Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000
One step forward, two steps back
The world over, people had prepared to celebrate the new millennium. Along with the festivity there seemed to be a great deal of hope of a better future associated with the heralding of the 21st century. Yet, in our own backyard we have tucked away in its nooks and crannies, many dark issues that we need to sweep into the clear light of day and sort out. Carrying over the baggage of unattended problems seems quite an inauspicious way for us as Indians to embark upon a new beginning.
Born in 1958, I have been a child of modern India. I grew up with the emerging hybridity of old cultural traditions and the assimilation of new ideas of urban India. My time at art school was an exciting period as this was when many pertinent discourses of Indian cultural identity were being debated. Within the pluralism and diversity of India are also the areas where you get cultural overlapping and intermingling and these make for more points of eclecticism. Modern India has also not chosen to close its doors to global exposure and the resulting synthesis of such interaction. We have in fact always been a nation that has emphatically been in favour of pro choice. This factor has allowed for even the most marginalised of voices to be heard and constitutionally safeguarded.
Yet today we have a situation of censorship and vigilantism related to morality which appears to negate this very platform of free choice and liberal thinking. India today is faced with a revival of conservative attitudes via the propaganda of fundamentalist forces and their representation at Government levels. We suddenly have these self designated custodians of morality from the state system, whose dictates preside over the arts and who claim the right to decide on the propriety of our actions. What one could earlier dismiss as the moral conservatism of a few individuals, is today becoming policy and agendas of "permissible conduct," that are sanctioned at Government levels of office, and being implemented as national cultural policies. As an artist committed to living and working in India, I am appalled and outraged at this insidious attack on the freedom of expression which is occurring and which compromises some of the basic constitutional norms of democracy.
When a country clips the wings of radical thought or action we are dangerously close to a regime of programmed thinking. New ideas can only exist via positions of polemics and dissent. We have in this very century survived the onslaught of the British Empire's attempts during our colonisation under their rule, to force us to adopt Victorian moral values within our life as well as in relation to our art. We know historically that the British while ruling India were affronted by the erotic and often blatantly sexual content of our traditional art, and temples like Khajuraho were viewed as vulgar and pagan and deeply offensive. They wanted to demolish some of these heritage sites. Thankfully this was resisted by the Indians and we avoided the destruction that would have lost for us forever some of the world's greatest art and architecture from this land.
Yet we do not seem to recognise that the censorship laws in India today are teetering precariously on the edge of the same construct of that Victorian moral code which we fought against. This new moralism that is being imposed via state supervision is deliberately choosing to view any representation of nudity or sexuality in the arts, as acts of obscenity. What is even more offensive is that many of these retrogressive positions are being dressed up in the guise of feminist ideals.
Most of us from the community of the arts were scandalised by the blatant communal harassment that M.F. Husain has had in the recent past. An artist of his stature and integrity was publicly humiliated for the self gain of a political faction whose sole intent is to fan communalism. That an artist such as Jogen Choudhary for example, whose references to Hindu deities in his art made in the Seventies were in actual fact subversive in nature, was left uncommented upon, appears to suggest that these factions wish to target only specific communities for their attack. There are many more well known Indian artists whose art also displays mythological references and till date have not faced the indignity that Mr. Husain was subjected to. When mythologies get zealously protected from artistic interpretations by religious communities, we are going to loose the basic platform of inventiveness within art practices.
Conservatives today in India are presenting a false social history of our country. Homosexuality and lesbianism is not a 20th century invention of sexual preferences. We have many references to this made both visually and in texts in art and literature of the past. Traditional societies have had such social practices. People may have their opinions and choices in relation to these issues, but to be homophobic is only to practice bigotry. Artist Bhupen Khakar had his exhibition closed in Ahmedabad by Hindu fundamentalists because of the homosexual references and sexual imagery in the paintings. We also witnessed the rampage that the RSS activists let loose over the screening of Deepa Mehta's film "Fire". Allegations of communal intent were made in relation to this film and private property was vandalised by these self appointed moral custodians. That the state governments and the law enforcement agencies did nothing to prevent or control these unconstitutional occurrences was perhaps the more shameful and yet paradoxically revealing.
