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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Vol. 4 No. 32

LOUNGE THE WEEKEND MAGAZINE

ARTICLE

19(1)(a) It ensures you are free to express yourself, but with ‘reasonable restrictions’. How free does that make us? We celebrate Independence Day with the why, who and how of free speech in India

A CASE FOR OFFENCE >Pages 12­13

THE BRUSH SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS

Attacks on artists are undemocratic, but most Indians don’t care about art. The only muzzle: artists themselves >Page 7

NOT ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL

In its modern avatar, graffiti is thriving in some parts of the country, including its original Indian hub >Pages 10­11

A NATION TALKING TO ITSELF

Mark Twain, George Orwell and Graham Greene wrote them. We met five Indians for whom writing letters to newspapers is akin to a moral obligation >Pages 20­21

DON’T MISS

in today’s edition of

A child selling flags in Bangalore on the eve of Independence Day last year.

FILM REVIEW

PEEPLI (LIVE)


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LOUNGE First published in February 2007 to serve as an unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian Dream. LOUNGE EDITOR

PRIYA RAMANI DEPUTY EDITORS

SEEMA CHOWDHRY SANJUKTA SHARMA MINT EDITORIAL LEADERSHIP TEAM

R. SUKUMAR (EDITOR)

NIRANJAN RAJADHYAKSHA (MANAGING EDITOR)

ANIL PADMANABHAN TAMAL BANDYOPADHYAY NABEEL MOHIDEEN MANAS CHAKRAVARTY MONIKA HALAN VENKATESHA BABU SHUCHI BANSAL SIDIN VADUKUT (MANAGING EDITOR, LIVEMINT)

FOUNDING EDITOR RAJU NARISETTI ©2010 HT Media Ltd All Rights Reserved

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B Y S ANJUKTA S HARMA sanjukta.s@livemint.com

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he fun of old-fashioned rail and rant is rare these days. It does not involve mouse-click nirFREE vana. It involves risk for all SPEECH SPEECH FREE involved—the editor, publisher or other equivalent mediator who provides the medium; the medium itself; and of course, the writer, thinker or rabble-rouser. The time for reaction is longer and the ripple effect, Desperate measures: It took thousands of pink panties to rattle the Sri Ram Sene. wider. On Twitter or Facebook, as banal as they are addictive and lib- ered or said in this world. Scary thought. We met people other than the towering figerating, opinions flash, scream and fade. We celebrate the old and new kinds of ure who constantly reminds us of the presfree speech in this special issue. It’s a free- ence of extremist maniacs around us—M.F. dom, the lack of which we remember every Husain. Justice A.P. Shah, Ram Rahman and other day. Our right to freedom of expres- Anand Patwardhan are champions we sion in the Constitution has “reasonable haven’t heard enough about. We also met restrictions”—the “reasonable” often bor- men across the country who consider it a dering on the bizarre. Hurt sentiments over moral duty to write letters to newspapers; calling Billu a barber; outrage over the biog- after years of having their letters hacked by raphy of a national hero; violent attacks on sub-editors, they have found ways to speak those who commemorate the spirit of a cer- their mind in different ways, but they haven’t tain fun-loving St Valentine with sweet stopped saying it. And we met 82-year-old n o t h i n g s a n d o b l o n g - s h a p e d b a l - Shanu Lahiri, who would literally colour loons—something irks somebody all the Kolkata red, blue and pink if her health time. If you laugh at Indianness, you are would allow her to paint graffiti on the city’s booed. If you have a mind, you are stupid walls, just as she used to many years ago. One of the facts that emerges from all the and deserve to be called names. The free speech issue, not surprisingly, writings in this issue is the Indian tendency became less about freedom and more about to self-censor. I am convinced we (by which I censorship and restriction—in art, movies, mean tweeple, and also those dinosaurs who aren’t tweeple) speak less than what the law erotica and the public sphere. In the cover story, our columnist Sunil allows us to. A few bear the brunt of restrictKhilnani makes a cool case for offence. One ing laws and outdated ideologues. Are we a republic of silence? Read on. of the inherent dangers of a society which does not tolerate free speech, he says, is the belief that nothing new is left to be discov- Issue editor

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KODALI QUEST I enjoy reading Shoba Narayan’s articles and “The sari worth all your lust”, 7 August, was no exception. I went to the Dastkar Nature Bazaar in Bangalore, SPEECH but sadly there wereFREE no Kodali saris. The only satisfaction was that the stall owner said I wasn’t the only one who came asking and had to go back disappointed—misery loves company for sure! KABINI

A SARI FOR MS I loved the M.S. Subbulakshmi reference in Shoba Narayan’s “The sari worth all your lust”, 7 August. MS’ saris were woven for her, to her specifications, by Nalli’s weavers. She always ordered an identical sari for Radha Viswanathan, her step­daughter and vocal support. But perhaps MS’ greatest contribution to Kanjeevaram silks is the colour that is now known as “MS Blue”—a unique blue­purple hue that was her absolute favourite. AVINASH RAJAGOPAL

KASHMIR’S TRAGEDY Thanks for a sensible article by Aakar Patel (“What ails Kashmir? The Sunni idea of ‘azadi’”), 7 August. Ali Shah Geelani and his kind have already led two generations of Kashmiri youth down a dead­end path of tears. How many will these ghouls of Kashmir need to devour before their spell is lifted? NIDA

IMPORTED ZEAL Apropos Aatish Taseer’s “Losing faith in Pakistan”, 7 August, it’s about time that this was said. There is no real reason for Kashmiri ‘azadi’ other than narrow­minded, pan­Islamic fascism. Most of the press this issue is receiving is from people with ignorant and careless points of view, who are unaware of the actual forces at work. Sadly, the worst affected in this whole heinous medievalism are the Muslims themselves, in particular the women and youth. I am glad that this has come from a responsible Muslim, because only we can put our own house in order. IQBAL ON THE COVER: PHOTOGRAPHER: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

LISTEN TO THE LOUNGE PODCAST Documentary film­maker Anand Patwardhan speaks out on censorship by right­wing groups; Sanjukta Sharma reviews ‘Peepli (Live)’; and Prof. Naman Ahuja talks of erotica moving from the ‘Kama Sutra’ to the World Wide Web www.livemint.com/loungepodcast

Q&A | AJOY BOSE

‘The office was in absolute darkness’ Ajoy Bose, a reporter during the Emergency and co­author of ‘For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency’, recalls those dark days

B Y H IMANSHU B HAGAT himanshu.b@livemint.com

···························· n 25 June 1975, the president of India, on the advice of prime minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of Emergency in the country. For the next 21 months, India was transformed into an authoritarian state where all democratic rights, including the right to free speech, were suspended. Veteran journalist and writer Ajoy Bose was a new reporter with the Patriot, finding his feet in the profession at the time. Bose later co-authored a seminal book on this era, For Reasons of State: Delhi Under Emergency. We spoke with him about his experiences and the mood that prevailed in the Capital during those uncertain days. Edited excerpts:

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Is it true that when the Emergency was announced, electricity supply to newspaper offices was cut off? The day before the Emergency was announced, as a young

reporter with the Patriot newspaper in Delhi, I had gone to cover a rally in Ramlila Maidan which was being addressed by JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) himself. I got a good story—JP was not upbeat, and was complaining that the Total Revolution (against the Indira Gandhi regime) was not taking off. It was like a statement of defeat. My editor was happy with the story and, being on the crime beat, I was looking forward to having a political story of mine feature on Page 1. But the next morning, I found no newspapers at my doorstep. I headed to office, where I met a colleague outside and asked him how they had played my story. His face was grim. “Don’t talk too much,” he said. “There is an Emergency.” When I walked in, the office was in absolute darkness. Everyone was looking shattered. Only one person was happy, my eccentric editor, Edatata Narayanan. There were no papers for the next three days. When they came out

none published any editorials in protest. Only two papers supported the Emergency, the National Herald, which was the Congress party paper, and the Patriot, which called the Emergency a “great idea”. What was your personal experience of the Emergency? In Delhi two aspects stood out—Sanjay Gandhi’s five-point programme included cleanliness and that became a licence for arbitrary demolition of slums and unauthorized colonies. The other controversial thing was family planning. Sanjay wanted to speed things up and his idea of doing that was to forcibly sterilize people through a scheme of incentives and disincentives. A friend of Sanjay Gandhi, Rukhsana Sultana, set up a family planning centre next to Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. So with the demolition and sterilization camps together, the people of the area went mad. They resisted the police and the bulldozers, and morning, evening there were riots. We were all camped there and watching all this happen, but couldn’t write about it while our notebooks were filling up. We were allowed to carry a sanitized version of the events in the papers but we refused to do that, so (news) agency copies were carried.

DARYL ANDRADE/ MINT

Total recall: Ajoy Bose.

My editor, Narayanan, had supported the Emergency, but then fought with V.C. Shukla, the information and broadcasting minister. He then started carrying out a campaign against the Emergency. We would deliberately try and get around censorship rules and write stuff which was not complimentary to government and to Sanjay Gandhi. For my beat, crime, I started attacking the police and managed to get some stories through. Lalit Maken, who was an important Congress leader, threatened to burn the Patriot office down. He came to the office and I met him—he began threatening and abusing us. How was censorship enforced? Initially, you actually had to take your copy to the censor and show it to them. They would then ink the offensive stuff out. But the process was too cumbersome and it didn’t last too long. The babus had a typically mindless approach and would leave the “damaging” stuff intact while cutting out what was “innocuous”. So then the papers were asked to censor themselves and not publish anything “anti-national”. All the papers had to comply. The government could do anything, just like in a

dictatorship. The courts were completely with them. And the police would never support you. You had to be very careful about what you wrote. All of us kept our jobs and no newspapers were banned. But as the Emergency wore on, people started writing a few things (that were critical of the government). Did anyone stand up to the government? Few newspaper proprietors would dare take the risk of shutting down (so they supported the Emergency). The exceptions were Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express, J.J. Irani’s The Statesman, Nikhil Chakravarty’s Mainstream and Romesh Thapar’s Seminar. Then there was the Motherland, the BJP paper, and, in the last stages of the Emergency, the Patriot. Which sections of the media actively supported the Emergency? I won’t take any names but there were journalists who took advantage (of the situation) and curried favour with the powers that be. It was disappointing to see senior journalists spy on others. The Press Club became a place where you couldn’t talk freely; you had to look over your shoulder.


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INDIANS TOLERATE ARGUMENTS AND OPINIONS AS LONG AS THEY’RE ABOUT CRICKET, BOLLYWOOD OR A FEW OTHER THINGS SUCH AS CUTTING ‘CHAI’ AND FREE SPEECH F REE MANGOES. LAWS PROTECTING FREE SPEECH ARE AN APOLOGY. HOW DID SPEECH SPEECH FREE THE LARGEST DEMOCRACY IN THE WORLD COME TO THIS?

you are not LICENSED

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CURTIS PUBLISHING, INDIANAPOLIS, US;

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THE NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM, MASSACHUSETTS, US (NRM)

B Y S ALIL T RIPATHI ······························ he image is beautiful in its simplicity. A man rises from the crowd. He is an ordinary man, wearing ordinary clothes; the people surrounding him are looking at him and his face is aglow as he speaks. They too are dressed like him, in ordinary clothes. We cannot tell what he is speaking about, nor whether those around him agree with him. But they sit there, listening, letting him have his say. That painting, part of the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Massachusetts, US, is among the four iconic works the American artist Norman Rockwell created, giving meaning to the freedoms Americans were fighting for, and considered worth defending, during World War II. Freedom of speech—without fear, as an equal—was considered a quintessential American virtue, like the other works in the series—freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom to worship. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up in 1948 immediately after the war ended, those four freedoms became the cornerstones of the international Bill of rights everyone is supposed to enjoy, irrespective of nationality, religion, gender, or any other cultural construct separating people. This is not to suggest that respect for freedom of speech is absolute in the US—there is intolerance. But as far as constitutional rights go, the US, through its first amendment, goes further than almost any other country, in ensuring that the right is protected—by restraining the State from making any laws that restrict that freedom. Almost everywhere else, there is freedom of speech, and then there are restrictive caveats. Rockwell had painted the scene at a New England town hall, and in notes accompanying his work, he had said that the man who actually spoke had nothing substantial to add to the debate and was possibly a bore. Now picture a similar scene in India: Assume a similar person standing up to have his say in the equivalent of a town hall meeting here, and the chances are he will be shouted down. Or, people will try to drag him back to his seat. If he says things that some—not the majority, only some—in the crowd don’t agree with, he might become the target of paper arrows, paperweights, abuse, catcalls, and in a bigger public meeting, even stones. He might be roughed up. And if he challenges the political orthodoxy—the khap panchayat, the village elder, the caste leader—his life could be in danger. This, in spite of the Indian

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Master stroke: Freedom of Speech (1943) by artist Norman Rockwell, an oil on canvas, first used as a story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943.


