Friday, May 25, 2007

Back to the Blogosphere

Apologies, for the rather extended break. Among other things I was away to my home state, Bihar, for 10 days. Random fundaes and insights about that will follow soon. In the short time that I've been back, I've been drawn into a rather prolonged, and now boring, blog-debate here.

It is about the Baroda art controversy, and because of its inherent nature, the debate easily metamorphosised into one on freedom of speech and the validity of 'giving offence' as a yardstick of jurisprudence. There has been tremedous back and forth, and quite often the debate has descended into nothing more than name-calling, with me being guilty of the same. The basic positions are -

The Proposition : Freedom of speech cannot be absolute. Such derogatory portrayals with obvious malafide intent to offend cannot be left unprosecuted. Not everything is art - a judiciary guided by community standards should decide what is art and what isn't. Laws cannot be independent of the prevalent social mores - hence if something is offensive to most members of the community, it should be banned. There has to be deterrant, civil or criminal, against such abuses of freedom of expression.

The Opposition (represented in part by yours truly) : Offence is subjective, and hence cannot (should not) be a valid plank of jurisprudence. Wherever possible, laws should proceed from axiomatic definitions of morality - otherwise all we'll be left with is tyranny of the majority, which is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. It doesn't matter whether you or I think of something as art or not, or whethere we are offended by a particular portrayal - the artist in question cannot be jailed for this. The current social standards in India would mean that all nudes would have to be banned, something that even the proposition does not agree with. India's FoS laws are too vague - something like the First Amendment to the US constitution is required.

As an aside, I have now decided that whenever I wish to discover new things about my identity and personality, I should post a comment on something controversial on that blog. This time, among other things I have been told, or it has been insinuated, that I am -

1) A communist woman in her 30s.

2) A pseudo-secular IT professional with too much time to kill.

3) A 45 year old man who pretends to be a student about to start grad school and also likes posting under the pseudonym Spartacus.

4) Someone whose knowledge of Hinduism is extremely weak.

5) A pseudo-liberal who fears that opposing Muslim bigotry will lead to loss of life or limb.

If you feel you need to ponder over the freedom of expression deal a little more yourself, do think about a couple of questions that I posed over there which did not get consistent or satisfactory replies.

1) I often wear a T-shirt of a metal band called Venom (the band that gave the Black metal genre its name through a song of theirs, though in my opinion most of their music was proto-thrash metal, not black metal). This T-shirt has an upturned cross with the number 666 written across it, signifying the loss of sanctity of the cross and the overpowering of god by the devil. (As a digression, the art-work is quite cool and subtle, not the in your face 'hell yeah, motherf****** metal rulezzzz satan rulezzzz' kinds.) This depiction would be blasphemous by orthodox christian standards. Technically, under section 295 of the IPC, I can be arrested for wearing this T-shirt. To quote from Arun jaitley's article in the Indian Express

Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code penalises any person who destroys, damages or defiles any object held sacred by any class of persons, with the intention of thereby insulting the sentiments of such class, or with the intention of such defilement being regarded as an insult to religion.

Do you think that I should be arrested for wearing that T-shirt? Do you think a legal system should have provisions under which I could be prosecuted for wearing it?

2) Given that the average Indian is likley to find ANY nude offensive, should we ban all nudes?

If your answer to both questions is yes, you would be consistent, but clearly in your society there would be zero artistic freedom. If you answer yes to one and no to the other, your stand is rather inconsistent and you need to check if by 'offensive to the average person' you simply mean 'offensive to me'. If you answer no to both, welcome to my side of the divide.

Now, blogger no. 1 and I were on the same side of the divide, with our man Amit coming under considerable fire for his ostensible hypocrisy. Now, anyone who reads his blog would know that this isn't true. However, today Amit linked to what he called an 'excellent' piece by some dude called Salil Tripathi. That piece contained this one mind-numbing paragraph

Indeed, Husain has painted several goddesses from the Hindu pantheon in the nude, including Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Durga, a martial goddess who slays demons. These are bold works that reshape our thinking about Hindu myths, revealing them in new light; they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate. His nudes delineate the body in sharp lines, elevating it to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity

Excuse me, but what? This paragraph, ladies and gentlemen, defines the term pseudo-secular. Look, I believe in nearly absolute freedom of expression. In my legal system, Hussain's works will not be banned, he will not be legally prosecuted, and those who vandalized his works will be behind the bars. That does not however mean that Hussain is not a bigot. The man did not take down any of the nude paintings of the Hindu godesses, yet took down Meenaxi from theatres simply because some Muslim groups made some noise about how Allah being referred to as the-divine-light in some song or sequence of the movie was against Islamic beliefs. A friend recently informed me that when MFH was asked by Shekhar Gupta in Walk the Talk if he would ever be able to draw an offensive portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad, the old man had to nearly be physically restrained from reacting violently.

Also, Mr Tripathi, "they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate" is a subjective judgement, as subjective as the judgement of those who claim that the portrayal is malicious and offensive to Hindus. If Mr Tripathi was a true FoS believer, he would have said that EVEN if Mr hussain's paintings titilate or offend some pople, they should not be banned. In that piece, he(Salil Tripathi) comes out sounding like nothing but an apologist for M F Hussain who claims to understand Hindu culture better than anybody else. The deal is very simple - I have no doubt in my mind that Maqbool Fida Hussain, whtever his artistic merit may be, is a bigoted man. His works should still not be liable for criminal (or civil) prosecution.


Salil said...

Zen Babu

I don't know and don't care if you are a man, woman, or an automaton. I'd at least expect you to read a bit more than a blog entry before deciding where the writer about whom you are commenting, stands.

Since you haven't done that homework, (A few more clicks on google is hard work, is it, dude/dudette/whatever?) here's a primer:
(click on the second link)

REad India Today 1988-1990 for several articles in which I have criticized various acts of censorship - from Satanic Verses to Kristhuvinde Araam Thirumurivu.
(see third article)

Now - I got more important things to do - like seeing Dhoni get a hundred in the test. But it took me less than five minutes to dig these out.

If you had cared to read these, you'd have paused before calling me a pseudo-secular whatever.

Of course, you can call me whatever; everyone has the right to be a schmuck :-)

Salil the Dude

zen babu said...


I was a bit surprised that a London based freelance journalist would actually take such offence at something being said on a blog that has a very humble readership, and so was under the suspicion that it's not really you. However, the time of your comment matches with the time that someone from London visited my blog, so I'll assume that it's you.

I choose my words carefully Salil, and I hope that anyone who reads and responds would do the same. I quote from my own post - "This paragraph, ladies and gentlemen, defines the term pseudo-secular". The only thing I have said about you directly is this - "In that piece, he(Salil Tripathi) comes out sounding like nothing but an apologist for M F Hussain who claims to understand Hindu culture better than anybody else."

Do notice that I've not asserted anything about you in general, precisely because I do not know you. I did find that particlar paragraph a very lame attempt at justifying what I believe is bigotry on part of the old painter, and hence used that hated adjective pseudo-secular for the paragraph, not for you directly. I do also maintain that in that particular piece you sound like an apologist for MFH, for only an apologist would say something like 'those paintings are not lewd" etc. A position of 'that is not lewd" is as subjective as 'that is lewd' and so maintaining that your position is more correct because you (and presumably Hussain saab himself) understand Hindu culture better than the right-wing loonies sounds like the work of an apologist.The phrase 'pure and uncovered' is also another dead giveaway - if you have the time, do try to explain to me how your deeper understanding of the Hidnu culture taught you that pure goes with uncovered and that which is clothed is somehow not so pure.

Lastly, if you did write for India Today between 88 and 90, I'd assume that you must be atleast 40 years old today. You're 40, and still do not care to read the fine print, you're still hyper-sensitive about a perceived worngful portrayal on an unknown blog and still feel compelled to make lame jokes about my gender and species? I must say I'm disappointed.

Do keep visiting though. If a regular print journo found the time to comment on my blog, I must be doing something right. Push my stast counter higher - it's a major ego trip. Cheers, and I hope the misunderstanding about me calling you pseudo-secular is clear.

sandeep said...


LOL :) I've followed your comments on my blog (thanks for linking to it) but thanks for taking it forward so lucidly in your own!

zen babu said...


Thanks for dropping by. And I'm sorry for the downright offensive tone that I sometimes employed in my comments on your blog. I was partly responsible for turning it into a near flame-war that sometimes distracted from the central issue. Keep writing, and keep visiting.

Salil said...


