Bengal. Yet on March 9, he failed to
foresee what lay in store for him as he let French Robert,
staff director of National Geographic, shoot his interactions
with customers at his ashram in Barasat. The footage was part
of a documentary on Prabir Ghosh, general secretary of
Bharatiya Vijnan O Yuktibadi Samity, a rationalist movement
that has been crusading against godmen and astrologers.
Caught unawares: Satyananda has customers among thr
Even as the camera recorded Satyananda taking Rs 300 each
from four customers and offering sanctified amulets that cost
Rs 5,500 each to avert problems, Ghosh barged in and called
him a cheat. According to Ghosh, Satyananda had worked for a
porn magazine in Allahabad and was arrested for obscene
writing about 15 years ago.
Satyananda snatched the camera from Robert, without knowing
that two other cassettes were safe with the crew who had in
the meantime left the ashram. The police did not go beyond
securing Robert’s release from the ashram.
Three days later, Satyananda, in his hour-long programme on
a Bengali television channel at 9.10 p.m., urged his followers
"to kill Prabir Ghosh as he is more dangerous than an
extremist". The channel repeated the programme with the
threat the following morning. Ghosh lodged a complaint with
Kolkata Police who arrested Satyananda—for attempt to murder—after
Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya intervened. He got bail
on March 19.
Marxism may have no place for the supernatural but the
Left-ruled West Bengal has hundreds of such soothsayers.
Kolkata has about two dozen high profile astrologers who
splurge on promotionals in newspapers and television and make
a fortune by selling hopes in the form of amulets, gems and
pujas to the gullible. "Two dozen astrologers together
earn at least Rs 15 crore a month," said Ghosh. "Satyananda
owns two aircraft besides a fleet of limousines."
Satyananda spends around Rs 18,000 every week on ads, and
according to a senior police officer, makes around Rs 35 lakh
a month and has assets in Kolkata and Barasat worth Rs 5 crore.
About half of his customers—around 60 a day—buy his
"The impact of television is more extensive than that
of newspapers," said Dr Sandipan Chowdhury, whose weekly
advertorial expense is Rs 12,000. "For the last year and
a half, my programme is telecast every Wednesday at 11 a.m.
Without publicity it is impossible to survive in this highly
competitive world." Chowdhury has been in this business
for the past 28 years—as old as the Communist rule in the
Chowdhury, who owns two apartments in south Kolkata, takes
between Rs 201 and Rs 301 per sitting. "I charge Rs 2,001
for a full horoscope and Rs 1,001 for a half horoscope,"
he said. "I never fail in my predictions." But when
this correspondent met him on October 28 last year at his Lake
Gardens office before the US presidential elections, Chowdhury
predicted defeat for George Bush.
Present perfect: Khana Ma has three offices in Kolkata.
40 per cent of the city's
high profile astrologers are women
On inquiry, Chowdhury’s claims of MA in geography from
Calcutta University in 1982 and a doctorate proved to be
false. Satyananda had a murky pre-soothsaying life as Pradip
Biswas. According to the police officer, he vanished from
Kolkata following the scurrilous writing episode and
resurfaced a decade ago in Barasat in his new Rajneesh
Another high profile astrologer, Subhash Shastry, has
offices in Bhavanipur, Dum Dum and Howrah, and charges Rs 401
as registration fee. "He has enhanced the rate [from Rs
351] to avoid rush," said Shastry’s secretary. Special
pujas cost up to Rs 50,000. Amritalal, who works from
Ballygunj, has an entire television channel called Fortune to
himself, and, according to Ghosh, he pays Rs 50 lakh as annual
fees to the service provider. Amritalal began his career in
the 70s with an astrology column in a newspaper and is one of
the richest astrologers in Kolkata.
If men are doing roaring business, do not underestimate
women; 40 per cent of Kolkata’s high profile soothsayers are
women, the more popular among them being Khana Ma, Srimati
Chandana, Madhumita Bhattacharya, Sravani Debnath and Paramita.
