Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > May 25, 2007 > Cultures and Vultures : Wake-up Call from Vadodara

Mainstream, Vol XLV No 23

Cultures and Vultures : Wake-up Call from Vadodara

Thursday 31 May 2007, by Madanjeet Singh

Secular artists, writers, painters, dramatists, and film directors have increasingly become the main targets of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists (who are nicknamed ‘fundoos’ by the writer Githa Hariharan). Arrest warrants were issued against Richard Gere, who has been doing sterling work in the HIV-AIDS campaign in India, and Shilpa Shetty for a public kiss, because a Magistrate in Jaipur decided that the kiss was “sexually erotic”. It is estimated that 27 million such cases are pending in India’s courts. The custodians of morality seem blissfully unaware that temples and shrines all over India depict sacred “sexually erotic” masterpieces of Indian sculptures, also seen in several temples in Rajasthan. Traditional Indian art content is essentially secular—spiritual ideas emerged as corollaries to philosophical specula-tion. In the Nyaya-Sutras, the overwhelming focus is on rational and scientific thinking and analysis, on human understanding of natural phenomena and physical processes occurring in nature.

From the eighth century onwards, the Indian temple has incorporated secular images of musicians, dancers, acrobats, and romantic couples. After the tenth century, erotic themes begin to make their mark. Sensuality and sexual interaction is displayed without inhibition in places of worship. This might be shocking and scandalous to puritanically minded members of the lower judiciary—but what it shows is that in that period of Indian history tantric ideas on the compatibility of human sexuality with human spirituality entered the mainstream. Erotic desires were not considered to be antagonistic to spiritual liberation; they were treated instead as an important component of salvation. The most intimate and personal of human interactions, normally shrouded behind a veil of secrecy, were now sculpted in stone—decrying fundamentalism and demonstrating that Indian religion and morality were based not on worldly denial but instead on an unabashed acceptance of essentialhuman urges.

These motifs of rich multicultural tradition, both sacred and secular, are beautifully recreated in the images of the Hindu goddesses Saraswati, Durga, and Draupadi that M.F. Husain painted in 1996. The Hindutva Parivar vultures pounced on the greatest of contemporary Indian artists, because the goddesses were shown without clothes. The vultures offered large sums of money to anyone who would behead the artist, gouge his eyes, and chop off his hands. Another masterpiece depicting a scene from the Ramayana, titled ‘Sita Rescued’, offended the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal activists because the painting shows Sita riding on Hanuman’s tail. They ransacked the artist’s Mumbai home in 1998. Criminal complaints were filed against Husain in Indore and Rajkot courts, alleging that the painter had “hurt the sentiments of Indians”. His failure to respond to court summons even led to a recent order from a Haridwar court to attach his property in Mumbai.

Isn’t it is strange that the fundoos are offended by Husain’s surrealistic representation of Sita riding on Hanuman’s tail, but can applaud the Alice in Wonderland fairytale the BJP’s Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha, V. K. Malhotra, solemnly narrated in the Lok Sabha? The learned parliamen-tarian said that the solid underwater rocks in the Indian Ocean provided ample proof that the Ram Sethu bridge, over which Hanuman crossed from India to Lanka, was constructed by his army of brilliant monkey engineers, thousands of years ago during the Ramayana period.

Emboldened by the Central Government’s constitutional inability to intervene in BJP-run States, Hindutva fanatics have started harassing even young students in prestigious art institutions. On May 9, 2007. a Vadodara-based BJP leader, who was accompanied by a gang of ruffians, stormed into the Faculty of Fine Arts of the MS University of Baroda, where an exhibition of fine arts was on view in connection with the annualexams. The storm-troopers abused and manhand-led S. Chandramohan, a recipient of the Gujarat Lalit Kala Academy Award, 2005-06, for painting ‘obscene’ figures with some religious motifs and, shockingly, he was taken into custody by the Vadodara Police and jailed. The hooligans roamed freely, abusing artists, students, and faculty members, including the In-charge Dean of Faculty, Professor Shivaji Panikkar, the respected author and editor of Saptamatrka Worship and Sculptures, 1997; Twentieth-Century Indian Sculpture, 2002; Towards a New Art History: Studies in Indian Art, 2003, among others. Professor Panikkar was suspended by the University authorities.

