Discussions of sexuality in India invariably centre on India’s ‘ancient’ past where public expressions of sexuality were not taboo. This is the Kama Sutra narrative that is a product of colonial history, nationalist aspirations and European theorising about a ‘free-flowing’ Orient that was different from a ‘repressed’ Occident.
The Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders. The Government of India recently blocking the offshore internet porn site savitabhabhi.com should focus our attention to the extensive non-Kama Sutra history of Indian sexuality that illustrates that the state often has little idea about the culture it seeks to ‘protect’.
However, a qualification is in order: the Savitabhabhi comic strip is hardly the paragon of ‘liberated’ thinking. In fact, it incorporates the most conservative male fantasies about the ‘modern’ woman who is forever willing to please a man. Given this, the issue is not Savitabhabhi and her male originators’ fantasies of power. Rather, it has to do with the curious case of a state that hardly knows its own culture. And while on the one hand it parades Indian culture as one with ancient and strong roots, on the other, it thinks it so fragile as to be shattered by every gust of a ‘foreign’ cultural influence.
Let us begin with the curious case of Dr A.P. Pillay (1889-1956), one of the leading lights behind the family planning movement and a pioneering figure in the history of modern Indian sexology. Based in Maharashtra, between 1934 and 1955, Dr Pillay published a slew of popular books that discussed sexuality from a wide range of perspectives. He was one of many such authors at that time, though perhaps the best known among English language writers on the topic. His publications included The Art of Love and Sane Sex Living and Sex Knowledge for Girls and Adolescents.
Dr Pillay was a curious figure in as much as while — along with many of his contemporaries — he subscribed to a ‘scientific view’ on sexuality, he also foregrounded pleasure, women’s rights as sexual beings, and ‘alternative’ sexual practices and behaviours. Our minders of public morality might be shocked to read Dr Pillay’s advice in a 1948 publication that masturbation, either as ‘auto-eroticism’ or as heterosexual or homosexual practice, was a ‘harmless method of relief’. And this from someone who contributed to the founding of the Family Planning Association of India!
In North India, a variety of Hindi language publications furthered the dialogue initiated by Pillay. So, small-town magazines such as Nar-Naari and Hum Dono were part of a semi-illicit circuit of debate and discussion on sexuality, drawing participants from small towns and qasbas that were not part of official discourses on sexuality and ‘sex-education’. Magazines such as these created a forum for non-moralising discussions on desires, fantasies, anxieties and intimacies. Of course, they sought to escape the wrath of the state’s ‘obscenity’ laws by presenting their discussions through detached medicalised language.
Nowadays, the most explicit discussions of sexuality take place in a variety of Hindi-language ‘women’s’ magazines such as Grhasobha and Grhalakshmi. Indeed, for the past 20 years or so, there has barely been an issue that does not include an article on sex and sexuality. Most remarkably, women’s sexuality is the most frequently discussed topic. Whereas in earlier publications such as Dharmayug, sexuality was invariably discussed in the context of ‘nation-building’, contemporary publications have decisively moved the focus to sexuality-as-consumption.
So, ‘Grhasobha sexuality’ is about how women might explore their sexual selves, rather than only serve the nation as ‘good’ citizens. It is commonplace to find articles that ask whether ‘virginity is necessary before marriage’ and ‘why there are no virginity tests for men’, as well as others on ‘menopause and sex’. Savitabhabhi has come home, and the Indian culture the state seeks to protect from evil foreign influences has been ‘evil’ for quite some time. It’s grown up actually.
The problem is that just like many sexologists, the state too believes that there is something fundamental about our sexual selves, and hence sexuality must be policed. So, we face minor embarrassment if exposed as a bad cook. But to be revealed as someone who is ‘bad at sex’ becomes an existential problem requiring the intervention of many an ‘expert’. However, despite what we are constantly told, there is no single truth to sexuality without which we remain incomplete humans.
This belief may help in the marketing of cosmetic products and ‘advice’ books, but it also creates peculiar ideas about our sexual selves and the threats to Indian culture from ‘bad’ sexuality. The modern history of sexual cultures in India is one of great diversity and one that shows that its participants have not suffered from the fear of the decline-of-Indian-civilisation-as-we-know-it. The state needs to learn from that.
Sanjay Srivastava is Professor of Sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, and author of Passionate Modernity: Sexuality, Class, and Consumption in India.