On the Internet, a ping pong match can go on endlessly, but since you asked some questions, and since some stuff needed clarifying, here we go:

1. I would not have "actually taken the time" to respond, if what you wrote was in a diary and remained on your HDD. You chose to make your blog public. Thanks to the inability of search engines to pick out comments that are relevant and spurious in response to articles in the public domain (such as what I write) these comments take a life of their own. So where possible, I do respond. If the comment is gratuitous, or outright silly, I don't bother. But I've had a body of work going back over a quarter century when I've opposed censorship in all forms, by anyone, against anyone. So any characterization of my work as favoring one side of the argument over another, or my treating softly secularists vs fundamentalists, is so plain wrong, that I do respond, to set the record straight. I find all censorship repulsive; that I choose to defend Husain today does not mean I won't defend Rushdie tomorrow. And the merit of the art/writer is not relevant in this case. Tasleema Nasreen is a bad writer. But she does not deserve to be banned, because nobody should be banned.

2. You've described my arguments in a particular way, which misreads and misinterprets what I've said. That expression of view - whether to call it an assertion or not is a different issue - can be challenged, and which is what I've done. If you feel my defense of Husain is on the grounds used by pseudo-seculars, or if I'm a pseudo-secular person, that's wrong. Guilt-by-association, too, is wrong. I abhor Arundhati Roy's political writing. But I find myself in sync with her views on some issues. But that does not mean we belong to any label.

3. About being an apologist. I'm not, of MFH, or anyone else. As for the lewdness argument: it doesn't matter. Whether paintings are lewd or not, is irrelevant. However, there are folks who try to distinguish between porn and nudity, saying x is porn, y is nudity, hence x should be banned, y not. I find such sophistry irrelevant. But I said MFH's art is not lewd precisely to address those critics, who say lewd stuff can be banned. I am for free-speech absolutism. But I'm aware many others aren't.

4. It is pure and uncovered; pure doesn't mean uncovered necessarily. So going down the path you suggest isn't worth the time.

5. Age has nothing to do with commenting on your work. I don't know how old you are: your blog says 22. Maybe. I didn't make a joke about your gender. You said in response to some post, how you were thought by other posters as a man, a woman, a young guy, an older person, etc. My point was that none of that matters. I don't know, nor am I interested.

6. You are right about ego-trip. That's what most blogs are. No quarrel with that. But when they get trapped into search engines, and become recognized and confused with legitimate commentary, they cease to be expressions of individual vanity. And that forces some of us to respond.

Good luck with blogging.


zen babu said...


1. Agree. And I find it impressive that you take the timeout to clarify misconceptions.

2. I felt that your defence of Husain was along the lines used by pseudo-seculars, I did not imply that that made you pseudo-secular in general. I was compelled to believe in the former as a result of the phrases that you used - 'bold work that challenges Hindu myths' 'suggesting the formlessness of divinity', etc. I found it difficult to believe (still do) that anyone could genuinely defend Husian using those phrases. I do not believe in guilt by association either - I abhor Arundhati Roy on most issues and yet admire Medha Patkar (though I don't agree with either of them on the one issue they work jointly on). If the pseudo-secular term bothers you so much, I apologise.

3. I'm for free speech absolutism too and I realise that many others aren't. I support my case often by using the 'subjectivity of offence' argument, and hence felt that using a subjective plank 'this is not lewd' actually weakens the case from a FoS perspective. And this is where we disagree - subjectively, I feel that Husain's paintings are lewd. You must be aware that apart from the 'simple' nudes, he has drawn one in which a naked Hanuman lifts a naked Sita up, supporting her by her thighs, extremely close to her crotch. Even a cursory observer of Hindu mythology knows that the relationsship depicted between Hanuman and Sita is one of son and mother, and that the painting is extremely oedipal in nature. If inspite of all this, one goes on to subjectively state that Husain is only re-interpreting things in a way that shallow Hindus will never understand, I am tempted to use the word 'apologist'. I am sorry if the word offends you, but I find it difficult to believe that you genuinely hold that view.

4.'pure and uncovered' - another phrase with immense subjectivity and a matter of interpretation. You are right though, no use going down that path.

5. I am 22. I found the "I don't know what you are, man, woman or automaton" exhortation quite silly. You did not know, and you were not interested - that should have meant you making no reference to it at all instead of explicitly stating it in a fashion I thought was juvenile. Anyhow, these are minor quibbles.

6. I do hope that some day what I write is recognized and respected as legitimate commentary. The ego-trip bit is simply a honest admission of the fact that I like it when the stats counter goes up, esp if the one pushing it up is an established journo himself. That does not mean that what I write is cynically calculated to push the stats counter up (not that you've implied so, but simply a clarification).

Thanks, and I hope the muddle is absolutely clear.