The terrain around writers and artist has become like a minefield. Every time they take a step this way or that in the fond belief that they are free to do so, they risk having that very idea blow up in their face.
The Times of India dated January 6, 2009, carried a report on its front page headlined, "Artist faces heat for depicting 'nude Shiva' ". On January 5, eight activists of an organisation that styles itself Hindu Janajagruti Samiti--they do not go around the country protesting against dowry, child marriage and female foeticide-- barged into Jehangir Art Gallery and "forcefully" removed a painting of a nude Shiva from Delhi-based artist Nitai Das's show. As if that was not enough to satisfy their lust for moral power, they forced him to remove four other paintings of nudes.
Jehangir Art Gallery has a waiting list that is several years long. Artists from all over the country wait patiently for their precious one-week show to happen. They expect connoisseurs to come and appreciate their work, collectors to buy it. They do not expect some sidey organisation that has taken upon itself the mission of 'saving' our culture, to storm in and start disrupting the show.
The frustrating thing about the Times of India report was that the reporter had not felt the need to ask the gallery what its security was doing while Das was being terrorised in this fashion? Was it not the gallery's responsibility to intervene on his behalf and show the intruders off its premises for misbehaviour? Or does its responsibility end with hiring out its space and collecting rent for it?
Instead of asking the gallery the crucial question about its responsibility, the reporter did something that was completely useless. She asked a couple of artists for their quotes on the issue. The 'who, where, why and how' of reporting has been junked by today's journalists. The solid information that these questions once provided has been replaced by these ubiquitous quotes. So Jogen Chowdhury said the following: "What is the nakedness of Shiva whose lingam is worshipped everyday by devotees? People have no understanding. The government should come in to protect artists."
Guess what the Janajagruti people would say to that if they were interested in verbal argument? They would say, of course we worship lingams. But lingams are in temples where everything is sacred. Moreover, they are not attached to Shiva's body. That makes them abstract symbols and therefore inoffensive.
Atul Dodiya's quote on the other hand, lands us in a patch of quick sand. "I'm all for freedom of expression," he is quoted as saying, "as long as the intent of the artist is not to provoke." How do we gauge the intent of the artist? Which authority can be relied upon to tell us exactly what s/he intended at the time of painting? Or do we put the artist, Das for instance, through a narco test to find out if he intended to provoke us, or more specifically the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, when he painted his nude Shiva? The Janajagruti people will say, why bother with all that when we have a simpler and less expensive test? The proof of the artist's intention lies in how we feel. If we feel provoked, the artist must have intended to provoke.
The disturbing thing in this case is that not a single voice was raised in protest against it. It was not too long ago that artists came out in full force against the BJP and VHP for having a fine arts student of M S University, Chandra Mohan, put behind bars for offending them with "derogatory" pictures of Vishnu, Durga and Jesus. Are we too tired now to protest? Have we begun to accept attacks on artists as part of the system, just as we have come to accept corruption as part of the system? If so, the next step might very well be that we will practise self-censorship in order to avoid trouble.
This happened recently in the case of an exhibition of modern art that was taken around Maharashtra with the express purpose of acquainting the general public with the history of modern art. Yet, after some deliberation, one of the most important figures in this history was left out of the show. M. F. Husain. There could not have been a more resounding victory for cultural terrorists than this.