Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Beginning with the protest and ending with the loo

I returned from the protest late last night. In Hyderabad, it was a bit of a damp squib, because the more prominent members of the art and intellectual community had registered their protest a day earlier. There was no press, no large gathering, no slogan shouting; no one, in fact, to witness or report that this was one more city that had ranged itself firmly on the side of Chandra Mohan.

But for the dozen or so of us who did turn up, there was enough to discuss. We agreed that 14th May was not the ‘real’ protest; that something more had to happen to make our voices heard.

I found that the meeting had set off several thoughts in my mind, which I’m sharing here. For a start, one of the people there yesterday was a teacher, and an external examiner at the offending exhibition. She was in a better position to tell us what had happened there. And though it was clear that the attack was cynical and planned (how on earth were the cops so readily available? Don’t they know they’re supposed to arrive only once everything has been done with? They upheld this tradition at Khairlanji, at every riot in the last few decades. Now they’re ready and waiting?) – and though it was clear the attack was planned, she felt that the real reason Chandra Mohan should have been let off was because he was a student, only learning, not in a position to take responsibility for what he had done, because he did not mean to offend.

I emphatically disagree. I think that if his painting – whatever it was (I’ve read descriptions of a cross with a commode under the painting) offended, the problem is with the person who got offended and not with him. While it’s true that it was an internal assessment and that this Jain person had no business there, I think that even had this been a public exhibition, and the painting was deemed by some viewer to be offensive, it is her job to say why it was offensive and to engage with the whole issue of offence instead of putting the whole thing under the rubric of ‘religious sentiment’. I mean, I could say that depicting Krishna in a bilious shade of blue offends my sensibilities because I dislike blue skin. I could pass off prejudice as offence. But would anyone support me?

While watching the news last night, I saw one woman saying that ‘religious sensibilities cannot be offended’. I wondered if she had seen the painting at all, or could even describe it by hearsay. (Of course she couldn’t).

Now, for all the people whose sentiments are offended, I would suggest that the prurience of their imagination in which they construct the offending work – in the absence of having actually seen it – far exceeds the alleged offensiveness of any work actually produced or viewed. Let’s assume that there’s a painting of a cross with a commode. Or a goddess being violated by a linga. If these paintings offend, it is not because they are offensive in themselves – Indians routinely worship the linga, which is supposed to be joined to the antaryoni. We get an inside view, so to speak). If they offend, it is because it requires the viewer to accommodate an idea that is so revolutionary that it cannot be easily accepted: the sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the language of Ulysses; the idea that the son of God would want to imagine living an ordinary life, in The Last Temptation of Christ; issues of caste in Samskara…the list is endless.

When we were discussing what we ought to do to show our support for Chandra Mohan at the meeting last evening, I suggested that one of the long-term things we ought to do was have discussions around what it means to offend: what offends and how? Show films that have been banned; read from books, plays, songs that sent ripples of indignation through entire populations. In fact, offend again and again, as often as possible and wherever you can. Create a hydra-headed monster.

Show re-runs of saas-bahu serials, I said to myself. What could be more offensive to good taste than the regressive attitudes depicted in these serials, where women are chattels and incubators, and the men are promiscuous and hypocritical. Children watch these serials with their parents. Is no one worried?

In Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, people sit at a table strewn with magazines and chat while they crap, but go to the loo to eat in extreme, silent privacy. This is shocking and, no doubt to Mr. Jain will be extremely offensive. But the power of a simple reversal such as Buñuel frequently employed, lay precisely in questioning the sanctity that we assign to some acts and the profanity we assign to others.

In the extremely Brahminical villages that my grandparents used to live in some decades ago, the houses ran the length of a street; rooms led to other rooms and there were many unexplored and exciting nooks. But if you wanted to go to the loo, you had to hike right to the other end of the house, where you would find one tiny, dingy (and smelly) room lit at night with a zero watt bulb, usually red in colour. There, you did you business and did not refer to it under any circumstances. Someone in the infrared areas of our varna spectrum came and shovelled the products of your body away and you were peaceful the knowledge of your purity. If there was a way to hang up your soul on the way to the loo, in one of those convenient rooms along the way, so that it was completely uncontaminated by contact with the body that insisted on producing filth, it had not yet been invented.

