Recent

The Voices Of Enraged India

Durga Vahini activists who see obscenity in art. Cops who are art critics at heart. And an unbridgeable chasm.

Artshowarticle

This is what it came down to, the Voice of Enraged India raised against the unspeakable filth of Westernised India: a small group of about 20-30 women, one man appointing himself as one of their leaders, clustered in front of the Delhi Art Gallery in Hauz Khas.

They were there to protest an exhibition of paintings, The Naked and the Nude. I was there to see the exhibition. Over the last two years, one of the many compensatory joys of living in the city had been the DAG exhibitions – on landscapes, printmaking, modernism, shifting lessons in art history. Their shows – on Chittoprosad, on four centuries of prints – had become a visual memory for me, an alternate history of modern India squabbling with itself, fascinated by influences from Europe, intent on recovering and playing with its own traditions, rich in colour and line, endlessly curious.

Some of us – Mitali Saran and me among them – thought we should try to strike up a conversation with the women. It seemed rude to be attending the same show, even if with different aims, and not to talk about why they saw obscenity where we saw art.

“Do you know what paintings they have inside? They are showing paintings of Damini, the rape victim!”, one woman told us. “How can you support this?”

That was a lie, I said. I had seen the paintings, and there were none of the rape victim. They had been told lies, and I asked where they had heard this from.

“Are you from the gallery?”, she demanded.  No, I said, I was a writer. I was curious about why they wanted to shut the gallery down. If they were assured that there were no paintings of rape victims, could the rest of us be allowed to see the show? Behind me, a woman was whispering to a friend in Hindi. She was saying, “I only came out for Damini, because they shouldn’t have done this to her, if her paintings are not there, why are we here?”

The women at the back of the crowd looked worried. “Talk to them”, they said, urging us to go the front and speak to some women who appeared to be leading the protests. A policewoman watched us, a senior officer. She assessed the situation and dismissed it, deciding that we were all harmless.

The lady who’d said the paintings were of the Delhi rape victim changed her tactics. “You’re a woman”, she said, “how can you support dirty pictures, where women are drawn naked, to be stared at by everyone? Would you bring your brother to see this? Your father?”

I ventured to suggest that both of them – one an art enthusiast, the other a collector of art who would sometimes buy paintings and books in lieu of the household groceries, upsetting my mother – would love the show. “You would come here with your father?”, another woman said incredulously.

He would love the art on display, I said. There was silence.

I felt it was impolite to continue without introducing myself, but we ran into an unexpected obstacle – the women were uncomfortable about sharing their names. “Why do you need to know?”, one woman asked aggressively. Another whispered her name to me, but said, “Don’t write it, Didi, my family won’t like it”.

“Do they know you’re here?”, I asked. “Yes, yes”, she said. “I have permission to go out for all Durga Vahini work and mandir work”.

“Yes”, I said, “it is a lovely day to be out”. We exchanged conspiratorial smiles, and then a friend of hers grabbed her and took her away: “why are you talking to that woman, don’t you know she’s on their side?”

The arguments continued. They were easily summarised.

1) The naked figure was not part of Hindu tradition and our great heritage prevented us from dishonouring women this way.

The human body is neither obscene nor ugly, we suggested. Besides, we have a long history of nudity in art, from Gandharva and Chola statues to the Rani ki Vav in Gujarat, Khajuraho, and of course, the modern art on display here. The man stepped in front of the women. “You are teaching the wrong things”, he said. “Our Hinduism does not allow it.” I got angry. “My Hinduism is not your Hinduism”, I said sharply. “You cannot steal my religion.” Then I felt ashamed of myself, for having lost my temper so easily.

2) It did not matter whether nudes in art had once been part of Hindu tradition. It was not part of our lives now, and this exhibition denigrated women. Men would look at these paintings, and inflamed by lust, go out to rape women.

We rebutted this as gently as we could, but the divide between our worldviews was beginning to open up. The women were growing heated, and now they had begun to grab at us, holding our arms, clutching at my waist, so that they could make their arguments. “You should leave”, the woman police officer said quietly to me. “They are getting angry.” But we were finally talking. It seemed wrong to leave now.

Two women, younger than the rest, waved away the ideological arguments. “Could I understand – could we understand – that they felt ashamed and threatened by the idea of nude paintings? What did I mean, when I said the female body was neither shameful nor to be feared? Was I not upset at the thought of men looking at naked women in the gallery, and then outside?” “Why”, they asked again, “did I think bodies were beautiful?”

