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India: Shrinking freedom of expression with the growing influence of religious right

Painting the art world red

by Ranjit Hoskote

Monday 14 May 2007

(Source : Hindustan Times, May 13, 2007)

The outrageous arrest of Chandramohan, a final-year fine arts student at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, on May 9, has confirmed that the only right that is taken seriously in India today is the right to take offence. The right to take offence is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution, but all the same, it is the most easily enforced of all rights. All you need is a local demagogue with a taste for publicity, a few rampaging goons, policemen who favour the violent over the reasonable, and a lower judiciary that is reluctant to defy the mob.

Chandramohan, who was taken into custody by the Baroda police without a proper warrant, after he had been roughed up by a gang of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists, has been charged with public obscenity and an attempt to incite communal disharmony. The images to which such turbulent opposition has been mounted show a woman, perhaps a goddess, birthing a man (which is no more fearful than the Lajja-gouri of Hindu sacred art), and a crucifix with a penis (this, an obvious homage to Robert Mapplethorpe). Both images retrieve the passionate human dramas that lie at the core of sacred narratives. Both images insist upon the artist’s right to revisit inherited lore, to reinvent images and narratives, to integrate the sacred as an element of secular experience.

The treatment meted out to this young artist follows a pattern of violations against cultural freedom in India over the last two decades. The programmatic persecution of MF Husain is the most visible of these violations. But many artists, writers, film-makers, scholars and other cultural practitioners have suffered the attentions of the State, of pressure groups, and of informal alliances between these forces: Anand Patwardhan, Surendran Nair, Sheba Chhachhi, Rekha Rodwittiya, to name just four. Galleries, research institutes and bookstores have been attacked, paintings and manuscripts have been burned, concerts have been disrupted, and films refused screenings, all in the name of the right to take offence.

The group is everything, even if it is a fiction or a fraction; the individual is nothing. Paradoxically, in a Republic built to safeguard individual rights, one can bargain with the State and even force State action (or secure State inaction) by citing the sensitivities of a group. But one cannot make the same effective claim on behalf of an individual’s cultural freedom. Thus, for example, Laine’s study of Shivaji was banned instantly when Maratha organisations agitated against it. But Anand Patwardhan must fight legal battles for years before Doordarshan agrees to screen one of his critical documentaries.

Champions of the right to take offence assume that they alone have the right to speak of certain issues, that their imagination has primacy over that of others. Thus, for instance, the VHP assumes that Hindu icons can exist only as objects in a Hindutva discourse. This explicitly denies the right of other discourses to construct them in different ways, as the objects of scholarship, of art, of good-natured humour, or of open-ended faith.

This explains the grimly ironic turn of events following Chandramohan’s arrest, when the self-appointed custodians of Hindu culture demanded the closure of an exhibition showing the vital role of the erotic in Hindu sacred art. On 11 May, in silent protest, some of Chandramohan’s fellow students put up an exhibition of reproductions of images drawn from across 2500 years of Indian art. These included the Gudimallam Shiva, perhaps the earliest known Shiva image, which combines the lingam with an anthropomorphic form of the deity; a Kushan mukha-linga or masked lingam; Lajja-gouris from Ellora and Orissa, resplendent in their fecund nakedness; erotic statuary from Modhera, Konark and Khajuraho; as well as Raga-mala paintings from Rajasthan. All these images, which rank among the finest produced through the centuries in the subcontinent, celebrate the sensuous and the passionate dimensions of existence — which, in the Hindu world-view, are inseparably twinned with the austere and the contemplative.

This treasure of Hindu sacred art did not win the favour of the establishment, which ordered the exhibition hall to be sealed. It appears that the champions of a resurgent Hindu identity are acutely embarrassed by the presence of the erotic at the centre of Hindu sacred art. As they may well be, for the roots of Hindutva do not lie in Hinduism. Rather, they lie in a crude mixture of German romanticism, Victorian puritanism and Nazi methodology. What happens next, we wonder? Will the champions of Hindutva go around the country chipping away at temple murals, breaking down monuments, whitewashing wall paintings, and burning manuscripts and folios? Perhaps they will not stop until they have forced the unpredictable richness of Hindu culture to conform to their own tunnel vision of life, art, image and narrative.

The first move in the establishment of a fascist system is thought-policing, the curtailment of the liberal imagination. We see this in the breaching of the sanctity of academia, with goons ransacking the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, in January 2004, or police entering the M S University campus last week.

And physical attack or arrest has become the first response to any criticism or departure from convention. If anyone had a problem with Chandramohan’s images, for instance, surely they could have resorted to the old-fashioned option of talking to the artist? But conversation has long ago vanished from the menu of problem-solving devices, as India turns into an illiberal democracy.

Periodic elections do not, by themselves guarantee a liberal democracy; they only guarantee periodic changes of government. A true democracy demands constant revitalisation of the spirit of openness, generosity and liberality of opinion. Democracy is not an achieved set of laws or a manual of instructions; it is a work in progress. It is a space that allows diverse imaginations to interact, it is a community of conversations. Given the direction in which we are heading, can we recover democracy as a community of conversations, rather than as a space segmented and partitioned by communitarian claims? Can we allow for the interplay of diverse imaginations, with none exerting a monopolistic claim on experience? Can we productively reconstitute the same objects in different discourses, without inviting assault on our civic and cultural freedoms? Can we preserve nuance, detail and polychromy in our accounts of ourselves – as complex selves in a complex society – without being coerced into subscription towards one group identity or another by colour-blind demagogues? Can we protect the right to artistic truth and the right to critique?

And indeed, why must the artist be called upon to defend his or her work, while the agitator goes free? The legal onus of proving that an art-work can cause offence should weigh down the agitator. After all, there is a strong structural similarity among all these incidents: while the great public has no problem, a lunatic fringe that claims to speak for the majority monopolises public space, and claims the right to scrutinise the work of cultural practitioners. The crisis is manufactured, not from spontaneous feeling, but in a motivated and well-planned fashion.

In the Chandramohan case, the VHP activists knew exactly what they were looking for, entering the display and heading straight for his work. Perhaps it is time to add another minority to India’s social fabric: the vulnerable minority of cultural practitioners.

Ranjit Hoskote is an art critic and curator