Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fingering the Clit and Our Brittle Religious Sentiments

(Lady Churning the Milk- wooden sculpture 19th century AD. South India- Currently at Chandigarh State Museum)


Those who get their religious, moral, political sentiments hurt so fast please read this article. We are a country full of people and almost 1.2 billion of us feel threatened by one single idea called religion. We believe in our gods so much that we don’t let our gods to be a bit playful. We have made headmasters out of our playful gods. Anybody who touches upon religion in a critical way is bound to face the ire of a majority that considers religion as a set of ideas beyond any kind of criticism.

Religion thrives in illusion and spirituality thrives in reality. But unfortunately most of us take it other way round. We believe that religion is ‘the’ reality and spirituality is an illusion. Hence, anybody who touches this assumed reality negatively becomes a culprit prone to larger censorship by the religious establishments that often get the sanction of the so called democratic governments. In Greek mythology we see gods and goddesses intervening in the lives of ordinary human beings and making their lives hell and heaven alike. Indian gods and goddesses (read Hindu gods and goddesses) used to do the same. But over a period of time we have worked well to make them headmasters, who sit in their cabins with a cane always ready on their sides to spank our unruly bottoms.

(Raja Ravi Varma)

In fact it did not take lot many years to turn the ‘leela’ of our gods and goddesses into grave political aloofness. Gods and goddess became so estranged from the human lives that they became the victims of the immature thought process of the human beings. That’s why irrespective of religions, people go to drink dirty water and hail it as a spiritual act. Gods never send chemical water for mass decimation of those people who believe in him or her. If someone says that milk drinking Ganeshas or crying Jesus Christs are scientific realities masquerading as religious frenzy, we take him to court. If someone eats beef, we deny them their food by saying that they are eating our mothers’ body.

Blame it on Raja Ravi Varma. He was the one who gave nav vaari sari to Indian gods and goddesses. We never knew that Indian goddesses dressed up like Maharashtrian women. Had Ravi Varma gone to North East and had set up a studio there I am sure our gods and goddess must be wearing wrap arounds today as their dress. Our sartorial imagination vis-a-vis religion would have been completely different from this. Raja Ravi Varma had his reasons to be in Maharashatra. And Maharashtra had its reasons to be in a revivalist Hindu mode. Theatrical and visual imaginations inspired by the occidental imaginary imports were making our nationalists go a bit overboard. Raja Ravi Varma fell a victim of these sentiments of that time. He did not imagine the goddesses as women wearing mundu and neriyathu as the aristocrat women in the royal households in Kerala wore during the time. We would have got a different set of goddesses had he done that. But Ravi Varma was looking for more a pan national representation of gods and goddesses. It is an irony of the history (not only art history but also history in general) that this pan nationalism took clear Maharashtrian feel as Maharashtra was playing the centre of a resurgent Hinduist nationalism after almost nine centuries of submission to other religions and invasions.

(Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma)

Our country was full of playful gods and goddesses. We were not primarily Freudians or Lacanians. So for us playing with sexual imagery was very normal. Our artists let their imaginations take wide leaps into the unknown territories of desire. Many depicted incidents and activities of gods and goddesses as if they were just human beings; they were sexual escapades, extra marital affairs, graphic detailing of sexual intercourses and banal activities of frivolous youth. Gods and goddesses did these things. Perhaps the artists who were depicting these images and figures did not alienate the gods and goddesses during all those years. They were equally playful like the gods and goddesses. According to artist and activist Subodh Kerkar, it took just two hundred years to undo our religious and imaginative liberalism of more than five thousand years and push ourselves into the false morality of Victorian sophistication as forced into our thoughts by the colonial and the religious establishments. Hindu activism perhaps imbibed this Victorian morality a bit too faster than the other segments of the society.

(Detail of Lady Churning the Milk)

Look at the image that I have been using to illustrate this article. This is a one foot tall wooden sculpture dated 19th century and is from South India. This piece of art is currently displayed in the Chandigarh Museum. This work titled ‘Lady Churning Milk’ is a very interesting for two reasons; one, it is created in 19th century. Two, it depicts the legendary Krishna-Gopika relationship. What makes this sculpture all the more interesting is the intense erotic suggestion. Here the unknown artist plays on the word ‘churning’ and he uses it as a pun to connote both the act of churning milk to make butter and the sexual act of titillating the clitoris by fingering the vagina. While the former act is done by a Gopika the latter is done by a much young Krishna for her.

Aesthetically speaking, this subversive work (as in today’s perception) must be from that tradition which made fun of gods and their activities from a human level. You could see several Kalighat paintings depicting the lives of gods and goddesses as if they were just ordinary mortals. From a different perspective we could say that the artist must have been doing a very subversive act against the Brahminical hegemony by the depiction of one of the gods doing such very human act! However, the important thing is that such subversions were allowed or were normal even during the 19th century. The society was more tolerant towards such aesthetical celebrations or aberrations, depending on the perspective of the society towards art during those days.

(detail)


But in no time, by late 19th and early 20th century our idea of morality changed into something absolutely different. The Hindu nationalists imbibed the Victorian moral codes much faster than other religious groups. The historical irony was that in the name of acting against colonialism, it fell for the colonial morality through the exclusion of celebratory aesthetics from the public domain. Here we see a child god enjoying a sexual act with a willing woman. Sociologically speaking such gallivanting must have been quite normal in those days as we know that it is not too unusual even in these days either. What makes the image enthralling is the introduction of a god figure into a very localized situation. Nobody’s sentiments were getting hurt by that.

Art depicts a society’s ways of thinking; it is a like a forensic evidence. However minute it may be in appearance, the traces that it carries contain a larger picture of the society. This act of fingering a woman while she is at churning milk, also connotes a permissible act of finger the vagina of a cow when it refuses to give milk. The vaginal titillation, it is believed, helps the cows to give more milk. It is said that in the rural areas, even today milkmen and women use the same technique to ease their professional activity. The artist brings the same sociological reality into the zone of art and incorporates that act into a different scene of churning linking up social and sexual imaginations within the same body of a work of art. Interestingly, the society was still tolerant and was not a victim of the Victorian Hinduism that we follow today.

(Detail)

Let us undo the Victorian Hinduism and its socio-cultural morale. But it seems to be difficult as the government plans more and more restrictions on freedom of expression. It is when art becomes more subversive than celebratory or a subversive celebration. As of now, artist seems to be less aware of the situation as they go on with their routine based works of art.





2 comments:

SP Rathod said...

The interpretation of religion has changed over a time and different cohorts experienced and defined religion in their own way.It follows the idea of conquest of land where one's religion can dominate on others.Critical issue is how much liberation of thoughts a religion should allow.Where I sit and walk,I see temples at every 5minute distance,scratching my head and raising a question on rationality of so many sculptures,I am unanswerable.History is evident how power has been exhibited by ruining the structures that represents certain religious group.To simplify and liberate religion from all terms and condition,whether morality or sexuality,it should be counted as 'Faith' where people are free to follow whatever they trust.Art is religion-less,but the imagery at times do generate religious sentiments. Libation of thoughts and art has ways to go not only in a country like India but in the world.

Unknown said...

good article.