What was commendable was that the people of the cities, where the cinemas had been forced to abandon the screening of this film, raised their voice in objection and protest over this uncalled for censorship and demanded that the film be shown to the audiences who wished to view it. This curtailed the lobby of conservatives from encroaching and imposing their views, assuming this to be the voice of the majority. It is these interventions by us at such times that will effectively check the organised attempts at curbing our freedom of creative speech.
Life can never be without the nuances of difference, the marginal peripheries or the ambiguous grey areas. To have everything that is black and white would eliminate the magic of the unknown, the chanced upon. All boundaries have to be tested and parameters pushed. New theories are born from continuous re-questioning. Nothing is achieved in static acceptance. To me this is logical and a primeval concept of evolution and progress.
As a mother I was often selective in what I allowed my son to be exposed to during his formative years. I have strong views on to vulgarity, pornography, violence as well as a host of other concerns, and these values governed the structure by which I chose to parent and instruct my child. But this does not mean that I wish to ban these things. I have in fact always encouraged dialogue that can include queries and information related to all areas of life, even those aspects we may personally not embrace ourselves. It is essential that from an age where reason can be used with children, that we present the widest spectrum of choices in life, and explain the rationale of being selective. To cultivate a balanced understanding and to shape perceptions of our youth, we must open as many doors of information and exposure for them. What we must learn too is that there is the possibility of "agreeing to disagree," and that difference becomes acceptable and conversion to ones premises is not always necessary to seek.
Being "pro-choice" will always present the risk of the abuse and misappropriation of this freedom. That does not however necessitate that we axe our right to have multiple choices even if this includes things that may be controversial within mainstream life. Puritanical dogma only closes societies and creates narrow limited vision. Even as I write this article, a premier Bombay gallery is having to spend hours at the customs office that has impounded contemporary Indian art works, that were returned after being sent for an exhibition in America, on charges of obscenity. These very works had been sent to the U.S. from India with all the required RBI clearance and official documents that were necessary for works to travel out of the country and re-enter. Yet at the whim of an official who can choose to interpret laws as he chooses, one is humiliated and harassed. Even when all government rules are respected, citizens are not assured of the dignity of their rights. Valuable time will be wasted and bureaucratic powers will be flaunted, and I fail to understand what purpose all this serves in the end. That the Kama Sutra comes from India would be hard to believe in our present climate of censorship.
My outrage is the manner of manipulation with which fundamentalist values are being touted as "Indian values" by the voice of fundamentalist forces in government office. We have to be alert to this and not allow our complacency to anaesthetise our responses. The demolition of the Babri Masjid brought to focus the extremity of fundamentalism and its dreaded intolerance. Many of us Indians could not comprehend that such a horror could have occurred. We had been naive in our belief that our constitutional laws and judicial system would have intervened and protected the right of a minority. But December 6, 1992, did occur and we can never set the clock back on such acts of bigotry. Let us therefore remind ourselves that we can only keep our democratic secular constitutional laws in practice if we remain demanding of their existence.
Let us also not dress up nationalism in saffron robes. This is truly an affront to secular India. It is another type of censorship for it precludes that there is only one community in India who can lay claim to a national sentiment. All Indians have a pride of being Indian. This may be prompted by a variety of reasons and expressed in numerous different ways. The diversity of India provides a multitude of things that conjure associations and instil pride and it does not have to come wrapped in fundamentalist rhetoric.
My own pride in India will not permit me to stand silent and remain untouched by all these occurrences. Our independence has been hard won and we have proved ourselves as a nation of capability to the world over the last 50 years. It seems absurd then to walk into a new millennium with a march that is one step forward but two steps back. Let us bring in the new century with the will and determination to nurture a liberal and integrated India that can acknowledge its leadership as the largest democracy in the world, and to therefore uphold the ideals of democracy in its truest sense. But for this to be a reality it requires each and every one of us to raise our consciousness and be progressive in our attitudes. And I believe we can.
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