Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Art India, Vol I, Issue 4, pp. 22-27

Shanta Ghokle examines the issue of censorship and the arts, exploring the recent Husain controversy and other dilemmas involved in this sensitive and heated debate.

October 1996 was a month of threat, vandalism and heated debate. An article written by one Dr. Om Nagpal, accompanied by drawings made by M.F. Husain two decades ago, was mischievously published in a magazine ironically called Vichar Mimansa(thought) to create anger in the minds of Hindus against the artist and his work. The text and reproductions underlined the three facts calculated to cause the greatest harm to communal amity-that the artist was a Muslim and that his subject was a Hindu deity, Saraswati, and that she was depicted in the nude.

Clearly, the writer of the article and the editor and the publisher of the magazine should have been arrested forthwith under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code for promoting or attempting “to promote, on grounds of religion, disharmony, enmity, hatred, and ill-will between different religions”.

Their act, aided and abetted by the incitement of ungodly, self-serving politicians, bore the desired fruit. Trouble flared up. The disharmony, hatred and ill-will let loose by their action was of such intensity, that it encouraged a group of young rowdies to tear down and burn dozens of the artist’s works hanging in the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, in the arrogant assumption of punitive powers. The prevailing emotional climate made it possible for them to believe they were morally right in doing what they did.

Then in a bizarre reversal of Justice, Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code was invoked, not against the perpetrators of the outrage, but against the victim, M.F Husain. The minister of culture of Maharashtra state, Mr. Pramod Navalkar threatened legal action against him for hurting the sensibilities of the Hindus. A first information report was lodged against him with the police. The charge was so patently absurd that there should have been no need for anybody to defend Husain. Yet, such is the moral ethos in which we live in today, that we accept a situation in which the innocent must defend themselves while the offenders sit in judgement over them. Those who live by destruction are styled upholders of culture while those who live by creation are deemed destroyers of culture.

In the topsy-turvy world, it wasn’t surprising that Husain’s defenders allowed themselves to be pushed into answering his attackers in terms they had set. They spoke of our cultural traditions being against nude depictions of deities. We, instead of arrogating to the artist the right to paint deities in the nude if that is how he saw them, rushed eight centuries back in time to point out an example of our “real” tradition.

The tradition was exemplified by the Dilwara Saraswati. Ranjit Hoskote and Jerry Pinto say in their joint article in the Sunday Review of The Times of India, entitled “The sacred and the profane”: “Husain was born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra’s famous Vaishnava pilgrimage centre, and raised in a composite ethos that gave him access both to the Hindu and to Islamic world views. Even the image of the nude Saraswati which has provoked the present controversy is in a line of direct descent from such icons as the eleventh century naked Saraswati of the Vimla Vashi temple at Dilwara.”

Equivocation is there for nobody to see in the phrases “line of direct descent” and “such icons as”. Both imply that the Dilwara Saraswati is not the only such icon in existence; that there are others like it, contributing to a living tradition that we should find it easy to relate to. Why then was no other such image citied?

Vina Mazumdar, writing in the Indian express attempts to add further evidence to the argument regarding our tradition of images depicting deities in the nude. But she is too vague to make and impact. She says, “As for the thesis that Sarawati has never been portrayed in the nude, I have seen many such images in different parts of the country. Back in the thirties, some of the kumhars in Calcutta started to follow temple sculptures. Examples of nude Saraswatis and nude Chandis were products of that inspiration.”

Tapati Guha-Thakurta attempts to locate Husain in a more recent tradition, citing Nandalal Bose’s renderings of Kali and Durga. But these have ritual tradition of their own in which nakedness in the very essence of their symbology. They are representations of the Universal Energy from which springs all creation. In tantric rituals, Kali is described as being stripped of clothes, ”sky-clad”. Saraswati cannot be placed within the same representational tradition.

