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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Indian artists fear intolerance
By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Mumbai

Artists hold protest for freedom of expression in Mumbai
Artists hold a protest for freedom of expression in Mumbai

A sudden increase in the number of legal cases being filed against artists, actors and writers for "offending" people has caused great concern in India's art community.

Last week, a 23-year-old art student spent the weekend in jail in the western city of Baroda after some of his paintings depicting nude religious figures upset a lawyer.

In April, following a complaint lodged by another lawyer, a court in Jaipur issued arrest warrants for Hollywood actor Richard Gere and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty after he repeatedly kissed her on the cheek during an Aids awareness event in the capital, Delhi.

Legal proceedings in this case have now been suspended by the Supreme Court.

Art is subjective and not a real life depiction
Lawyer Karan Singh

Renowned Indian artist MF Husain has also been in the news - he went to live abroad more than a year ago after he was accused of obscenity in various court cases over a painting in which he represented the country as a nude goddess.

India is the world's biggest democracy and freedom of expression and speech are constitutional rights, guarded and implemented with the greatest zeal.

'Not in tune'

However, the art community is coming up against rising intolerance over how it expresses issues relating to religion and sex.

Professor Shalini Bharat, a sociologist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says this is due to internal dynamics - one section of the country has moved ahead while another is lagging behind.

"Change in India has not been uniform and all pervasive," she told the BBC. "While one section of Indian society feels closer to Western culture, the other is still not quite there.

Artist Jaideep Mehrotra
The increasing economic disparity between people makes some squirm at the smallest thing
Artist Jaideep Mehrotra

"So when they see artistic expression that is not in tune with their idea of Indian culture, they feel it is being taken away from them and they protest against it."

The protests usually involve angry crowds shouting slogans, burning effigies and demanding the removal of a painting they say is obscene, or a kissing scene they don't like in a Bollywood film.

On some occasions, films and books have even been banned after they were deemed to have hurt Indian people's feelings.

At times, people have become violent and vandalised art galleries, as well as threatening artists with dire consequences if they do not withdraw the work of art deemed offensive.

Artist Jaideep Mehrotra believes a dialogue needs to be started between the artists and those who protest against their work to help them understand each other.

"Art and painting have always been seen as for the rich and famous. The increasing economic disparity between people makes some squirm at the smallest thing.

"We need to start talking to them, make art accessible to them so they understand it and realise it is for everyone," he told the BBC.


Some others from the art community believe media reportage, too, has a role to play in the rise in cases over alleged obscenity being filed across the country.

MF Husain
MF Husain apologised for his nude India painting

They say the immediate spotlight that is put on the complainant once he or she files a case against a high-profile artist or actor and the extensive coverage given to such cases encourages others to follow suit.

Sociologist Nandini Sardesai says these voices are more vociferous, more articulate and make their point known loudly and clearly.

If the media ignored these cases and did not give them any prominence, they would surely die down.

But legal experts say the real issues are not dealt with when such cases are taken on by already overburdened courts, further delaying verdicts in trials that have been going on for years.

Supreme Court lawyer Karan Singh said these cases are "absurd" and higher courts must come down heavily on lower courts that hear them.

He said: "The judiciary is already stretched and then we have such cases that take up more time and energy of the courts.

"Other important trials are bound to suffer. For instance, I am involved in a murder case that began back in 1982 and the hearing in that matter is still continuing."

He also made a distinction between art and pornography.

"Pornographic content in photographs and movies is prohibited and it should be because they are real life depictions.

"Art is subjective and not a real life depiction. For those who claim they are exercising their freedom of speech, I would say they should not be curtailing another individual's freedom of expression."

Here is a selection of readers' comments

I am glad that artists are coming forward to defend their rights and letting their presence be felt.
Azad, Afghanistan

India is the biggest democracy in the world and freedom of the people must be respected at any cost. Artists should be free to express themselves.
Ashish Shukla, London, UK

You can't make art out of bothering people, hurting their sentiments, stirring up nuisance, et al. Leading painter MF Hussain painted nude pictures of Indian deities but backed out when was asked to endorse the cartoons published by the European newspapers as freedom of speech or even as art. What kind of double standard is this? Let Hussain acknowledge the cartoons as form of art and fight for them as an act of freedom of speech and then table the matter of so called art which the so called artists are coming up with. It is insanity, not art to paint toilet seats with pictures of deity, whiskey bottles in the hands of Goddess Durga, nude pictures of deities, deities on shoes, etc. Such acts should be looked upon as a cognisable offence punishable by law. Such artists are only seeking cheap publicity.
Satish Thengdi, Bombay, India

Feelings are purely an individual matter and artists are bold enough to express them. One should keep cool if one is in disagreement with a piece of art and is not able to get a meaning out of it instead of getting angry and making an issue out of it.
Kamran Amin, Lahore Pakistan

I believe freedom of expression is only valid when you are not hurting any body feelings.
Imran, Pakistan

When artistic freedom is not balanced with an awareness of artistic responsibility which entails social, economic, cultural, and religious contextual sensitivity, one paves the way for licentiousness and artistic perversion masquerading as artistic freedom.
Mary Cuttino

The simple rule is 'give respect and take respect'.
Ashu, New Zealand

The real problem is that the Indian Government hasn't done its job in raising the standard of living and education for all Indians. While the middle-class artists long for artistic freedoms and Western-styled excess, the majority are mired in poverty and ignorance and "freedom" seems to bring out only their worst characteristics. Raising the standard of living and making the entire population literate and aware of what a democracy is the only true solution.
Dr. Raj Chandarlapaty, Miami, FL USA

While artists have freedom, they don't have the freedom to offend another person.
Ganenthiran, Canada, Ottawa.

India is the world's most tolerant country, but there has to be some limit to cheap publicity stunts. However, having said that let me mention that there will always be someone looking for cheap publicity. That doesn't mean law and order shouldn't be maintained. It should be maintained at all costs and charges against such persons in court are better than street violence. No innocent person should be caught in the cross fire.
Hitarth Trivedi, Dallas, USA

I don't know why people in India waste time protesting for such things when there is so much better they can do with that time for the country!
Kay, San Diego, USA

This is a big dilemma. There are one billion viewpoints in India on tasteful art. To be secular at heart, both in religion and art is the biggest challenge before all of us Indians and it is very important to allow freedom of artistic expression to flourish. At the same time, the onus is on the artists not to cross some traditional boundaries. In this particular case, I am with the artist and against the art and cultural police.
Vivek M, Seattle, USA

In my opinion everyone should know where is the limit. People do all sorts of negative things to get into limelight. This painter would not be so famous had he been just painting in some sleepy corner. Those who support him and his likes should know more about 'freedom' outside India and talk. I guess people living in India have got too much of freedom.
Subroto Chatterjee, Hague, NL

The ultimate result of such violent protests (as done by a political leader and his supporters) against any form of art will be to encourage common people to take law in their own hand whenever they disagree with something or someone. There is a clear trend that internal terrorism and extremist communist movement is on the rise almost all over India. Such high headedness and criminal activity by "responsible" political parties and its supporters will only encourage such extremism. We do not want a conservative, fanatic, Hindu Taleban type society.
Jay, Columbus, USA

I thought India was suppose to be a democratic country. What's the use living under "democracy" in that country when no one can express themselves of being free? The people of India needs to wake up and realize that a perfect way of life doesn't exist, so they should stop fooling themselves!
Shivani, Guyana

This silly moral policing militates against its ethos and is against Hinduism. More power to all artists - I am with you
Ravi, Chicago

The moral police have no place in India if it is to continue to grow culturally in keeping with Indian growth in all other spheres.
Sumant Bhalla, Gibbsboro, NJ. USA

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