An Indian may have written one of the greatest love treatises called Kamasutra. Indians may have carved spectacular eroticism on stone. Indians may have worshipped the phallus since time immemorial.
Yet, all their love and romance appear to have been stifled by Victorian prudery – imposed on India by the British Empire. While, modern Britain may have itself snuggled out of sexual slumber, Indians still seem chained to sexual stuffiness. But this could be changing writes Gardiner Harris in a New York Times column, titillating titled, “In India, Kisses are on Rise, Even in Public”.
“India may be the birthplace of the Kama Sutra, the ancient how-to manual on kissing and sex. But for many years, Indian couples did not widely embrace kissing, at least not in public. Now that is changing”, he avers.
“The Mahabharata, an epic poem written 3,000 years ago, is believed to include the first written description of mouth-to-mouth kissing. But anthropological studies done over the past century in India and elsewhere in Asia showed that kissing was far from universal and even seen as improper by many societies”, says Elaine Hatfield, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii.
Sanjay Srivastava, a professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi University, comments: “Until recently, kissing was seen as Western and not an Indian thing to do. That has changed.”
This is a farfetched assertion.
For, it is still almost impossible to find a man and woman kiss on the mouth in public.
I have for a long, long time seen men and women neck behind the darkened glasses of a parked car in a deserted alleyway or in the remotest corners of cinema theatre or across a thick bush in a park. But seldom have I caught a kiss in a bus or a train or in a shopping mall – something that used to shock me during my first trips to Europe. I still remember a couple bang in the middle of a busy road standing on the divider and lost to the whizzing world in a deep kiss!
So Mr Harris is off track when he concludes that kisses are on the rise even in India’s public places. He also writes that kissing even in private spaces is on an upward trajectory. At least this is what the headline to his story conveys. But how does he known this? He quotes a few people to tell us this.
The random vagueness of such conclusions is a typical trap that Westerners tend to fall into.
India is such a vast country with such frightening diversity that such inferences can well be way off the truth. However, in the wake of the economic liberalisation which India has been witnessing for over a decade now, men and, more so, women find themselves far more empowered than what they once were. Economic independence or disappearing economic dependency on one’s family has emboldened the young. Pre-marital sex and adulterous sexual relationships may be a natural fallout.
But Indians are still not on to public exhibitionism. I am yet to see a kissing couple in a train or a shop or a sidewalk. They might lock lips and fondle and caress under the sheets or in some dark corner. But that is about it.
Admittedly, Indian cinema is now by far bolder. More often than not, the hero and the heroine kiss on the mouth – although they did so once upon a time as well, but somewhere on the road, they hesitated. But the screen kiss never went on a total blink.
As long ago as 1933, Indian actress Devika Rani gave a full-mouthed kiss to Indian actor Himanshu Rai in Karma.
Though Indian censors did not quite approve of the kiss, movies did now and then smuggle in a mouth-to-mouth affair. In the 1960s, Indian actor Raj Kapoor did a lip-to-lip thing with a Russian artist in Mera Naam Joker. In the 1970s, Kapoor got his younger sibling, Sashi Kapoor, to kiss Indian actress Zeenat Aman under a waterfall in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.
Such scenes were repeated in films like Ram Teri Ganga Maili (The Ganges is sullied). Actress Mallika Sherawat put her tongue inside her hero’s mouth in a movie called Kiss Kiss Ki Kismat (The Destiny of a Kiss or something to this effect).
Undoubtedly, Indian cinema is a mighty powerful influence. It is possible that it impacts Indians in ways that we may find it hard to believe. But even then, to say with such finality that public kissing is on the rise in India is bad journalism, to say the least.
As Lakshmi Chaudhry pens in Firstpost, “The kissing story is a perfect example of the paint-by-numbers ‘India story’ template adopted by Western publications that encourages such journalism. The assumptions are ironclad, and conclusions foregone”.
Whatever Mr Harris may say, Indians have been kissing long before The New York Times or earlier The Washington Post decided to publish such expose. And that Indians have brought their kisses out of the closet and onto to the public arena is, at best, several shades worse than what Bollywood asks us to imagine!
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic.