Prudes take charge in India

Eroticism is now a dirty word in Delhi, reports Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
INDIA'S traditional culture produced the richest flowering of eroticism of any civilisation in the world, from the Kama Sutra and the sculptures in temple complexes such as Khajuraho to the charming erotic chapbooks of 19th century Bengal. Yet in the name of cultural purity and national regeneration, politicians of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are now fighting to impose a degree of squareness and prudery that ought to send Mary Whitehouse scurrying to the Indian High Commission for a residence permit.

India's most famous artist has had his paintings destroyed and his home ransacked. Rock bands' lyrics have been painstakingly vetted. Chairs in a new Bombay cafe-bar with backs in the shape of a woman's body have been sent to the scrapyard. Threatening mobs have forced the cancellation of beauty contests. And Hindi film comedies with titles such as Inexperienced Husband, Expert Brother-in-Law and Wife's Sister is Better than Wife have found themselves out in the cold, deprived of licences.

The works affected range from the banal to the sublime. The only thing they have in common is a readiness to express pleasure and interest in the human form and human sexuality. The witch-hunt has brought together the middle class, schoolmarm-like figure of Sushma Swaraj, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, who used to be a socialist, and the sinister, quasi-Fascist Bombay populist leader Bal Thackeray and his goons in Maharashtra's Shiv Sena party. It has given Hindu nationalist fringe groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its militant wing, the Bajrang Dal, a temptingly soft target. What it has so far failed to do is elicit any sort of vociferous protest from the population at large. On the contrary, the attacks appear to have struck a popular chord.

The most famous object of the mob's wrath is the Bombay painter M F Husain, a Muslim who is India's most successful living painter. His crime, in the eyes of the new vigilantes, is to have had the temerity to depict Hindu goddesses, notably Saraswati, wife of Brahma, patron goddess of art, music and letters, with nothing on.

This is a strange sort of offence. As a scholar of Bengali popular culture, Sumanta Bannerjee, writes in the current issue of the India Magazine: "The erotic description of the female body has always been an essential part of Hindu religious representations of the goddess Saraswati ... In fact, the Sanskrit incantation in her praise describes her as a beautiful young woman with a body that is kucha-bhar-namitangi (bent by the burden of her heavy breasts)". Mr Husain has in fact depicted Saraswati with rather tiny breasts, so perhaps deserves to be rebuked on that account.

The art historian Ram Rehman reinforces the point: "They keep saying Husain has painted a 'nude' Saraswati. But Indian art has always celebrated the female form. There is nothing salacious about it ..."

Arguably, Rehman's defence is a weak one: there is plenty salacious about traditional depictions of Saraswati, as there is also about the polymorphously perverse couplings that encrust the temples at Khajuraho. "Ancient Indian literary criticism allotted a special slot to the erotic," confirms Sumanta Bannerjee. Gods and goddesses, he says, had always been described "in sexual terms ... All these features ... are associated with fecundity - but also with the erotic pleasures that go with it. One cannot, therefore, divorce eroticism from the religious precepts and practices that are current in India."

Such views would appear to be badly out of step: as the new Indian cultural commissars see it, all this eroticism is a contamination from the ritually unclean West. "Wherever I go," says Sushma Swaraj, "people urge me to do something about obscene advertisements." The commercials she has targeted include those for condoms and alcoholic drinks, and an Aids awareness campaign. There is nothing in any of them that would make a British viewer turn a hair.

The best publicised recent showdown on the issue of obscenity was when the Australian rock group Savage Garden played in Bombay last month. Before their concert could go ahead, all the band's lyrics had to be submitted for close textual analysis and approval. Their audiences were banned from hugging, kissing, stripping and making contact while dancing. And the whole obscene farrago had to be over by 10pm. Savage Garden docilely did as they were told, though singer Marc Robinson was photographed on stage giving a female Indian singer with blue hair a moderately salacious peck on the cheek.

India's new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity. As Mrs Swaraj puts it: "The BJP believes in preserving our culture and moral order." In reality its motivation seems confused. M F Husain has his house ransacked because, 20 years ago, he depicted the goddess Saraswati in the nude - but many Hindu artists paint naked goddesses without being attacked for it. Husain's principal crime is to be a Muslim who is perceived to have insulted Hinduism. As Bal Thackeray argued: "If Husain can enter Hindustan [India], why can't we enter his house?" Mr Husain was in fact born and raised in India.

Likewise, by attacking Western "obscenity", the nationalist zealots are attacking the latest manifestations of the culture - that of the West - which imposed alien puritanical values on India in the first place. As Sumanta Bannerjee points out, "English educationalists, Christian missionaries and administrators imported ... the concept of obscenity as it prevailed at that time in England. In the name of purging ... society of obscenity, they sought to ostracise the free expression of common sexual drives. The assault on Husain's painting of a nude Saraswati ... indicates the continuing hold of Victorian prudery" on the minds of the Hindu nationalists.