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Erotica: A Responsibility for Protecting.

IF A SOCIAL MORAL FABRIC WERE TO COLLAPSE BECAUSE OF THE DEPICTION OF THE erotic in public spaces, then Indian society would have surely been led to ruin with over a millennium-long exposure to rampant depictions of sex on its temple walls. Sex when shown in public spaces is used to communicate a diverse range of ideas. But before one addresses the specifics of what is being communicated through sex, a few broader questions on what constitutes artistic freedom and whether it must be monitored need addressing.

I support free-thinking liberalism and I also believe in responsibility. Undoubtedly if you're taking what is personally felt and putting it out in public (theatres or galleries) then you have to be answerable to the public. Yet, there is a violence to censorship. Is that because the arbiters appointed to speak for the public are partisan, conservative and narrow-minded? Is that because the rest of us who value artistic intensity are being too indolent in not sharing that frisson with others, and thereby denying them a chance to feel the same way? Never having tasted that joy or freedom, is it any wonder then that they don't speak out against censorship?

Equally as a consumer of art, it is within my rights to ask: How can one respond to drama, or emotional intensity if what is being communicated by an artist is false, or make-believe? As purveyors of art we rely on our artists and actors to live out things we don't dare to but may want to. Art may evoke memories of things we've had a brush with--so we pick up on the horror, pain or erotic charge--but we don't want all that comes with it in our real lives anymore; each overblown intensity has more potential than we can oftentimes contain. The success of a play, film or picture which communicates that intensity depends on how convincingly it can touch us--at times as a reminder of our own potential, reflective of how we still feel. Does that mean we must allow special spaces for our artists to be able to live that intensity out?

The role of government is to ensure that every individual and type of person has the right to live and express themselves freely and safely. Policing and protecting that space is an onerous task that needs refined and mature thinking, a score on which government (and not our laws or lawmakers) has, time and again let us down. Censorship and proscription are adopted by oneself, for personal reasons, not at the behest of, or out of fear of, someone who thinks they know what's best for one. Both matters have been severely compromised in "free" India. Those in whose name the censoring is perpetrated claim their sensibilities are slighted while those that are censored are forcibly silenced, prevented from expressing or living their free nature. Herein comes the role of the government to make both parties feel protected. But by what criteria is the judiciary to decide when a person's free expression needs curtailing?

In an age when violent censorship is perpetrated in the name of "cultural values" that are established by self-professed gurus and voluble rabble-rousers, "tradition" and history are invoked only in their most base and superficial level, to justify any manner of violent hatred. We would do better if we had the pluck to actually elevate history to a sophisticated courtesan and seek audience as per her wishes. For Indian history's encyclopaedic sources are so beastly and demanding, so replete with plural intentions and interpretations, that they defy her admirers to try and come up with any single-point universalism that may be sustained in her court.

Rules in the Name of Tradition

Indians have always displayed a vacillating attitude towards erotica: rampant consumption of it at one extreme, embarrassment and even puritanical proscription at the other. The narrow-mindedness that stifled M.F. Husain has a long history of precedents and parallels: the infamous case of Chandramohan at the M.S. University in Baroda in 2007, the 1954 censoring of Akbar Padamsee's "The Lovers" (see pages 26-27 for the judgement reprinted from the archives of Marg) and in fact, as early as 1949 when F.N. Souza's house was raided by the police for "obscene drawings". These artists were, amongst several others, harassed for making artwork that purportedly upset someone's sensibilities.

It is recorded that Gandhiji once suggested the erotic sculptures at Konarak and Khajuraho be covered by cement plastering! This was narrowly averted by the timely intervention of Abanindranath Tagore, John G. Woodroffe (also known by his pseudonym Arthur Avalon, under which he published some of the most valuable studies on tantra), Rabindranath Tagore, Ramendra Sundar Trivedi and Nandalal Bose. (1) Such embarrassment has afflicted scholars too. At his Presidential Address of the 18th Indian History Congress in Calcutta in 1955, K.M. Panikkar said, "... another problem that faces the student is the decadence that seems to have overtaken Hindu society between the eighth and the twelfth centuries.... The Khajuraho and Orissa temples for all their magnificence testify to a degeneration of the Hindu mind." (2) Early medieval art has been associated with "feudalism", and scholarship has invariably presented it as being the product of royal courts, the major concerns of which were "war and sex".

