Thursday, June 07, 2007

Artistic obscenity

M.F.Hussain, Shilpa Shetty and Chandra Mohan have suddenly newfound friends and enemies. The issues underlying the highly charged emotional fulminations against them and in a greater degree, to the righteous indignation among the intellectual elite against the self-styled moralists have been the dimensions of license to the forms of expressions that arts and artists shall enjoy through their chosen medium. In all the cases, police have acted on complaints of certain sections of the public, who have claimed that their religious sensibilities have been hurt or the cultural mores of our country have been undermined; and in two of the cases, the magistrates have been persuaded to issue summons to the artists to answer to the criminal charges.
M.F.Hussain would draw the picture of a nude woman and call her Goddess Saraswati. Nude pictures per se would not have made a difference, but when he decides to call the painting as of Goddess Saraswati, he draws flak. If two celebrities kiss each other in a tango dance embrace in full view of the public and that too in an awareness campaign of AIDS, you may not probably expect cheers in praise of the celebrities. Exhibition of students’ talents in their campuses invariably attract public attention (have you not visited the cultural fests in college campuses, although you are not a college student yourself?) but in Vadodra, the exhibition was a part of an appraisal program of the student-artists. Depiction of deities in prurient form, so long as the public entry had not been barred, could not have gone un-noticed.
Since when have we become intolerant to artistic depiction of nudity and called it obscene? Among the best-known examples of erotic literature are the Kama-sutra and other Sanskrit literature from about the 5th century AD, Persian lyric poems called ghazals, Ovid's Ars Amatoria, the 16th-century Chinese novel Chin p'ing, William Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Among the most explicit sexual depictions in the world in the form of sculptures, Khajraho and Konark may be the most outstanding. If tolerance to such art forms was possible in India so many centuries back and also elsewhere in the world, why has it become different now?
Religious obscurantist among Hindus, religious fanatics among Muslims and dogmatists among Christians, the main religious groups in India, are always lurking. You can not simply wish them away. If we are talking about Khajraho or Kama sutra, an extensive knowledge of the historical context in which the artists lived and worked is also necessary, as well as empathy with and understanding of a particular artist's ideas, experiences, and insights.
Even in the West, the tolerance did not come in a day. In 1559 Pope Paul IVassigned Daniele the task of painting in draperies to cover the nudity of many of the figures in Michelangelo's ' Last Judgment' in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Immoral works also were suppressed in Protestant countries such as England, where, prior to the 18th century, restrictions were applied almost exclusively to antireligious or seditious acts or publications, rather than to obscene material in the modern sense. Perhaps the most celebrated obscenity trial in 19th-century France was that of
Gustave Flaubert, who was charged with outrage to public morals and religion for his novel Madame Bovary (1857). In U.S.A., the Comstock Act (1873)named for its chief proponent, Anthony Comstock, provided for fine and imprisonment of any person mailing or receiving obscene, lewd, or lascivious publication and it became notorious as the basis for the widespread suppression not merely of pornographic books and pictures but also of publications containing legitimate medical information about contraception and abortion, as well as contraceptive devices themselves! The difficulty of the task of identifying what was obscene was reflected in Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), which dealt with the alleged obscenity of a motion picture: he wrote that, though he could not define obscenity, ‘I know it when I see it’.
There has been some gradual shift in sexual morality, and the Encyclopedia Britannica observes that obscenity laws in Australia, Canada, the United States, and western European countries were gradually relaxed beginning in the 1960s. Similar developments occurred in countries in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism there in 1989. For example, in the Czech Republic and Poland in the 1990s, sizable pornography industries developed, and they faced little legal intervention or censorship from the government. Generally, the new legal environment in North America and Europe favoured greater sexual permissiveness and the right to individual privacy. Perhaps the most significant development in this regard was the decriminalization of homosexuality in many countries and the removal of proscriptions against depictions and discussions of homosexual relationships in books, motion pictures, and other media. Countries in Africa and Asia generally have been slower to liberalize such laws, and India herself has maintained the older British obscenity laws and definitions.
In our present times, there is a mutual distrust among the various communities and we have to evolve a new ethos and a holistic approach to understanding art in all its diverse facets. The time has just not arrived. Read the provisions of Indian Penal Code on offences against hurting religious sentiments, obscenity and homo-sexuality. You cannot have the provisions in the statue book and still say that the certain sections of the public, the police or the magistrates are wrong, can you?


Bikram Chaudhuri said...

[With respect, My Lord, and for brevity, I ask that I may be excused for dropping formalities and for referring to Your Lordship as 'you' and 'Sir']

Sir, you have indeed very lucidly raised certain questions that are often echoed by many modernists, though how many of those do so in genuine earnest is hard to tell. Even though at the end, one gets the idea that you are defending right-wing views of judicial officers because of the existence of archaic laws in the statute book, the general tenor of your post is beyond doubt - you are not appreciative of the habit of certain sections of society in making a hue and cry over their notions of immorality. I am in total agreement there.

There are some points, Sir, which occured to me, as I am certain you may have considered, but have not really spoken of in the post. You have rightly shown that India's past tends to show a much higher level of tolerance to nudity and acts and depictions which may be considered depraved today. Indeed, our ancestors appear to have been patrons of what were artistic depictions of explicit sexual acts. But today, our society seems to be far less appreciative or tolerant of the same. As you have stated, the old British laws continue to be followed here, although the other countries and regions that you mentioned have become far more liberal. Perhaps one factor that may have allowed those countries to alter their outlook was their relative homogenity. India's diversity rarely seems to translate to unity, and this is perhaps another example of how so many different cultures and outlooks existing in India form roadblocks to liberal changes in perspective. Also the cultural, educational and value-system disparities between urban and rural areas may also add to the problem. And of course, politics make retrogression an agenda, and political elements love to exploit the aforesaid diversity and disparities for mileage. In such circumstances, it is unsurprising, but still culpable, that India is finding it hard to look at, and to not look away from, 'artistic obscenity'.

sadaadmi said...

Justice Sir,

If Hussain thought that calling a nude women painting " God saraswathi' it should be accepted. If he is so sure that nudity is to be worshiped as ' art'- permit me to say ..let him publish the nude photo of his mother or daughter.Will he dare to paint the characters of His religion ? He will not. Tolerance has its limit. We should protest and condemn such things.

The curves are to be appreciated in Bed room and there are rules .

In the name of 'tolerance' we should not encourage MF hussains .


K.Kannan said...

Like poetic liberty, have you not also heard of artistic liberty?