The man cut them off. “That was not the point”, he said flatly, and they stepped back. “The point was that these disgusting, shameful works were being displayed in the open market. It was their duty to stop people from seeing them.”

“But”, I said, talking past him to the women, “even though I thought there was no shame in the sight of the human body, and I did not think the female body was sinful in itself, I understood that they felt otherwise. We disagreed, and that was all right. So they should tell their families and friends not to see this show. Why stop us, who felt differently, why take away our right to see what we wanted to see?”

Some of the women were nodding. But the man said, and two of the women said, “you do not represent Hindustan”.

Another friend, tired of the arguments, said flatly, “neither do you”. The women and I shook hands. “Thank you for trying to explain”, I said – and I meant it. Some more of them held out their hands. The man looked upset. “Stop shaking hands”, he said to them. I shook his hand and said, “thank you”, and he seemed even more upset.

The policewoman told us again to step back. She and I chatted for a while. “There would be no violence”, she said, “not from this lot”. They were melting away already because there were no television cameras. “There was no point trying to talk”, she said briskly, “their world and mine” – she took in my jeans, my dark glasses, and even though some of the women were similarly clad, in kurtas and trousers, our accents marked us out as different – “had nothing in common”.

Inside the gallery, it was quiet and calm. Groups of artists, including Ram Rahman and Kanchan Chunder, a few visitors to Hauz Khas who had come in before the barricades closed, and some who’d showed up in support when they heard about the VHP protest, were taking in the show. Two policewomen walked around the gallery as well. They liked Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings of Krishna and the naked gopis, exclaimed at the beauty of the blues in a Husain abstract, but frowned at the Souzas. “What a dirty fellow”, one said. “Why”, I asked? “Look at how closely he’s looking at the women he’s painted”, she said. “Everything he’s looking at, and she doesn’t mind.” “How did she know that the woman in the painting didn’t mind?”, I asked, fascinated. “See her face”, the policewoman said. “She’s enjoying him looking, no?”

The policewoman, I thought, had missed her calling. She would have made a fine art critic.

When we left, the TV cameras and trucks had gone. And so had the VHP. The gallery, one of the very few in recent times that had not caved, where Ashish Anand, Kishore Singh and the rest at Delhi Art Gallery had gently defended the integrity of the work on the walls, the right of the show to exist, was still open for business. The gallery had refused to remove any of the paintings on display as part of a suggested compromise, a member of their management confirmed; they felt they had to stand by their judgment of the artists they had selected.”

People would walk in and out for the rest of the day. Some would love the Brootas and the Akbar Padamsees, argue about the sculptures and the (low) ratio of male to female nudes. Some would do the simple thing of looking at these bodies, in all their vulnerability, their sensuality, their beauty and their slow ageing. No one who walked in came in looking for offence, looking for reasons to get angry, and perhaps because of that, no one left the exhibition offended, or angered. Those who had taken offence were staying outside the barricades, and though the distance between the barricades and the open doors of the gallery was small, I could not see a way to bridge that gap.

Nilanjana-Image-ID

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (23 votes, average: 3.65 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

 

More from Nilanjana Roy

Fancy new clothes for Diwali - 5k
Gifts for friends and relatives - 10k
Newslaundry subscription for 15 days - Free
Free news for free - Priceless

This Diwali, we offer you free subscription to Newslaundry for the next fortnight. Click here to receive our newsletter. Support independent media. Happy Diwali!



  • OPHURRICAN

    OBJECTIFICATION OF WOMEN IS BEING DONE IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY IN THE NAME OF ART IN FILMS IN ADVERTISMENTS IN PRINT MEDIA . WOMEN IS BEING PROJECTED AS AN ITEM TO BE POSESSED.IF HOLDING AN EXHIBITION OF NAKED AND NUDE WOMEN IN PORTRAIT AND IN PAINTINGS IS EXTRAORDINARY ART THEN DISROBING A WOMEN TO SEE THAT ART IN REALITY IN LIFE SHOULD BE OK AND NOT DISGRACEFUL ACT BUT AN ACT, AN ACT REVEALING GREAT ART. AND IN THE SAME CONTEXT DEPICTING A NAKED AND NUDE WITH AN ERECT PHALLUS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED EXTRAORDINARY ART BY A VERY GREAT ARTIST WHO IN REACHING THE HEIGHT OF ARTISTIC TALENT SHOWED HIS MOTHER NUDE AND NAKED IN A COMPROMISING POSITION
    ARE NOT THERE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS IN NATURE TO PAINT WHICH GIVE SO MUCH HAPPINESS.