Khana Ma, who has offices in Salt Lake, Dhakuria and
Manoharpukur Road, meets only 25 customers a day for a
consultation fee of Rs 201. Pujas cost extra. Paramita read
this correspondent’s palm and recommended three rings
studded with ruby, emerald and red coral. "I will
sanctify these gems," she said, "so that nothing can
Without publicity it is impossible to survive
competition. I charge Rs 2,001 for a full horoscope and Rs
1,001 for a half horoscope.
Dr sandipan chowdhury, astrologer
Troubleshooting rings cost a small fortune (Rs 53,200) and
that perhaps explains why almost all major jewellery shops in
West Bengal have in-house astrologers. Paramita, too, was
attached to one before starting independent practice. "I
don’t know how our in-house astrologer has altered the fate
of our clients," said a floor manager of a big jewellery
shop in Kolkata. "But he has helped us in building a
Among people who seek fortune-tellers are bureaucrats,
police officers and even some Marxist legislators. "Even
those who denounce astrology and palmistry in public wear
rings studded with gems," said Manju Kumar Mazumdar,
Communist Party of India secretary in West Bengal, when told
about Satyananda’s political connections. "In Asansol,
I asked a party leader whether he got any benefits from
wearing those rings, and he replied in the negative. If an
astrologer can dupe a hardcore Communist, what can you say
about common people burdened with problems?" Mazumdar has
turned down requests for appearing in Amritalal’s channel.
Following Satyananda’s arrest, the chief minister has
asked the police to bust soothsaying rackets. People are
hardly aware of statutes—the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940,
and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (objectionable advertisement)
Act, 1954—that contain provisions against black magic and
claims to cure diseases. "We never knew whom to approach
for remedies," said Anamika Rauth, a 40-year-old widow in
Kolkata. The two expensive gems she is wearing at her
astrologer’s instance for the past year have been of no help
in her fight against cancer. In the case of Bijon Roy, a state
government employee in Barasat, nothing has come of the kal
sarpa yagna that Satyananda performed for Rs 5,500 to
facilitate his promotion.
If an astrologer can dupe a
hardcoreCommunist, what can
you say about common people with problems?
Manju Kumar Mazumdar, CPI secretary, West Bengal
Some of the popular astrologers this correspondent
contacted for an appointment refused to meet a journalist.
"Those who come to us want to know about things like
children’s education and marriage, employment, health and
love life," said Sudhangshu Chattopadhyay, a Kolkata
astrologer. "Some of these astrologers make money by
exploiting their weaknesses. They bring a bad name to our
"How can the government single out a particular class
of clients, in this case astrologers, to stop telecasting
their programmes?" asked the chief coordinator of a
Bengali cable channel, adding that there are about a dozen
such channels that survive by leasing out telecast time to
professionals like doctors, beauticians and astrologers.
"Many doctors come with their own anchors. Even the calls
in phone-in programmes are made by their own people. Doctors
are oath-bound but astrologers are not."
The solution lies in proper legislation, according to
Mazumdar, and Kshiti Goswamy, state spokesperson for the RSP.
"The Left Front should take a lead in this respect,"
they said, "and make West Bengal a model state."
Some legislators are close to Satyananda
Prabir Ghosh, 61, quit his State Bank of India job to fight
for the cause of science and rationalism. At least 20 attempts
have been made on his life in the last two decades in which he
has been crusading against soothsayers and godmen in eastern
India. His efforts recently led to the arrest of Satyananda.
Excerpts from an interview:
How did you begin your crusade?
In the early eighties, I wrote a column called Loukik
Aloukik (Natural and the supernatural) in a Bengali magazine
where I tried to expose godmen and astrologers. It became
quite popular and people urged me to organise a movement.
Are you a member of a political party?
No. I believe in rationalism and humanism. I believe that
any armed revolution must be preceded by a cultural
It is well known that an influential CPI(M) minister is
very close to Satyananda. So the police initially refused to
arrest Satyananda ever after he urged his followers to kill
me. Several legislators, police officers, bureaucrats and even
some judges are quite close to Satyananda.
How do you manage your expenses?
I was supposed to retire this year. But I quit in 1998 to
devote myself fully to the cause of my life. Look, I didn’t
go for VRS.
My family consists of my mother, wife and a son. I have
about 40 books, each a weapon against these charlatans. Some
of these have been in the bestseller list of the Ananda Bazar
Patrika. I provide for my family with the royalties.