Grannies in India daily escort their young wards past shockingly erotic “art” on temple walls without embarrassment. Where Western visitors are reduced to blushes in Khajuraho, their Indian counterparts don’t turn a hair at the prurient nature of the sculptures. Several paintings from the miniature tradition could cast doubt on the moral credentials of the nation, but these have never caused offense. Indeed, for many Indians, these works aren’t worth a second glance — and we’re not discussing adolescent teenagers here. Why these same people turn to violence when it comes to viewing art in a gallery is a subject of some debate, but attempts to muzzle creativity and freedom of expression are hardly new, as the wise people who approved the NCERT books with cartoons as illustrations are discovering to their horror.
If the art industry has been largely spared censorship, it is on account of a 1954 judgement that accompanied Akbar Padamsee's painting, The Lovers, for which he was hauled to court for having the temerity to depict a man’s hand on a woman’s breast (art critic Rudy von Leden had collected photographs of Indian sculptures in the same pose in Padamsee’s defence). The judge, a liberal, pronounced that art and artists must remain outside the purview of society’s bigotry. While that did little to combat scathing prejudice when it came to nude works, it at least kept artists out of trouble and jail.
Still, it was only a matter of time before objections to nudity were replaced by other perceived offences, such as intolerance to nationalism (Surendran Nair’s long-winded title An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus died a short death when the painting of a naked Icarus atop the Ashok Pillar was withdrawn from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art), insults to religion (Husain’s depiction of “nude goddesses” and a Baroda art student’s depiction of Hindu and Christian figures), and more recently, the disfigurement of paintings because the artist who painted them was gay.
Do artists gain or suffer from such notoriety? Padamsee and Husain were already established and unlikely to be impacted by such flak, though Husain’s work did disappear from public gaze (and the artist was forced into exile from the country), and for a while buyers seemed wary of acquiring his works, but any fall in his prices was temporary. What it achieved was the removal of works likely to be deemed offensive from auction catalogues, and the appearance of reluctance in buyers to invest even privately in what have, in effect, become tainted works for fear of being victimised. Nair continues to paint and the hullabaloo seems to have made little difference to his career. As to Balbir Krishna, the artist who was attacked for being gay, he will need to prove himself before figuring out his worth, but if infamy has made his a familiar name, it has probably also made galleries wary of displaying his work.
These artists did not set out to offend, but there are others who, in aiming for the satirical, wield their paintbrushes like scalpels to draw blood — they aim, in effect, to insult. Farhad Hussain comes instinctively to mind among the younger artists, as does Ved Gupta; then, there are the caricatures of Shyamal Mukherjee, Dharamnarayan Dasgupta and Sanat Kar. While all these artists have done well for themselves, none of them can be said to have peaked in value — perhaps because Indian collectors do not like humour, or like it less. In England, Beryl Cook’s collectors are legendary, but Indian collectors seem to prefer their art without any hint of malice.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated