Erotica and pornography are often put in the same basket in India, the land of Kama Sutra. We speak with authors, commentators, and sex educators to find out if erotica has indeed faded amid excessive exposure to Internet and easy access to porn
By Reya Mehrotra
“The day is still hot, beautiful Shakuntala, and you are feverish,” a love-struck Dushyant tells Shakuntala, laying his hands upon her in the third act titled The Lovemaking in Kalidasa’s 5th-century play Shakuntala.
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“Licence my roving hands, and let them go, before, behind, between, above, below,” reads metaphysical poet John Donne’s 16th-century poem To His Mistress Going to Bed.
“Your strong tongue and slender fingers reaching where I had been waiting years for you in my rose-wet cave,” pens Adrienne Rich in The Floating Poem, Unnumbered.
The ink has faded as centuries travelled by but the beauty, grace, and poise with which the authors seduce and arouse the reader, remain. That is the essence of erotica. In author, academic and museum curator Dr Alka Pande’s words, “It is all about sensuality and deriving pleasure. It need not show copulating couples.”
In July this year, a hot debate brewed and caught everyone’s attention. Actor Shilpa Shetty, wife of businessman Raj Kundra, who was accused of making pornographic content through apps, called it “erotica” and not “porn”. While cyber experts noted the fine line between erotica and porn, they shared that the former was an expression and art while the latter was made for sale.
As Kundra fights his battle in the lingering case, pertinent questions remain: In the age of excessive exposure to the Internet and easy access to porn, has erotica faded? If not, what differentiates erotica from soft porn and is the latter being sold for public consumption in the name of erotica?
The land of erotica
A bejeweled Rekha graces the screen with her sultry looks in the 1984 erotic drama Utsav. As a young Shekhar Suman slowly frees her of her jewels, the scene titillates the audience. The characters make love passionately, yet the film refrains from nudity, sexual scenes, and obscenity. The film, a true example of erotica, by Shashi Kapoor and Girish Karnad was based on the Sanskrit play Mricchakatika by Indian playwright Shudraka.
India, the land of Kama Sutra, has had a rich history of erotica, with ample depictions on structures dating back to thousands of years. Both ancient India and Hinduism have viewed sex as spiritual, religious and an integral part of human life. Be it the Solanki dynasty’s Sun Temple, which has its outer walls covered with sexual figures, the sex sculptures of Khajuraho temples, Bhoramdeo temple, known as the Khajuraho of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan’s Ranakpur temple, the Ajanta-Ellora caves that possess the sensual depictions of lovers or erotic sculptures on Hampi’s Virupaksha temples, ancient Indian sculptures stand proof that the Indian subcontinent never shied away from sex. The Shiva Linga itself is claimed to be a portrayal of the phallus, speaking of the importance of the physical union in religion.
In fact, our sacred texts preach the importance of the union. Dr Pande says, “We have ample erotic literature like the Gatha Saptasati, Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra, Indian sex manual Ananga Ranga by Kalyanamalla, Ratirahasya and Koka Shastra. Sanskrit literature was full of sensual and erotic scenes, whether it was Kalidasa’s Meghaduta or Kumarasambhava. It show-ed love and pleasure but was never porn. When you see sexual couples depicted in temples, they don’t look pornographic.”
Dr Pande touches upon the four purusharthas of Hinduism—dharma (moral values, righteousness), artha (economic values), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation)—while reinstating that pleasure is one of the main aims of human life, according to the religion. “All these have to be in fair balance for humans to lead a good life,” she adds.
She calls Kama Sutra a book on a great life and not only about sexual positions. It consists of seven books and 36 chapters on courtship, marriage, courtesans, dharma, and so on—a book that gives equal importance to pleasures of both the man and the woman. In fact, the Sringara rasa, one of the nine rasas mentioned in the Vedic literature, talks of romance, love, and attraction.
However, the lack of erotica in the contemporary Indian literature is astounding. Aastha Atray Banan, author of The L-Word: Love, Lust and Everything In-Between published by HarperCollins, says: “I think Indians have stigmatised erotica too much. We have regressed as a society. But that being said, I think erotica is a niche, and it needs to find its own audience, and these days, there are enough social media accounts and such that talk about it. People love consuming erotica art, movies, and books.”
Sexuality, sensuality & erotica
India, originally a land of erotica and sexuality, was introduced to porn through the West that had it in good proportions as soon as the motion pictures came into existence. The 1896 film, Le Coucher de la Mariee, had a bathroom striptease sequence and Fatima’s Coochie Coochie Dance, released the same year and one of the earliest films to be censored, had a gyrating belly dancer Fatima moving her pelvis. Gradually, seeing a lucrative market, erotic films started taking shape into sexually explicit content catering to the male gaze. The 1910 film, Am Abend, shows a masturbating woman and, later, her sexual encounters with a man.
Over the past few decades, ‘chick lits’ that qualify as soft porn, Mills and Boons and novellas especially catering to the young adults had stormed the publishing industry. Today, in the age of exposure to explicit content, the lines have been blurred and often one finds soft porn or pornography labelled as erotica.
The Right to Sex, published by Bloomsbury and written by Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford, talks of how students’ psyche is shaped by pornography. Srinivasan argues for educating students on how they are the authority on sex and that sex can be freer, equal and joyful.
Dr Pande, who has written the book Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History, says that we need to understand how erotic texts are different. There is a deep-seated philosophy in pleasure and sensuality. A particular image in her book depicts a man having sex with a woman while he inserts his toes and fingers in vaginas of four different woman. The image has been captioned as ‘depicting the erotic from Kama Sutra’. On being asked why the sexually explicit image is erotic and not porn, she explains, “It is the imagination of the artist and not a film. It is also very subjective; some may call it porn and some call it erotic. It lies in the gaze, how you look at it.”
That is another thing about labels. Erotic or porn, the decision lies in the eyes and the mind of the beholder. According to her, there is enough erotica today, but the problem lies with excessive pornography. “Where there is demand, there is supply. People consume porn,” she adds.
Another essential difference between erotica and porn, as pointed by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author of feminist erotica Sita’s Curse, is that for men, watching porn becomes a symbol of masculinity whereas women possess shame when it comes to sex. “In erotica, there’s a power play, gender identity angle, consent, boundaries and a woman’s right to withdraw pleasure and change mind, there’s equality but porn is just about male domination.”
Intimacy coach and sex educator Pallavi Barnwal, who has authored the book Sex is…: Memoir of a Woman’s Sexuality, explains that unlike soft porn that focuses on the physicality of the experience, eroticism focuses on desires, sensuality, fantasies and is very diverse. “It is passionate, magnetic and comes from the Greek God Eros, the god of love and fertility.” She agrees that the decision to label as erotica or porn is subjective.
The essential difference between sensual, sexual and erotic, according to Barnwal, remains that sensual caters to the five senses, sexual caters to the physical touch while eroticism includes sensuality and physicality. “The original Kama Sutra is a treatise that had a divine place in society and was written for its welfare. If the physical relationship between the husband and wife is good, the marriage would be stable, leading to a happy family. If the family is stable, then the kingdom would be stable. So, sex is not just gratification like shown in porn, but it is important in stabilising the relationship between a couple,” she adds.
The contemporary scene
Coming from a rich legacy of erotica, the contemporary scene in India looks rather dull. There have been very few examples of erotica in Indian pop culture of literature to cite in recent times, say film critics. When it comes to films, though not pure erotica, sporadic bouts of eroticism are witnessed in films every now and then. Films like Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Utsav (1984), Deepa Mehta’s masterpiece Fire (1996), Astitva (2000), Randeep Hooda and Nandana Sen-starrer Rang Rasiya (based on painter Raja Ravi Varma’s life), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) stand out as erotic masterpieces of Indian cinema.
Delhi-based film critic Suparna Sharma shares that the scene in Mughal-e-Azam (1960), in which Dilip Kumar caresses Madhubala with an ostrich feather, a few scenes in Maya Memsaab (1993), Saagar (1985) starring Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia, and even Sridevi’s sexy dance for an invisible Mr India (1987) are erotic. “Many cabaret numbers of Helen are quite erotic. But today Bollywood has lost the sense of erotica. It is just distasteful; it’s all about sexist jokes or tacky making out,” she adds.
Film critic Mihir Pandya points out that Vidya Balan-starrer Ishqiya and Dedh Ishqiya, too, embody elements of erotica. Pandya also blames the Indian British Raj for the veil that has fallen over the erotic. “We forgot our open culture and started aping the Western-colonial culture and adapted it into popular culture as well. An undeclared censorship was introduced. Today, when we have the opportunity, filmmakers shy away from experimenting with the erotic as the crowds would rather prefer sexual content where aesthetics are ignored. There is a huge market for that content. There is erotica in a few films but only elements of it,” he says.
Pandya adds that the horror genre in films met with a similar fate until a decade ago when they were rather vulgar, full of sexual overtones, had small-time actors and were released on small scales. However, that gradually changed as Ram Gopal Varma started experimenting in the genre and today, films like Stree (2018) and Bulbbul (2020) have left an impressionable mark.