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Constitution enshrining freedom of speech—even if only up to a point. Under Article 19(1)(a) all citizens have the right to “freedom of speech and expression”. But almost immediately, the State places “reasonable restrictions” on that right. Those restrictions cast a wide net—the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offence. This is an absurdly long list: Is anything left worth writing about? Behram Contractor, the gifted columnist who wrote under the pseudonym Busybee, said about the Emergency of 1975-77 that the only safe topics one could write about were cricket and mangoes. Disaggregate those caveats, and you find that under the pretext of protecting the integrity and sovereignty of India, the State can prevent a writer from suggesting that maybe Kashmiris have a case for azadi, or freedom. Under the guise of ensuring security, some critics of Arundhati Roy want her to be silenced. Now Roy’s critique of the Indian State is deeply flawed, but she has the right to challenge the State over its neglect of parts of India where rights are abused routinely, the parts which are now beyond the reach of the administration and under the sway, if not control, of Maoists. Using the excuse of maintaining friendly relations with foreign states, the government can restrain criticism of barbaric practices perpetrated in the name of Islam in West Asia, and arguably, can curb the freedom to criticize the actions of Israel over its handling of the politically motivated aid flotillas. Once you think of nebulous terms such as “public order”, “decency”, and “morality”, it becomes an open season for intolerant governments and busybodies to impose restrictions. Here, two other parts of the law place even stronger restraints. Section 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code makes it a criminal act to “outrage religious feelings” with malicious intent. And section 153(A) outlaws “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony”. These clauses have provided busybodies of all faiths, all castes, and almost all ideologies an opportunity to claim offence and feign injured feelings, to seek restraints on writers, artists, actors, film-makers, and other public personalities. And the moment someone claims offence, the State asks the one who speaks to swallow her words, instead of telling the one who claims offence to get a life, because otherwise the one claiming offence will take the law in his hands. Maintaining law and order becomes the priority, and adult citizens, who have the right to drive a car, to buy and consume alcohol, to marry, to vote in and to stand in elections, and to purchase property, are suddenly seen as unfit infants, who must be protected from imagined offences. The State becomes the nanny; we become children in a kindergarten. That has emboldened the intolerant: The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti wants Slumdog Millionaire banned because that film shows a Hindu-Muslim riot in which a boy dressed as Ram looks menacingly at the protagonists, who are Muslim children. In 2007, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab ban Aaja Nach Le, Madhuri Dixit’s comeback vehicle, because the song Bole mochi khud ko sonar hai (the cobbler thinks he is a goldsmith) implies that cobblers are inferior to goldsmiths, and is hence implicitly derogatory. Distributors in several states can’t release Jodhaa Akbar because the fictionalized film about the

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HEMANT PADALKAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES

Spotlight: (clockwise from left) Slumdog Millionaire, which became the target of many attacks; a still from Billu; Arundhati Roy in Mumbai in June, for a lecture on the Indian State’s War on People; and Husain at work before a show on world terrorism in Kolkata in 2002.

Mughal offends Rajputs: UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttarakhand ban the film. Christians have campaigned against Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and later they protest The Da Vinci Code. And then there is the celebrated case of the renowned painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, forced to live in exile, because his art upsets some Hindus. And India has the dubious honour of being the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. There’s more: In 1989, a businessman sought a ban on Govind Nihalani’s moving film about the violence during Partition, Tamas, based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel, because the complainant thought the film would ignite communal tensions. Lawyers protested against New Delhi Times (1986), in which a journalist tells his wife, a lawyer, that all lawyers are liars. The police objected to their representation in Ardh-Satya (1983). And barbers managed to get Shah Rukh Khan to remove the word “barber” from the title of his film, Billu. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena managed to get a popular sweet shop in Mumbai to change its name from Karachi Sweet Mart to Jai Sri Krishna Sweet Mart, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Sri Ram Sene in Karnataka have attacked young couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, or women going to pubs, which is a restriction on a form of expression. Mumbai academic Pratibha Naithani’s Ashlilta Virodh Manch campaigns against films, TV shows, billboards and advertisements which, in her view, are obscene. Her success is at least partly because the State acquiesces in such moral bullying. The fear of the mob is so palpable that even after a court order lifting restrictions on James W. Laine’s book on Shivaji, bookshops are unwilling to stock it. They remember that Laine’s

associate, Shrikant Bahulkar, was physically assaulted, and the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, where Laine did some of his primary research, was vandalized and rare manuscripts destroyed. How did we come to this? India still deals with crime and punishment from the Indian Penal Code which was drawn up in 1860. It was enacted within years of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which led to the East India Company making way for Queen Victoria to assert authority over India. The paramount concern for the government then was to create laws that helped administrators and judges to manage the outwardly chaotic nature of the Indian society. The revolt of 1857 had shocked them; they wanted to eliminate potential trouble. This meant laying down clear rules to calm the passionate Orientals. Talking about controversial things became taboo, and if anyone felt offended, the State was ready to restrain the offender. Since outraged religious feelings could lead to law and order problems, there was now a law to ban that; since the government would not easily know when an outrage was committed, any community could claim offence, making it easier for the unelected district collectors to ban particular performances. And today, those laws restrict Indian freedoms. Argumentative Indians? Maybe—so long as the argument is about cricket, or cinema, or perhaps mangoes. As the injunction says in an Irani restaurant in Mumbai, discussion about religion and politics is out of bounds. But you can talk about cutting chai and bun muska, while the owner’s father’s portrait looks over you, deciding what you can speak and think. Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint. Write to lounge@livemint.com


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tweets B Y S IDIN V ADUKUT sidin.v@livemint.com

····························· ark Antony, the ancient Roman politician and not Jennifer Lopez’s husband, is most famous for his speech at Julius Caesar’s funeral. Or at least he is famous for the version of his speech as presented by William Shakespeare in the play Julius Caesar. It is a wonderful, oft-quoted speech that many children are forced to memorize in school. Presumably so that when they grow older, and perchance a dictator is murdered in their vicinity, they are not left fumbling for the appropriate words. Now there is an interesting thing about Mark Antony’s speech. If you have ever heard or read the speech in its entirety, you know that Antony has some serious stuff going on there. He is simultaneously praising Caesar, certifying Caesar’s moral virtue and eventually demonizing and then outing Caesar’s killers. Mark Antony goes all WikiLeaks on Brutus’ behind. But how does he start his speech? Does he start with a fruity, floral introduction? Does he start with a prayer song? Does he light a ceremonial lamp? No. He starts by summoning an audience. He invites, to listen to his speech, friends, Romans and countrymen. Lend me your ears, Mark Antony requests them, please stay a while and listen to my magnum opus. Without listeners, his eulogy and whistle-blowing is pointless. If Mark Antony had said all those words without an audience present, it would have been utterly futile, and, frankly, a little disturbing for Antony’s family. That is why for true freedom of speech, an audience is essential. What is the point in being able to say anything you want to if you don’t have people around to listen to your 2 cents? And Twitter is currently the best place in the world to find a ready audience for anything you want to say. No matter how substantial, trivial, true or laughably false, chances are on Twitter.com you will find someone who agrees, disagrees or at least plagiarizes your tweet. But why is this so? What makes Twitter in particular such an able vehicle for freedom of speech? Now I am not going to make a case for Twitter based on the fact that it is free, delivered

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online and accessible anywhere a mobile phone or an Internet connection is accessible. You know that already. In fact I can already sense many questions on the minds of some readers. What does Twitter do that blogs don’t? Don’t blogs also allow you to type your tripe and publish at no cost? Aren’t blogs also as accessible as Twitter? Weren’t blogs supposed to bypass mainstream media and become the unbiased news source for the masses? Yes, all that is correct. But things didn’t really pan out that way. See, there are a couple of problems with blogs. First of all, to be really taken seriously on a blog you need to write a lot. You need to use complete sentences and paragraphs and use punctuation. While some bloggers are able to deal with these unjustified constraints, many find that the typing, spellchecking, uploading and publishing simply get in the way of free speaking. Why, if I want to call Suresh Kalmadi, Himesh Reshammiya, Ram Gopal Varma or Uday Chopra names, do I have to write 200- or 300-word-long blog posts to do this? Why can’t I just compare Paula Abdul to a leafy vegetable and be done with it! The inherent verbosity of blog posts ends up becoming a speed breaker on the intellectual highway on which my free speech is speeding. Many people just don’t want to use paragraphs or semi-colons. They just want to speak and be done with it. Twitter limits, nay demands, that your communication take place in 140 characters or less. Whatever you have to say you have to say within that word limit. You could, of course, use more than one tweet per thought. But that is bad form and most tweeple frown upon it. Second, it takes a lot of effort to make a blog popular. According to some reports there are over a bajillion blogs on the Web. It can be well nigh impossible to get people to frequent yours. To paraphrase a Zen koan, if I update my blog in the forest that is the Internet, and no one sees me do it, does anyone give a !@#? Twitter is refreshingly immune to such crowding out issues. I concede that it can take new tweeple a few weeks to develop a few hundred followers. But once you begin to tweet your free speech with regularity, you are bound to develop a solid following (also the human race is made up of all types. This helps). However, the real boost that Twitter gives to free speech is

rapid word of mouth propagation. Because it is so easy to pass on someone’s opinion—you just need to press a button to rebroadcast a loony right-wing conspiracy theorist’s tweet—Twitter makes your opinions reach thousands of people within a few seconds. And all this without even using proper English. Or any language for that matter. Truly the Internet and Twitter are great for free speech. All this analysis was from a personal perspective. From the perspective of a free speech deliverer. What if you are a free speech consumer? This is also why Twitter is where the real battle for freedom of expression is being fought today. For instance, take the case of celebrities, politicians, journalists and other famous people. Before Twitter, if they had to say something in public, they would do this through some form of intermediary. Perhaps through a spokesperson, a press release or a sanitized, carefully worded newspaper column. In all three cases, the end product is often vastly different from the initial raw idea. But if the same celebrity has an iPhone with a Twitter app on it, he can instantly express raw emotion and feeling to thousands and millions of followers. Look ma, no intermediaries. Without Twitter, it is highly possible that Shashi Tharoor may still have been a minister and Lalit Modi still the owner of cricket. They might even have been good friends, inviting each other for weddings and other family functions. But with Twitter, and copious free speech, both their careers have been ruined. Twitter also allows you to transcend time zones and consume speech. It doesn’t matter if you are asleep when Ashton Kutcher says something or Oprah Winfrey posts a picture of herself. As soon as you wake up in the morning, you can pick up your phone or laptop and sit back and enjoy these critical developments with full freedom. Truly, for these reasons and many more, Twitter is the greatest gift for free speech in this era. It is doing to unhindered expression in the 21st century what the invention of dynamite did to killing people in the 19th. Let us hope that people all over the world adopt this new medium wholeheartedly. I have much more to say about free speech and the role of zero-control communication in our society. But I have reached my word limit.


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INDIAN ARTISTS HAVE EXPRESSED RADICAL THOUGHTS BUT THEY HAVE BEEN VICTIMS OF UNDEMOCRATIC VIOLENT ATTACKS. IF AT FREE SPEECH F REE ALL THERE IS A GAG COME ONLY FROM THE ARTIST SPEECH ON ART, IT CAN SPEECH FREE

the brush speaks

louder than words B Y D EEPANJANA P AL ···························· n 2006, Sanjeev Khandekar and Vaishali Narkar had a show in Jehangir Art Gallery titled Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick. It catapulted Khandekar to notoriety because there were vociferous protests accusing the show of obscenity and it was shut down. Considering the quality of the works in Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick, there’s a strong argument for the protesters having done what many aesthetes may have recommended. However, regardless of the mediocrity of the art on display, the point was that Khandekar as an artist should be free to create and show his work. Mumbai’s art community rallied around him and suddenly, Khandekar shared something with one of modern Indian art’s masters, M.F. Husain: They’d both been accused of creating art that was considered obscene by some. Two years later in 2008, student artist Chandra Mohan’s paintings of Durga, a Shiva lingam and Jesus were destroyed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members during an internal evaluation of final-year art students at Vadodara’s MS University. For once, the VHP had the support of a certain section of the local Christian community, which was not amused by Chandra Mohan’s depictions of Christ. The police followed the vandals and alarmingly, they let the vandals go scot-free but arrested Chandra Mohan for threatening Vadodara’s secular atmosphere. The art community protested again, this time at a national level. Freedom of artistic expression, it seemed, was under attack. It wasn’t. By and large, the mass of the Indian populace doesn’t really care about art, so artists are actually free to do whatever they want to do. Most art doesn’t register on the radar of national awareness and incidents of violence are exceptional (even if the work inspiring them generally isn’t). Art, the kind that is bought by collectors, is considered an elitist arena and as far as most of the public goes, they’re far more comfortable and familiar with a pretty landscape than the delicate violence in an Anju Dodiya painting. No matter how provocative or contentious the work, we’re far from the day when the impact of a controversial piece of art will be as widespread as a film, for example. There have been few efforts to increase public interest in visual arts and none of them

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Montage: (from top) M.F. Husain’s Bharat Mata; a work by Bhupen Khakhar; Manu Parekh’s Interpretation of Benares; and a work by Sanjeev Khandekar, from the show Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick.

have come from the government, which has let state-run art institutions sink into an abyss of mediocrity. Most art schools in the country have primitive syllabi and unimpressive faculties. The National Gallery of Modern Art in both New Delhi and Mumbai is a source of embarrassment, considering their callous attitude towards exhibitions and their own collection. Art in India is a private and personal initiative. Gallerists have created reputations for themselves without any supporting infrastructure. Artists didn’t have a market they had to answer to until the noughties and they were free to respond to the world around them as they saw fit. This is why modern and contemporary Indian art actually has a rather impressive tradition of creating works that go against the grain of conservative thought. Look at F.N. Souza, who poured out his rage against the Roman Catholic machine through his mesmerizing and yet grotesque depictions of Christ. He hadn’t painted as much as savaged the canvases and the contrasting compassion in his nudes is striking. Bhupen Khakhar celebrated homosexuality long before it was in vogue to do so. Paintings such as Two Men in Banares (1982) would still be considered bold for the way Khakhar brought the sacred and the profane together. Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories (2001) attacked the government’s attempt to rewrite history textbooks. For the work titled Blame (2002-04), Shilpa Gupta took on the role of a pedlar in Mumbai and sold little bottles of red fluid with a label that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good. So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality.” The directions for using Blame were: “Squeeze small quantity on dry surface. Neatly separate into four equal sections (can be unequal too). Tell apart sections according to race and religion.” Imagine trying something like this in China. When it comes to nudity, Indian artists haven’t been coy. Almost every significant Indian painter has painted and exhibited nudes, including Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Jogen Chowdhury and, of course, Husain (who was slapped with an obscenity charge in 1996 that was finally dismissed earlier this year). In 1993, Mrinalini Mukherjee made Pushp, a hemp sculpture that showed an enormous vulva (the piece is around 40 inches tall) and can only be described as voluptuous. Subodh Gupta slathered himself in Vaseline and posed flagrantly naked in Vilas (1999). Abir Karmakar paints

gender-bending self-portraits that are often unnervingly voyeuristic and still poignant, like In the Old Fashioned Way (2007). Earlier this year, T. Venkanna showed a painting that was a copy of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, except he had a limp rubber rooster stuck inside the outsized vagina (go on, think of the synonym for rooster). Inder Salim has hugged trees and walked around Delhi naked as the day he was born for a number of his performances. Viewers may have batted their eyelids a little more than usual but no one questioned an artist’s right to create or show works like these. In fact, when photographer Raghu Rai showed his tasteless and sexist “nudies” in 2007, demonstrations by feminists against that particular exhibition would probably have been justified. There’s no doubt that incidents such as Chandra Mohan’s arrest and Husain’s 13-year legal ordeal have made some cautious but it’s worth remembering that India is a country that wants to be a democracy. One in which public demonstrations, like the ones that were organized for Chandra Mohan, can make an impact even if they are by a relatively small group of people. Our laws might be hazy on what constitutes obscenity but at least we have judges who will quote Pablo Picasso and have no qualms in labelling those who harassed Husain as ignorant and narrow-minded. In comparison to the repressive regimes of countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan (all of which produce excellent art despite legal and social straitjackets), the acts of the right-wing minority that have troubled Indian art seem almost pesky. We complain about how the market is the master of the Indian art scene, we lament the absence of proper art education, and we gnash our teeth at the lack of museums and governmental support for art. All these are valid concerns but so far as the freedom of expression is concerned, the muzzle can only be put on an artist by the art fraternity. This will happen if the threat of a few thugs makes gallerists and curators cower, if the artists submit to anxieties instead of using their work to respond to their circumstances. If there is a gag on Indian art, then it would have to be tied by the artist himself. No one else has either the capacity or the right. Deepanjana Pal is the author of The Painter—A Life of Ravi Varma. Write to lounge@livemint.com


