Interpretation and misinterpretation
Recently, senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj ranted on television that the name Radha had been used out of religious context in the new Karan Johar film Student of the Year, and that she and her party would take legal action against the director.
Outside the context of Lord Krishna and the Mahabharata, she implied, the name had no relevance and its “misuse” was inflammatory and seditious.
Is such intolerance the result of a mistaken Indian version of secularism, where every utterance takes on a communal shade? Or is it merely another form of class war where elitist films are not entitled to references from Hindu mythology? Without being a staunch practising Buddhist, should I then be entitled to my name?
The separation of church and state is naturally a debate that supersedes the one between art and state. Yet, today, more and more people, including artists, are making political statements — some ideologically inflammatory, some merely for the sake of their art, others just to be heard over the din of everyday politics, a politics that drowns out other forms of existence in India.
Even the recent spat between Girish Karnad and V.S. Naipaul could well have been treated like an incident of artistic road rage between two drivers intent on breaking rules. But the need to project their professional stature turned the quarrel into a glorified national debate. Raising objection to granting the Lifetime Achievement award to Naipaul at the Mumbai Literature Festival, Karnad sounded petulant and huffy, stating categorically that literary work of the kind done by the Nobel Laureate deserved no recognition since it sprang from an inadequate and prejudiced interpretation of history. Whatever the merits of Karnad’s argument, it is hard to underscore the fact that the award was given only for literary merit and not for opinions held by the author. It merely honoured Naipaul’s writing and set him apart as a writer with a singularly long literary history constructed through a range of fiction, travel writing and reporting.
Hard enough as it is today to remain within the bounds of art, Naipaul’s views on history matter to the extent that their public airing does not hurt common sentiments. Certainly, Naipaul’s opinions on Muslims in India or on woman writers are part of his personal oeuvre, and disagreements and conflicting opinions are the inevitable mark of any writer constantly performing for the public, as Karnad himself does. Obviously Naipaul’s prejudices are what set him apart, as do the experiences of other artists. No one questions the Jewish slant and paranoia of Woody Allen, or denies that Ezra Pound was a great writer despite his support of Fascism. Or indeed that architect Albert Speer’s best work was done for Adolf Hitler.
In the widening arc of artistic influence, where art spills into politics and politics into religion, religion into the marketplace, the absence of public discourse creates a mind swell of misunderstanding. Private gatherings like literary festivals acquire public agendas. Sensitised by excessive dogma, people are offended by the most minor of transgressions; every artistic stand becomes clouded by personal histories and political beliefs; the most tepid hints of disagreement rise to stoke the flames of some private nationalism. In an atmosphere of uncertainty, everything becomes sacrilege. Notice how Karnad’s criticism of Tagore as a second-rate playwright raised the hackles of Bengali intellectuals. In the absence of artistic equilibrium and licence, people sway to extreme positions.
Why the hypersensitivity? Is it the background of invasion, migration and bloodshed that has produced a people so painfully conscious of identities and territories — so protective and fearful? Films cannot malign mythological identities; M.F. Hussain cannot comment on Hinduism; Salman Rushdie can’t raise a voice against Islam; and now Naipaul.
An intellectual misinterpretation of history or distortion of fact is a prerogative of free speech, but it takes on an ugly hue when it is uttered and perpetuated by a public figure. Of course, many agree with Karnad’s view of history; many Hindus say that the Muslims deserved their fate in Gujarat; many Muslims maintain that the Hindus asked for it in Godhra. Some Hindu extremists believe that Christianity was the undoing of India. But these are all private voices and personal distortions of history, thankfully hushed by underexposure. As private citizens their freedom of expression is protected by the Constitution. That it isn’t often guaranteed by the government is, of course, another matter.
It is, however, hard to maintain such an insularity in art, in mediums meant for unrestrained expression. Whenever Hollywood actors and others in the public eye in America take strong ideological positions — as Clint Eastwood did recently — they suffer nothing but a mild rebuke. But when Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei uses sculpture and installation to reinforce his own view of the state, the Chinese government says the artist “dishonours” the state by taking provocative and disparaging positions. The inconvenient truth has got Ai Weiwei a number of jail terms and he remains under permanent state watch.
In India, however, without the mechanism of Chinese auto censorship or the unequivocal acceptability of free speech, the voice flounders in unrest and is stilled by surrounding voices. Impeachment comes from sources within society itself. Karnad and Naipaul are merely the abrasive evidence of self-imposed control in a system without correctives.
In the world of theatre, literature and art the airing of ideological views — however provocative, radical or blasphemous — requires support from fellow artistes and writers, rather than opposition or suppression. As long as people are given a voice, their views have to be heard. As long as Naipaul’s personal beliefs do not contradict his art, he is entitled to his position.
Gautam Bhatia, an architect, artist and writer, has built extensively in India and the US