When India could tolerate nude gods

India’s growth story gets derailed so easily these days. A rumour about beef or even a celebrity’s remark can start a riot. Streets have often burnt for dubious god-men. It was not very long ago that M F Husain was hounded out of the country in his last years.

Has independent India always been so intolerant? Back in 1962 when The Illustrated Weekly of India — an important magazine with a circulation of more than 100,000 — published a nude painting of Radha and Krishna, its office was not burnt down, its editor and publisher were not thrown behind bars. The government’s measured reaction at the time could be a lesson for us today.

Benefit of the doubt

The offensive painting was published in the magazine’s issue dated August 26, 1962, but there was no immediate hue and cry. Three months passed before the matter was discussed in Parliament on November 15, 1962.

When A M Tariq, a Congress MP from Jammu & Kashmir, asked what action the government proposed to take against the publisher, minister of state for home affairs B N Datar replied they had received complaints and representations to act against the weekly’s printer and publisher but “Government are advised that the reproduction in question is not actionable under the law.”

Braja Kishore Prasad Sinha, an MP from Bihar, suggested that other laws might be invoked to make an example of the publisher: “Publication of the picture of a nude woman is itself obscene and punishable under the law. Moreover, this publication offends the religious feelings of a large section of Indian people. That is also punishable.”

But the government was not minded to use anything but straightforward laws. When Tariq asked why the government had stopped reproducing erotic Khajuraho images in its own publications if their use was not an offence, home minister and future Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri stood up to reply.

“Our problem is that we are somewhat ‘uncouth’ and incapable of appreciating the art in modern painting…” he said with self-deprecating humour. “When I first saw it I was afraid I would make a fool of myself and tried hard to find some art in it and determine whether it was fine (art) or superfine.”

While he clearly disapproved of the image, Shastri gave the publishers the benefit of the doubt: “Whatever the case, I judged it could be objectionable, yet it had been taken from a museum, and it is a very old museum, so it is not that the intention (of the publication) was mala fide. No legal action can be taken, but we still cautioned the publication against publishing such material in future.”

“Whatever the case, I judged it could be objectionable, yet it had been taken from a museum, and it is a very old museum, so it is not that the intention (of the publication) was mala fide. No legal action can be taken, but we still cautioned the publication against publishing such material in future.”

Not satisfied, Tariq said, “Our museums have many sexually explicit exhibits that the public never sees, but what this paper has published is an insult to a great leader of this nation (Tariq, being Muslim, perhaps had reservations about accepting divinity in an avatar) and an esteemed lady who have been depicted in the nude. They have been insensitive to people’s religious sentiments… this is the first time they have been depicted visually in this way. This depiction is against the morality and character of our nation. The government should have objected and the publisher should have apologised.”

But Shastri remained calm and left the matter at: “We have taken up the matter with them and expect them to reply soon. It might be high art but there should be safeguards against hurting people’s sentiments.”

***

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