Feudal "degeneration", a convenient (if lethargic) copy of rather old-fashioned histories of Europe that spoke of the vice of the middle ages, is hardly the attitude that the scholars who study Indian religion would have us ascribe to erotica in India. Their interpretations frequently talk of the auspiciousness of bhoga, how kama is one of the goals and stages of life; they speak of the sacredness of virility, the spanda, energy or potentiality that erotic imagery suggests. But the most common interpretation is that it is a coded tantric message. Yet ignorance and fear plague studies of tantra; perhaps the only sanctioned and even institutionalized space to consciously express erotic dirt and depravity. (Thank the tantric gods for that!) Its scholarly readings remain mired in the promise of double-entendres that speak of higher, subtler psychological and metaphysical truths to their initiates, who appear to refuse, or are too embarrassed, to also see the importance of the so-called obscenities at face value.

We have usually sought to cloak ancient erotica in religion, and this has been as helpful as it has been catastrophic. Even within religion, erotic poetry became a powerful tool used both as a means of subversion or, on the other hand, for ecstatic and unmediated union with god in bhakti. Painting followed poetry, and images of the minute details of Krishna and Radha's love (figures 2a and 2b) are found from nearly every atelier that was active between the 14th and 19th centuries. Similarly, erotic union became a standard feature of stories recounted at medieval Indian Sufi shrines that were to become a subject of the earliest Indo-Islamic paintings: whether in the Chandayan (figure 3), Mrigavat or the Padmavat. And at about the same time in the 16th century, Kalyana-malla, the playwright in the service of Lad Khan, the Lodi sultan at Ayodhya, penned the Anangaranga, an extraordinary work that sought to communicate the history and metaphors of Indian erotic symbolism to a reader who may have greater cultural referents from the Abrahamic world.

Despite popular belief, in India the subject of erotica actually entered a non-religious sphere in the kamashastras (which there were scores of) at an early date. A prolific amount of explicitly erotic iconography seems to have been made right from the 2nd century BCE onward, when hundreds of terracotta and ivory plaques suggest that the very period that has revealed the earliest images of Hinduism and Buddhism, also produced an iconographically consistent codification of sexual images. More recent research on these images shows that the angle of vision of the viewer of the plaques and the direction of the gaze of those depicted on the plaques actually reflect either a self-consciously narcissistic or, at other times, a voyeuristic gaze (figure 4). Yes, a case may be made for these images to exist within a ritual context, but equally, they can be analysed through contemporary studies on visual culture, gender and sexuality to suggest that ancient images may well have fulfilled a pornographic vision.

Scholars now have available a plethora of interpretations ballasted by all manner of evidence to prove multiple historical functions of erotica which show how it existed outside "religion". These need reiteration in our times. And if some aggrieved artist wanted, it is indeed possible to argue a case that almost any artistic expression and intention has a traditional history.

The mithuna or loving couple, for instance, was an auspicious symbol on the gateways of religious shrines, but it was equally a powerful talisman. As a mimetic substitute for a magico-religious fertility ritual, it may have warded off foetus-stealing demons, while it also was a symbolic metaphor connecting one architectural structure with another. It was said to help the earth endure the electrical shock of lightning, and elsewhere it became a tool by which one community could poke fun at another (figure 5).

For those who have been keen to pursue a psycho-sexual reading, the presence of orgiastic couples in religious environs bespeaks the loss of vanity, self and ego (figure 6). Erotic metaphors that abound in the typecasting of different nayikas and nayakas in medieval literature often form an extension of such studies. For here lie tropes ranging from the admiration of the qualities of different types of bodies, gestures and manners, to their experience of the duality of pleasure/pain (something that is frequently represented through biting scorpions and pricking thorns) (figures la and lb). There are thus several avenues for exploring erotica outside of religion.