    • sid

      troll

  • Debayan

    Basically it all boils down to intolerance. People are getting impatient and intolerant. It is assumed that each and every need and each and every emotion has to be instantly addressed. Thus, nobody is taking time to pause and decide. The problem is not so much as abuse of power and misunderstanding but that of acting on impulses. This is the Emerging India’s story. You do not represent Hindustan…..lolz…a**holes.

  • mahak

    when even a critical comment on prophet mohammad by a kerela professor resulted into chopping of his hand by islaamic goons, when even a cartoon on islam by a denmark cartoonist made him fear for his life etc. etc…………….then why u expect whole lot tolerance from hindus only……….why u impose on them only……….if u r genuinely secular then 1st apply it on those who genuinely need it , not on those which are day by day becoming victim due to this fake one-sided secularism of u seudo-secular people…….& even if u don’t understand then please read the full history of kashmir ………..2061 will be the year of end of secularism in our country because in that year India will be an islaamic state….awake now before it too late

    • http://twitter.com/nskaile1 nskaile

      whttheheckk man? seriously? where the hell Muslim came into all this? And do u really want a India to be like Pakistan? SOme ppl r just plain dumb

      • http://twitter.com/nskaile1 nskaile

        oh and b/w im not muslim b4 u call me one or call me “SECULAR”. I say put eveone behind bars b it hindu or muslim whoeve creat dramas to be on tv eve other day

      • venky

        Its ridiculous that these fascist groups are protesting against nude paintings. Art, culture and traditions flourished in Hindu India because there because the then emperors gave freedom to people to express their thoughts. If these fascist elements were present back then we wouldnt have khajuraho temple, or mother kaali ins various forms. I am a proud hindu and i want artists to express my gods in artistic style that will flourish our culture but no chance with these fringe groups . Equally culpable is the congress gov that doesnt have any spine to stand up to such people all vote bank politics

  • Naras

    Is Newslaundry about reporting on the Media, or is it a “freedom of expression” opinion-maker? I can get these opinions elsewhere, you know?

    • http://twitter.com/nskaile1 nskaile

      then go ELSEWHERE, noone is stopping u lol

  • Vikas

    I don’t have problems with godesses depicted in the nude but you are deluding yourself if you believe projecting them in a sexually provocative manner will not lead to protests from orthodox sections in the society. I am not sure what these artists expect. Try doing something similar with holy figures from other major religions and the result will be the same.

  • http://twitter.com/anupknair anup nair

    Wow, I am surprised at the number of conservatives who have commented adversely on this article! The author has recounted the events of that day; that’s all. I am sure that if she was at the Battle of the Bands in Kashmir and the Grand Mufti had issued his fatwa against Pragaasg there then she would have written about him and his followers as well in the same manner.

  • Rabinder Koul

    I would like to know where does this notion of unbridled freedom of expression arise from? Who gives any one that right, that we have freedom of Expression? Is it part of lore of the Biological Sciences, that perhaps I do not know? Is it some theological “Truth Claim”? If so which theology teaches that, and whys that Sacrosanct?

    Christian theology, does posit, absolute free will of Man (not woman in this case unfortunately, she is born of the 6th or 7th rib of Man). Is that the source of this myth? Why is Christian theology relevant for Indic Civilization? I am reasonably certain, that most of you highly English literate Liberals, who swear by this freedom, day in and day out, will be able to throw some light on it. Because, so far as I am concerned, within Indian civilizational ethos, this freedom has limitations. And yin reality has limitations, too. For example if I like catch fancy for some ones female relation here, and paint her in public, in explicit or semi-explicit nude posture, you will take me to court. Will you not? Why is mt freedom of expression not important here? Or If con cot the worst way to portray you and your loved ones in public as an expression of freedom of my speech, you will haul me to courts, if not assault me physically. Where does this freedom vanish, in this case. Unfortunate aspect of these debates is, that our worthies, who who like to see them selves as crusaders of free speech, have never thought beyond what their english education has taught them. Thinking is the last thing they learnt because of the exceedingly low quality of liberal arts. And what is taught about such topics, has nothing to do with the India’s native narrative.