It is sad that, for whatever reasons, the secular Government of India seems paralysed, unable to protect the human rights of artists, writers, filmmakers, scholars, and other cultural practitioners. The fundoos have arrogated to themselves the role of lawmakers, judges, and executioners of people whom they accuse of blasphemy. Among the victims is the writer and journalist, Taslima Nasrin, a 2004 laureate of UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. She is threatened by an Indian Taliban, Taqi Raza Khan, the head of the All India Ibtehad Council, who wants her beheaded (qatal) and has publicly offered Rs 5,00,000 to anyone who would carry out the execution because of her secular views. The bigots also passed a resolution to oust Nasreen from India “for her crime in attacking the Islamic Shariah laws”.

By contrast, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government and cultural leaders in Germany nipped in the bud threats posed by the Islamic fundamentalists last year, which prevented the performance Mozart’s “Idomeneo” by the Deutsche Opera, Berlin. The stalling of the performance had provoked a barrage of criticism and the director in charge of the opera house, opened in 1912, was accused of bowing to intimidation instead of defending cultural expression. The play is about Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, who exacts a cruel allegiance. But in this production by the noted director, Hans Neuenfels, one of the last scenes shows the protagonist presenting the severed heads of several religious figures—not only Poseidon, but also Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad. The opera was rescheduled after Home Minister Schauble warnedthe Muslim leaders that they must abide by the German Constitution and the principles of a democratic society. He condemned the Islamic Shariah laws, making it clear the limits of the state’s tolerance. “I can promise you this,” he said. “Anyone who calls me an infidel will be in for a fight.”

In silent protest, on May 11, 2007, a number of Chandramohan’s fellow students organised an outstanding exhibition at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Vadodara, representing 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. (To quote the art critic and journalist, Ranjit Hoskote)

With Professor Panikkar courageously ignoring the threats of the Hindutva goons and the university establishment’s ordering to close the exhibition, the university authorities ordered the exhibition hall to be sealed. The presence of the erotic at the centre of Hindu sacred art offended the Hindu identity of the fundoos as the Islamic identity of the Taliban gangsters was threatened when they systematically blew up with dynamite the colossal fifth-century Bamiyan Buddha idols in Afghanistan. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha sculptures by the Taliban is as abominable a crime against culture as the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by the Hindutva fanatics. Damaging the tangible and oral heritage of humanity and falsifying history books to further religious or ideological agenda are all criminal violations of human rights. As with the early Christian churches in Europe, which were built over hundreds of pagan shrines of Sun worshippers, archaeological evidence shows that at the site where the Sangh Parivar demolished the Babri Masjid, there might have been a Buddhist stupa, which in turn was built over the sacred shrines of earlier ethnographic, indigenous, tribal, or proto-Indic communities.

The secular India of Jawaharlal Nehru will happened elsewhere, including Nazi Germany, when book burning and throwing works of art into the fire were tolerated by society. Vadodara is a serious wake-up call and unless the fundoos are stopped now from barging into the fragile and sensitive glass houses of artistic freedom and creativity, nothing will stop them. These self-appointed custodians of Indian culture may start chipping away at temple murals, breaking down monuments, whitewashing wall paintings, and burning manuscripts and folios, and eventually targeting the temples of Khajuraho, Konarak, Bhubaneswar, and many others as the Kakathiya temples of Palampet—until they succeed in effacing the rich Indian culture of art, image and narrative, to conform to their own one-track, fascist vision of what Indian civilisation is.

The founder of the South Asia Foundation, the author is a distinguished UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

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