In marshalling evidence of a tradition of nudity, many of Husain’s defenders have referred to the semi-nude sculptures of Khajuraho and Konark, blurring the line between nudity and semi-nudity. But that line has the greatest importance, not only in ours but other cultures as well. As Girish Shahane has pointed out in his article in The Pioneer, “The Last Judgement was nearly painted over, until an admirer of Michelangelo suggested, as a compromise, that he would paint thin wisps of cloth to cover the private parts of Christ and the prophets.” Those whisps have been retained to this day even through a Japanese-funded restoration programme of the Sistine Chapel and Vault.

In our own ritual practices, unless a distinction is made between nude and semi-nude, the symbolic power of representations of some aspects of devi in the nude would be totally lost. An image-maker who is immersed in the culture from which he is drawing his subject and imagery would have to bear this in mind.

Tradition in India is a tricky thing to use in argument precisely because it is not one but many, each with its own specificities. History is a better ally. But here too Husain’s defenders fell into a trap.

Praful Bidwai argues for limited restrictions on creative works in his Mid-day column, giving social mores “a place in determining where restrictions should be placed”. But, acknowledging the historical process, he says, that social mores ”themselves change, as the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover shows. No British court would today think of proscribing that novel”.

If Bidwai sees the historical process at work in changing the mores of a nation from restriction to greater permisssiveness, he must also see the historical process at working turning a once free community into one riddled by restrictions, unless he falls into the fallacy of supposing that history changes only towards greater freedom for the individual. While this is desirable, it is not true. In nobody’s living memory today has a public display of nudity been accepted in this country. If social mores are to be given the power to restrict, then the exhibition of nudity would have to be restricted. In Bombay, a large concreteslabhad to be constructed to hide the nudity of the huge statue of Mahavir standing outside Jal Hotel near Santacruz airport, despite the fact that Mahavir is traditionally represented without clothes.

How then is Husain to be allowed to paint a nude Saraswati according to Bidwai? He does not address the issue. Instead, he attempts to lay down an outer limit for an artist’s freedom of expression, hoping that Husain’s Saraswati will fall within the lakshman rekha. “There must be the most minimal conceivable restrictions on artistic creativity and expression. The restrictions should not usually include prescription, barring extreme cases such as paedophilic pornography which grossly exploits children. In general, it is far more practical to restrict the dissemination of morally offensive material.”

What is minimal restriction? Does it mean people of only one age group, caste, or economic class can read the material thus restricted? As student at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, discussing the issue of the nude Saraswati said, “it’s okay for us. We understand that nudity is not necessarily obscene. But what about the masses? They don’t understand such things. Their feelings are hurt.”

How do we ensure that discrimination is restricted to the “right people”? And the concept of “right” and “wrong” people defensible in a democratic society?

And what do we do with Bidwai’s provision for proscription-“barring extreme cases such as paedophilic pornography which grossly exploits children”? Taken together with Yashodhara Dalmia’s assertion in the Hoskote-Pinto article that “if an artist has to be judged, it must be on the aesthetic merits of the work, rather than on some subjective notions of what is or not is obscene”, his provision raises an important question. Can a work of art paedophilic pornography not be aesthetically meritorious? If it is judged by its aesthetic merit alone, do we deny that it does social harm or do we accept that it does social harm, but must be allowed this “side effect” because it is “good” art?

Absolute freedom of expression is the only tenable principle for the liberal, democratic citizen. If so, then why do many amongst our numbers agitate against the images of women that the commercial cinema purveys? If we stand for freedom of expression, then how can we remain silent in the face of continued censorship of films and plays? Are film makers and playwrights not artists? Why do we not protest each time a film-maker has to submit his film to the Board of Censors or a playwright his play to vetting by the police?

Simultaneously with the tradition history trap that Husain’s defenders fell into, they made the mistake of responding to the communalist ravings of his politically motivated critics. The wise thing to do was not to answer the communalist challenge at all, but to insist on one thing- that, in a free country, anybody can paint any subject they like in whichever way their imagination prompts them. The space saved by not writing of Husain’s antecedents, his Ramayana series, and his beliefs in the composite culture of India, could have been used for an open dialogue amongst artists.

