Chandra Mohan: Art’s Victim

14 May

“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?”

From NDTVChandra 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]


Posted by on May 14, 2007 in News, Personal, Politics


20 responses to “Chandra Mohan: Art’s Victim

  1. Kishore

    May 14, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Awesome piece Am. Just now during lunch I was dicussing this very news with some people. And like you took example of Banana, I took the Shiva Linga, which – even on religious terms – is said represent the phallus as the point of procreation. People workship the Linga everyday, but when someone talks about what it represents they immediately call it blasphemy.

    When we are on that – I wrote this on DC long back.. check maadi..

    And yeah, I think there is nothing personal in this.

  2. Kishore

    May 14, 2007 at 4:46 am

    I’m sleepy after lunch, so ignore tpyos. 🙂

  3. DG

    May 14, 2007 at 8:23 am

    We do sink to newer lows, don’t we?

  4. Kokonad

    May 14, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Do the moral policemen play a game of “you are more wrong than we are”?
    They are the most pathetic, destructive-minded losers on earth – considering themselves messiahs of God or whatever.

    Anyway, I am curious to know what this guy painted. Would like to have my own opinion about it…

    Incidentally, I wrote a post on the recent (pointless) uproar caused on the desecration of the Indian flag – Tendulkar’s cake and Bedi’s sari. The argument remains the same as you mentioned above…

  5. Amrita

    May 14, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Hey guys – this one hit a little close to home coming after that bout of nastiness. I literally heard about Chandra Mohan five minutes after my mom and I talked about art in India. I would have always been concerned about a thing like this but this made it personal in a weird way.

    DG – new frontiers are breached every day.

    Kishore: I thought of that argument but I didn’t know a nice way of saying it 🙂 You did! That was a really nice piece. I didn’t know a few things you mentioned in it.

    Koke – oh my god, the flag controversy! I didnt put this in my post but have you heard of Ramayana sarees? they’re these south indian sarees with scenes from the ramayana printed on them. How come nobody messes with that? Coz if they go near those women with a stick in hand, those ladies will tear em apart. Cowards!
    The images that I saw were – a sort of shadow relief painting of a god and goddess (shiv parvati i thought) in each other’s arms that sort of reminded me of Balinese art; a shiva lingam with a man’s face superimposed on it and a cross with some stuff scribbled on it. Nothing was very clear and i can’t find any pics online.

  6. wanderer

    May 14, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    A brilliant post. I am glad to see someone finally put things in context. How I wish that MASSES of people (who matter and follow the Jains in our world) could be made aware…

  7. ozz

    May 15, 2007 at 5:10 am

    Though I agree with your points, your view of anarchism as a violent disruptive force in 20th century is not correct. Anarchism is a highly developed ideology that rejects the apparatus of the state and the effects of anarchism can be seen in such progressive “taken-for-granted”things today like abolition of punishment in schools, women’s rights, free prisons, homosexual rights, etc. A few anarchists did indulge in individual acts of violence but the movement is dominated by the thoughts of such progressive thinkers like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Proudhon, Goldwin etc. whose greatness can never be compared with the likes of Jains, Modis and Venkiah naidus

  8. dodo

    May 15, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Sorry to digress a bit from an outstanding review of a very pertinent cause, but I could not restrain my confusion.

    “On the extreme left, anarchists tried throughout the 20th century to terrorize people into following them.”

    …..This sentence quite baffled me!! by the phrase “on the extreme left, anarchists” do you mean anarchists were far lefts?

    Some anarchists indeed supported Russian Revolution , but later when they realized the authoratarian nature of communism and revolted, bolsheviks either driven anarchists out or imprisoned them..anarchists actively fought against stalin before being suppressed.

    And what did you mean by “Anarchists..tried throughout the 20th century to terrorize people into following them”

    Nothing can be farther from truth.

    I really enjoyed your critique. But request you to kindly clear your stance on anarchism, and to tell us what are the facts those made you write that anarchists “..tried throughout the 20th century to terrorize people “?

  9. Amrita

    May 15, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Hey people, thanks for coming by:
    Wanderer: I think they are aware, but people like Jain know how to play on emotions to the point of obfuscation.

    Ozz – You’re absolutely correct when you talk about anarchism as an ideology. I should’ve known somebody (two somebodies yet!) would notice 🙂 But the problem is the individual components of an ideology are often less than the whole. My opinion of them aside, Jain and Modi are followers not thinkers of the Hindutva ideology and I’m sure a lot of people on that side of the fence would tell you that there is more to their ideology than the Jains of this world. What was it that Marx is supposed to have said – “I’m not a Marxist”? But you and Dodo make me realize that I need to explore the subject a bit more from a contemporary angle.

    Dodo – not such a dodo 😀 I didn’t mean left in the Indian sense of “left” which means communist. I meant it in the classical sense as the context will show. You are however, right to call me on the 20th century thing. I was thinking half of the 19th century and half of the 20th – roughly 100 years but in two separate halves. For the rest, see above. And thank you for your kind words.

  10. zeya

    May 15, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    Hmm.. Beatiful and powerful writing.. But I just wonder.. If any of us can reach out to people.. We neeed to get this poor artist out Man.. What a shame for a country who has Khujaraho, Ajanta and Kaam Sutra amongst its religious assets.. Please we are grown up society and let us remain grown up.. Why No one chastise Gandhi to walk half-naked in public.. Come on Man who cares even if it was Goddess on convass.. I think its time we got VHP , RSS invalidated as political parties.. Their philosophy of politics itself is ..creating raft in masses.. ALl they klnow is create problems on the banner of religion.. Enough is enough..

