In 2006, Sanjeev Khandekar and Vaishali Narkar had a show in Jehangir Art Gallery titled Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick. It catapulted Khandekar to notoriety because there were vociferous protests accusing the show of obscenity and it was shut down. Considering the quality of the works in Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick, there’s a strong argument for the protesters having done what many aesthetes may have recommended. However, regardless of the mediocrity of the art on display, the point was that Khandekar as an artist should be free to create and show his work. Mumbai’s art community rallied around him and suddenly, Khandekar shared something with one of modern Indian art’s masters, M.F. Husain: They’d both been accused of creating art that was considered obscene by some.

Also Read | All articles of Free Speech series

Two years later in 2008, student artist Chandra Mohan’s paintings of Durga, a Shiva lingam and Jesus were destroyed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members during an internal evaluation of final-year art students at Vadodara’s MS University. For once, the VHP had the support of a certain section of the local Christian community, which was not amused by Chandra Mohan’s depictions of Christ. The police followed the vandals and alarmingly, they let the vandals go scot-free but arrested Chandra Mohan for threatening Vadodara’s secular atmosphere. The art community protested again, this time at a national level. Freedom of artistic expression, it seemed, was under attack.

Montage: (from top) M.F. Husain’s Bharat Mata; a work by Bhupen Khakhar; Manu Parekh’s Interpretation of Benares ; and a work by Sanjeev Khandekar, from the show Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick.

Art in India is a private and personal initiative. Gallerists have created reputations for themselves without any supporting infrastructure. Artists didn’t have a market they had to answer to until the noughties and they were free to respond to the world around them as they saw fit. This is why modern and contemporary Indian art actually has a rather impressive tradition of creating works that go against the grain of conservative thought.

Look at F.N. Souza, who poured out his rage against the Roman Catholic machine through his mesmerizing and yet grotesque depictions of Christ. He hadn’t painted as much as savaged the canvases and the contrasting compassion in his nudes is striking. Bhupen Khakhar celebrated homosexuality long before it was in vogue to do so. Paintings such as Two Men in Banares (1982) would still be considered bold for the way Khakhar brought the sacred and the profane together. Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories (2001) attacked the government’s attempt to rewrite history textbooks. For the work titled Blame (2002-04), Shilpa Gupta took on the role of a pedlar in Mumbai and sold little bottles of red fluid with a label that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good. So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality." The directions for using Blame were: “Squeeze small quantity on dry surface. Neatly separate into four equal sections (can be unequal too). Tell apart sections according to race and religion." Imagine trying something like this in China.

When it comes to nudity, Indian artists haven’t been coy. Almost every significant Indian painter has painted and exhibited nudes, including Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Jogen Chowdhury and, of course, Husain (who was slapped with an obscenity charge in 1996 that was finally dismissed earlier this year). In 1993, Mrinalini Mukherjee made Pushp, a hemp sculpture that showed an enormous vulva (the piece is around 40 inches tall) and can only be described as voluptuous. Subodh Gupta slathered himself in Vaseline and posed flagrantly naked in Vilas (1999). Abir Karmakar paints gender-bending self-portraits that are often unnervingly voyeuristic and still poignant, like In the Old Fashioned Way (2007). Earlier this year, T. Venkanna showed a painting that was a copy of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, except he had a limp rubber rooster stuck inside the outsized vagina (go on, think of the synonym for rooster). Inder Salim has hugged trees and walked around Delhi naked as the day he was born for a number of his performances. Viewers may have batted their eyelids a little more than usual but no one questioned an artist’s right to create or show works like these. In fact, when photographer Raghu Rai showed his tasteless and sexist “nudies" in 2007, demonstrations by feminists against that particular exhibition would probably have been justified.

There’s no doubt that incidents such as Chandra Mohan’s arrest and Husain’s 13-year legal ordeal have made some cautious but it’s worth remembering that India is a country that wants to be a democracy. One in which public demonstrations, like the ones that were organized for Chandra Mohan, can make an impact even if they are by a relatively small group of people. Our laws might be hazy on what constitutes obscenity but at least we have judges who will quote Pablo Picasso and have no qualms in labelling those who harassed Husain as ignorant and narrow-minded. In comparison to the repressive regimes of countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan (all of which produce excellent art despite legal and social straitjackets), the acts of the right-wing minority that have troubled Indian art seem almost pesky.

We complain about how the market is the master of the Indian art scene, we lament the absence of proper art education, and we gnash our teeth at the lack of museums and governmental support for art. All these are valid concerns but so far as the freedom of expression is concerned, the muzzle can only be put on an artist by the art fraternity. This will happen if the threat of a few thugs makes gallerists and curators cower, if the artists submit to anxieties instead of using their work to respond to their circumstances. If there is a gag on Indian art, then it would have to be tied by the artist himself. No one else has either the capacity or the right.

Deepanjana Pal is the author of The Painter—A Life of Ravi Varma.

Write to