The framework of religion which is normally assumed to be a broad umbrella term may also be fractured to shed light on specific cultural practices through a focus on the erotic in everyday life: decorative objects, combs, ornaments, objects of fetish, food and annals of superstition and medicine provide fodder for titillating a partner or providing an aphrodisiac, matters which are out of the purview of ancient Indian religion, but which certainly go into making a rich culture (figure 7).

Protecting a Space for Sexuality

While art history and aesthetics are disciplines which have long dealt with the thin line between what is real and what is art, the importance of their research stands in contradistinction to what lawmakers and politicians have been doing. Often the latter espouse their puritanism in the name of upholding wholesome traditional values to keep society upright. But equally often, their knowledge of the depth and variety of traditional culture and history is superficial. Not that ancient Indian erotic art is completely encyclopaedic--certainly it has many things missing, but the fine art of erotica is nonetheless one of the greatest aesthetic achievements of India. (3) It came from centuries of contemplation on matters concerning sex, sexuality and sensuality. This has given rise to dozens of ancient texts on how they interface with psychology, religion, spirituality and philosophy on the one hand, and with social decorum, appropriate sexual behaviour, courtship, seduction, food and attire on the other.

The wider cultural ecumene that produces such an interdisciplinary, or shared aesthetic worldview can be located in the pre-Kushana and Kushana periods. Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra, acknowledged that he was producing a compendium of known sources in the field of kama (erotics). The earliest codification of Indian aesthetics, the Natyashastra by Bharata which gives primacy to the erotic sentiment, would almost certainly have been composed by the 2nd century BCE. Hala, the Satavahana court poet (and probably king) from 20 to 24 CE wrote the Gatha Shaptashati which is loaded with erotic verses. The playwright Ashvaghosha wrote the Buddhacharita (The Life of Buddha) and Saundarananda (Handsome Nanda) in which many types of seduction are elaborated. And fundamental works on politics and statecraft like the Arthashastra by Kautilya (or Chanakya) make it abundantly clear why ganikas, the most courtly of all courtesans, need to be preserved and valued.

For a culture with such a subtle understanding of psycho-sexual aesthetics, we can now only rely on cinema, television and the print media--the only steady, yet censored, spaces for erotica. Private art galleries are as nervous as the ones run by the State to show art that may be risque. Why have the curators of these institutions been excluding them--is it their personal puritanism? Certainly not. But gallerists and curators are under fear of not getting the State's protection for the fundamental right to freedom of expression if they do decide to show erotically charged art in public. Instead, this nation of boring people is more interested in the protection of people's right to hate and someone's right to not be hurt. Is the quest for "liberalization" only relevant when it comes to commerce?

Even before one can contend with matters concerning the erotic in India's cultural practices openly in academic discussions, let alone their public perception, the database of the types of erotica and spaces for erotica in 21st-century India has suddenly become so much more widespread that we can barely keep pace with the new face of erotica. Whereas the era of the videotape in the 1980s and '90s proliferated Western pornography to rural and urban India, new technologies via VCDs, DVDs, the internet and mobile phones allow for new means of soliciting and meeting partners, and animation adds a whole new dimension to porn, which can be lifelike, but need not actually involve real people or even humanly possible body parts!

The erotic turns into a force-field as soon as it goes through the circuits of mass-production: photography, film, television and new media. In all of these the erotic has been closely allied with the "reality effect" central to mechanical reproduction (ever narrowing the gap between the virtual and real). The question of technology can thus no longer be separated from these discussions: the "virtual" is often somebody's "real", and legitimately thus seeking representation and protection publicly. Virtual reality, online dating and the reports of rape being committed in peoples' virtual online identities (for instance, on "Second Life") bring us to new questions of the experience of the erotic without the presence of the body. But with inadequate representation for Dr Jekyll, how can I expect my State to protect Mr Hyde as well?

