At the outset I should make clear that I support free-thinking liberalism. I believe that policing is an onerous task that needs refined and mature thinking, a score on which my government has time and again let me down. Censorship and proscription are adopted by oneself, for personal reasons, not at the behest of, or out of fear of, someone who thinks they know what’s best for me. I believe the role of government is to ensure that every individual and type of person has the right to live freely, safely in a country, and that means they should have the right to express themselves freely and safely.
Both matters have been severely compromised in “free” India. Those in whose name the censoring is perpetrated claim their sensibilities are slighted while those that are censored are forcibly silenced, prevented from expressing or living their free nature. Herein comes the role of government to make both parties feel protected. But by what criteria is a judge to decide when a man’s free expression needs curtailing?
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In an age when violent censorship is perpetrated in the name of “cultural values” that are established by self-professed gurus, “tradition” and history are passed around like whores who must adapt themselves to their clients’ needs. We would do better if we had the pluck to actually elevate history to a sophisticated courtesan and seek audience as per her wishes instead.
For Indian history’s moods and fancies are so beastly and demanding, replete with so many plural intentions and interpretations, that I would actually defy any one of her admirers to try and come up with any single-point universalism that may be sustained in her court.
Carved in stone: A terracotta plaque from Bengal, circa 100 BC.
Indians have always displayed a vacillating attitude towards erotica: rampant consumers of it at one level, embarrassment and even puritanical proscription at the other. The narrow- mindedness that stifled M.F. Husain has a long history of precedents and parallels: the infamous case of Chandra Mohan in Vadodara, the 1954 censoring of Akbar Padamsee’s The Lovers and in fact, as early as 1949, when F.N. Souza’s house was raided by the police for “obscene drawings”.
It is recorded that Mahatma Gandhi once suggested the erotic sculptures at Konarak be covered by cement plastering—something the intervention of Abanindranath Tagore, John G. Woodroffe, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramendrasundar Trivedi and Nandalal Bose averted.
Such embarrassment has afflicted scholars too. At his presidential address to the 18th Indian History Congress in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1955, K.M. Panikkar said, “…another problem that faces the student is the decadence that seems to have overtaken Hindu society between the eighth and the 12th centuries… The Khajuraho and Orissa temples for all their magnificence testify to a degeneration of the Hindu mind.” Early medieval art has been associated with “feudalism”, and scholarship has invariably presented it as being the product of royal courts, the major concerns of which were “war and sex”.
Feudal debauchery, or a vice of the Middle Ages, is hardly the attitude those scholars who study Indian religion would have us ascribe to erotica. Their interpretations frequently talk of the auspiciousness of bhoga, how kama is one of the goals and stages of life, they speak of the sacredness of virility, the spanda, energy or potentiality that erotic imagery suggests. But the most common interpretation is that it is a coded tantric message. Yet ignorance and fear plague studies of tantra; perhaps the only sanctioned and even institutionalized space to consciously express erotic dirt and depravity. Thank the tantric gods for that! Its scholarly readings remain mired in the promise of double entendres that speak of higher, subtler psychological and metaphysical truths to their initiates, refusing or too embarrassed to also see its importance at face value.
We have usually sought to cloak ancient erotica in religion, and this has been as helpful as it has been catastrophic. Even within religion, erotic poetry became a powerful tool used as a means of subversion or, on the other hand, for religious Bhakti’s ecstatic and unmediated union with God. Painting followed poetry in imaging the minute details of Krishna and Radha’s love. Similarly, erotic union became a standard feature of stories recounted at medieval Indian Sufi shrines that were to become a subject of the earliest Indo-Islamic painted miniatures.
Despite popular belief, in India the subject of erotica actually entered a non-religious sphere in the Kamashastras (which there were scores of) at an early date. A prolific amount of explicitly erotic iconography seems to have been made right from second century BC onward, when hundreds of terracotta and ivory plaques reveal that the very period that has revealed the earliest images of Hinduism and Buddhism also produced an iconographically consistent codification for sexual images. More recent research on these images shows that the angle of vision of the viewer of the plaques and the direction of the gaze of those depicted on the plaques actually reflect either a self-consciously narcissistic or, at other times, voyeuristic gaze. Yes, a case may be made for these images to exist within a ritual context, but equally, they can be analysed through contemporary studies on visual culture, gender and sexuality to suggest that ancient images may well have had a pornographic vision.
Scholars now have available a plethora of interpretations ballasted by all manner of evidence to prove the multiple historical functions of erotica which show how it existed outside “religion”. These need reiteration in our times. And if some aggrieved artist wanted, it is indeed possible to prove that almost any artistic expression and intention has a traditional history.
The mithuna or loving couple, for instance, was an auspicious symbol on the gateways of religious shrines, but it was equally a powerful talisman As a (mimetic) substitute for a magico-religious fertility ritual, it may have warded off foetus-stealing demons, while it was also a symbolic metaphor connecting one architectural structure with another. It was said to help the earth endure the electrical shock of lightning, and elsewhere it became a tool by which one community could poke fun at another.
The framework of religion, which is normally assumed to be a broad umbrella term, may also be fractured to shed light on specific cultural practices through a focus on the erotic in everyday life: decorative objects, combs, ornaments, objects of fetish, food and annals of superstition and medicine provide fodder for titillating a partner or providing an aphrodisiac, matters which are out of the purview of ancient Indian religion, but which certainly go into making a rich culture.
The fine art of erotica, one of the greatest aesthetic achievements of India, came from centuries of contemplation on matters concerning sex, sexuality and sensuality. This has given rise to dozens of ancient texts on how they interface with psychology, religion, spirituality and philosophy on the one hand, social decorum, appropriate sexual behaviour, courtship, seduction, food and attire on the other.
For a culture with such a subtle understanding of psycho-sexual aesthetics, we can now only rely on cinema, television and the print media—the only steady, yet censored, spaces for erotica. Private art galleries are as nervous as the ones run by the State to show art that may be risqué.
Why have the curators of these institutions been excluding them—is it their personal puritanism? Certainly not. But gallerists and curators fear not getting the State’s protection for freedom of expression if they do decide to show erotically charged art in public. Is the quest for “liberalization” only relevant when it comes to commerce?
Even before one can contend with matters concerning the erotic in India’s cultural practices openly in academic discussions, let alone their public perception, the database of the types of erotica and spaces for erotica in 21st century India has suddenly become so much more widespread that we can barely keep pace with the new face of erotica. Whereas the era of the videotape in the 1980s and 1990s proliferated Western pornography to rural and urban India, new technologies via VCDs, DVDs, the Internet and mobile phones allow for new means of soliciting and meeting partners, and animation adds a whole new dimension to porn, which can be lifelike, but need not actually involve real people or even humanly possible body parts!
The erotic turns into a force field as soon as it goes through the circuits of mass production: photography, film, television and new media. In all of these the erotic has been closely allied with the “reality effect” central to mechanical reproduction (ever narrowing the gap between the virtual and real). The question of technology can thus no longer be separated from these discussions: the “virtual” is often somebody’s “real”, and legitimately thus, seeking representation and protection publicly. Virtual reality, online dating and the reports of rape being committed in people’s virtual, or Second Life, bring us to new questions of the experience of the erotic without the presence of the body. But with inadequate representation for Dr Jekyll, how can I expect my State to protect Mr Hyde as well?
Time and again, we have seen that society will, in every culture, seek out and fulfil its needs for erotica, and its market is always several steps ahead of those who seek to police it. We aren’t here to judge: What is seen as artistic erotica by some is termed pornography by others. Ultimately these distinctions are based on aesthetic, moral and cultural choices/subjectivities and continue to be controversial. But for reasons historic, psychological, social and cultural (not to speak of economic), it must be given its space. Legitimate spaces for its consumers will, after the initial euphoria, always bring responsible self-governance within the users.
Open discourse and free availability bring transparency and an ability to monitor what is being traded, used and exchanged. By creating legitimate spaces for a variety of human behaviour one is able to allow those who inhabit those worlds to secure themselves, feel protected. Equally, we are able to learn from it. It’s not rocket science, in fact it’s the first lesson in parenting.
Naman P. Ahuja is associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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