The Kama Sutra has long suffered from an image crisis. In India, it is often relegated to the realm of the obscene, and the book is hardly read. In the West, it is widely regarded as an exotic sex manual for gymnastic porn.Poor translations from the original Sanskrit have had much to do with this, says Alka Pande, curator of a unique show in Paris that is aimed at steering visitors away from such "reductive interpretations" of the ancient text.
Titled The Kama Sutra: Spirituality and Eroticism in Indian Art, Pande's exhibition aims at busting myths surrounding the text.
On display are 300 objects dating from the 5th to the 20th centuries AD. And they have certainly piqued curiosity, drawing more than 8,000 people a week to the Pinacothèque de Paris museum since the show opened on October 2.
"The Kama Sutra is not a manual of sexual positions; it's one of the most misunderstood texts," says Pande. "The famous sexual positions, in fact, are just one section of a seven-part treatise on the aesthetic of life, based on Hindu spirituality."
In addition to sex, the text discusses the arts of perfumery, music and dance, and serves as a manual for great living for the urban sophisticate.
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Pande says the Kama Sutra not only inspired temple sculptures, through sculptors who had knowledge of the text, but also erotic art and literature over centuries.
The Kama Sutra also talks of a 'tritiya prakriti' or third gender - people who are transgender or non-heterosexual. "In that sense, the text is very inclusive and looks at every aspect of human nature," says Pande. "Where the text talks of a man stealing another man's wife, it makes room for a woman to be dissatisfied. If the text speaks of a man with several women, it also talks of a woman with several men."
Vatsyayana, a little-known author who lived in what is the modern-day Indian state of Bihar, is believed to have written the Kama Sutra in the 3rd or 4th century AD. The earliest translation was the English version that orientalist Richard Burton produced along with Bhagwanlal Indraji and Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot, in 1883.
At the time, only 250 copies were privately circulated, as the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 banned publication and distribution of explicit and erotic material.
The more Indo-centric translations came later, with Devdutt Shastri's Hindi version in 1964, and more recent translations by Indra Sinha, Wendy Doniger, Sudhir Kakar and Alka Pande, which are more contemporary and gender-inclusive.
The exhibition at the Pinacothèque is divided into seven sections, like the text of the Kama Sutra.
In the catalogue, author and psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar says the seven acts of the Kama Sutra tell the story of a man who sets up his house as a bachelor, perfects his sexual technique (in the famous Book II), seduces a virgin, gets married, seduces the wives of other men, visits courtesans, and finally, when he has grown old, resorts to the use of aphrodisiacs. The erotic iconography of the artworks is used to demonstrate traditions and rituals in Indian art and literature.
A bronze breastplate worn by Theyyam dancers in Kerala to take on the female form.
Even though the text is mainly written for men, Kakar points out that Vatsyayana recommended that women read it too. In fact, the fourth and the sixth books are addressed to women readers. Though the woman is not treated as a passive sex object, her participation and enjoyment are aimed at enhancing the man's experience, Kakar adds. Unlike other texts written in the same period, the Kama Sutra is less patriarchal and even subversive in its tone.
A wide variety of themes, ranging from pre- and post-marital sex to magico-religious beliefs and zoo-sexuality, are touched upon. There is also an element of satire in sculptures such as the ones depicting aroused ascetics or a merchant with his amorous donkey.
At the Paris exhibition, the most photographed display was the one titled 'It's a man's duty to pleasure the woman', says Marc Restellini, director of Pinacothèque de Paris. "Indian civilisation says do not marry someone you are not sexually compatible with, as opposed to Christian civilisations, which make sex before marriage taboo," Restellini adds.
Also on display are exhibits on the 13th-century Koka Shastra, a compilation of erotic stories by Koka Pandit, and the 19th-century Urdu Rekhti, erotic lesbian poetry written by women.
The collection of works draws mainly on ancient objects, many of them from private collections. Among the collectors who have contributed to the exhibition are Arvind Singh Mewar from Rajasthan in India and Beroze and Michel Sabatier from La Rochelle in France. Other collectors preferred to remain anonymous. Museums from Belgium and Switzerland also contributed to the exhibition.
The photos reproduced with this article are of some of the least explicit objects on display. The museum website warns: "The exhibition features artworks with erotic content that might shock certain viewers. It is not advisable to the younger visitors."
The exhibition will be on display till January 11.