The problem also lies in censorship. On one hand, where adult films with an ‘A’ certification are easily passed by the censor board, others with little sexual content are banned or censored. “A film like Grand Masti (2013) is easily passed but Udta Punjab (2016) becomes a problem. Why this duality? The reason is that the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is a state-run machinery and anything that seems like a threat to politics or society becomes a problem,” he says.
On the contrary, there also exists a parallel low-budget cinema in India full of sexually-explicit content on the lines of erotica but also depicts objectification and sexualisation of women at the hands of a male. The consumers of this cinema often remain the lower rung of society, shaping their opinions accordingly.
In the literary scene, contemporary woman authors like Seema Anand, who wrote The Arts of Seduction, Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author of Sita’s Curse, Madhuri Banerjee with books like Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, Balli Kaur Jaswal with her Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, Dr Alka Pande, Pallavi Barnwal and Urvashi Butalia are driving the Indian erotic literature scene with their works.
Politics of sex
Actor Swara Bhasker’s Rasbhari, which released on Amazon Prime Video last year, depicts the protagonist in an erotic light. However, the problem lies in its depiction, as Sreemoyee Piu Kundu puts it, “Why does a woman have to be shown as a Savita Bhabhi character to express her desire?”
Kundu finds the class politics of sex problematic. “Why is it that the upper class, working urban women and single women (as in Four More Shots Please) in shows and films are shown as having a very colourful sex life whereas lower middle-class and unattractive women are always shown as sexually unsatisfied (as in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare)?” she asks.
However, if not erotica, the past decade has witnessed ample films doing justice and bringing the taboo topic of female desire on screen with prominent names being Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Lust Stories, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Parched, Anarkali of Aarah, Masaan, Veere Di Wedding, and so on. Further, the arrival of OTT platforms has meant a smooth road to explore and experiment with sexuality on screen, a topic which was shied away from on the big screen, owing to the film certification board restrictions and family viewership.
But with that has come exposure to ample sexually-explicit web series and content on popular apps and certain OTT platforms.
FE reached out to OTT players and apps that have adult series on their platforms, but they declined to comment.
Aastha Atray Banan says that a few people in India are attempting this genre and some are doing it anonymously. However, internationally, erotica is well respected.
“When I went to New York and read Anais Nin for the first time, I was mindblown. Her books managed to turn me on in a subway. But that’s real literature. We need more writers to treat erotica like real literature,” she says.
Even though erotica in India might not have the same stature today, as it did in the ancient times, with conversations being stirred around the genre, Indian writers taking charge and the country being in a good content space (thanks to OTT platforms), it is only a matter of time that we start seeing a revival of the genre.
Interview: Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Author
‘Eroticism is a philosophy, a spiritual practice’
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is one of the few female voices in India exposing the contemporary reader to erotica. Her book Sita’s Curse might have come out in 2014 but the story remains a golden work of erotica of the past decade. The author, who is now penning down a memoir, speaks on the essence of erotica, how Sita’s Curse materialised, the thin line that differentiates soft porn and erotica and the problem with porn in an interview with Reya Mehrotra. Edited excerpts:
‘Erotica is a philosophy, a sensory experience & a spiritual practice’. What made you write Sita’s Curse?
Sita’s Curse, a feminist erotica, was my second book. The idea of the book came when I was working as a journalist in Mumbai. I would take the Byculla route and would see a woman standing on a slim balcony in a chawl. She would be hanging clothes to dry or feeding parrots in a cage. I was mesmerised by her physicality. Here was a woman relishing in her own physical self, her bosom would be visible as she would fix the buttons of her blouse. She wouldn’t care if she was being watched when the cars stopped at a red light. She was a full-bodied voluptuous married Indian woman. She remained in my imagination as I watched her for 2-2.5 years. During the July 2005 floods, when Mumbai was submerged, many people lost their lives, especially in low-lying chawls like hers. I never saw her again when I resumed work. In my mind I called her Meera, who is also the protagonist in Sita’s Curse. I felt Meera represents a bird in a cage who could have eloped with her lover or drowned in her desires. My cab driver would always say, ‘Madam, ye aaj bhagne wali hai’, as she would always be whispering on the phone.
Why the name Sita’s Curse?
The book has nothing to do with Sita. It is a symbolic name. If Sita was not Ram’s Sita, who was she? Raavan was the only man who desired her and was destroyed. She paid the price for being desired and had to go through the agnipareeksha. He abducted her but never touched her. In our mythology, it is often the woman who initiates sexual relationships like Shurpanakha who expressed her desire, but her nose was cut off. She was later turned into a stone. A woman can be Menaka, but she can’t express her desires freely and if she is desired, she has to suffer the fate of Sita, that is jump into fire. It is like the two-finger test after a rape case to check if the hymen is broken.
