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