  11. Amrita

    May 16, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Zeya – i think this time they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.

  12. Syam

    May 18, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    This is most ridiculous piece of journalism I’ve ever read. Inane arguements, crap analogies. What is this comparison with bananas, monkeys, Michelangelo…phew. Just because you have a blog, there are idiots (Including me) who read it and (unlike me)praise you. I am not justifying the attack by the ah!soul Jain or whosoever that MLA is. If he was offended, there was a civilized way of dealing with it. He should have just dragged Chandra Mohan to the court.
    Being an artist does not give you the freedom to depict whatever you want. Artists of today are well aware that we are not in the era of artisitc freedom that people had during the renaissance period. Bigots from all religions rule the roost nowadays. Just because I had an inspiration, if I draw somebody’s wife in a compromising pose, will I be pardoned?
    Times are changing. What were not acceptable earlier are acceptable now. Similarly, things that were acceptable as part of culture earlier are not acceptable now. If current times dictate that lewd depiction of religious symbols are not acceptable, artists must restrain from doing so. I am an artist too (small time). If I draw an abstract image of Mohammed, will all the so called secular readers of this blog support me? Satanic verses by Salman Rushdie was banned by the Govt. I did not see any pseudo secularist raise a whimper then. The movie – The Da Vinci code was banned. Where were you pseudo secularists hiding then?
    Click on this link to view how Hussain has depicted Hindu Gods
    Why doesn’t he paint Mohammed and Aisha or his other wives? Is it because Hindus are meek and will not protest?
    Painter Maqbool Fida Husain had pulled out his movie, Meenaxi — A Tale of Three Cities, out of movie theatres a day after some Muslim organisations here raised objections to one of the songs in it. Why weren’t there protests against the reaction of the Muslim organizations?

    My sympathies are with Chandra Mohan. I wish him all the best and hope he becomes a great painter. He should however know where the boundary line is.

  13. Amrita

    May 18, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Wow, you’re like the 3rd person in three weeks I’ve met who’s advocated a return to the Dark Ages because that’s apparently where people like you think we belong. On the one hand you see how wrong it is to ban Rushdie’s book – on the other you support such measures when it comes to your religion? How very NOT pseudo of you. And as a matter of fact there were plenty of protests on the kind of assault both Hussain and Rushdie had to suffer under – just because you didnt read any doesnt mean they didn’t exist.

    And as for you being an idiot – well, gee, I guess I can’t argue there.

  14. toastmaster

    May 19, 2007 at 4:55 am

    I love this cliche “knowling your limits” but the fact remains that if stayed within limits, never questioned “Why?” we would never ever see progress.

    Imagine a world where Copernicus had stayed within limits imposed by Church beliefs. Imagine a world where Galilieo decided to save his eyes. Imagine a world where athletes believed a mile could never be run under 4 minutes …

    We have pushed the limits to progress this far and we need to continue to do so in every sphere of our lives – artistic expression is no different.

  15. Amrita

    May 20, 2007 at 4:04 am

    Toastmaster – excellent point. What bothers me is that over the past few weeks I’ve heard from people who actually advocate a return to the Dark Ages, holding up the enlightenment period as too western. It’s one thing to define one’s own identity divorced from the rest of the world, if that’s what makes you happy, but quite another to react so strongly that your entire identity is based on “anti” and then expect others to follow suit.

  16. toastmaster

    May 20, 2007 at 5:04 am

    I was wondering if people have had a chance to read this story – about 5 students from St Joseph’s school for Communication being dismissed for creating a 5 minute short on being gay called – “Secret Minds”.

    The story is available here …

    This is just as sad as Chandra Mohan’s case but the more disturbing thought is that this intolerance seems to be a rapidly rising trend.

  17. Amrita

    May 21, 2007 at 1:08 am

    I did see that piece of info. In a way it was worse because the very school that required them to make that film ended up kicking them out. If that’s how we treat filmmakers who want to explore something more than candy floss, it’s no wonder that we send Mallika Sherawat to Cannes.

  18. Kumar Bhairav

    June 3, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Can someone tell me where I can view Chandramohan’s painting of Christ with his penis handing out and his semen dripping into a commode, which has a fish in it. I would really like to see this painting, and, I am sure, all of you who are defending and criticising Chandramohan, too. Why is the media hiding the details? Let everyone know and let the silent majority speak up, one way or the other.

    For informed debate to happen, we must know about the topic of the debate, otherwise how can we call it ‘informed’ debate?

  19. Amrita

    June 3, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Well, first of all, bashing people up isnt any kind of debate and neither is it asking for a debate. It’s simply wrong. Secondly, this was a PRIVATE show which means its up to the artist to make the decision as to whether or not he wants to show it. If he wants to show it then we can have an “informed debate” as you put it. But he’s under absolutely no obligation to put his work out there just so we can debate the action of publicity hungry thugs like Niraj Jain. Thirdly, thank you for telling me the details of a work neither of us have seen. I have no idea where it can be found. And the media is “hiding” it because the media has no access to it because… um, it’s PRIVATE?

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