Why a ‘feminist erotica’?
I am talking about the portrayal of the Indian housewives as either Savitri – the pati vrata or the Savita Bhabhi, the horny woman who is the object of fantasy of every man. Even on porn sites, the Bhabhi categories are huge. While I was writing on sexuality and gender a few years ago, a young woman from Jaipur who was married off early and had a small child got in touch with me. Her husband had been suffering from erectile dysfunction and would physically abuse her and force her into doing things. When she couldn’t conceive, she was paraded to a Godman in Indore, who she indicated was the father of her child. I found elements of Meera’s story. Meera had always paid the price for her beauty and wasn’t afraid to express her desire. In the book, July 26, 2005 (during the floods) is the date she steps out of her Lakshman Rekha. Seeing Meera in the Mumbai chawl, I always wondered: was she happy in her married life? She gave out a sexual vibe. I wondered how her husband would be. If she was living in this claustrophobic dark chawl, does she have a lover?
Which writers did you look up to while writing the book?
I read a lot of erotica before writing this. I read Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, Ismat Chugtai, Kamala Das. These were women who were writing about sexuality, forbidden love ahead of their times, they were strong feminist voices. It was a grey violated area then.
What according to you is eroticism?
Eroticism is a philosophy, a spiritual practice. It is a way of life and a way of thought. If you are a sensualist like I am, you will find expression of eroticism in your thinking and not just in bed. Erotica is not only sexual but sensual. It is different from porn and chick lits and has a strong storyline to it. It involves desire, love making but there’s also anatomy, autonomy, power play, pleasure, domination and subordination but with consent and no patriarchal control. It is tantalising, touching, tasting each other. Erotica is not just deeply feminist but deeply humanist. It doesn’t just look at people having sex as bodies but people with consent and power over their bodies.
The thin line between erotic and soft porn is often blurred in pop culture with the latter very commonly being labelled as the former. What do you think makes the two different?
I feel erotica can never be equated with porn. The kind of porn I have seen is about reinforcing patriarchal stature of man, unless it is same-sex porn. The man always calls the shots while the woman is the performer. In real life, marriages are broken because the wife is pressured into doing things that are shown in porn. Whereas if we see the ancient history of eroticism, it represents a religious openness. Kama Sutra too depicts the art of love making. It’s a shastra, a science. Eroticism is a school of philosophy and has a strong feminist touch to it which is what Sita’s Curse is about. In the end, it is about a woman’s free will. The autonomy of female desire comes into play in erotica. This can never be expressed in porn.
But where erotica is confused as porn and sex is a taboo, how do we change and educate minds?
A man and a woman making love is not porn but a union of two lovers. The problem happens when most Indian men’s exposure to women’s bodies and consent is through porn. There is lack of sex education in school and no exposure to intimacy. Men are waiting to sleep with a woman only after marriage and to produce a child to prove masculinity. That is why every person should read Kama Sutra which is a treatise on love making. It is integral to our understanding of desire, anatomy, pleasure, erogenous words.
We live in a time where good stories are being told through OTT platforms, are you looking forward to Sita’s Curse being converted into a film/series?
I have got many offers, but I don’t want it to get reduced to the story of a woman having sex outside her marriage. Any story of sex is not erotica. Someone like Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta who have made films like Fire in the 1990s could do justice to the story. I would also love to have a Malayali filmmaker bring the story on screen as Malayalam cinema is much evolved.
I think Indians have stigmatised erotica too much. We have regressed as a society. Erotica is a niche, and it needs to find its own audience
— Aastha Atray Banan, Author of The L-Word: Love, Lust and Everything In-Between
There is enough erotica today, but the problem lies with excessive pornography. Where there is demand, there is supply. People consume porn
— Dr Alka Pande, Author, academic and museum curator
Unlike soft porn that focuses on the physicality of the experience, eroticism focuses on desires, sensuality, fantasies and is very diverse
—Pallavi Barnwal, Intimacy coach and sex educator, author of Sex is…: Memoir of a Woman’s Sexuality
Many cabaret numbers of Helen are quite erotic. But today, Bollywood has lost the sense of erotica. It is just distasteful
—Suparna Sharma, Delhi-based film critic
Today, filmmakers shy away from experimenting with the erotic as the crowds would rather prefer sexual content where aesthetics are ignored
— Mihir Pandya, Film critic