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to virtual sex B Y N AMAN P . A HUJA ···························· t the outset I should make clear that I support free-thinking liberalism. I believe that policing is an onerous task that needs refined and mature thinking, a score on which my government has time and again let me down. Censorship and proscription are adopted by oneself, for personal reasons, not at the behest of, or out of fear of, someone who thinks they know what’s best for me. I believe the role of government is to ensure that every individual and type of person has the right to live freely, safely in a country, and that means they should have the right to express themselves freely and safely. Both matters have been severely compromised in “free” India. Those in whose name the censoring is perpetrated claim their sensibilities are slighted while those that are censored are forcibly silenced, prevented from expressing or living their free nature. Herein comes the role of government to make both parties feel protected. But by what criteria is a judge to decide when a man’s free expression needs curtailing? In an age when violent censorship is perpetrated in the name of “cultural values” that are established by self-professed gurus, “tradition” and history are passed around like whores who must adapt themselves to their clients’ needs. We would do better if we had the pluck to actually elevate history to a sophisticated courtesan and seek audience as per her wishes instead. For Indian history’s moods and fancies are so beastly and demanding, replete with so many plural intentions and interpretations, that I would actually defy any one of her admirers to try and come up with any single-point universalism that may be sustained in her court. Indians have always displayed a vacillating attitude towards erotica: rampant consumers of it at one level, embarrassment and even puritanical proscription at the other. The narrowmindedness that stifled M.F. Husain has a long history of precedents and parallels: the infamous case of Chandra Mohan in Vadodara, the 1954 censoring of Akbar Padamsee’s The Lovers and in fact, as early as 1949, when F.N. Souza’s house was raided by the police for “obscene drawings”. It is recorded that Mahatma Gandhi once suggested the erotic sculptures at Konarak be covered by cement plastering—something the intervention of Abanindranath Tagore, John G.

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Woodroffe, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramendrasundar Trivedi and Nandalal Bose averted. Such embarrassment has afflicted scholars too. At his presidential address to the 18th Indian History Congress in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1955, K.M. Panikkar said, “…another problem that faces the student is the decadence that seems to have overtaken Hindu society between the eighth and the 12th centuries… The Khajuraho and Orissa temples for all their magnificence testify to a degeneration of the Hindu mind.” Early medieval art has been associated with “feudalism”, and scholarship has invariably presented it as being the product of royal courts, the major concerns of which were “war and sex”. Feudal debauchery, or a vice of the Middle Ages, is hardly the attitude those scholars who study Indian religion would have us ascribe to erotica. Their interpretations frequently talk of the auspiciousness of bhoga, how kama is one of the goals and stages of life, they speak of the sacredness of virility, the spanda, energy or potentiality that erotic imagery suggests. But the most common interpretation is that it is a coded tantric message. Yet ignorance and fear plague studies of tantra; perhaps the only sanctioned and even institutionalized space to consciously express erotic dirt and depravity. Thank the tantric gods for that! Its scholarly readings remain mired in the promise of double entendres that speak of higher, subtler psychological and metaphysical truths to their initiates, refusing or too embarrassed to also see its importance at face value. We have usually sought to cloak ancient erotica in religion, and this has been as helpful as it has been catastrophic. Even within religion, erotic poetry became a powerful tool used as a means of subversion or, on the other hand, for religious Bhakti’s ecstatic and unmediated union with God. Painting followed poetry in imaging the minute details of Krishna and Radha’s love. Similarly, erotic union became a standard feature of stories recounted at medieval Indian Sufi shrines that were to become a subject of the earliest Carved in stone: A terracotta plaque from Bengal, circa 100 BC.

Indo-Islamic painted miniatures. Despite popular belief, in India the subject of erotica actually entered a non-religious sphere in the Kamashastras (which there were scores of) at an early date. A prolific amount of explicitly erotic iconography seems to have been made right from second century BC onward, when hundreds of terracotta and ivory plaques reveal that the very period that has revealed the earliest images of Hinduism and Buddhism also produced an iconographically consistent codification for sexual images. More recent research on these images shows that the angle of vision of the viewer of the plaques and the direction of the gaze of those depicted on the plaques actually reflect either a self-consciously narcissistic or, at other times, voyeuristic gaze. Yes, a case may be made for these images to exist within a ritual context, but equally, they can be analysed through contemporary studies on visual culture, gender and sexuality to suggest that ancient images may well have had a pornographic vision. Scholars now have available a plethora of interpretations ballasted by all manner of evidence to prove the multiple historical functions of erotica which show how it existed outside “religion”. These need reiteration in our times. And if some aggrieved artist wanted, it is indeed possible to prove that almost any artistic expression and intention has a traditional history. The mithuna or loving couple, for instance, was an auspicious symbol on the gateways of religious shrines, but it was equally a powerful talisman As a (mimetic) substitute for a magico-religious fertility ritual, it may have warded off

foetus-stealing demons, while it was also a symbolic metaphor connecting one architectural structure with another. It was said to help the earth endure the electrical shock of lightning, and elsewhere it became a tool by which one community could poke fun at another. The framework of religion, which is normally assumed to be a broad umbrella term, may also be fractured to shed light on specific cultural practices through a focus on the erotic in everyday life: decorative objects, combs, ornaments, objects of fetish, food and annals of superstition and medicine provide fodder for titillating a partner or providing an aphrodisiac, matters which are out of the purview of ancient Indian religion, but which certainly go into making a rich culture. The fine art of erotica, one of the greatest aesthetic achievements of India, came from centuries of contemplation on matters concerning sex, sexuality and sensuality. This has given rise to dozens of ancient texts on how they interface with psychology, religion, spirituality and philosophy on the one hand, social decorum, appropriate sexual behaviour, courtship, seduction, food and attire on the other. For a culture with such a subtle understanding of psycho-sexual aesthetics, we can now only rely on cinema, television and the print media—the only steady, yet censored, spaces for erotica. Private art galleries are as nervous as the ones run by the State to show art that may be risqué. Why have the curators of these institutions been excluding them—is it their personal puritanism? Certainly not. But gallerists and curators fear not getting the State’s protection for freedom of expression if they do decide to show erotically charged art in public. Is the quest for “liberalization” only relevant when it comes to commerce? Even before one can contend with matters concerning the erotic in India’s cultural practices openly in academic discussions, let alone their public perception, the database of the types of erotica and spaces for erotica in 21st century India has suddenly become so much more widespread that we can barely keep pace with the new face of erotica. Whereas the era of the videotape in the

1980s and 1990s proliferated Western pornography to rural and urban India, new technologies via VCDs, DVDs, the Internet and mobile phones allow for new means of soliciting and meeting partners, and animation adds a whole new dimension to porn, which can be lifelike, but need not actually involve real people or even humanly possible body parts! The erotic turns into a force field as soon as it goes through the circuits of mass production: photography, film, television and new media. In all of these the erotic has been closely allied with the “reality effect” central to mechanical reproduction (ever narrowing the gap between the virtual and real). The question of technology can thus no longer be separated from these discussions: the “virtual” is often somebody’s “real”, and legitimately thus, seeking representation and protection publicly. Virtual reality, online dating and the reports of rape being committed in people’s virtual, or Second Life, bring us to new questions of the experience of the erotic without the presence of the body. But with inadequate representation for Dr Jekyll, how can I expect my State to protect Mr Hyde as well? Time and again, we have seen that society will, in every culture, seek out and fulfil its needs for erotica, and its market is always several steps ahead of those who seek to police it. We aren’t here to judge: What is seen as artistic erotica by some is termed pornography by others. Ultimately these distinctions are based on aesthetic, moral and cultural choices/subjectivities and continue to be controversial. But for reasons historic, psychological, social and cultural (not to speak of economic), it must be given its space. Legitimate spaces for its consumers will, after the initial euphoria, always bring responsible self-governance within the users. Open discourse and free availability bring transparency and an ability to monitor what is being traded, used and exchanged. By creating legitimate spaces for a variety of human behaviour one is able to allow those who inhabit those worlds to secure themselves, feel protected. Equally, we are able to learn from it. It’s not rocket science, in fact it’s the first lesson in parenting. Naman P. Ahuja is associate professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Write to lounge@livemint.com


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FILM CENSORSHIP AND CERTIFICATION MAY CHANGE IF PARLIAMENT PASSES A NEW BILL. BUT ARE BIG FILM­MAKERS AND BANNERS FREE SPEECH F REE WILLING TO EXPLORE ADULTHOOD AND SWITCH OFF THEIR SPEECH SPEECH FREE CONFORMING, AUTO­CENSOR MOTORS?

camera, action, B Y S ANJUKTA S HARMA sanjukta.s@livemint.com

···························· n Hindi cinema, what’s ugly—physically or behaviourally—is profane. Even sacrilegious. There is almost no place for nuts and mavericks here. If at all, the maverick has to be virtuous, someone who protects or enlightens people. You remember Rancho, the pop philosopher, exceptionally bright engineer, loyal friend and midwife, all rolled into one impossible human being in 3 Idiots. The woman, if not motherly or modest, either has to have a change of heart or is doomed to loneliness in the end. Remember Simran, the alcoholic, impetuous girlfriend of a gangster in the 2006 film Gangster? There are many examples. Adulthood in 90% of the films released widely in India is a strangely sterilized state of being. Directors who make these films are obviously full-fledged adults with, I presume, tragic flaws of their own. Creation, therefore, is a process outside of themselves, dictated by the need for acceptance of their characters, conforming to “Bollywood tradition” and tailor-made formulas. Recently, I met a former regional officer, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), Mumbai, to discuss a new draft proposal with Parliament that could alter the black and white structure of film ratings in India. He said, not entirely to my surprise, that in his five years at the CBFC, he had met few film-makers who really protested cuts. The consensus is: Cut as many scenes as you want, but don’t slap an “A” rating because that wouldn’t work with “family audiences”. The producer decides that and the director parrots the line. So while censorship laws have always been an impediment to radical themes and styles in cinema reaching people, the need for conforming to the tried-and-tested, and hence self-censorship or auto-censorship, is an affliction with our film-makers. More so with cinema than other forms of art because it is all-encompassing, mass and economically lucrative—the temple of stars who can do no wrong and who can muster crowd hysteria like no other public figure can. Actor and producer are often one big self-serving mechanism. Exceptions to this rule have been few, but far-reaching. The past decade has seen an invigorated scriptwriter. Directors such as Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and many others in Mumbai and in regional-language films, are free

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Uncut: (from top) Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen; Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan; Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha; and Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution.

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thinkers and stylists—films such as Dev.D, Manorama Six Feet Under, Love Sex aur Dhokha, and Udaan recently, among many others, have altered the “Bollywood” template. But look at the norm: morality is secondary to imagination; it appears most directors and writers don’t look within or what’s around them when they make films. The visible change in mainstream commercial cinema, compared with a decade ago, is largely cosmetic—the technology, the unmistakable stamp of brand-saturated gloss or, sadly, of late, official remakes of lame Hollywood films. Audacious imagination is an oddity. In this scenario, censorship laws and the CBFC act as unnecessary gags. The CBFC can rate a film either “A” or “U/A” (which allows children to watch everything as long it’s under parental guidance). The certification process is simple: The final cut goes for viewing to an examining committee that has an equal number of men and women. They need not be related to films or be educated in films to be members; most of them are “political posts”—for people known to politicians of the party in power. After watching a film, the motley group arrives at a consensus about cuts and the rating. The director meets the committee, presents his case in favour of the scenes chosen for censorship if he wants to. If the director is not happy with the decision, he can appeal to the revision committee, which comprises many members from the film industry, for a verdict. The only Indian film which did not get a certificate from either of these committees and was allowed a theatrical release by the Supreme Court with cuts is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen. Verdicts are based on the provisions of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 (amended only once since then, in 1983). The fuzziness of the provisions makes them malleable to the examiner’s sensibility, which can be a good thing if the selection of members is a foolproof, rigorous or discerning process. The sweeping guidelines: Frontal nudity should be allowed with great caution; vulgarity should not be shown; human sensibility should not be violated. Go judge a film! Documentaries go through the same process and the same guidelines apply to them. It’s an archaic way of judging non-fiction on film, which film-makers such as Anand Patwardhan and Rakesh Sharma have been protesting. If the new Bill is passed, two new ratings, 12+ and 15+, will be introduced. This will make things easier not only for censors, but will also give film-makers more freedom—every kind of film will

have a certified audience. Even so, the biggest threats for film-makers, as for authors, are society’s belief or ideological groups. Undoubtedly, the most tragic and embarrassing moment for Indian films was on 30 January 2000. An angry crowd of Sangh Parivar and Hindu fundamentalist group supporters attacked the sets of director Deepa Mehta’s film Water at Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi. The film’s script, about a young widow in Varanasi, had been cleared by the information and broadcasting ministry before filming began. Eventually, the film was shot in another country. As a piece of cinema, Water was not groundbreaking; it was a mediocre film with a subject that offended some Hindu zealots. Recently, Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan attracted the ire of the Shiv Sena for reasons that lay beyond the film’s content. The film’s actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had commented on the unjustness of not bidding for Pakistani cricketers in Indian Premier League auctions. They wanted to teach Khan a lesson. My Name is Khan, again, was not a great film with radical content, but the reasons for attacking it were shamefully undemocratic. Here’s the only solution to such bigotry: Make more films which are bound to be scrutinized. Make original thought and imagination the benchmarks. Make more “Adult” films. And leave morality to be interpreted by the movie-watching public. While in school in Assam, I remember watching an Assamese film called Agnisnan by director and writer Bhabendra Nath Saikia. It was about an alcoholic, philandering mill owner who marries a young girl from the village and brings her home to live with his first wife, an ordinary, dutiful woman. The first wife decides on revenge. She has sex with the son of the family’s servant, a young man she has always been fond of, and discovers she is pregnant. The young wife is also pregnant. In the end, the first wife tells her husband, “If I can live with a child which is yours and not mine, you can live with a child which is mine and not yours.” I could understand the film at that time, but all my aunts were angry. Newspaper articles and editorials were either scathing, or they extolled the talented writer-director. But the film ran in theatres for days, and Saikia and the lead actor, Malaya Goswami, won National Awards. This was in 1985. There are pioneering film-makers everywhere in India. One way to fight censorship is to allow them to show their work widely, so that the formula diminishes. And so that there is plenty of offence to rail against.


