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When freedom of expression is a misnomer

Shailaja Tripathi
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We are challenged as a society, not with the issues at hand merely but our intolerance to anything which we as a society perceive as out of order. The larger question at hand is are we becoming intolerant of anything which doesn’t conform to our so-called sensibilities? While we turn a blind eye to some of the more intolerable acts which we witness around us, some recent incidents highlight our society’s level of intolerance to issues or events that do not conform to the standard we are used to.

In another incident of moral policing of sorts, the Delhi Police have forced closure of an exhibition of eminent photographer Sunil Gupta at Alliance Française in the Capital following an anonymous complaint that its content was obscene. I believe that in a country where I was once a free citizen — who had the right to express her views, beliefs and expressions — I now see that being dominated by a few who wish to challenge my basic Constitutional right of right to speech and freedom of expression.

An artist never paints to titillate. Master artist Akbar Padamsee, known for his love for the human anatomy, on his recent visit to Delhi for his show at Art Heritage had told me: “There is a difference between naked and nude. I play with light and cover the models in the shadow.” The nude models in his photographs actually subvert the viewers’ gaze and not entice them.

Last year a gay painter from Uttar Pradesh was assaulted by unidentified men at the end of his solo exhibition at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. The assailants had alleged that his art was obscene and the artist won’t be allowed to display his art again. Then some years ago, there was Chandra Mohan, a visual arts student at Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, who was arrested for allegedly hurting the religious sentiments of Christians and Hindus. His paintings of Shiv Linga, Goddess Durga and Jesus Christ were thought to be vulgar. Artist Bhupen Khakar’s work dotted with homosexual references and sexual imagery has also earned the wrath of the so-called moral police. And well, M. F. Husain’s story is legendary. The artist lived in self-imposed exile and died in exile too. Hundreds of cases, controversies and people followed him all his life because some of his paintings were considered anti-Hindu.

As an art writer, I am often exposed to different kinds of art. I have access to a lot of artists who use the human body in their work and for them the human form is a metaphor for a larger discourse. We are a society eager to be offended. Whether it is Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf or Husain’s depiction of Sita, we have never been short of protests and drama. If back then Chughtai’s matter went to court, the Husain drama unfolded at Arpana Caur’s gallery where the premises were ransacked by Shiv Sainiks. Not just in Delhi, the lumpen element have had their way even at film festivals across the country. A documentary on Husain scheduled for the International Film Festival of India could not be screened at Panaji due to pressure from radical elements.

Earlier, similar elements found fault with Fire , Deepa Mehta’s film which allegedly promoted same sex relations between two women. I heard the term queer for such people but my question is simple... Every human has the right or not to be who he or she wishes to be. It’s unfortunate to say the least that in today’s day and age we are still under the wraps of a degenerate society which is sadly still living in a pre-historic era where freedom of expression is a misnomer and considered a rebellious way to express one’s self.

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