A court in India recently dismissed criminal proceedings against a couple who were arrested for kissing. The BBC's Soutik Biswas examines India's tangled relationship with the kiss.
Look before you kiss in India. A smooch can get you in serious trouble in the world's largest democracy.
'A smooch can land you in trouble' (Photo: Rashbehari Das)
Earlier this week, a court in Delhi - ah, of all places, in the "happening" capital! - threw out the case against a young, married couple who were picked up by police allegedly for kissing near a railway station.
The kiss has been under threat in India for as long as I can remember.
Two years ago, an over-enthusiastic Richard Gere had the riot act read to him when he swooped down and clasped actress Shilpa Shetty and planted several kisses on her. The two, by the way, were at an event to tell lorry drivers about safe sex.
News television hyperventilated, serving up titillation and tattle in equal measure on the serial-kissing Hollywood actor. Some protesters burnt effigies of Gere; others shouted slogans demanding the death of the hapless Shetty. It took the Supreme Court to suspend an arrest warrant against Gere, and obscenity charges against Shetty.
Much earlier, in the early 1990s, I remember the public outrage after Nelson Mandela kissed actress Shabana Azmi when he came visiting.
And when India's usually benign tabloids splashed grainy mobile phone pictures of a Bollywood couple - they were dating at that time - allegedly kissing some years ago, the star diva fretted and fumed and began legal proceedings against the paper.
Even marriage sometimes doesn't give you the licence to smooch - an Israeli couple was fined $22 by a court for kissing after getting married in a Hindu ceremony in Rajasthan. The priests had taken umbrage.
For clues to why Indians appear to be clueless about kissing, listen to a model-actress Udita Goswami.
"I have pledged that in any of my forthcoming films I will not give a lip kiss," she told a newspaper.
"I am not comfortable doing that. I belong to a traditional family and my values do not allow me to indulge in such acts."
But a kissing famine has led to a curious demand for it in the dark confines of the movie theatre - and become a passport to fame for some.
A Bollywood starlet's film some years ago was hyped as one in which she had kissed her dazed looking co-star 17 times. (It so happened that the kisses were the only memorable thing about the film.)
Since then kiss-starved audiences have been counting the starlet's kisses in all her films - one later film of hers was advertised as one with "99 slaps - 1 kiss" so that fans were not entirely disappointed.
A Bollywood dance girl kicked up a storm when she was smooched in front of the cameras by a little-known singer at his birthday party. She hummed and hawed about the "inappropriateness" of the kiss and the media and the kiss-hungry republic lapped it up.
India's ancient past is littered with kisses, if literary work is any evidence.
Vedic Sanskrit texts, dating back to 1500 BC, apparently contain the first mention of a kiss in writing. (A caveat from a researcher: "This does not mean that nobody kissed before then, and it doesn't mean that Indians were first to kiss.")
India's famous epic poem and one of the world's oldest literary works, The Mahabharata, composed sometime between 3000 BC and 1500 BC, mentions kissing.
The Radhika Santwanam, a collection of erotic poetry from a courtesan in a court in southern India, from the mid-18th century, describes a kiss in fairly graphic detail: Move on her lips/The tip of your tongue/Do not scare her/By biting hard.
Some demonstrators called Gere's embrace of Shetty 'vulgar'
And in Kama Sutra, the definitive epic of amour, the scholar Vatsayana devotes a chapter on the art of kissing. He painstakingly details some 30 types of kisses - straight, bent, turned, press, nominal and throbbing are some among them.
And Richard Gere, please take note, Indian cinema's first kiss dates back to 1933 in a film called Karma where the actress is lip-locked with actor and real life husband Himanshu Rai for some four minutes. Four minutes!
So why does India have this tortured and twisted relationship with the kiss?
Some people play it down, saying those who protest belong to a "loony fringe" of moral fundamentalists. Others say it is a hangover from tradition in an ancient civilisation. Still others say many Indians long for traditional mores as Western consumerist values swamp the country.
Or is it a response to what the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmad called "Westoxication" - superficial consumerist display of commodities and fads produced in the West?
Do some Indians - cutting across class - actually rail against such "Westoxication" when they are revulsed by couples kissing? "Looked at closely," says leading Indian sociologist Dipankar Gupta, "revulsion against Westoxication is principally an aesthetic sneer and not a full blooded call for a return to tradition".
Or is the rage against the kiss born out of a hypocritical morality that equates sex with sin and desire with guilt? As sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan tells me, "India is the only country which has a body police and not a thought police".
There must be some truth in all these theories.
So, torn between tradition and seductive imported values, Indians will continue to grapple with the Big Question - to kiss or not to kiss? And, as a friend quips, "When we do kiss, we don't tell".
This debate is now closed. Here is a selection of your comments.
With a country that has pressing issues of poverty, terrorism, and corruption, it's so sad that these "kiss crashers" have nothing else better to do than whine about kissing. They are probably just jealous that no girl has ever kissed them.
Rajen U Desai, USA
Indians have kissed for as long as any other people.
T Ramakrishnan, U.S.A.
We Indians truly value a kiss, and maintain its importance by reserving some privacy for it. Unless love has privacy, its essence is lost.
Ranjit Kumar, United States
I admit to being very confused. How is it that our traditions include the Kama Sutra, and historic monuments with graphic murals spread all over the place, is the same country that now seems to have the most Victorian of values now?
N Bh, India
I am Indian. I think your article assumes that "kissing is good and it must be allowed" by your remarks supporting some scriptures that allow kissing, "Indians are clueless", "hypocritical morality" etc. I don't think it is good to have a public show of kissing - imagine if children start adopting such measures!! Each country has its traditions and one must pay attention to those issues. You cannot blindly import values from one society and impose on another society. You may even say why do Indians scoff at live-in relationships, why do they wear saris but not shorts etc. like in the West? If tomorrow say another country allows nudity in public, will you begin to wonder about the same why it is not being allowed in India? There are so many other issues that Westerners engage in which would puzzle Indians - that does not mean Indians expect all Western people should abandon their views and adopt Indian views. It works both ways you see.
I'm from Liberia, West Africa and I grew up watching Indian movies. I believe that Indians are one of the beautiful people in the world. I think there should be more kissing in Indian movies. For the rest of the Indians who are not in the movie business if they do not want to kiss is up to them.
Beatrice Johnson, USA.
Even though I was brought up in western culture I do not believe that kissing on the lips in public is appropriate behaviour. Some things are private.
Ursula Konig, Australia
Indian tradition is not against kissing. Point here is it is against kissing openly. Hence there is not at all any hypocritical morality. This story has failed to explain the subject matter precisely.
Subhash Chander, UK
Pity that the article didn't enlighten us any further as to the rationale for not kissing in public in a democracy in the 21st century. Is there a "tradition" of any length for such attitudes towards public displays of "passion" in India - or not? Or is this actually a more modern development? If so, what is the mentality underlying this? What does it say about India at this time and attitudes towards conforming to a notion of "tradition"?
All this from the land that brought us the Karma Sutra. How times have changed....
Steve Harris, United Kingdom
Kissing is a way of showing affection. The fact some people in India frown against kissing reminds one of the unnecessary moral gags placed on the freedom of adults to display affection for each other.
Igwe CA, UK
Any natural act which is heavily suppressed will only be exaggerated in its expression!
Gerri Friedberg, M.A., USA
In 1977 I went to India and met an English girl who was studying Indian culture at SOAS in London (the School of Oriental and African Studies). We spent several weeks travelling around the subcontinent together. In an effort to do as the Indians do she refused to walk alongside me when we were out sightseeing, but trailed several steps behind! Not much kissing there then!
Kissing was never considered offensive or as a disrespect in India. Kissing your kid, siblings, parents are considered as a display of love. Wherein, kissing your wife or any other girl "in public" is considered to be erotic. And that is a no-no in public. True love need not be displayed with a public smooch it is understood. It's not about tradition or culture it is just the basic decency and respect.
I am an Indian living in US. I still find it hard to kiss in public after so many years in US and even though I grew up in a fairly modern environment. I can never distinguish between the feeling of whether I am kissing in public just to show off (because it was forbidden in public places in India) or I really have the urge to show affection in public.
There are so many more horrid acts that occur in the world. They are constant and seemingly never ending. It seems incredible that the world's largest democracy would waste valuable time trying to ban a wonderful show of affection. I think India should stick to banning poverty and hunger and not try to educate anyone on kissing. However being a former "colony" of Great Britain it may not be that surprising that there lingers a so called aversion to kissing. After all, England does have a rather prudish reputation.
In Japan many people feel bad when they see a newly married couple kiss openly before attendant of the wedding ceremony.