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This art form, a vehicle for dissent and free expression, dates back to early Roman civilization. In its modern avatar, it thrives in parts of the country, including its original Indian hub PHOTOGRAPHS

B Y S HAMIK B AG ···························· ighty-two-year-old Shanu Lahiri laughs when you label her “anti anti-establishment”. She doesn’t deny the tag though. Twenty-five years after the artist completed her first graffiti wall in Kolkata—an inoffensive portrayal of teen life outside La Martiniere for Girls school—the many walls Lahiri has painted since then have reminded viewers of a subtler sensibility in a city scribbled with aggressive political graffiti. In the late 1970s, when Lahiri joined Rabindra Bharati University (RBU) in Kolkata as a reader in the visual arts department, the city’s walls bore testimony to the socio-political turmoil of that era. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, “China’s chairman is our chairman”, “Down with the bourgeois” were some of the dominant statements scribbled on walls. Amid such a chilling call-to-arms, Lahiri plotted visual and psychological relief. “This was the Naxalite period and most political graffiti provoked bloodshed. I feared for children growing up under the shadow of violence. I realized the same art that incited violence could be used to create something beautiful,” says the artist, who studied fine arts at Kolkata’s Government College of

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Public art: (left) Artist Shanu Lahiri’s first graffiti was a portrayal of teen life outside La Martiniere school for Girls; and a graffiti­ laden wall near Elgin Road, Kolkata.

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Art and Craft and art theory at the Louvre in Paris. With the help of her students at RBU, Lahiri’s cartoonish creations added colour to the fish market at Sreebhumi, distinctive expressions of animal life graced the walls inside Fort William, a roadroller at Rabindra Sarobar got a facelift with asymmetric patterns, and the “blood for blood” sloganeering post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination was replaced with figurative and decorative images at Amherst Street, as part of a residents’ project

under Lahiri’s supervision. Most of her creations now survive in photo albums stowed away in her charming Lake Town home; a lone 220ft-long wall of graffiti at Justice Chandra Madhav Road, majestically illustrating the coexistence of man and nature, has survived the elements and municipal neglect. “I used Indian subjects over foreign ones. That added to the appeal of street art,” she says. Kolkata, from being the erstwhile graffiti hub of India, is currently debating—endlessly

debating—a ban on what many consider defacement of walls by political parties. For the city’s growing pan masala-chewing public, graffiti has also come to mean images of Hindu gods and goddesses used as a preventive mechanism against indiscreet spitting. Damayanti, Lahiri’s artist daughter and “freelance dissident”, rues that graffiti art in India is nowhere close to achieving the ingeniously rebellious spirit inherent in the street art of Banksy.


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Omnipresent: (clockwise from top) A roadroller at Rabindra Sarobar near Golpark becomes a three­dimensional canvas; a line of portraits is framed by foliage; a mythological scene on a wall in Phool Bagan; works from I Think Therefore Graffiti, now on at Mumbai’s Guild Art Gallery; and more art at the interstices of a crowded marketplace.

The mysterious Britain-born creator of iconic graffiti art has upped both prices and interest in street art—Sotheby’s auctions saw his works selling for around £96,000 (around `70 crore), and he has had celebrity endorsements from patrons such as actor Kate Moss and singer Christina Aguilera. Not just this, Banksy returned urban graffiti art to its subversive roots with his nine paintings on the Israel-erected West Bank barrier in 2005,. Graffiti is said to have existed from the time of the Mayan and Roman civilizations, but its emergence in modern industrialized society was mired in controversy, with the widespread markings and name tags painted within New York’s subway network and mass transport system in the 1970s. The following decades saw street graffiti being appropriated by hip hop and gangsta rap artists, and it became even more identified with a non-conformist, guerrilla agenda. It found its footing in art and assumed an altogether altruist character with the many unsigned stencil and spray can artworks done on the Berlin Wall, both before and after its fall in 1989. For artists then, graffiti in public or private spaces—done with or without consent—is an alternative form of expression, be it for members of the black community, immigrants, political parties, apolitical parties, anti-consumerism or anti-capitalism forums. For civic authorities, however, illegal graffiti art is often little more than a sign of vandalism and anarchy. Considering that many graffiti artists work under the cover of darkness, infamy is often achieved overnight. In a world of free-flowing movement of thoughts and ideas, it is this element of covertness that Shalini Sawhney, director of The Guild art gallery in Mumbai, wants to incorporate in the latest project of the art gallery, I Think Therefore Graffiti... The indoor graffiti art initiative, which began on 4 August, has around 20 artists working on a wall inside the

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premises, while public participation will be invited on a gallery wall to maintain the tradition of the form’s grass-roots appeal. “Most artists will work at night, in keeping with the spirit of graffiti art, which is often created undercover and in a hurry,” says Sawhney. DJing and B-Boying performances were also scheduled as two vital elements of a graffitihip hop tie-up. Walls in Mumbai’s Bandra area have seen graffiti displays. In Bhopal, graffiti outside the erstwhile Union Carbide factory has communicated the plight of victims of the 1984 gas tragedy. But the buzz around graffiti is now finding an outlet in an India united in cyberspace. The Wall Project, for instance, started with one wall in Mumbai. It now has active members in Mumbai and Delhi, and chapters are coming up in other metros. The Wall Project—Delhi’s Facebook site counts 1,500-odd

members who conduct energetic discussions on the next dull city surface to colour. One of the most prolific graffiti artists in India, whose abstract and often psychedelic paintings can be found in places such as Delhi, Manali and Leh, goes by the name Bond. A foreigner, Bond offers a bird’s-eye view on graffiti’s future in India. He believes the spread of hip-hop culture in a city such as Delhi may draw more people to graffiti, but the cost of spray cans (around `200 each) could prove a deterrent. “So rich kids are the only ones left who could start a graffiti movement out of boredom, in search for new kicks,” Bond said in an interview given to Blog.knowledge-must.com “Street graffiti comes from within a bohemian community. It cannot be created if the artist is not part of the subculture,” reasons Anshuman Das Gupta, a

member of the art history department faculty at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan, who has worked on “site-specific” public murals within the Kala Bhavan campus. His former student, Dhrupadi Ghosh, who is currently engaged as an associate fellow at Sarai in Delhi, thinks she fits the subculture bill. Ghosh was hauled up by the police in 2007 after she passed caustic remarks on the walls of a cinema hall in Bhowanipur which was to be razed for a shopping mall. She used coloured chalk, spray paint and charcoal mixed with glue to get her message across. “When I did my graffiti work, I wasn’t thinking about its Western origins. My work came from my own response and my need to question the establishment,” says the 25-year-old. Every year when Graffiti Kolkata—a group of “alternative writers” who are inspired by the works of the controversial and once-banned Hungry Generation literary movement in Bengal in the 1960s—sets up stall at the Kolkata Book Fair, visitors are allowed to scribble all over. “Amidst the outburst of free speech, a disappointed elderly visitor wrote ‘Limitless monkey business’. It is only when you get diverging views that a graffiti is complete,” says founder-member Sharmy Pandey. In India, graffiti possibly came closest to it radical ancestry when unsigned paintings appeared on the walls in Shillong in June. The images lampooned the Meghalaya state government, the police and the Church, indicting them for corruption and immorality. “It was intelligently done and organized overnight. Shillong woke up to a new form of activism,” says Renee Lulam, Shillong-based independent researcher and writer. “There was a huge outcry from the Church and administration. But nobody missed the point that the communication was very effective.” I Think Therefore Graffiti... is on till 8 September at the Guild Art Gallery, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai.


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2009 Muscle power: Members of Raj Thackeray’s MNS attack those who attended a Samajwadi Party rally in Mumbai. KUNAL PATIL/HINDUSTAN TIMES

2010 Affronted: A Shiv Sainik vandalizes a poster of My Name is Khan following a “pro­Pakistani” cricketers remark by Shah Rukh Khan.

t’s an odd paradox. We profess ourselves a rising world power, we extol our new self-confidence and young aspiration, while simultaneously we also get better at playing the victim: whining and raging at anything that might challenge our beliefs about how superb we actually are—whether it’s an article in Time magazine poking fun at New Jersey’s immigrant Indians, or a serious work of literature or art that raises questions about our capacity to treat one another decently, or about the sexual blamelessness of our heroes and goddesses. Outsiders are left to conclude that we Indians are hyper-literalists, unable to see the joke or ironic twist where it’s intended, incapable of distinguishing an artistic work from the world. That, of course, is not the case: In the cage match pitting Indian irony and discernment against, say, American irony and discernment, I’d place my money on us. What we have is not a deficit of humour or perspective, but a talent other nations lack. We’ve turned the habit of feigning outrage into a national art. This art is underwritten by canny interests. Nowadays, as we seek the wink of profit wherever we look, the taking of offence and the playing at victimhood have become a source of handsome rewards—especially in the political sphere. Our increasingly unequal society, and our continuing absence of social safety nets or a functioning government, produces real victims and genuine tragedies on a daily basis. This victimhood is not commercial; it’s a civil catastrophe. But our newspapers fill up with the pretend victims instead: those citizens gravely wounded by the celebration of Valentine’s Day or the term “slumdog” in a movie. As the psychological affliction of victimhood spreads and is eagerly embraced by groups across our society, it undermines our capacity to think and speak straight, whether about art or religious practices or our shortcomings as a nation. This is so not least because the public authorities who are supposed to guarantee our freedoms of speech and expression—elected politicians, the courts and their enforcing agencies—have perfected an over-solicitousness to the growl and bluster of any and every offended group. The general presumption is that the offended are in the right. On the force of this presumption,

we’ve lost our understanding of the basic purpose of free thought and its expression. Historically, the emergence of arguments vindicating the right to free speech was based precisely on the recognition that ideas and their expression would unsettle us. Mockery and satire, realism and argument, and even insult, were effective in puncturing the pomp and certitude of accepted orthodoxies and beliefs. If the possibility of free speech didn’t cause social and political ripples, why ever would it need some of the finest intellects—Milton, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Tagore—to defend it? Lately, we seem to think that free speech is a contingent, grace and favour grant from government or from the various religious groups in society. Thus it’s essential to recall the outlines of free speech’s defence—for the validity of that defence is universal and vital to us today as we try to make ourselves new and find a place in the world. There are two basic and in my view irrefutable arguments for free speech. First of all, permitting free speech is the only credible position for any society that accepts a view of the world which holds that there are truths still to be found and invented by human beings. That’s to say, we need free speech desperately, unless we believe that all truths have already been discovered in the distant past. But if we accept that there are truths still to be discovered and imagined into being through human experiment, then such new truths can only be found or invented if we leave individuals free to think and say new, unexpected, sometimes scandalous things. The second basic argument is rooted in a view about human identities and their expressive, creative qualities. This view recognizes that individuals experience the world in different and idiosyncratic ways, and that some of us have the capacity to express that diversity in powerful forms. The non-conformity of imagination, and its systematic expression, is what distinguishes humans from other beings. To express our individual perspectives, and to do this without feeling fear, is what keeps us in the game of being human. It does not follow that freedom of expression must never be curbed. That would be as meaningless as to say that free speech should never offend. All speech, including free speech,

depends on rules: rules that set certain limits. The tricky questions cluster around where these limits should lie. In a liberal democracy, such limits are set by human judgement—not by divine prescription or proscription. As such, these rules and limits are discretionary and subject to contest and dispute—they are and always will be a potential source of deep contention. It follows that setting and revising these limits must involve a process of public debate—based on reasoning and deliberation, and not the result of immediate responses to street violence. Three major institutions can encourage such deliberation—the media, the arenas inhabited by elected politicians, and the courts and its enforcing agencies. Of the three, two are failing us: elected assemblies, and the courts. The courts have the burden of responsibility to protect free speech, and their overall record is dismaying. They have been too ready to minister balm to the hurting sentiments of any group that thrusts itself forward—banning, censoring, and even interfering in the content of artistic and scholarly work. The rationale generally offered is that such measures are necessary to preserve public order. But the ironic corollary is that public disorder is now regularly provoked in order to pressure courts to ban and censor. Cause and effect are neatly reversed. The public order argument, therefore,

More than 60 years after we gained our collective freedom, we are still not free as individuals to paint, to film, to write, to imagine the world as we feel moved to. What, then, was the point of struggling to create a free society?