For that generation, our bathroom in Hyderabad was shocking enough. Someone actually takes pleasure in this unspeakable room? But – but – that means that bathing, sitting on the pot and reading a magazine…all of these things are ok, even (swoon) great?

Tied up intimately with the idea of offence is the idea of taboo. If something is forbidden, then bringing that out into the open causes offence. Of late, in our country, religion is the ultimate taboo. Which is why, how Rakhi Sawant decorates her bathroom becomes a matter of public debate. No one considers the offence they caused to Rakhi Sawant by making public her very private space and what she chooses to do with or in it.

But those who take offence easily would die before they admit that these events give them nourishment. What would happen in a world where nothing and nobody slapped their delicate sensibilities awake? I suspect it gives them a sense of involvement that is as false as it is exciting. What we need to do is dull those sensibilities and provide them with an excess of offending material so that ennui is inevitable.


N said...

Wonderful post...interesting, informative and hits the nail on the head.

Anirudh Karnick said...

There have been lots of posts on this issue and while all of them have helped in some way or the other, this is the one I liked best because it is not a collection of links to what is happening but a write-up by a person who actually went to a protest, which then set off a chain of thoughts in his mind, all of which, in my opinion, were illuminating because they didn't say "duh! This is obviously wrong" (which it is) but illustrated how, through various interesting (and funny) examples.

Space Bar said...

N: Thanks. Did you go, in Bangalore?

Anirudh: I could have gone on, but I thought I should stop! :D

More thoughts in a different post.

Falstaff said...

A good post, though I'm not entirely sure I agree. Mostly because the ability to shock is an important part of being an artist. I'm not sure you could get people to the point where they were immune to being shocked by the outrageous, simply because it would always be possible to push the boundaries a little further. And frankly, I'm not sure you'd want them to be immune. What would be Bunuel's motivation to make his films if it weren't the possibility of shocking his audience? What would have been the point of Duchamp's 1917 Fountain (which, of course, the Chandra Mohan piece is derivative of) if not the fact that it turned our normal expectations on their head?

I think the real question to ask is not what offends and how, but why offense (in the sense of shock) is such a bad thing? Or put another way, why shock is offensive?

If civilisation progresses by questioning its most prized assumptions, then surely we, as a society, should be encouraging people to shock and disturb us, not stifling them from doing so. Ennui is not simply a matter of taste - it's a sign of stagnation, of the mind having nothing to work on.

The other question, of course is the issue of the process. You mention banned books, plays, songs, etc. But the incident in Baroda is much more than a ban. A ban would mean that a group of experts, duly constituted by the government, and after considerable deliberation, decided to ban the art work in question, documenting their reasons for doing so. And it would be an action against the work of art, not against its creator. It would not mean that some self-interested politician (who I'm willing to bet has never heard of Duchamp and couldn't tell a great painting if jumped out and bit him - though one wishes it would anyway) could assemble a bunch of hooligans together, vandalise a private exhibition and have a student randomly thrown into prison.

I'm not saying I'm in favour of banning works of art - I'm not - but I think it's important to keep clear in our minds that this is not, or not just, about whether supposedly 'offensive' works of art should be banned. It's also about who gets to say what is offensive and how their claims are acted upon.

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: You raise some good points. When I said we should 'dull those sensibilities', I wasn't be entirely serious. And of course shocking people out of their assumptions and credos is a good thing; which is why I also said, we ought to offend again and again, as often as possible, in whatever way we can.

There are two things involved: the more we decide to shock or offend, the less able people like Jain will be to rush from place to place and litigate; it would just be too tiring (this may backfire, of course. I'm aware of that danger).

