When artistic license just doesnt count

Updated: May 20 2007, 05:30am hrs
Chandramohan Srilamantula, an art student of M S University, Vadodara, spent six days behind bars recently. He was locked up because his paintings were found to be obscene and offensive to religious sentiments. While such incidents would be unheard of for any other subject (no one is imprisoned for flunking math), art has been in the firing line of traditionalists for quite a while.

Why is art the subject of such virulent attacks Who decides what is obscene Does art offend religious sentiments Attacks on art are not new. They cut across nationalities and races. Religious beliefs have got offended over some issue or the other. And they seem to be doing so with increasing rapidity. In Indias contemporary art history, there have been cases of paintings being labeled obscene, says artist Ghulam Sheikh, but today, the emphasis is on religion and how certain paintings hurt the religious sentiments of people.

If traditional Indian art is to be tracked, it isnt as if there is an absence of nudity in it. People who vandalise art do have adequate knowledge of Indias classical art, says photographer Ram Rahman. It is full of bare-breasted goddesses and nude gods. The panchmukhi shivling, lajja gauris (naked goddesses) and the terracotta deities are famously erotic. And who can forget the sculptures of Khajuraho, Konark or Ajanta. Ask these people whether they will tear down these sculptures.

M F Husain, who is being considered for Indias highest public honour, the Bharat Ratna, is ironically living in exile. And its not an exile decreed by the justice system of the land, but a voluntary one, forced by the extra-constitutional bodies offended by his Bharatmata (Mother India) painting of 2006. This is an artist who has been honoured by the nation with the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1989. He has been a member of the Indian Parliament, yet, the State has about 900 cases filed against him in the country. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and associated groups, all self-proclaimed spokespersons for the Hindus, have also declared themselves to be offended by his paintings.

The leader of the opposition in Parliament, and former deputy prime minister LK Advani said in a meeting that the BJP could not support unlimited personal freedom of an artist to hurt religious sentiments. As expected, the artist community has taken the opposite viewpoint. As far as Husains paintings are concerned, I dont think there is any obscenity in it, says artist Akbar Padamsee. Painter Krishen Khanna, a childhood friend of Husain says: I called him (Husain) and expressed my regret at what was happening. He said, they are just some misguided individuals. Leave all this, lets talk about painting.

Not as high-profile as Husain perhaps, but artists nevertheless, Sanjeev Khandekar and Vaishali Narkar also faced censorship of a kind. In August 2006, they had put up an art show entitled Tits, Clits n Elephant Dicks at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. The police ordered that the exhibits be covered with black cloth as they were, yes, you guessed it, obscene.

Which brings us to the tired old questionwhat is obscene and does art become so, intentionally or otherwise Padamsee cites his experience of facing such a charge. In 1954, the police ordered that I remove a painting that was in a show. The painting had the image of a man and a woman, with the mans hand on the womans breast. The police said that according to the Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the painting is obscene. I said the painting isnt obscene and that I wouldnt remove it. They arrested me and put me behind bars. I was released on bail, but the case was dismissed after nine months. The ruling was that Section 292 cannot be applied to artists exhibiting in art galleries.

That art is not merely decoration, but an agent of provocation, a tool to take humankind forward, has been pointed out as many times by its defenders as it has been opposed by those who claim their morality to be outraged. Art always tries to push the boundaries, which cannot be done if everything is judged by extremists, says artist Vivan Sundaram, who, incidentally, is from the same Vadodara university that is currently in the eye of the storm. Recalling his days in the university, Sundaram says, There are no boundaries or limitations for students to create art. It can be about gays, dalits or anything. They have all the right and freedom to express their creativity.

The wheels of justice may grind slow, but they do seem to come out more often on the side of the righteous. Over the years, a number of such cases have been dismissedfrom that early Padamsee, to exhibitions after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, to struggles by Anant Pathwardhan to show his films on Doordarshan. They have won each time. But why does the artist still feel the lack of support from the State

with inputs from Dhiren Dukhu