is most often a canard. In fact, we indulge in so much false outrage—about how a book, a painting, a film, degrades our suddenly vulnerable and pitiably impotent gods and heroes—that we are numbed to what is truly outrageous in our social arrangements. All beliefs command a certain political respect—they should be heard. But let’s be equally clear that not all beliefs are equal, nor should they all be shown equal respect in intellectual or moral terms. Some beliefs are correct, others are false; some are better, others are worse. To think that the belief that widows should be burned on their husband’s funeral pyres stands on a par with the belief that all young girls should be educated, is morally repulsive and intellectually stupid. But how are we to find this out, how do we come to evaluations that lead us to reject some beliefs—even if they are embedded in religious world views—and to embrace others? Such matters are not to be found out by consulting holy books or scriptural authorities; nor by polling the offended sentiments of religious believers. We like to think of ourselves as argumentative, as debaters welcoming of diverse views and energized by confrontation. In reality though, what passes for argument is melodrama: shouting past one another, whether in Parliament and state assemblies, in TV studios, or at a railway counters; or else a timid refusal to really engage at all, a cowardly deference to “sentiment”. The truth is, we’re not very good at tolerating views that question, mock or subvert our accepted beliefs—especially if we happen to be able to describe these as our religious beliefs. This collective chippiness—which makes us boastful and seeking the approval of others, but unwilling to take their criticism or questioning—is not a conducive psychological precondition in favour of free speech. Add to this our bedraggled political and legal infrastructure for the defence of free speech. First, Article 19 itself, the constitutional provision explicitly concerned with free speech, is hedged with restrictions. Five clauses pull back the right affirmed, in the name of “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at publiceye@livemint.com

order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. It’s something of a false friend to liberty of expression. Second, politicians and the courts loudly proclaim the infinitely tolerant capacities of our religions, while simultaneously lending support to their every intolerant assertion—close down that exhibition, beat up that film-maker, burn that book, because it ruffles our beliefs. Do we have in fact consistent rules, applicable across belief groups (religious or not religious), about what constitutes offence, and how this should limit free speech? If a self-proclaimed spokesperson of Hindu, Muslim or Christian sentiment can claim offence, shouldn’t a non-believer—agnostic, atheist—equally be able to move courts to restrict religious groups from expressing certain views? In a liberal democracy, protections (and restrictions) for all deeply held beliefs must conform to an equal standard; religious beliefs have no special priority over other beliefs, for example, the belief in artistic or scholarly integrity. And yet over the past decade or so, the freedom of artistic, scholarly and journalistic expression has received steady attacks. Some of India’s most distinguished minds, imaginations and public voices have been the targets. M.F. Husain, Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasreen, Ketan Mehta, Arundhati Roy, Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma, the young Vadodara art student Chandra Mohan, Shilpa Shetty, Nandita Sen, Aamir Khan, Mallika Sarabhai, the American historian James Laine, S.Z.H. Jafri, Mallika Sherawat, Khushboo, Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir, D.N. Jha, Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi, Y.D. Phadke, Salman Rushdie, P.V. Narayanan, Vikram Seth, Jose Periera. The roll call of those attacked and intimidated, in what we like to celebrate as our “argumentative democracy”, is sobering. Add to this attacks on social practices and lifestyles: women in bars, couples in public, and those exercising marriage or sexual choices. Cinema halls showing certain films have been bombed, works of art and galleries attacked, newspaper and TV offices trashed, leading research institutes vandalized. The assaults are in part attributable to class resentment at newly risen economic groups experimenting with

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SUSHIL KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES

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DO WE HAVE CONSISTENT RULES, APPLICABLE ACROSS BELIEF GROUPS, ABOUT WHAT CONSTITUTES OFFENCE, AND HOW THIS SHOULD LIMIT FREE SPEECH? ATTACKS FROM THE OFFENDED HAVE BECOME A HABIT THAT IS NOW SERIOUSLY UNDERMINING OUR MOST FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOM—TO THINK, LIVE AND DEFINE OURSELVES

An artist’s fate: Activists of the Sri Ram Sene vandalize an exhibition of artist M.F. Husain’s works in New Delhi.

SPEECH

SPEECH

for offence 2008

FREE

so-called lifestyles. But the violence is also an expression of anxiety over change, and particular the changing role of women—which carries implications for the family—so often the last bastion against the expansion of personal freedoms. The attacks also and perhaps above all draw on the infinite Indian capacity for political opportunism and profit-taking. The ability to discover offence, to set oneself up to harass such “offenders”, and to mobilize popular fury against them, have become skills essential to mustering support for political purposes. That such attacks have become a habit is now seriously undermining our most fundamental freedom—to think, live and define ourselves as we choose, and to honour the right of others to do the same. That freedom is enshrined in Article 21 of our Constitution—“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”—and is the cornerstone of our personal liberty. It is on this that we might build a more robust infrastructure in favour of personal freedom for all Indians. If we cannot allow criticism and deflation of our certitudes and beliefs, we remove the possibility of reasoning about how to change ourselves—and of change itself. We’ll have to bear the costs of such social stagnation internally, as well as externally, in a world bemused by our simultaneous desire to be accepted as equal to any other society and our defensiveness about our local brutalities. Still, ultimately, it’s not the negative consequential effects of overly restricting free speech that trouble me—it’s the fact that, more than 60 years after we gained our collective freedom by severely provoking and offending the British, we are still not free as individuals to paint, to film, to write, to imagine the world as we feel moved to. What, then, was the point of struggling to create a free society?

SUBHANKAR CHAKRABORTY/HINDUSTAN TIMES

HINDUSTAN TIMES

Targets: (from top) Authors Ashis Nandy, Vikram Seth, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie and actor Mallika Sherawat have been attacked by opponents of free speech.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP


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I

2009 Muscle power: Members of Raj Thackeray’s MNS attack those who attended a Samajwadi Party rally in Mumbai. KUNAL PATIL/HINDUSTAN TIMES

2010 Affronted: A Shiv Sainik vandalizes a poster of My Name is Khan following a “pro­Pakistani” cricketers remark by Shah Rukh Khan.

t’s an odd paradox. We profess ourselves a rising world power, we extol our new self-confidence and young aspiration, while simultaneously we also get better at playing the victim: whining and raging at anything that might challenge our beliefs about how superb we actually are—whether it’s an article in Time magazine poking fun at New Jersey’s immigrant Indians, or a serious work of literature or art that raises questions about our capacity to treat one another decently, or about the sexual blamelessness of our heroes and goddesses. Outsiders are left to conclude that we Indians are hyper-literalists, unable to see the joke or ironic twist where it’s intended, incapable of distinguishing an artistic work from the world. That, of course, is not the case: In the cage match pitting Indian irony and discernment against, say, American irony and discernment, I’d place my money on us. What we have is not a deficit of humour or perspective, but a talent other nations lack. We’ve turned the habit of feigning outrage into a national art. This art is underwritten by canny interests. Nowadays, as we seek the wink of profit wherever we look, the taking of offence and the playing at victimhood have become a source of handsome rewards—especially in the political sphere. Our increasingly unequal society, and our continuing absence of social safety nets or a functioning government, produces real victims and genuine tragedies on a daily basis. This victimhood is not commercial; it’s a civil catastrophe. But our newspapers fill up with the pretend victims instead: those citizens gravely wounded by the celebration of Valentine’s Day or the term “slumdog” in a movie. As the psychological affliction of victimhood spreads and is eagerly embraced by groups across our society, it undermines our capacity to think and speak straight, whether about art or religious practices or our shortcomings as a nation. This is so not least because the public authorities who are supposed to guarantee our freedoms of speech and expression—elected politicians, the courts and their enforcing agencies—have perfected an over-solicitousness to the growl and bluster of any and every offended group. The general presumption is that the offended are in the right. On the force of this presumption,

we’ve lost our understanding of the basic purpose of free thought and its expression. Historically, the emergence of arguments vindicating the right to free speech was based precisely on the recognition that ideas and their expression would unsettle us. Mockery and satire, realism and argument, and even insult, were effective in puncturing the pomp and certitude of accepted orthodoxies and beliefs. If the possibility of free speech didn’t cause social and political ripples, why ever would it need some of the finest intellects—Milton, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Tagore—to defend it? Lately, we seem to think that free speech is a contingent, grace and favour grant from government or from the various religious groups in society. Thus it’s essential to recall the outlines of free speech’s defence—for the validity of that defence is universal and vital to us today as we try to make ourselves new and find a place in the world. There are two basic and in my view irrefutable arguments for free speech. First of all, permitting free speech is the only credible position for any society that accepts a view of the world which holds that there are truths still to be found and invented by human beings. That’s to say, we need free speech desperately, unless we believe that all truths have already been discovered in the distant past. But if we accept that there are truths still to be discovered and imagined into being through human experiment, then such new truths can only be found or invented if we leave individuals free to think and say new, unexpected, sometimes scandalous things. The second basic argument is rooted in a view about human identities and their expressive, creative qualities. This view recognizes that individuals experience the world in different and idiosyncratic ways, and that some of us have the capacity to express that diversity in powerful forms. The non-conformity of imagination, and its systematic expression, is what distinguishes humans from other beings. To express our individual perspectives, and to do this without feeling fear, is what keeps us in the game of being human. It does not follow that freedom of expression must never be curbed. That would be as meaningless as to say that free speech should never offend. All speech, including free speech,

depends on rules: rules that set certain limits. The tricky questions cluster around where these limits should lie. In a liberal democracy, such limits are set by human judgement—not by divine prescription or proscription. As such, these rules and limits are discretionary and subject to contest and dispute—they are and always will be a potential source of deep contention. It follows that setting and revising these limits must involve a process of public debate—based on reasoning and deliberation, and not the result of immediate responses to street violence. Three major institutions can encourage such deliberation—the media, the arenas inhabited by elected politicians, and the courts and its enforcing agencies. Of the three, two are failing us: elected assemblies, and the courts. The courts have the burden of responsibility to protect free speech, and their overall record is dismaying. They have been too ready to minister balm to the hurting sentiments of any group that thrusts itself forward—banning, censoring, and even interfering in the content of artistic and scholarly work. The rationale generally offered is that such measures are necessary to preserve public order. But the ironic corollary is that public disorder is now regularly provoked in order to pressure courts to ban and censor. Cause and effect are neatly reversed. The public order argument, therefore,

More than 60 years after we gained our collective freedom, we are still not free as individuals to paint, to film, to write, to imagine the world as we feel moved to. What, then, was the point of struggling to create a free society?

is most often a canard. In fact, we indulge in so much false outrage—about how a book, a painting, a film, degrades our suddenly vulnerable and pitiably impotent gods and heroes—that we are numbed to what is truly outrageous in our social arrangements. All beliefs command a certain political respect—they should be heard. But let’s be equally clear that not all beliefs are equal, nor should they all be shown equal respect in intellectual or moral terms. Some beliefs are correct, others are false; some are better, others are worse. To think that the belief that widows should be burned on their husband’s funeral pyres stands on a par with the belief that all young girls should be educated, is morally repulsive and intellectually stupid. But how are we to find this out, how do we come to evaluations that lead us to reject some beliefs—even if they are embedded in religious world views—and to embrace others? Such matters are not to be found out by consulting holy books or scriptural authorities; nor by polling the offended sentiments of religious believers. We like to think of ourselves as argumentative, as debaters welcoming of diverse views and energized by confrontation. In reality though, what passes for argument is melodrama: shouting past one another, whether in Parliament and state assemblies, in TV studios, or at a railway counters; or else a timid refusal to really engage at all, a cowardly deference to “sentiment”. The truth is, we’re not very good at tolerating views that question, mock or subvert our accepted beliefs—especially if we happen to be able to describe these as our religious beliefs. This collective chippiness—which makes us boastful and seeking the approval of others, but unwilling to take their criticism or questioning—is not a conducive psychological precondition in favour of free speech. Add to this our bedraggled political and legal infrastructure for the defence of free speech. First, Article 19 itself, the constitutional provision explicitly concerned with free speech, is hedged with restrictions. Five clauses pull back the right affirmed, in the name of “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at publiceye@livemint.com

order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence”. It’s something of a false friend to liberty of expression. Second, politicians and the courts loudly proclaim the infinitely tolerant capacities of our religions, while simultaneously lending support to their every intolerant assertion—close down that exhibition, beat up that film-maker, burn that book, because it ruffles our beliefs. Do we have in fact consistent rules, applicable across belief groups (religious or not religious), about what constitutes offence, and how this should limit free speech? If a self-proclaimed spokesperson of Hindu, Muslim or Christian sentiment can claim offence, shouldn’t a non-believer—agnostic, atheist—equally be able to move courts to restrict religious groups from expressing certain views? In a liberal democracy, protections (and restrictions) for all deeply held beliefs must conform to an equal standard; religious beliefs have no special priority over other beliefs, for example, the belief in artistic or scholarly integrity. And yet over the past decade or so, the freedom of artistic, scholarly and journalistic expression has received steady attacks. Some of India’s most distinguished minds, imaginations and public voices have been the targets. M.F. Husain, Deepa Mehta, Taslima Nasreen, Ketan Mehta, Arundhati Roy, Romila Thapar, Ashis Nandy, Anand Patwardhan, Rakesh Sharma, the young Vadodara art student Chandra Mohan, Shilpa Shetty, Nandita Sen, Aamir Khan, Mallika Sarabhai, the American historian James Laine, S.Z.H. Jafri, Mallika Sherawat, Khushboo, Vijay Tendulkar, Habib Tanvir, D.N. Jha, Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi, Y.D. Phadke, Salman Rushdie, P.V. Narayanan, Vikram Seth, Jose Periera. The roll call of those attacked and intimidated, in what we like to celebrate as our “argumentative democracy”, is sobering. Add to this attacks on social practices and lifestyles: women in bars, couples in public, and those exercising marriage or sexual choices. Cinema halls showing certain films have been bombed, works of art and galleries attacked, newspaper and TV offices trashed, leading research institutes vandalized. The assaults are in part attributable to class resentment at newly risen economic groups experimenting with

FREE

SPEECH

SUSHIL KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES

HINDUSTAN TIMES

DO WE HAVE CONSISTENT RULES, APPLICABLE ACROSS BELIEF GROUPS, ABOUT WHAT CONSTITUTES OFFENCE, AND HOW THIS SHOULD LIMIT FREE SPEECH? ATTACKS FROM THE OFFENDED HAVE BECOME A HABIT THAT IS NOW SERIOUSLY UNDERMINING OUR MOST FUNDAMENTAL FREEDOM—TO THINK, LIVE AND DEFINE OURSELVES

An artist’s fate: Activists of the Sri Ram Sene vandalize an exhibition of artist M.F. Husain’s works in New Delhi.