India with its long and sophisticated history of erotica is in fact now a country that is nearly devoid of it at one level, even as stories of sexual offence and criminal types of uses of erotically charged situations is on the rise. Is there an inverse relationship that we are refusing to see? The more we seem to be repressing it, the worse the offences are getting. Time and again we have seen that society will, in every culture, seek out and fulfil its needs for erotica, and its market is always several steps ahead of those who seek to police it. We aren't here to judge: what is seen as artistic erotica by some is termed pornography by others. Ultimately these distinctions are based on aesthetic, moral and cultural choices/ subjectivities and continue to be controversial. But for reasons historic, psychological, social and cultural (not to speak of economic!) erotica must be given its space. Legitimate spaces for its consumers will, after the initial euphoria, always bring responsible self-governance within the users. Open discourse and free availability bring transparency and an ability to monitor what is being traded, used and exchanged. Prohibition, after all, never ended alcoholism. By creating legitimate spaces for a variety of human behaviours one is able to allow those who inhabit these worlds to secure themselves, feel protected. Equally, we are able to learn from it. It's not rocket science, in fact it's the first lesson in parenting.


(1) Industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj even sent the concrete over to Wardha. See the biography of Nandalal by Panchanan Mondai, Bharatshilpi Nandalal (Bolpur, Bengal: Sri Durga Press, 1982), Vol. 11, pp. 504-05; Vol. III, p. 393.

(2) K.M. Panikkar, "Presidential Address", Indian History Congress, 18th session, 1955: p. 18; reproduced as "The State and the Citizen", Indian History Congress, 1956: available online at dli.2015.536540/2015-536540.The-State_djvu.txt

(3) Amongst the most significant questions that one is provoked to ask nowadays are: For whom was ancient and medieval Indian erotic art made? What does the type of sex and its location tell us about the gender and social demographics of the viewers? While there may be hundreds of ancient and medieval examples of stereotyping sexualized women, there remains, for instance, a serious lack in art history and studies in classical literature in excavating tropes typecasting the erotic male figure. And we have not even begun to ask why there are few depictions of homosexuality in ancient India even as it is rife in the Greco-Roman world, with which India has longstanding socio-cultural ties.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

Caption: Figures 1a and lb

Surasundari Patralekha, Khajuraho, ioth-nth centuries. Sandstone. Courtesy Indian Museum, Kolkata. Acc. No. Br 4/A 26231. Photograph: Bandeep Singh, after The Body in Indian Art The detail shows incised nail marks on the back and shoulders, as reminders of pleasurable encounters.

Caption: Figures 2a and 2b

Folios from Gita Govinda, Manaku, Guler, c. 1730. National Museum, New Delhi. Courtesy Naman R Ahuja, 2012. Sexual union may be a familiar trope between Radha-Krishna, but the sharing of post-coital loving glances in a state of frank and complete bodily acceptance of each other, is a rare moment captured in art.

Caption: Figure 3

Folio from Chandayan, Malwa, pre-Mughal, c. 1570. Collection of the John Rylands Library. [c]The University of Manchester. Erotic union is also seen in Indo-lslamic art. The older Chandayan lore was collected into a Sufi love story by Maulana Daud of Dalmau in the 14th-century Tughluq period. Painted versions of it survive from the 16th century.

Caption: Figure 4

Terracotta plaque, Chandra-ketugarh, 1st century BCE/CE. Private collection, India. Courtesy Naman P. Ahuja, 2010. A man looks at himself in the mirror while sexually engaged with a woman.

Caption: Figure 5

Mithuna couples, Chaitya cave, Karla, c. 50 ce. Photograph: American Institute of Indian Studies. Alls Accession No. 80271. Mithuna couples are regarded as auspicious iconography placed at entrances to ancient Buddhist shrines and Hindu temples.

Caption: Figure 6

Relief, Sun temple at Konarak, 13th century. Courtesy Naman R Ahuja, 2003. The relief which shows a woman's hair being cut off is interspersed amongst erotic carvings. Is the spiritual goal of the loss of vanity being equated with sexual union?

Caption: Figure 7

Fragment of a comb, central to northern India, c. 2nd century. Carved ivory; 5.1 x 6.4 cm. Courtesy J.E. Gejou, V&A Museum, IM. 21-1937. [c] V&A Museum, London. Erotic art is not only present in religious contexts but provides the auspicious element of shringara on everyday objects.
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Author:Ahuja, Naman P.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Reprint
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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