K. Mochizuki, Japan
Coming from a traditional Asian family, I find the Indian aversion to a public display of affection not strange at all. It is a common opinion in Asian societies. So, leave the Indians and their courts alone, if they are happy in their decorum, who else cares.
Perhaps the BBC could try and explain why kissing is culturally unacceptable in India. As an anthropology student, I very keen to learn more.
Will Rathouse, Wales
Its sad that we Indians have this complex about kissing and then go on and harp about us being the largest democracy. One should be free to chose what he or she pleases to do in this matter. We need to get over the views of our past traditions and culture and embrace change. I rather think that people who cause oppose such things are jealous, ignorant or downright stupid. And its not just kissing, there are various such issues, which are not really issues that are being beaten to death by conservative, traditional, political and religions entities.
Beautifully written article.
Bernard Keyser, USA.
I have just been to watch Slumdog Millionaire and that finishes with a full on kiss between the two stars but nothing has been said about this yet Richard Gere is still persona non grata in India! I just don't understand.
Robert Brown, USA
May I direct your attention to this ancient Hindu temple? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khajuraho
Fascinating! Well, I for one wouldn't laugh at this. I think it is just that some societies - or parts of a society - regard certain actions as being not right in public. Put into its proper context, the Indian reaction (by that I mean the reaction of some segments of Indian society) to kissing in public is no stranger than the attitude prevalent in English-speaking countries of blowing one's nose quietly in public. American prudery is a byword in Europe, yet the largest porno industry in the world is located in the USA apparently. It seems fitting that the country that produced the Sutra of Desire (Kamasutra) should have a sort of taboo about kissing in public. It is so typical of us humans!
D Fear, Germany
What's wrong with kissing in public when the same is openly shown in the Indian movies all over the country?
How can love be wrong? How can showing love be wrong? I grew up in India and I don't think this reflects the vast majority of people's views. People who are against love are the ones who are wrong.
I am Indian by origin. I don't mind kissing or being kissed. Here is one for such a nice article.
I have always found that lip kissing someone with whom you are not attached to be a distinctly uncomfortable experience - so I have always avoided it. Maybe the Presbyterian upbringing has left its mark or perhaps the fact that I hold it to be a private token of affection between a committed couple.... but even then I would not kiss my husband on the lips in public as I feel that it always smacks of insincerity when you have to reaffirm your relationship in front of your peers... but each to his own.
Bee Wise, Scotland
Frankly, I find it hypocritical. I don't see any outcry when Indian movies show actresses in wet saris, very revealing clothes, or in other situations that Indians might find "objectionable".
I think you do not know India very well. Sitting outside the country cannot make you understand the culture, the values, norms of how to behave in public. Kissing or smooching in public is popular in West but not considered very good in India that is true. If you talk about movies - kissing scenes - the public knows what's shown in the movie. If they want to watch it or not that is their deliberate and personal wish. But the couple kissing while getting married in the Hindu ceremony is absolute no-no. If you are following the traditional rituals of marriage then follow it completely and show your westernised emotions privately. It is not a gesture to show in public. In that case, is getting married in India by traditional way is just for fun or fashion or you really believe in the values? I strongly disagree with your mockery in the article shown for India. Please clear your concepts about Indian values before writing anything about it.
The author rightly mentions about the fact that India's past is littered with kisses but is there a book or an epic in which it is written that kisses should be done in public? If a couple wants to kiss, then why cant they go in somewhere and kiss? Whets the need to do it in public ? We have a society which is modern in its outlook and views but kissing in public is just an indecent act and in no way 'liberal' or 'modern' thinking.
Rohit Jain, India
It may be a largest democracy in the world, still we have to play by social rules.
I think the conservatives in Indian society are kidding themselves in assuming that showing love for your partner is not an Indian value.
Sunny S. Grewal, Canada
Another theory - India continues to exist in the sphere of Victorian values that the West have long since repudiated?
Sunjay Chandiramani, Switzerland
Thank you for this write-up, I had wanted to write to BBC after reading the article on the Indian couple which seems a freak case to not misrepresent India as the middle-east. We are by no means a prudish nation and I researched on You Tube about kisses in Bollywood, some that you have mentioned in your article. Of course I have seen couples kiss in shopping malls or cinemas in India. Lets put the case against the couple in perspective, and not use it as a one-dimensional view of India. We are a modern, growing nation in the throes of change, economic and cultural
Why is it wrong for a country to stick to its traditional values. India does not believe in publicly displaying these very personal feelings. A little self control doesn't harm.