SPEECH

SPEECH

for offence 2008

FREE

so-called lifestyles. But the violence is also an expression of anxiety over change, and particular the changing role of women—which carries implications for the family—so often the last bastion against the expansion of personal freedoms. The attacks also and perhaps above all draw on the infinite Indian capacity for political opportunism and profit-taking. The ability to discover offence, to set oneself up to harass such “offenders”, and to mobilize popular fury against them, have become skills essential to mustering support for political purposes. That such attacks have become a habit is now seriously undermining our most fundamental freedom—to think, live and define ourselves as we choose, and to honour the right of others to do the same. That freedom is enshrined in Article 21 of our Constitution—“No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law”—and is the cornerstone of our personal liberty. It is on this that we might build a more robust infrastructure in favour of personal freedom for all Indians. If we cannot allow criticism and deflation of our certitudes and beliefs, we remove the possibility of reasoning about how to change ourselves—and of change itself. We’ll have to bear the costs of such social stagnation internally, as well as externally, in a world bemused by our simultaneous desire to be accepted as equal to any other society and our defensiveness about our local brutalities. Still, ultimately, it’s not the negative consequential effects of overly restricting free speech that trouble me—it’s the fact that, more than 60 years after we gained our collective freedom by severely provoking and offending the British, we are still not free as individuals to paint, to film, to write, to imagine the world as we feel moved to. What, then, was the point of struggling to create a free society?

SUBHANKAR CHAKRABORTY/HINDUSTAN TIMES

HINDUSTAN TIMES

Targets: (from top) Authors Ashis Nandy, Vikram Seth, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie and actor Mallika Sherawat have been attacked by opponents of free speech.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP


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handwoven sari

Home­grown: (above) A Neeru Kumar khadi and cotton mix with silk border, approx. `20,000; and an Abraham & Thakore studded cotton khadi sari, with silk Ikat patchwork, `24,650.

Is khadi redundant?” I ask fashion designer David Abraham of Abraham & Thakore. “You mean, because it originated in a social and political context that doesn’t exist today?” he parries. “Because as a symbol, it is no longer relevant? It is the glorification of poverty.” Maybe, but khadi can also be used as a powerful tool; and no one does this better than Sonia Gandhi. The fabric itself doesn’t take your breath away. As Abraham says, “Everyone is carried away by the romance of khadi but as a fabric, it is flawed.” There you have it: the nub of the issue. Many of us urban Indians like the idea of wearing khadi. But the fabric itself is nubby, thready, thick, and yes, flawed. Ironically, true connoisseurs love these flaws because they reveal the fact that it is handmade. Imperfection is the hallmark of the hand. It is only soulless machines that can spin out yard after yard of perfectly alike and aligned yarn. When humans get involved with their hands and minds, the fabric changes. Not all of us have the ability or even the desire to appreciate khadi’s subtlety. Nuance is the purview of poets, not engineers. Khadi is flawed, yes, but that is its brand identity, its charm and indeed the reason it is today a luxury fabric. Unlike mill-woven cloth, khadi gets softer with each wash. As textile maven Martand Singh, who put together a phenomenal Volkart Foundationfunded khadi exhibition eight years ago, says frequently, khadi is the ideal tropical fabric. In 2002, when he was director of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), Singh invited seven designers—Abraham-Thakore, Asha Sarabhai, Ritu Kumar, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Raghavendra Rathore and

Manish Arora—to create designs using khadi for a travelling exhibition and two-week khadi mela. He also showcased 108 varieties of khadi—from the gossamer shahabadi to the coarse Punjabi khes. Today, according to the KVIC, khadi is a `800 crore business employing one million people, mostly women. In contrast, the Indian textile industry contributes a whopping 4% to the Indian GDP—around `23.5 trillion (source: Confederation of Indian Textile Industry). That, as a banker would say, is the spread. Khadi is 1% of the Indian textile industry. To a visionary director of the KVIC, this presents an extraordinary opportunity to promote khadi and grab a larger percentage of the Indian textile pie. Home-grown textiles, much like local crafts, are children of the economy. When a nation’s GDP flourishes, so do its indigenous folk arts, crafts and textiles. With India’s thriving confident middle class starting to look inward for its style cues, design mantras and textile techniques, you could argue that khadi is ripe for reincarnation. Stores such as Anokhi, Fabindia, Bandhej and Soma are popularizing Indian weaves. A rising number of young fashion designers are seeking out local fabrics, crafts and techniques, ranging from Ikat to Ilkal. Then why aren’t more of us wearing khadi? “The main problem with khadi is the KVIC,” says Abraham. “The marketing and the whole concept behind it is really mysterious. The stocks they sit on are quite incredible. It is a faceless organization… Ask my teacher, Aditi Ranjan at NID (National Institute of Design) if you like. She’s an expert in textiles.” Which is how I find myself sitting across from Ranjan in Ahmedabad, eating poha upma at the House of MG’s Green House café. Ranjan has written an exhaustive coffee-table book called Handmade in India. I mention Abraham’s comment and seek her opinion of the KVIC. It is easy to bash a government organization, I say. But is it true that the KVIC is an antiquated organization that needs a revamp? Ranjan pauses before agreeing with Abraham’s assessment. “If you go to visit the NGOs which work in khadi, you’ll see the weavers front and centre,” she says. “At the KVIC, you see more and more officials. The feel is different.” There are numerous textile specialists working with khadi such as Neeru Kumar, Rahul Jain, Rta Kapur Chishti and others. For mainstream fashion designers, khadi is a luxury fabric “sold to a discerning few who are willing to pay the price for it”. Abraham says the Abraham & Thakore label sold

hundreds of khadi throws at The Conran Shop in London for £100 (around `7,320) each. Only a minuscule percentage of that amount trickles down to the weaver. The average khadi weaver makes less than `100 a day; many leave weaving to work on road construction. The trick is to make khadi accessible, well-priced, and stylish for urban Indians for whom this “freedom fabric” has a great cultural resonance. The Pingali Venkayya-designed Indian tricolour can only be made in khadi. The Congress party used to dress only in khadi. Khadi’s style icon is, of course, Sonia Gandhi. If any Indian knows how to use textiles as a political statement, it is Gandhi. Like Indira Gandhi before her, who wore handloom weaves, Sonia too chooses her saris carefully. In the Little Design Book, a wonderful blog about Indian design that includes an Ahimsa mousetrap, design writer Avinash Rajgopal makes a compelling case linking Sonia’s saris with regional politics. “A handwoven sari does not exist in a vacuum,” he says. “Its size, materials, colours and motifs are all intricately tied to a geographic location. It is created by specific communities and holds cultural significance for them. Sonia Gandhi understands this well. While campaigning in Orissa, she wears Kotpad weaves or Sambalpuri Ikat, both of which are produced only in that region. In fact, a survey of the saris worn by her for various public occasions begins to reveal a surprising pattern. She favours Chanderis and Maheshwaris from Madhya Pradesh for official occasions; khadi cottons from Ponduru, Andhra Pradesh, or Tant handlooms from Bengal and Assam for Parliament and other political appearances; and just once in a while, she dresses it up in a fine Ikat from Sambhalpur, Pochampally or Puttapakkam from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Every sari she wears represents a state that has a separatist movement, and/or an ongoing violent conflict with Maoist groups. On a map of India, these economically impoverished regions form a neat pattern of strife that is often referred to as the ‘Red Corridor’. Sonia Gandhi buys almost all her saris precisely from the same regions that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls ‘India’s greatest internal security threat’.” You can poke holes in Avinash’s arguments and pick out saris that don’t conform to this Red Corridor theory. But the point is that Sonia Gandhi, like the world’s great style icons, uses her clothes to make a statement, one that it would behove the rest of us to consider, if not follow.

Shoba Narayan wonders where Sonia Gandhi sources her saris from—does she have her own version of an Ikram Goldman? Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


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Even after retirement, the quest for inclusiveness dominates this legal activist’s work

B Y K RISH R AGHAV krish.r@livemint.com

···························· f there’s one phrase that justice A.P. Shah associates with the safeguarding of freedom of speech in India, it is the common and overused lament of “hurt sentiments”. In case after case, PIL after petition, the 62-year-old architect of the landmark judgement that decriminalized homosexuality in July 2009, has had to deal with knee-jerk outrage disguised as community sentimentality. “Any person who believes in democracy should be worried by this trend in our country,” he says. Dressed in a crisp formal shirt, and speaking in precise, carefully weighed sentences, Shah shakes his head as he outlines his concern. “Intolerance is growing in our society. A reply to something one objects to cannot be made with violence. That is no way to move the public discourse forward.” The examples are easy to recall—from the attacks on news channel IBN 7’s offices in November to the furore over actor Khushboo’s comments on premarital sex and calls for censorship of films such as Deepa Mehta’s Water. “It’s the duty of the court to protect this freedom at every opportunity.” Freedom of speech and expression (“Our courts have consistently maintained this is the most precious of all our rights—the ‘ark of democracy’, ‘the lifeline of any democratic institution’”) is a big deal to justice Shah. It’s been one of the cornerstones of his tenure as a judge—first as an additional judge of the Bombay high court till 2005, then as chief justice of the Madras and Delhi high courts. His judgements— from making Chennai’s buses handicapped-friendly to improving living conditions in prisons—have been described as inclusive, reasoned and sympathetic to the marginalized. “I strongly felt that separating people with disabilities or handicaps to ‘special’ institutions should be done away with. It should be made visible, brought into the mainstream.”

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Born in Solapur, Maharashtra, in 1948, Shah comes from a family of lawyers. “I went to a really progressive school in Solapur,” he says—one that allowed him to indulge in his “obsession” for reading. “One of my relatives had a book store,” he remembers. “He wouldn’t let me borrow books, so I used to sit in this dingy room at the back that doubled as a godown, and read for hours.” After graduating from the Government Law College in Mumbai, he practised first in Solapur, then Mumbai. “You could say I was a successful lawyer, if not an activist one,” he says. He was appointed an additional judge of the Bombay high court in 1992. “Judgeship changed everything. You look at life in a different way, and you’re always involved in a learning process,” he says. An early important case in 1997 involved two documentary films by award-winning director Anand Patwardhan—In the Memory of Friends and Ram ke Naam. “Doordarshan had a policy of telecasting the national award winners on prime time, which they refused to do in this case for frivolous reasons.” Shah dismissed the arguments, and the films were aired. “The state cannot prevent open discussion and open expression, however hateful to its policies,” the bench wrote in the judgement. He quotes a distinctive Supreme Court observation that suppression of freedom of expression must only be exercised if the offending thought is the equiva-

Our courts have consistently maintained this is the most precious of all our rights— the ‘ark of democracy’

lent of a “spark in a powder keg”. During his stint in Mumbai, Shah also ruled in favour of reservation for dyslexic students in Maharashtra classrooms, a move that has dramatically increased the public understanding and acceptance of the condition. “Things are getting better (for people with disabilities),” he says. “But there is still an alarming lack of empathy.” Shah shifted to the Madras high court in 2005—a move that proved challenging. It was a stint marked with volatility and political manoeuvring. “Bombay has a great Bar,” he says. “Madras is slightly different. It’s racked by casteism, and a lot of internal politics.” Soon after his appointment, he ruled against then chief minister Jayalalithaa in a case filed against the political magazine Nakkheeran. Jayalalithaa accused the magazine of defamation after it published an article that alleged she was “taking 4,500mg of tablets every day.” Shah dismissed the argument, calling for public officials to be more open to criticism. A year later, he judged a case brought against a film based on reformer E.V. Ramasamy Naicker, or “Periyar”. “The Ramayana has this story that Ram touched the back of a squirrel, which is why it has those distinctive marks,” Shah says. “Periyar had written a satirical piece asking—if that’s true, how come there are no marks on Sita’s back?” Shah was also involved in dismissing the call for banning the film The Da Vinci Code on the grounds that it hurt Christian sentiments. “The foundations of these faiths, or groups, can’t be this fickle,” he says. Shah was appointed chief justice of the Delhi high court in May 2008. He introduced an important amendment to the Right to Information Act that brought the office of the Chief Justice of India under the Act’s jurisdiction. His landmark 105-page judgement on section 377, which decriminalized homosexuality, was a culmination of the issues Shah has been involved with.

“Strangely enough, the homosexuality issue came up many years earlier, in 1997,” he says. A visiting delegation of German legislators had brought up the law in the course of a discussion, asking why an Indian court could not strike it off. “I made an offthe-cuff remark at the time, and said it would be difficult for an Indian judge to rule in favour of it. Little did I know I’d be that judge a decade later!” Shah retired from the Delhi high court on 12 February. Retirement, however, hasn’t lessened Shah’s zeal. “It’s only been five months, and it all feels so hectic,” he says. In June, he travelled with Medha Patkar and Narmada Bachao Andolan activists through “many districts and “affected areas”, analysing issues of displacement and environmental destruction. “This was a moving experience for me,” he says. “I visited a large number of villages, spoke to people, and headed a people’s tribunal appointed to have a public hearing on the issues.” In July, he was involved with a Delhi-based NGO called the Housing and Land Rights Network, which released a report that found funds meant for the benefit of scheduled caste communities had been diverted to build Commonwealth Games infrastructure. “I’ve decided not to accept any formal assignment, or 10-5 jobs,” Shah says. “But I have to sustain myself with some professional work—so I occasionally act as arbitrator, or do some routine legal work,” he says. Shah is currently involved with an issue brought to his notice by a group of NGOs. “There’s an alarming new trend of abortions taking place when the parents find out that the foetus has developed deformities or disabilities,” he says. “This is a tremendous prejudice against the disabled. When it starts there—a decision not to give birth because of a disability.” Shah hopes to get involved in a campaign to spread public awareness of the issue: “That is the first step. A small, but important one.”


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Expressing dissent through art and culture is at the core of this artist’s activism

B Y A NINDITA G HOSE anindita.g@livemint.com

···························· e was accused of criminal conspiracy. In June 1994, members of the militant right-wing organization Bajrang Dal stormed into the Pune venue of a 20-city travelling exhibition, Hum Sab Ayodhya (We are all Ayodhya). The exhibition, which sought to depict the multicultural roots of Ayodhya, was organized by the New Delhi-based organization Sahmat in response to the demolition of the Babri mosque. The activists had arrived to dismantle one exhibit in particular: the one that depicted the Hindu icons of Ram and Sita as brother and sister, ostensibly suggesting incest. Ayodhya had been an important Buddhist and Jain site, and this version of Ram’s story had been culled from an existing text called the Dasaratha Jataka, a set of Buddhist fables about Ram. The exhibition was promptly remounted, but not without Sahmat and its members being implicated in at least eight cases, including that of “criminal conspiracy”. After an eightyear legal battle, the Delhi high court declared Sahmat and its members innocent, citing the Indian Constitution’s clause on freedom of expression. In narrating this incident, Ram Rahman, one of the founding members of Sahmat, is reassuringly composed. “I have immense faith in the judiciary. We were doing nothing unconstitutional by citing an existing text,” he says.