My more serious suggestion, which I'd made at the meeting, was to bring out into the open all works that had offended at some point or the other. In most cases, people would today, be hard put to it to find what was offensive or shocking about the work. This would give us an opprtunity to examine the nature of what shocks. Once a society has accomodated an idea, the idea - and the owrk that was the vehicle - ceases to be shocking.

You're right about works that are banned versus works that are attacked by private individuals in the name of an entire community or religion.

In the last day or two, though, I've had this feeling that the entire incident was cynically played up for some other purpose. A life was affected, so natually we had to protest; but what if no one, including Jain, had really been offended? Wouldn't we need to search for the reasons behind the incident, and why it is so easy to do something so unlawful and still have the force of the law behind you?

Chandrahas said...

This is a very fine and wide-ranging piece. I was particularly struck by this:

"If they offend, it is because it requires the viewer to accommodate an idea that is so revolutionary that it cannot be easily accepted: the sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the language of Ulysses; the idea that the son of God would want to imagine living an ordinary life, in The Last Temptation of Christ; issues of caste in Samskara…the list is endless."

Enjoyed reading it very much - in fact read it twice over.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the forces we are trying to deal with are not only outraged by so-called offensive works of art, but also too close-minded to be persuaded by reasonable argument - for them all people should think exactly the same way as them.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Great logical exposition.
Now I just don't want to think about it any more.

Which is the problem. We are a nation of ostriches. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls" etc.


Falstaff said...

space bar: Agree entirely. As I said in my post on the issue, I think the way to protest these incidents is to take the 'offensive' object and display it as widely and as visibly as possible. As you say, how many things can the Niraj Jain's of the world litigate?

I also agree about the 'other purpose' - though I'm not sure it's a cynical one. I think we have two things happening here - an attack on a work of art and the imprisonment of a person. And I suspect much of the protest we're saying is because of the latter, not the former. I can't help wondering if the public outrage would have been anywhere near as strong if the hooligans had forced the authorities to take down the art work without assualting / arresting Chandra Mohan. I suspect it wouldn't. And I find that a little frightening, because it suggests that we may be becoming immune to the idea of works of art being censored, while remaining indignant about victimisation of people. Again and again I hear people tell me that it's such a shame that Hussain has been forced into exile. But would it have been any better if he'd been able to live and move freely in India without being allowed to exhibit his paintings? His exile, to me, is not the point. The censorship of his paintings is. Which is why I think it's important to separate the issue of censorship from the issue of harassment of artists.

Space Bar said...

Chandrahas: Indeed, yes - it's hard to talk to those who are already convinced they're right.

JAP: We very likely will forget all about this until the next outrage happens along. So it goes.

Space Bar said...

Falstaff: You say, 'Which is why I think it's important to separate the issue of censorship from the issue of harassment of artists.'

Absolutely. I think it's hard for people to care as much for object; it's easier to empathise with human misery.

Which is why Laine's book on Shivaji, though the SC has ruled that it can be made available, will still not be available in Maharashtra - because Thackeray has ordered his goons to see that it's not sold. And we do nothing about it.

Vikalp, which started as a movement to make sure independent films do not require a censor certificate, especially for screenings at film festivals and clubs, is still nowhere near achieving it's objective - because no human traumas can be associated with it. It is all dry, boring paper work and sheer will.

Space Bar said...

Chandrahas: I also wanted to say, it's also sad that we often don't push for any kind of a dialogue because we know this to be true that nothing will be achieved by it; so we keep talking to people who essentially agree with our arguments.

Chandrahas said...

That's a thought worth thinking about. I'd guess that most Indians who write blogs and read blogs are part of the consensus, even if it is in numerical terms a minority, that sees incidents like this as gross violations of the right to free speech. So we are to a great extent talking to our own side of the fence.

If that is the case, the solution perhaps is not to hold protests but to engage in dialogue with the perpetrators of these acts of petty arson. Space Bar, why don't we invite them all then to dinner and discussion? I'm even willing to make prawn curry for them, right after I take down all the artworks in my house.

Space Bar said...

Chandrahas: By all means let us invite them for dinner and a discussion. But...you mena to say that all the art on your walls is worthy of their special attention?