Leena Ektre, United States
Every single people on this planet has its own longstanding traditions, and they all serve some particular purpose in the society. I therefore think that the Western prejudices against Indian culture of 'no smooches' should not make us look down upon the Indians. It's their culture!
Lonjezo Sithole, Malawi
Sanskrit texts dating 1500 BC may mention the kiss. However, quoting something like this implies that the author's underlying assumption is that society never changes (or should not change)! Like any other society, the Indian society changes, quite literally, from one generation to another and, in that context, 3500 years is a very long time. Clearly, what could be done back then may not be ok now and vice versa. Most importantly, the issue is about kissing; it is about kissing in public. In my view, Sanskrit texts are quoted because westerners find them aligned to their current way of life. An even more ridiculous thing in this article is, "Even marriage sometimes doesn't give you the license to smooch". Again, this is a total misrepresentation of the issue. Marriage does give you license to kiss, however, [marriage or no marriage], the real issue is about kissing in "public". Don't you think that the Israeli couple was foolish in wanting to get married in a Hindu way but didn't want to abide by the local custom? India has people of all kinds of opinions. And this is merely a case of a young couple running into old fashioned or corrupt policemen. The thing to highlight would have been the court's decision on the case. One last point for the sake of argument - Recently, a local Swiss government banned people from hiking naked in the Alps. Of course they are correct but why doesn't anyone make a big hue & cry over it? Because, in this regard, most people's definition of obscenity is the same. While you and I may not agree with the policemen regarding whether kissing in public is acceptable, it is prudent to be mindful of the customs of the society one lives in.
Bollywood doesn't represent India's values and customs. To call "Indians" clueless about kissing lacks journalistic integrity and perception when the report should just leave it as differences between cultures. Why make such a big deal, unless you want to paint India as having an odd, backward culture.
The issue is not kissing. The issue is kissing in public. Indians prefer to practise their demonstrations of affection within the confines of their own privacy. I do not see why the public needs to endure the sight of two people exchanging saliva.
Samir Mody, UK
The author is not trying to understand the culture of India. He is trying to get attention of the west by ditching India, many people got their fame this way. I won't blame the author, because he has to keep his job. Kissing in public considered as uncomfortable to others in India not in private. Because we are not used to that, at least for centuries. Showing proof of kissing in ancient times is a dumb statement. I think the author don't have any sense to know how time can change an entire race and culture. Since we are to used to see kissing in public, we feel it uncomfortable. Not for us but for our children. They are curious to try anything new that can lead to traps as in west. I felt sympathy to the author's lack of sense.
India is full of contradictions!!!
Sharon Widell, New Delhi
It's terrible that in today's world that this is an issue. But why must you have it done in public anyway?
Precious ikpea, Nigeria
I recently came back from a holiday in India, and we were warned not to be affectionate with our partners by our tour guide. We were happy to agree to this - if kissing is not in Indian culture, then fine. We did however, find it odd that it was very common for grown men to hold hands with their male friends. Our group were all intelligent liberal people, in no way homophobic etc, and we do see gay people doing this occasionally in the UK. BUT, in India it really seemed strange to us. So, different strokes for different folks I guess.
Caroline, London, England
For some reason, whenever Western values are summoned, 'promiscuity' is the only trait that sticks to the Indian conscience (well, at least that of the lot that gets all riled-up about these things). Hard work, civility, respect for human life, etc somehow fail to register. Sigh. There are just way too many people with absolutely nothing else to do.
Joe A, India
Good article ... But why did the author refrained from mentioning the actress names?
True, some Indians make a big deal of kissing in the public .but NOT EVERYONE. So please don't blow this out of proportion. People of my age (27) don't bother if couples kiss in public. Also, almost every Bollywood movie has a kissing scene. All the cases filed against the snoggers is really a shame. Whatever it is, the court was sensible.
Arnold Layne, India
Kissing as an act of love passes unremarked in the Western countries. For people who haven't visited India or haven't known India for what it had stood for, it is unsurprising that news such as this sound bizarre. The Indian culture boasts of guarding traditions that are well over 5000 years old, and the act of kissing did exist as was mentioned in the earliest Indian literary texts. Surprisingly, it is downplayed as many other acts that display love. The reason perhaps is that the spirit of the World's largest democracy believes such acts to be intimate, reserved for two in private, and a display of such acts in public is deemed pretty vulgar.