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At Rahman’s studio-in-residence in north Delhi, his own photographs—largely city portraits—lie strewn about. But it is the posters and pamphlets that have pride of place. Even as we talk, Rahman is in the middle of a prolific email exchange regarding a petition protesting the demolition of a heritage structure that his father, the architect Habib Rahman, had left untouched in his design of the Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi. Dressed in his trademark churidar-kurta, Rahman is a picture of calm. But dissent comes easy. Rahman, 55, was brought up in New Delhi, in a milieu where culture and politics mixed freely. He was born to a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, Indrani Rahman (nee Bajpai)—a dancer who bustled in New Delhi’s activist circles. The artist M.F. Husain, for instance, was a close family friend and Rahman has known him since he was a child. During the recent saga involving Husain’s renunciation of Indian citizenship, Rahman became a resource person for the Indian media. And a photograph surfaced as well: of a two-year-old Rahman prancing around a young Husain. Rahman has been unrelenting in his support of the artist, whose paintings incited right-wing sentiment. In 2008, Rahman organized a symposium that celebrated the pro-Husain high court judgement. In the same year, when the first edition of the India Art Summit refrained from including the artist’s works, he held a protest exhibition at

Clampdown: Bajrang Dal activists at Sahmat’s 1994 exhibition in Pune.

Sahmat. The exhibition was attacked, but he repeated the exercise in 2009 while the India Art Summit was in progress. Expressing political dissent through art and culture lies at the core of Rahman’s work. Considering the genesis of Sahmat, the organization’s many successes illustrate a poetic justice. Sahmat stands for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, an organization of artists and intellectuals that confronts those threatening the basic freedom of speech and religion in India. It is a community of painters, architects, designers, dancers, musicians, graphic designers, textile designers, potters, etc., who came together in memory of the playwright and performer Safdar Hashmi after he was brutally murdered in January 1989 while performing a street play in support of a workers’ strike in New Delhi. The founding members included, apart from Rahman, the theatre director Habib Tanvir, actor and director M.K. Raina, artist Vivan Sundaram and novelist Bhisham Sahni. From a core group of 15, the organization has grown to an all-India network with upwards of 4,000 members. Hashmi was a member of the Communist party, but Sahmat has no declared political affiliation. Sahmat wasn’t founded with any concrete goal except to commemorate Hashmi. But over time, Rahman explains, they became the spokespeople for artistic freedom, especially with the communal temperature rising in the early 1990s, around the time Sahmat was conceived. Rahman’s tryst with dissension started early. He pursued politically charged projects even while attending the undergraduate programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he had enrolled to study physics. At MIT, his prime areas of interest were the Weimar Republic and the Russian Constructivists. Parallel to that, he began to experiment with photography. Rahman describes his time at MIT as a fantastic educational experience with true freedom to move between ideas and subjects. He graduated from the programme in 1977 to study design

at the Yale School of Art, one of the most prestigious art schools in the US at the time.It’s his account of why he despised his time at the Ivy League school that is in many ways a portrait of him:It was “too rigid,conservative and restrictive”. Rahman’s art education and career were peppered by frequent trips to India. By several accounts, his studio in downtown New York—which he had for 28 years before he moved back permanently to New Delhi four years ago—had become a hothouse for Indian artists and intellectuals. Rahman believes that it is important to tie Sahmat’s activism to the national movement. The organization has in the past deliberately staged its events accordingly. A 1994 exhibition of political cartoons, called Punchline, opened on the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. And then again, on the 15 August that followed the Babri mosque demolition, Sahmat organized a grand evening of classical performances called Mukt Naad (roughly translating to “free rhythm”). Of the event, Time magazine reported in August 1993: “Rumours of violence kept audiences small…though Mukt Naad’s reverberations have yet to fade.” “We purposely wanted to link this event pegged to Ayodhya to the national movement since that had stood for something completely counter to what the rightwing forces are trying to do today,” explains Rahman. Last year, Rahman realized that someone had filed a police complaint to take him off the voters’ list on the ground that he was a fake voter; his name was deleted. Rahman fought to have himself re-registered. He is the same man who sold Salman Rushdie’s 1995 book The Moor’s Last Sigh—that had been “unofficially banned” by the Union government—on the streets of New Delhi. Rahman likes to speak ofthis,perhaps becauseitespouses a spirit of protest that transcends a specific religion. Rushdie has been a target for all kinds of extremists, and that is an important case in point. Because Rahman is against censorship and clamps, no matter what their origin.

PRADEEP GAUR/MINT


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Poetry and high­wire acts that grab media attention are the tools of this Tibetan activist’s trade B Y A NINDITA G HOSE anindita.g@livemint.com

···························· n 2002, Tenzin Tsundue climbed the scaffolding of the Mumbai building where Chinese premier Zhu Rongji was staying during his state visit. Tsundue carried a banner that read “Free Tibet: China, Get Out” and shouted slogans even as the police were carrying him out. He repeated the performance in 2005 when Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was addressing a conference at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, standing on the balcony of the 200ft-high tower with a red banner that read “Free Tibet”. This time the police were not as prompt. “I knew they would have to arrest me and I only wish they’d done it sooner,” says Tsundue, flashing a rare smile. The young Tibetan activist had hidden himself in the balcony overnight—and stayed there without food or water—because it would have been difficult to get past security on the day of the official visit. In a 2006 essay published in The Guardian, Tsundue wrote, “We Tibetans have no political strings to pull, no money power or crude oil: but we are willing to sacrifice everything for a free Tibet.” He is acutely aware of the meagre resources he has on call. And for him, the media is the main weapon to amplify his activism. Of this, he talks in frank terms. “Why would the media cover a small guy like me shouting ‘Free Tibet’ on the streets? I have to find ways to make my protests stunning.” So, in his words, he “borrowed” the Chinese premier’s media. Every big media house had representatives stationed to cover Rongji’s visit. All of that got diverted to Tsundue’s high-wire stunt. Tsundue has taken the 12-hour bus ride from Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, where he stays these days, to meet us at north Delhi’s Tibetan camp. Our conversation meanders between Tibetan history, the dynamics of the Indo-China relationship and the merits of Tibetan butter tea.

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The important thing is that we talk of things Tibetan, even if it is the tailoring of his Tibetan shirt. For the last eight years, Tsundue has been wearing a red band around his head as a pledge to his commitment to the Tibetan freedom struggle. “All we have is identity,” he says with a quiet ferocity. While he believes that his brand of activism is essential for the Tibetan movement, Tsundue is encouraged by young Tibetans wearing their heritage on their sleeve, singing more Tibetan songs, being actively involved in theatre, arts, academics. He mentions the activist and writer Jamyang Norbu, who currently lives in exile in the US. Every little expression is a part of what he calls the great struggle. Tsundue even has a positive spin on the current divide among Tibetans—those who’re at peace with the Dalai Lama’s stance of autonomous rule under the People’s Republic of China, and those like Tsundue, who continue to bat for an independent Tibet. But, according to him, this difference in opinion is liberating because it allows for an

Loud and clear: Tsundue protests in Bangalore in 2005.

intellectual discourse within the Tibetan community. The elite Indian media has been kind to him. Tsundue puts his finger on the fact that Indian journalists draw parallels to their own country’s freedom struggle. The international media still views the issue of Tibet as a lost Shangri-La. “But it’s a real breathing country with real breathing people,” says Tsundue. Nothing he does is subtle: His modes of expression, though non-violent, are loud. Like Tsundue himself, who, despite his slight frame, is a large presence—red band, black shirt, a Tibetan flag badge pinned on his lapel, a prayer bell’s conch ring strung around his neck as a talisman. He has just attended a week-long conference of the Tibetan Youth Congress, founded in 1970, in which its over 30,000 members charted a three-year road map for the NGO’s activities. Apart from Tibetan and English, Tsundue speaks Hindi and Tamil fluently. He has done everything he can to become an information resource, a self-appointed press relations officer, for the Tibetan freedom movement. Tsundue was born circa 1975 (no formal records exist) near Kullu, where his parents—forced to leave Tibet after the uprising in 1959—worked as road construction labourers. After scholarship-aided schooling in Dharamsala, he moved to Chennai for his bachelor’s degree in English literature. He then attended master’s-level classes in literature and philosophy at the University of Mumbai. It was here that he had his real education, here that he built his networks and made the acquaintance of poets such as Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar, thespians Sanjna Kapoor and Alyque Padamsee. All through this quest, he wanted to be a journalist. He’d been told that a journalist is someone who spreads the message. The message here was the history and origin of Tibet, one that he found conspicuously missing from his

school textbooks. Tsundue has published essays in newspapers in India and abroad. In 2001, he won the Outlook-Picador Award for non-fiction for an essay on the Tibetan struggle. He also self-published his first book of poems, Crossing the Border, while still a student at the University of Mumbai. Then there were two more: Kora and Semshook. He prints these for `10 in Dharamsala and sells them for `50 at events he is invited to talk at. This is his primary source of income. He has been to Tibet once. After his teaching stint in Ladakh, at the age of 22, he attempted a crossover mission which resulted in four months of imprisonment. That experience of being jailed in Lhasa broke him. “I was beaten continuously and so afraid that no one knew where I was...it was all terribly frightening,” he recalls. Thirteen years later, it seems Tsundue knows no fright. Part of it is because he has accepted Gandhi’s non-violent methods. After the two incidents with Chinese officials that breached security, 15 plainclothesmen were deployed to make sure that Tsundue stayed in Dharamsala when Hu Jintao, the President of China, visited India in 2008. Tsundue has been a bipolar critique of India’s civil liberties. On the one hand, he is immensely grateful for what India has done for Tibetans. But he is confused. “India wants us to speak about Tibet but in a controlled manner.” He is still bitter about the cancellation of the permit for a group of Tibetans to protest peacefully in Bangalore during Wen’s visit. The permission was revoked a day before the event and it gave way to Tsundue’s tower-top protest. The Indian authorities also intercepted Tsundue and about a hundred others on the fourth day of their march to Tibet from Dharamsala, which was timed to protest the Beijing Olympics. Speaking out is all he can do, and Tsundue believes the Indian government allows him to do so, but in measured doses.


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The only artiste to speak against Hindu fundamentalism, he fights big battles with censors and the state to show his work B Y A RUN J ANARDHAN arun.j@livemint.com

···························· lmost all of Anand Patwardhan’s 14 documentary films, made over a period of 35 years, have a common thread—they have been socio-political commentaries, on political manipulation, the Indian identity, caste and religion. Most of them have also run into resistance from the ruling administration, the censure of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the reluctance of the national television broadcaster to telecast them. Most have ended up in courts. All have ended in victories. Today, Patwardhan, 60, has won multiple awards, can retrospectively say none of his films brought the consequences detractors warned of and can take in his stride the opposition that is likely to come the next time he picks up the camera. “All predictions of dire trouble were unfounded. My films were shown and there was no trouble because they are eminently reasonable. They do not arouse people to violence; they question and oppose fanaticism and hatred,” he says. Starting in 1974 with Waves of Revolution, shown underground during the Emergency, to the 2002 film War and Peace, Patwardhan’s documentaries have had predictable trajectories—the CBFC would ask for cuts, the CBFC tribunal or the courts would pass without cuts; Doordarshan (DD) would reject, the courts would order a telecast. Patwardhan says the board and DD have a paternalistic attitude towards what people can absorb. “The Indian audience is smarter than a

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censor board, which is scared of its own shadow. If the censors don’t cut something, they feel they have not done an honest day’s work. Their job should actually be defined in reverse, with the weight towards freedom of expression,” the Mumbai-based film-maker says. “The other problem is the structure of a censor board, whose panel members are chosen by the political party in power.” Patwardhan adds that the censor board hasn’t changed its methodology or learnt from the court cases it keeps losing. It was while studying sociology at Brandeis University in the US in the early 1970s that Patwardhan got involved in civilian action. His university was active in the anti-Vietnam war protests, which is when he began shooting for the first time with borrowed equipment. “I got into film-making by accident, to talk about issues I was involved with, but later, having an audio-visual medium helped in places where literacy levels were low,” he says. He returned to India to work in rural development and education in Madhya Pradesh before being drawn into the Bihar anti-corruption movement, during which he began filming again. “I borrowed a movie camera—a basic home movie type of camera. The footage from that day eventually got made into a rudimentary film that had to go underground because of the Emergency,” remembers Patwardhan. The film, Waves of Revolution, was shown on DD in 1978 after the Emergency. The censor board recommended cuts for his next film, Prisoners of Conscience, in 1978 but a timely letter from film-maker Satyajit Ray helped it get through without changes. “Since then to now, almost

every film gets into problems with the censor board and/or with the national broadcaster. But our films have no meaning unless widely seen,” says Patwardhan. “The only way is to air it on TV. At least in the early days, the only TV was DD, which would always reject the films. We would then take them to court saying they are denying my freedom of speech and the public’s right to information.” But the constant battle has neither deterred nor perturbed him. He says: “We have to defend the spirit of the Constitution, which has granted freedom of expression. If you don’t fight for that each time, the state will keep trying to take control. Luckily, judges interpreting this have laid down that when the censors consider a work of art, or book or film, they cannot consider the lowest common denominator—some nut in the audience who is going to get upset about something. They have to conceive of an audience of reasonable people.” What surprised Patwardhan was the reaction in Pakistan to War and Peace, a film that promotes Indo-Pak friendship and opposes the nuclear arms race. Not only was it screened on a business TV channel in Pakistan, this was followed by a dignified debate between Patwardhan, a Pakistani anti-nuclear scientist and two establishment hawks. In India, the CBFC asked for cuts but was directed by the court to pass it with a “U” certificate. It was telecast by DD only after a court order and without any open debate. “Our media has deliberately avoided any attempt to think about these issues in a rational, scientific manner or in a way that would actually expose the manipulations. Our own

nuclear nationalism was born out of a desire to emulate the US, the only nation to have dropped an atom bomb. Our media is equally derivative. It is party to sensationalizing issues and playing the ratings game. The only time I could get any of my films on TV in India was when I won court cases against the national broadcaster. We did that six times. But private channels reject my films because they clearly want a dumbed-down audience that is not allowed to think about real issues; so they reduce everything to 5-second bites,” says the film-maker. During the TV discussion in Pakistan, Patwardhan argued that nationalism, or being a “super patriot”, is a “disease of the elite”. He explains: “They have solved their food and shelter problem, so it’s not the economic situation they are worried about. They are worried about the next rung, their identity, and how to feel great about themselves.” The issues he has filmed have been varied—for instance, Ram ke Naam (In the Name of God, 1992) was about Babri masjid, Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha (Father, Son and Holy War, 1995) is about the psychology of religious violence as a product of masculinity, while Hamara Shahar (Bombay: Our City, 1985) is about slum dwellers. Patwardhan says he does not pick subjects, only reacts to situations after they begin to trouble him over time. He takes two-seven years to make a film. There is no script; he just follows his instinct, gathering material, “till the material starts to talk and linkages develop over a period of time”. “I take out the camera only when I am upset enough. I would rather not make films all the time.”