Again and again aesthetic merit has been held up as the only measure of assessment for a work of art. At the end of “The Speaking Tree” column in The Times of India of October 16,Ranjit Hoskote says,: “While M.F. Husain’s depiction of the goddess Saraswati may indeed have departed from the cannons of expectation that many Indians hold, it cannot be judged by traditional norms, either by his defenders or by his attackers. The only question that really makes sense in the present case is: Has the artist made an aesthetically necessary choice in the depiction? Instead of engaging in bitter confrontation, the defenders of tradition and the defenders of freedom of expression could seek a common ground for discussion.”

The suggestion was made, but where was the forum, where they will hold such a discussion? Political leaders have the advantage of being seen as men and women of the people. While artists on the other hand are seen as special people, sought and quoted by the media, and lionize by society. Their works is often not accessible to the “common man” and the pretty pictures the “common man” likes and hangs in the house are dismissed by artists and critics as bad art. The rift between artists and the public has grown to unbridgeable proportions. As a result, the suppressed antagonism against this special breed of human beings which gives itself freedoms that “ordinary folks” deny themselves for reasons of social conventions is ready to kindle and flare up at the drop of a politically lighted match.

Commentators like Bhaskar Ghose (writing in the pioneer) add to this anger when they scornfully dismiss the people who vandalise as “thugs” and “louts” but have nothing to say to the thousands who are neither “dangerous politicians” nor”thugs” nor “louts” but simple ordinary people who are trying to understand their own feelings and are genuinely puzzled about why Husain had to choose to paint Saraswati in the nude.

The free discussion Hoskote suggests could have begun with an inquiry by an artist or critic into the questions that were being raised by the public. There could also have been aesthetic assessments of Saraswati painting by the people who claimed that was the only criterion by which a painting could be judged. However, those who champion the cause of freedom of expression are themselves extremely reluctant to enter into such open discussions. They are just as afraid of the society as “ordinary folks” are of theirs. It is easier to be political, close ranks, and shout for freedom of expression than to look inwards and discuss with each other the problems of negotiating their position in their society.

Lakshman Shreshtha is quoted in The Afternoon Despatch and Courier as having said that beyond a point a subject is of no importance to the artist. He is merely using it to explore aesthetic problems. Is this for artist to take when the subject happens to be sacred to some of their fellow citizens? Is it wrong to assume that when an artist chooses a subject like Saraswati, his treatment of it is to be seen in the context of its treatment by other image-makers before him? That is to say that his very choice of the subject implies that he has something to say about that specific subject? Is the artist not thereby opening up a dialogue within the belief system he has entered and must he not conduct the dialogue in a manner that shows respect for people’s feelings?

The senior Marathi poet Vinda Karandikar once angered his readers by a poem on Ganpati. Incited as usual by politicians, their protest escalated from individual letters, to collective morchas, and finally, to the burning of his works. The poem was one of the series entitled Virupika (The Distorted) in which he was attempting to combinefantasy,surrealism, and abstraction. The poem in rough translation goes thus:

A lusty woman

(Given to the sly reading of pornography)

Once felt desire

Upon seeing Vakratunda Mahakaya

Ganapati’s trunk

Varatunda Mahakaya Ganapati

Quickly grabbing both her modak-breasts

Swung her twenty-one times in the air

And,so the story goes,

Cast her into a hell called Chaste.

Karandikar is not a Muslim. Ganapati is a deity he too adores. But the very fact that he had written the god into what struck the ordinary reader as an obscene situation, was enough for the people to question his motives.

Karandikar’s response to the outcry against him was a long article in which he gave a detailed reading of his poem, analysing the formal elements used to underline his meaning. Whether his erudite explanation convinced his readers or not is not the point. The important thing was that it demonstrated to them at one and the same time his seriousness of purpose as a poet and his concern to correctly understood by them. It was altogether a more healing thing to do than a superficial apology which convinces nobody.

Published in Art India, Vol I, Issue 4, pp. 22-27
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