Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on artists who are pushing the boundaries of censorship in India.
Why is our notion of sex and sexuality so enmeshed with one of obscenity? Why is it ‘anti-cultural’ and ‘taboo’? Why is it ‘against our religion’?
This is what 21-year-old Akshita Chandra’s Tumblr Being Censitive (a play on the words ‘censor’ and ‘sensitive’) sets out to explore.
The series is inspired by the temple art in Khajuraho. This art is juxtaposed with recent examples of censorship and moral policing she found in the news to give it a modern context. Her Tumblr page reads: “Temples are seen as an extremely pious places; whereas nudity and sex have been associated with irreligiousness [sic] and guilt. It is this juxtaposition that I wanted to bring forth in the project.” The illustrations are the sort of paper craft you see in a pop-up book, which when translated digitally, become gifs. Her eight illustrations tackle everything from Section 377 of the Indian Penal code that makes homosexuality a crime, to the censoring of cleavage onRomedy Now.
One illustration is of the 2013 Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation proposal which allowed civic officers to remove lingerie clad models from shop displays. This was to curtail men from having ‘impure thoughts’ that might provoke them to commit crimes against women.Another illustration comments on the Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma’s comment on wanting to rid India of cultural pollution as a part of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.There is an illustration about the 40 couples that were picked up from hotel rooms and arrested for public indecency. One of the women had said that she was slapped by a female cop during the ’round up’.
Censorship and art have an old and longstanding relationship in India. “Even celebrated artists like Raja Ravi Varma had to fight against being condemned for obscenity because of the nature of his paintings. He was criticised for his work like Seduction of Vishwamitra and Fresh from bath which showcased nudity. That was the 20th century. It’s 2016 and the same still holds true,” says Chandra.
Anything explicitly sexual is universally condemned. Chandra is passionate about speaking against the dichotomy of norms that, according to her, makes us “celebrate our artists when they display their work internationally but shun them when they exhibit art in their homeland for being too obscene”. Even the great MF Husain had been accused of promoting pornography and hurting religious sentiments by Hindu activists. With his sketch of Goddess Saraswati being considered obscene, galleries showing his work were wrecked, his home was ransacked and he was threatened with prosecution.
Says Chandra, “I came across a statement that read that ‘if a nude is interpreted as ‘erotic’ and declared ‘obscene’ and thus ‘objectionable’, doesn’t the entire art heritage of Europe of the last two centuries have to be done away with? And what will happen to our art — ranging from Pahari miniatures to the scenes from the Kamasutra to the temples of Khajuraho?”
She believes there is a sinister nexus between politics and moral policing in India. “When the moral police has a definitive authority, it becomes scary. You can either play by their rules or face the ugly consequences of stepping out of line. Couples get beaten up on Valentine’s Day for being together and hotels are raided. There’s a lot of invasion of privacy but you can’t do anything about it because it is done by powerful people.”
Does she think putting up her illustrations online instead of displaying them in an art gallery has helped her evade censorship? While Chandra does think that the digital space helps artists express themselves more freely, she thinks it is to a very limited extent. “There are instances of online censorship as well, but not as stringent. When I put up this project online on Behance (a photography portal), it was flagged for having adult content. Hence, I had to collate the entire project as a Tumblr blog. While the repercussions of Behance, Facebook or even Instagram flagging someone’s work are not as severe as throwing someone in jail for causing public outrage, they all speak about a common issue.”
She does think there should be some sort of censorship that should be upheld by the government though. “I couldn’t say there should be no censorship, since it serves a purpose, but the laws are often too vaguely stated and they can be misinterpreted and exploited.”
She hopes to continue doing work that explores the boundaries of censorship in India. Her next project ‘Grimm Reality’ comments on “how good-natured cautionary advice at the end of fairy tales have become toxic restrictive moral rules that girls must abide by so as to not ‘invite’ any kind of trouble”.