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A lawyer, an IIT professor, a music composer, a film­maker—meet people behind the ‘copy­left movement’ who champion open licensing PRIYANKA PARASHAR/MINT

B Y P AVITRA J AYARAMAN pavitra.j@livemint.com

···························· bscurity is a greater threat to authors than piracy,” Nina Paley quotes free speech champion and publisher Tim O’Reilly to explain what she considers to be the best decision of her life. In 2008, the writer, director and producer of Sita Sings the Blues decided to put up her animated film on Creative Commons, making it available to the public for free and legal sharing, use, repurposing, and remixing. For Paley, who retold the Ramayan from Sita’s point of view, and in turn told the story of her own heartbreak from a broken marriage, a free licence was the only path to take for a work that she made to liberate herself. The decision paid off. The decentralized distribution saw her film getting more than a million hits and downloads on YouTube.com and Arkive.org— and these are just the clicks she has been able to track. “Ever since it was made public, Sita Sings the Blues has been as spoken about as any film which is backed by a producer and a legal copyright,” says Paley, who also fought a frustrating and expensive copyright battle for having set the film to the music of 1920s’ jazz musician Annette Hanshaw. At the time, India wasn’t far behind in its understanding of the power of open licensing. Just a year before, in 2007, Lawrence Liang a 35-year-old lawyer based in Bangalore, and Shishir Jha, associate professor at the Shailesh J Mehta School of Management, IIT Bombay, had launched Creative Commons India to popularize the concept. They started the “copy-left” movement, quite literally the antithesis of the restrictive copyright law. CC, as it has come to be known, is a non-profit founded in the US in 2001. It has six kinds of licences, all of which come with a need for attribution to the creator and permission to share. Some allow remix and commercial use, some don’t. Liang points out that breaking away from the copyright law allows artists to truly own their works. “Only successful artists ever make money out of royalty and more often than not, the copyright is held by a producer, record company or distributor. Where in this is the creator?” asks Liang, who works as legal lead for Creative Commons India. Liang believes little has been done to promote and execute the concept, though it has been taken up for study by several organizations. “CC became critical in the US because an increasing number of artists began to think that their creativity was actually threatened by a thick notion of copyright (which makes the creative process restrictive),” he says. Does that mean copyright licence gives Indian artists, professionals and academics a false sense of security? “It’s a matter of perception and depends on what the owner of

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ABHIJIT BHATLEKAR/MINT

Free for all: (above) Musician Ish S. uploads his music on the Internet so listeners can have easy and free access; copy­lefters Shishir Jha (left) and Sridhar Iyer, professors at IIT Bombay.

rights wants in benefit,” says Delhi-based lawyer Saikrishna Rajagopal, emphasizing that what matters is the ability of an owner to exercise his right, be it through free or traditional licensing. Rajagopal explains that under the current Copyright Act, 1957, the concept of CC fits right in. “There is a mention that a copyright without a monetary consideration is acceptable, which in turn only means a licence with a necessary attribution to the creator,” he says, agreeing that open licensing and free distribution enable high visibility and often allow artistes to kick-start their careers. Rajagopal says the changes proposed to the current Act, which might make monetary specifications necessary for copyright licensing, will break all the bridges between CC and the Act. “But we’ll know that when it hap-

pens” he adds. The copy-left concept has been best understood and put to use by engineers and coders in the IT domain. “Techies who are not bound by company policies share and borrow freely,” says Liang, indicating that this is yet to happen outside the world of IT. Jha, his associate and project lead of Creative Commons India, agrees: “Just in the world of academics, there is a lot of good content. One’s first instinct should be to share the work as opposed to bind it. With this project, I hope that over a period of time we can create an ecosystem that is more agreeable to sharing.” Sridhar Iyer, associate professor at the department of computer science and engineering, IIT Bombay, is spearheading Project OSCAR, which stands for

Open Source Courseware Animations Repository. The project has around 300 Web-based interactive animations that can be downloaded and used by students and animators across the world. Licensed under CC with an allowance for both distribution and derivation, OSCAR allows anyone to download an animation and tweak it according to their personal requirement. “A higher education student can play around with the mechanics of, say, a robotics arm, work with how it moves, etc. That way the learning is practical and efficient,” says Iyer. The site has received at least 6,000 hits from more than 90 countries every year since its inception in 2004. But that is all Iyer knows about the popularity of the site. “The aim of the project is for it to be viral in its reach,” he says, speculating that animations are probably being posted by other individuals, making the distribution non-linear and impossible to track. Ish S., a composer and sound artiste based in Delhi, found that he was trapped by the copyright law. After a few restrictive experiences with record companies, Ish began to study free licensing in 2006. Working primarily with electronic music, the musician found the use of CC liberating. “I find that an open licence comes with the right understanding of a musician, as opposed to the traditional copyright which, more often than not, aids the benefit of the record company,” says Ish, who adds that over a period of time, “copy-left” has the potential to be used in commercial products as well.

An album compilation featuring artistes from around the world called t0 and produced at the Sarai Media Lab, has been released by Sound Reasons Records under a no-derivatives CC licence. So the end user can share the works at a personal level but not for commercial purposes or as a base or contributory element for another work. Ish is more liberal with his individual compositions. “If anyone wants to use my music, they are free to do so. They just have to get in touch with me,” he says. He wishes more musicians would come out of the sterile environment of the Indian copyright law and “let the inspiration flow”. But there are those who argue that open licensing is not limited to CC. Prayas Abhinav, an artist who also teaches at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, says free licensing is philosophy more than mere legality. Abhinav first used the CC licence in his blog journal, his poetry, and his magazine Crimson Feet. Intrigued by the concept, in 2006-07 he volunteered to work with the CC cell incubated in IIT Bombay in 2004. “While CC is a great start, we have to go a step forward and understand that free licensing is about the flow of ideas,” he says. As an art school teacher, Abhinav points out that licensing is something students think about even when in art school. “Many of them take calls on the kind of ownership they want of their work in the future,” he says, adding that this is an indication of growing awareness. Ish’s music, which streams freely on the Internet, is a combination of ambient sounds and digitally mastered tones. Esoteric as his music is, he says, “The listening of music is an essential part of the whole music creation process.” His audience defines his work.


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B Y R AHUL J AYARAM rahul.j@livemint.com

···························· hen Mark Twain set off for a cruise in April 1907, bad weather ensured there was no news of him for a few days. The Fourth Estate went into a tizzy. The New York Times speculated he may have been “lost at sea”. Letters began pouring in to the newspaper’s offices singing hosannas about the man, his work, and his possible untimely death. But Twain returned to the Big Apple hale and hearty. And then offered this gem in the form of a letter to the editor of the paper: He offered to “...make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea. If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” The reports of his death, he said, had been greatly exaggerated. Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene and Jonathan Swift are just some of the great men of letters who penned their views for the letters pages of newspapers. Greene almost had a parallel career as a letter writer for The Spectator and wrote in from datelines across Africa and Latin America. At our end of the globe, things weren’t all that different. The independence movement was often inspired by the ideas put out by a fast-growing Indian press. Indeed, journalistic writing—which included letter writ-

W

ing—helped give a voice to many political and literary figures. Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were famous for their epistolary correspondences with newspapers too. Internet, TV and reading-unfriendly activities notwithstanding, our newspaper letter writers are still going strong. If, as Arthur Miller said, a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, he’d be both happy with argumentative Indians and their contributions to the letters section of papers. Some of the veteran writers have had up to 6,000 letters published, on topics ranging from politics, economics and human rights to cricket, music, cooking and humour. Jacob Sahayam, who retired as assistant divisional manager from the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is one of the most prolific among this group of wordsmiths. Sahayam’s very first letter appeared in the India Today magazine in 1987. His byline count is now “a little more than 6,000, and that’s not counting the rejections”. “I write due to an unstoppable need to express myself, and quite often I find myself not agreeing with what I read in newspapers and magazines,” he says. Sahayam began by commenting on financial affairs, economic policies and “public grievances” such as insurance and education loan issues. His

first published letter was on employees’ dearness allowance. “I heard my then maid speak about her husband’s problem when it came to dearness allowance and wrote about it.” In time, Sahayam began to comment on subjects such as children’s and women’s issues. But what’s the trick to being published so many times? Over years of writing, publication and rejection, Sahayam realized his word limit should not exceed 150-200. “Earlier, publications took 300-word letters too, but now the word limit has gone down,” he says. This letter-writing veteran reads newspapers and magazines at the Trivandrum Public Library. Ashok Goswami, a Mumbaibased marketing professional who has been writing letters to newspapers since 1977, understands that newspapers have a space crunch, but also wishes exceptions could be made—especially for ideas that affect the public at large. “I think as a people, we Indians don’t speak out and stand up when we (see) some wrong happening. We’re made to live with certain kinds of realities due to the policies of the government,” he says. “But I see to it I’m saying something on an issue that has not been caught or captured by the reporter of an event or issue.” For Goswami, letter writing is a way to address moral questions.

ashok goswami MARKETING PROFESSIONAL

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Mark Twain wrote them. So did George Orwell and Graham Greene. Writing letters to newspapers is a habit with some. We met five men for whom it’s a passion—and akin to a moral obligation


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subramaniam RETIRED SYNDICATE BANK OFFICER

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RUNS HIS OWN CEMENT COMPANY

He recalls his years in Punjab in the 1980s and is still proud of the fusillade he sent to newspapers in Chandigarh almost daily on Sikh militancy and state responsibility for the situation, while pointing to the root causes of the conflict. “I write letters because I don’t want to keep quiet if there is injustice going on,” he says. “A really good letter, I feel, should not conform to the views which we get everywhere. It must add something new, give us a new thought.” Goswami has had nearly 500 letters carried in publications across India, and a slice of them have been about everyday grouses such as erratic water supply, overcrowding in local trains and corruption. If Goswami has endless problems with the “government of India”, Gulshan Kumar Arora reckons he can give readers an “insider’s insight”. Delhi-based Arora retired recently from the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB). A law graduate, he has had letters published in major newspapers in Delhi over the past 15 years. “I write letters to express my frustration as a citizen of this country,” he says. “I’m more interested in bringing to light the misguided policies of the government which go against the common man,” he says, explaining his latest missive about municipal corporation money being utilized for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. “That is our money, has

anyone asked us permission to use it?” “As common citizens, despite things like the RTI, I feel we have no power over our present and future. That’s why I write,” says Arora. But this doesn’t mean he cuts an eternally grumpy figure. “I love reading about food,” he says, “and also wrote a letter as a response to one of columnist Vir Sanghvi’s dal preparations. I was delighted when the publication published my recipe of thikri ki dal!” Like other letter writers, Goswami feels the desire to correct the image about his environment and his country. He was so proud of boxer Vijender Singh winning the Olympic bronze medal that he wrote a lengthy letter on how youngsters from rural areas are winning India more accolades than those from big cities. As he goes on, he feels a pinch of regret that he settled for life in the DVB, whereas “journalism would have been so much fun”. Fellow tribesman C.K. Subramaniam is a missives man unlike all others. He has an opinion on everything related to bat and ball, and he has expressed them in countless letters to the editor. The retired Syndicate Bank officer in Navi Mumbai says he has “cricket running in his blood”. Not only has he played the sport, he has umpired in the Times Shield, a club-level

tourney in Mumbai. He also has a collection of 600 books on the game. His views on cricketing matters have a touch of reverseswing to them. “Yuvraj Singh is not a Test-class batsman,” he asserts, referring to India’s woeful performance recently during Muttiah Muralitharan’s last match in Galle, Sri Lanka. “He shouldn’t have been picked.” He doesn’t like the Indian Premier League and believes Brian Lara is a greater cricketer than Sachin Tendulkar. Subramaniam has arguments on everything from cricket administration to the quality of Indian pitches, and many of these comments have been published. The one unifying theme for these writers is their exasperation about daily living in contemporary India. Be it bad roads, corruption, dowry deaths, or governmental apathy, the country rarely makes the cut in their eyes. Says Mumbai old-timer Bhagwan Thadani, who has had around 3,500 letters published since 1980, “I react strongly when some injustice is done.” Thadani, who runs his own cement company, is engaged primarily with the city’s issues. The number of letters he’s written about potholes and open drains can fatten many sarkari files. “If you as the citizen don’t speak up, or write about it, no one will care,” he says. “People don’t realize they can have the power to voice their

opinion and be heard too.” All these writers say they adhere to the dictum of “short is sweet”. The letter should be to the point, and invariably with reference to an article in the publication. Have any of their letters gone on to make a difference to the lives of folks around them? Yes and no. Sahayam recalls, for instance, a letter he wrote many years ago highlighting the crowding and confusion at the State Bank of Travancore branch in Kundra, near Quilon, in Kerala. “Weeks later, not only did State Bank of Travancore write back to me thanking (me) for my suggestions, but it also opened a new counter to ease the flow of clients coming in,” he says. But even if the letters don’t make a difference, muses Sahayam, “It’s better to have tried than kept quiet.” And going by the writings of this passionate group, a good newspaper is a nation screaming at itself.

jacob sahayam RETIRED ASSISTANT DIVISIONAL MANAGER (LIC)

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bhagwan thadani


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A brief history of how we became the citizens who stopped speaking


Lounge for 14 July 2010  

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