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Bewitched world watching India

A selfless spirit of moral dictation seems to have seeped into India's enforcers of late, writes Radhika D Swaroop.
None | By Radhika D Swaroop
UPDATED ON MAR 21, 2006 06:11 PM IST

A selfless spirit of moral dictation seems to have seeped into India's enforcers of late.

In 2005, Meerut's police force was discovered making the most efficient use of its remit to fight crime by beating up couples who frequented parks unchaperoned. In Pushkar, an Israeli couple who chose to embrace Indian tradition by getting married according to Hindu rites then committed the most culturally insensitive of gestures by kissing.

This was condemned as being deliberately insulting to Hinduism by the officiating priests, who then proved their cultural superiority by subjecting the newlyweds to abuse and harassment at the hands of an obliging police force.

Valentine's Day, the celebration of love and all that is commercial, brings out the best and the most vociferous in India's moral "jaloos" "after all, unlike all truly great ideas, Valentine's Day did not have its origins in the subcontinent". And though Hindus are famous for their tolerance, you can only push a good religion so far.

India's moral army seems insistent on cleansing the country's streets of obscenity. What is ironic, however, is the mobbishness, the violence these factions are invoking in order to disperse the less traditional, though essentially harmless elements of society. 

The situation is slightly reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, when puritanical Popes sought to cleanse their leity's minds of sinful thoughts by ridding the Vatican's sculptures of their marble manhood.

More recently, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have decided to take umbrage against Mother, a painting representing India by artist MF Husain. It depicts a woman with contours similar to the country's and with names of major cities dotted around her body. It has been compared to Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, where France was personified in the heroic Marianne.

Husain's painting, however, has attracted the ire of the HJS and the VHP because of Mother India being painted in the nude.

I can understand the painting being controversial and displeasing to some. Especially in India, the idea of a woman and a mother is a particularly emotive one, and one that is often placed on a pedestal.  The very fact that the painting, which was simply named Mother, was immediately thought to represent a Goddess, is indicative of the strength of the association.

Not for India the earthy mother that Marianne typified for France.

Nevertheless, I feel very strongly that it is the artist's right to represent his own country. He has put to canvas his impression of his own motherland, and it is a dignified, evocative impression. It shows his idea of India, in the very same way that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore put to words what they felt was the essence of their country.

It may be a work of equal genius, or it may be a paltry effort in comparison, but only time will be the judge of that. However, in forcing so many to talk about it, I have to call the painting a success. Great art challenges thought and forms a foundation for debate.

What I am less able to understand is why the painting is offensive to the Hindu majority. If Hindu temple carvings in Khujaraho and South India fail to arouse religious sensibilities, why does the secular description of a country succeed in doing so?

Bharat Mata, after all, is not a Hindu Goddess "she harbours Sikhs, Christians and Muslims as lovingly as she does Hindus". Neither is she necessarily a Goddess, rather a source all Indians spring from, an identity we all hold dear to us.

If the painting has to be deemed offensive in any way, it must by definition be offensive to all Indian feeling. The claim that it is insulting exclusively to the Hindu majority is at best bizarre, and at worst intolerant.

The calls of the HJS and the VHP to have Husain arrested, too, seem a shade overdone. If the painting goes against national feelings, the best way to deal with the painting is to ignore it, not to grant it infamy and automatic immortality.

The incendiary actions of the Hindu right, to me, are those of a blinkered bully seeking to colour the world with their own single viewpoint.
In a month when criticism has been levelled, first at Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten for irresponsibly publishing blasphemous cartoons and then at Muslim states for the violence of their reactions, it is perhaps incumbent upon India to introspect on the reaction of extremist Hindus towards a non-religious depiction by a prominent Muslim.

As a Hindu and an Indian, I see no wrong in Husain's portrayal of India as a mother. On the contrary, to me the picture of India as a blossoming woman is a very apt one.

In many ways, India has come into her own in recent decades. Led by millions of technically minded graduates, India's software industry has flourished. London's Sunday Times has recognised the Indian Institute of Technology as one of the world's top 5 technology universities.

The success of India's outsourcing sector is testament to the ability of the Indian to talk and to sell to the rest of the world. Every year, record inflows of investment into India bear witness to her manifold attractions.

A phalanx of Miss Indias' has dominated global beauty pageants ever since Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai were unearthed as national treasures.

As an NRI, this change in India has affected how I am perceived abroad. I recently called a London estate agent about a flat I was interested in. He asked me where I was from. When I answered "India", his immediate response was, "In that case, you must either be very beautiful, or very intelligent; probably, both."

What a sharp contrast to how I was treated when I first arrived in London as a schoolgirl in the mid-nineties! On hearing I was from India, I would invariably be told, "You can't just have come from India -- your English is too good!"

India may be no more beautiful and charismatic than she has always been, but the eyes of a bewitched world are increasingly upon her.

Incidents of religious extremism may make the world pause, but will in all likelihood be passed over as the wilfulness of an enchantress. And as the beautiful India approaches her prime, this love affair with the country is unlikely to abate. Still, every so often, as the woman inspects herself closely in the mirror, she will be conscious of a small blemish -- communalism. A blemish easily masked over, a blemish hardly ever noticed by an outsider, but in the honest reflection of a mirror; still an indelible blemish on an otherwise flawless face.

Radhika D Swaroop is an Oxonian and currently works for a leading investment company in London.

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