A vital part of my childhood was a gilt-framed painting of legendary lovers Sohni and Mahiwal. It adorned not only our drawing room but also my mindscape. I was strongly attracted by the image of a drenched Sohni, her dress barely covering her shapely bosom, and a muscular Mahiwal holding on to her till the very end. The star-crossed pair was shown as inseparable even in their dying moments. Ironically, this erotic-tragic work was on display in our house, whereas I had to hide the Kamasutras and the Debonairs for fear of getting caught.
In stark contrast, the houses of other Sikh families among our relatives and neighbours had paintings of Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh. These were no less captivating than the one we had, even though the themes were as different as chalk and cheese. But I never asked my parents why the Gurus’ awe-inspiring portraits, which made me bow my head in reverence, were conspicuous by their absence from our home. Reason: I was more than happy to have the ‘flesh-and-blood’ company of Sohni-Mahiwal.
Years later, I came to know that all these works had been made by the same hand, of the one and only Sobha Singh. I still wonder how the master managed to have the best of both worlds: creating iconic paintings in the realms of the erotic and the divine. He achieved what the propagators of most of our religions have failed to do over centuries or millennia: treating sensuality on a par with spirituality.
Overzealous preachers lay so much stress on superhuman godliness that the Almighty seems out of reach for a majority of our guilt-ridden race. A rare exception is Hinduism which, despite having its fair share of bigots, gives people the freedom to regard sex and other human instincts as key elements of divinity. Take, for instance, the celebration of Lord Krishna’s RaasLeela or the milky obeisance paid to the Shiva Linga.
It’s a pity that holier-than-thou autocrats are posing as the custodians of our religions. These ‘middlemen’ rely on the twin devils of repression and suppression to keep themselves relevant. They are usurping the powers to decide how a prophet or ‘messenger of God’ should be portrayed, if at all.
Perhaps they have doubts about the strength of their own faith; that’s why they are not keen to give devotees the liberty to think and judge with their own minds. What they don’t realise is that a religion which tries to enslave its followers is no better than any dehumanising institution.
The writer is deputy news editor with HT, Chandigarh