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OffStumped For All Things Right of Center, Bringing a Right of Centre Reality Check to Indian Politics, News Media Reporting and Opinion now in Hindi अब आप के लिये हिंदी मे.
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Warning that the BJP will raise communal tensions and passions in Gujarat ahead of the assembly elections, Congress President Sonia Gandhi broke her silence on the results of the Uttar Pradesh elections in which her party managed to get only 22 seats. Resorting to what looked like clever shielding of her son Rahul Gandhi’s flop-show in Uttar Pradesh Sonia Gandhi blamed the weak party organization for the debacle. Sonia Gandhi sought to turn the focus away from the disaster in Uttar Pradesh by flaying the Narendra Modi led BJP Government for what she called attacks on minorities and on freedom of expression.

Sonia Gandhi was referring to Apparently referring to the controversy over “moral policing” of an art exhibition in M S University in Vadodara. Chandramohan, a senior student of the renowned fine arts department of the MS University, was arrested on Wednesday and the exhibition attacked by what the NDTV called the “saffron brigade”. The reason an alleged obscene painting by the perp in question. Chandramohan has since been granted bail. The Siasat has an excellent piece on Chandramohan’s life story from a village in AP where his parent’s remain clueless about his “accomplishments”.

As the controversy is being made out to be about “moral policing” and suppression of “freedom of expression” in BJP ruled Gujarat which is headed for the polls later this year, Nitin on Acorn has a different take on the issue , where he argues that if we apply Moynihan’s Law we should be concerned about places where there are no complaints.

Offstumped examines the larger question of “Morality of Licentiousness”.

It took quite a bit of digging around to find out what exactly Chandramohan had painted that got everyone so worked up. The Daily Pioneer’s Ashok Malik captured it in all its banality

A large cross depicting Christ with his penis hanging out, semen dripping from it into a commode.A nude woman with a baby attempting to push its way out of her vagina. The caption below the painting reads: “Durga Mata”.

In defense of Chandramohan’s bizzare imagination in an op-ed piece in the Hindustan Times Ranjit Hosokote an art critic writes

The images to which such turbulent opposition has been mounted show a woman, perhaps a goddess, birthing a man (which is no more fearful than the Lajja-gouri of Hindu sacred art), and a crucifix with a penis (this, an obvious homage to Robert Mapplethorpe). Both images retrieve the passionate human dramas that lie at the core of sacred narratives. Both images insist upon the artist’s right to revisit inherited lore, to reinvent images and narratives, to integrate the sacred as an element of secular experience.

Ranjit clearly has glossed over the details here when he says “perhaps a godess”, not sure how much more explicit than “Durga Mata” one needs to get to interpret the image as a godess, or perhaps the “secular experience” Ranjit refers to has reduced one so ignorant of the Hindu pantheon that even explicit references leave ample room for doubt.

Ranjit talks of the artist’s “right to revisit” which is at the core of this controversy.

In another piece the Hindustan Times quoted BJP leader V.K. Malhotra raising more objectionable pieces of art on display at the exhibition in question:

Other “derogatory” paintings included “naked Sita on the long tail of Hanuman”, Hanuman in a sexual pose, Hanuman standing opposite to Sita sitting on the thigh of a naked Ravana, nude portrait of Goddess Saraswati, and sacred bull in copulation with a woman shown as Parvati.”

With high decibel reactions on both sides ranging from jailing Chandramohan to the usual diatribe of fascism the public debate has been more noise than substance. The core questions here are

what is this artist’s “right to revisit” ?

should this artistic freedom be allowed to pervert itself to licentiousness ?

What about the rights of a community to set its own standards of morality ?

Is every community morally obliged to condone licentiousness ?

Freedoms in modern liberal democracies have come to be interpreted as absolute. In such  perverse interpretations of liberty one has courts ruling against laws that limit access to Child Pornography as was in evidence recently in the United States and one has a group that defends Padeophiles running for political office in the Netherlands.

Historically Art has been a vehicle of social change, providing for the creative freedom to challenge conventional wisdom and becoming a catalyst for change. There can be no two opinions on the need to protect that freedom and foster an environment that cherishes and celebrates that freedom. However as Plato in his Republic reminds us that Freedom’s bereft of a moral compass called Justice will degenerate into Licentiousness, societies have an obligation to keep those freedoms in check.

It can be argued that laws that limit freedom can and will be abused and putting a Chandramohan in jail is not the answer. However to make the case that the Artist’s “Right to Revisit” is abolute and to begrudge any debate or challenge on the morality of licentiousness as being “fascist” is equally illiberal and to somehow deem that begrudging to be “modern minded” is down right elitist.

Just as an Artist can lay claim to the “Right to Revisit”, communities can lay claim to the right to a morality that excludes licentiouness. Communities have a right to evolve their own moral standards within the ambit of the Constitution and no one can or should begrudge that morality. If such a morality is not to one’s liking one has the absolute freedom to move a community that takes a more licentious view of morality.

Offstumped Bottomline: If Vadodara is too prudish for your taste then move to Mumbai and indulge yourselves. Dont begrudge Vadodara as illiberal or fascist for it is no more morally obliged to indulge your licentiousness as Mumbai is obliged to condone morality.

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