Interesting article - thank you. As a Londoner, there are times when, on a late night train home, I could really do without people inspecting each others tonsils to the extent that sometimes occurs. The young have a phrase - "get a room" with which I heartily concur. Absolutely OK in private but not much fun to sit next door to on the District Line.
How does one relate morals to a simple kiss? Maybe if two people were really slobbering each other it might become sickening, but there is nothing morally wrong with kissing.
I believe it is not up to us to decide what a country should think, or do. We need to be sure to research what types of behaviour are appropriate in said country BEFORE we leave our homes, and behave accordingly.
Darcy Ballew, USA
Kissing by couples in ugly. Even in America people dislike seeing people kissing in public. What India preaches is to confine all intimate relationships within closed doors. Over indulgence would lead to ugly scenes and unwarranted attention. The woman who is involved in a kissing act will face innumerable problems. Let India follow its traditions. Kiss within the walls better than kiss under the sun.
Very interesting article. You see things accordingly to the light you throw on them. The writer of this article views the Indian values from the light of Western values! Whether to accept or not accept public kissing is nothing but a choice. Unfortunately, people in the West forgot their own values and traditions through which they pride themselves in their own literature! How would the English literature picture an English woman living in the 18th or 19th century kissing intimately in the street?! If the West's traditions and values have been washed out by liberalisation, at least allow other nations to cherish their own values and traditions!
I lived in Delhi when the whole Richard Gere kiss was going on... Kind of entertaining at the time. One thing I wonder or don't understand is when actors/actresses say they don't want to kiss on screen they are totally ok with showing almost their entire bodies by wearing short skirts and tops. This is also not accepted by many in India, from what I've understood....
Astrid Klomp, Sweden
This taboo on kissing is true not just in Indian culture, but most cultures that revere modesty and resist inappropriate expression, which is indeed relative to the country. Even though I am an American, I have been raised by Pakistani parents who express the same concern with appropriate and moral behaviour, hence, I would NEVER kiss my girlfriend or wife in front of them. It's odd to think that I should be allowed a girl friend but not allowed to kiss her.
Salman Malik, USA
I feel that a kiss is due to the author. The article made for some fabulous reading.
Attiq Ahmed, Pakistan
It is curious that a fundamental reason is not mentioned... the spread of disease and germs by mouth-to-mouth contact. I grew up in Southern India and it was unthinkable to drink from the same glass if it had been touched by other lips. The notion of other people's saliva as "dirty" was ingrained in me from an early age.
Sri Rahm, USA
Amused by the sociologist Vishwanathan's comment, "India is the only country which has a body police and not a thought police". Makes a nice sound bite, but of course they have both. Doesn't the fact that Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" is banned count? See Wikipedia's article "Censorship in India" for other examples.
Mark Brecher, USA
If kissing in public is the worst their young people, married or otherwise, are doing, they should count their lucky stars. People do much, much worse in places like Central Park, NY or Grant Park, Chicago.
A very well written article. I feel embarrassed right now as an Indian. But it is true, public display of affection is a crime in India, why? I have no idea. In fact, I have been confronted by a police officer for kissing my girlfriend. The 'demonstrators' referred to here are illiterate people who have no idea about the Indian culture or what exactly they are demonstrating against. As a person who has studied Indian history and culture, I can say that kissing or wearing revealing clothes is not against our so called "culture" or "values". We have had kings with 365 wives and we have the most revealing formal dress in the world, sari. Even if some people feel or are taught that it is against our values, it is high time that we grow up and try to catch up with the rest of the world.
Ishan Thukral, India
Your friend's quip has the answer hidden in it. Indian tradition is not against kissing as you have mentioned yourself. Kissing is an expression of love as was cited by the courts for the recent case that you mentioned and love in Indian tradition is considered sacred, something which if you express publicly, diminishes in its value. This is also the reason why Indians don't keep saying "I love you" to their near and dear ones 10 times a day. Maybe this concept is somewhat foreign to the western world.
V Gautam, USA
I would never do anything to disrespect someone's culture but really, to start to use Western ways as a reason not to kiss is silly. If you don't want to kiss then just don't and stop blaming other cultures for your uptight ways.
Soutik - don't you have better topics to cover for BBC?
A very well written piece - hilarious - couldn't stop laughing.
Oru Mohiuddin, UK
I enjoyed Soutik Biswas's piece. Good show! But it is folks such as Ms Goswami who make me smile. Sanctimonious talk such as 'my traditional family' smacks of Grundyism and the Empress Victoria.
Reginald Massey, UK