“I wonder how ordinary artists in India survive.” I was telling my mother about this diatribe sparked by an opinion piece I’d written on a forthcoming cartoon film exploring the relationship between Sita and Rama. “Online, I have a thick hide and can argue my case; in the real world, I know the family can take care of anything I can’t handle on my own. But there must be so many young men and women out there who have to combat greater challenges and have none of my advantages. How do they manage?”
Chandra Mohan, a young artist enrolled in a post graduate course for Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat, has just provided me with an answer. The son of poor carpenters from Andhra Pradesh, Mohan made it all the way to one of the country’s premier institutions for art solely on his talent. Last week, as per university rules, he submitted his final portfolio for evaluation; it was hung in a gallery at his college for a private showing.
None of this was out of the ordinary. Any art college worth its salt has a private gallery where it showcases the work of its students. Sometimes, it’s thrown open to the public – a lot of the time, access is highly restricted. In this particular instance, reports say students and art faculty were the only ones allowed.
Suddenly, ‘activists’ from the VHP and the BJP under the leadership of one Neeraj Jain, stormed the gallery alleging that Mohan’s work “hurt Hindu sentiments”. The local police then not only turned a blind eye to the actions of Jain’s
goons men but instead arrested Mohan under IPC Sections 153 and 114: “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language” and “abettor present when crime is committed”. The VHP-BJP demonstrations against “obscenity” were later joined by a group of Christians led by a Reverend Emmanuel Kant protesting Mohan’s use of the cross.
Isn’t it nice to see all the extremists play together? I won’t even address the absurdity of a political party that was just recently rapped on the knuckles for an election CD demonizing Muslims in Uttar Pradesh using the “communal disharmony” bit or Rev. Kant piggybacking on a group of people who would as soon trash his church for proselytizing as work together.
I won’t ask how an art show closed to the general public (hmm, I wonder who let these guys in?) could possibly promote communal disharmony (quite the opposite in fact if the VHP and the BJP are building bridges with Christian groups) or how Rev. Kant is following the words of Christ by joining a bunch of vandals.
I would instead like to draw your attention to the fact that the local head of the BJP disavowed any party involvement, saying that this was a unilateral action taken by Jain. So basically, one man’s “sensibilities” were hurt by the private exhibition of art that drew upon themes already present in the Hindu-Indian discourse (such as nudity) and that was enough reason for another man to be sent to jail for five days? Even more interestingly, the Dean, Shivji Pannicker, was then suspended for organizing an art show illustrating the fact that Mohan’s work had a specific context in Indian art and is now in hiding after the right wingers demanded he be
served with a fatwa arrested.
First political outfits were telling us what could and could not be hung in art galleries. Now individual members of political parties wish to dictate what a student might or might not portray as part of his studies. Tomorrow some guy off the street will want to tell me what I can or cannot keep in my house!
The next time someone in Vadodara sings Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda, are they courting arrest? After all, a long and explicit poem about Radha consumed by desire for Krishna is definitely “lewd” if the mere image of Shiv and Parvati (or so I infer from brief glimpses on TV because the paintings, like I said before, were private) in an embrace can be termed “obscene”.
While nobody outside the small group of people directly involved have actually studied the paintings that caused such a storm at close quarters, newsreports suggest the primary flashpoint seems to be nudity and the fact that the paintings depicted gods and goddesses in close embrace.
I can understand that nudity in art seems dangerously close to pornography to some people but the sexuality of Hindu gods and goddesses is nothing new. Chandra Mohan might as well have been drawing on forms he first saw in a temple near his childhood home for inspiration. We don’t of course know for sure, because he is still in jail – unlike an M.F. Hussain he has neither the money to get himself out of jail nor the connections to counter the bullying tactics employed by people like Jain.
At the heart of this lies the term “hurt sensibilities”. Unlike plain old “hurt”, wherein a person is eventually required to get over it and act like a reasonable human being, a “hurt sensibility” apparently grants a person carte blanche to act however he desires. Ironically, the people who usually employ this card are ones who often say that other people are out to censor their opinions. I personally believe what they mean is that they feel the world isn’t interested in what they have to say.
And they might be right if they’re defining “the world” as “people who don’t agree with me”. Most of us are centrists. We move a few paces to the right or left as the situation warrants and sometimes the center itself is a little adjustable. But if you’re the on the extreme – be it the left or the right – then you’re not going to win anybody over by threatening them. And if you’re under the impression that people will at least shut up and sit quiet if you intimidate them, then again you’re mistaken.
On the extreme left, anarchists tried throughout the 20th century to terrorize people into following them. For all their pains, anarchism hasn’t exactly endured and many of the causes espoused by these people either lie in tatters or were achieved through other means. These days it’s the extreme right that’s developed a taste for terror – be it Christian evangelicals bombing abortion clinics, Jihadis blowing up buildings or Hindu thugs murdering missionaries. They’re not going to win either.
In this particular instance of MS University, it is important to remember that all art is subjective. The artist who creates it – be it a book, a movie or a painting – has extremely little control over what the audience will see in it because each of us brings our own unique point of view to bear upon it, which might be extremely different from that of the artist himself. If a man stands in front of Michelangelo’s David and sees nothing but his penis then the fault does not lie with Michelangelo – it lies with the man.
If you’re trying to argue that Michelangelo could have given him a loincloth, then what you’re saying is that you want a say in the artist’s expression. Now imagine each of us making that argument. How many of us should the artist listen to? Why should he listen to you over me? And if he listens to all of us then what is the value of his art? In fact, how is it his art at all if it was created by a community of people?
I offer this analogy – God created the banana. It comes in a variety of shapes and sizes; it’s yummy and nutritious; beloved of elephants and monkeys. In certain situations, such as sex ed classes or in common slang, human beings use it as a symbol for the penis. Did the banana stop being nutritious? Did monkeys stop eating it?
If putting a condom on one banana in a sex ed class didn’t change the nature of the banana itself, why would putting God on canvas change Him? Are you trying to tell me God can’t do what a banana can?
If Chandra Mohan hurt Neeraj Jain’s sensibilities as a Hindu, then Neeraj Jain’s reaction to Chandra Mohan hurt my sensibilities as a Hindu and an Indian. Taking a page out of Jain’s book, can I now take a mob to his house? After all, I too have sensibilities. Just different ones.
Demonstrations are scheduled for later today on the campus.
[Published in slightly altered form at Desicritics]