Artistically Yours

Artistically Yours

 Vector-Background-YellowPink-StarAre the artists really artistically free? Can they be freely artistic? We have been witness to what happened recently in context of the planned visit of Salman Rushdie at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. The fate of M.F. Hussain is not hidden from anyone. The name of Taslima Nasreen has always been marred by one or the other controversy. One might say these faces have in their pockets a lot of fame so it is but natural for them to be in the limelight for one or the other reason. But this is not so. We have lesser known and even hitherto unknown artists, who have been attacked for their artistic expression in the name of obscenity. India’s freedom of expression has been curbed increasingly with the Hindu religious groups accusing the artists of hurting religious sentiments in being obscene. I would like to remind you here of an incident that took place in the year 2007, when Chandramohan Srilamantulaa, a post-graduate student of Fine Arts at MS University in Vadodara. The group of members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, led by BJP leader Niraj Jain barged into the university. The Dean Shivji Panikkar was suspended from the university because he protested the arrest of the student. The protestors had claimed that the works of Chandramohan offended the religious sentiments by painting nude men.
That is not all. Among numerous other cases, we have a more recent incident of violence against Balbir Krishan. The artist was attacked on the last day of his exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi. Balbir Krishnan had said that a group of people had been threatening him since many days before they attacked him on the last day. Krishnan’s latest exhibited works are based on the theme of homosexuality and depict male figures in erotic positions.

Editor

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TWITTER-FEED OF A LAW-BREAKER

By Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar, author of the book “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.”

Writer Amitava Kumar was advised to leave the recently held Jaipur Literature Festival after he had read, along with Hari Kunzru, extracts from Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” The novel has been banned in India since its publication in 1988 because the government held that the book would hurt the sentiments of Muslims. The following is a stream of messages that, like Gibreel Farishta in The Satanic Verses, Mr. Kumar dreamed he had written.

Just landed at Newark. Before leaving saw on TV at Delhi airport that complaints have been filed against us in Jaipur and elsewhere. #JLF

I was not a protester at Tahrir; I only read from a banned book. #JLF

Friends in media, forgive me for my silence. It was on legal advice. Also, I don’t trust you. #JLF

I had to leave India to be safe. A realization filled with surpassing loss. #JLF

But did I need to leave India to be brave? The truth was that I was afraid. #JLF

As in countless films, when the man pleads with his killer, “I have small children.” #JLF

First moment of fear: Hindi TV reporter pushing camera in my face to ask, “Are you not guilty of provoking religious violence?” #JLF

The organizers offered Scotch. “The festival will be shut down. We will have to appear at court hearings for years.” #JLF

En route to Delhi airport, stopped at Arundhati Roy’s home for a beer. She said, “You have to lose fear.” #JLF

I will be ashamed of you if your pulse rises when you show your papers in Delhi, she said. I said, My pulse rises only when facing you. #JLF

Imagination makes us shape better stories, sure, but it also allows us to multiply possibilities. Imagine a different end. #JLF

I read from “The Satanic Verses” because it was, in that time and place, a bold and imaginative act. #JLF

If I were honest, that would be the only claim I submit to the Indian authorities in my defense. #JLF

Jeet Thayil and Ruchir Joshi repeated the same act of defiance at the festival as Mr. Kumar and Mr. Kunzru, reading from “The Satanic Verses.”

Mr. Rushdie, who was scheduled to appear at the Jaipur festival, was forced to stay away because of threats against his life; some reports say the threats, complete with fabricated names of gangsters, were concocted to keep Mr. Rushdie from coming to Jaipur. On Monday, six complaints were filed with the police against the four authors who read from “The Satanic Verses” for having provoked social disturbance. All four authors have been advised to submit a statement saying that they were not aware that it was a criminal offense to read from “The Satanic Verses.” The police are examining the complaints.

*Amitava Kumar is a professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair at Vassar College.

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Artistic Freedom- Is it Absolute?

By Jayasankar

 “I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended. So I supported Hussain. In India, I see a division; some support Hussain, others support Rushdie.  Why can’t they support everybody’s freedom of expression? If they can’t support Rushdie, (Danish cartoonist Kurt) Westergaard, MF Hussain, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Asiya Bibi and me equally, then they don’t believe in the freedom of expression.” These were the words of Ms Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer, who had to leave her country, in the face of attacks from religious groups, in her interview published in the Times of India, dated 19 June 2011.

These words again brought up to the fore, certain confusions relating to the sad situation in which India’s one of the most commercially successful artists, MF Hussain, had to accept citizenship of another country and had to die outside his country of birth (when I say commercially successful, I am not qualifying the success of Hussain as an artist. The term is used for the simple reason that art and paintings are not my forte and, therefore, I do not want to pass judgements thereon).

Who is right and who is wrong? Are all parties wrong or right? My heart says artists must have the full freedom to express their creativity, thoughts and ideas.  I would not feel offended merely because someone has used his/her artistic freedom in some form or other.  But my mind says that no freedom can be absolute; one’s freedom must stop just before the nose of another and should not include the freedom to touch the nose itself!  Absolute freedom amounts to anarchy and therefore it is not advisable for any society that believes in rule of law and aspires for harmony.

I wouldn’t go into details of the situation involving MF Hussain for three reasons: (i) my concerns here are more conceptual in nature, (ii) I have not been able to make up my mind about culpability of Hussain in drawing nude paintings of certain figures that are worshipped by others, and (ii) I am already biased against the extreme right-wing elements among Hindus, who caused the whole episode.

According to the Constitution, no freedom is absolute in India. The Constitution itself makes fundamental rights enshrined therein, including right to life, subject to reasonable restrictions.  Therefore, when Ms Nasreen talks about the “absolute freedom of expression”, that has no sanction under Indian Constitution.

However, that does not solve our confusion. What amounts to reasonable restriction is something very subjective. At the most, it will help if a matter reaches the court and the court has to decide upon it.  However, these issues are not decided in courts, but often on the streets. Just like artists, there are elements in the society who think they too have the freedom of expression; only that their mode of expression is violence and not arts.

When Ms Nasreen says ‘everyone has right to offend’, isn’t she, inadvertently but ironically supporting the so called right to freedom of expression of her tormentors as well? When she was being harassed by these fanatics, weren’t they expressing their freedom of expression in a manner known to them?

Similarly, what if an artist or writer deliberately offends a group or community with the intention of either creating social tensions or merely to gain publicity for his/her works?  What if a radical group wanting to create riots, use one of the artists to publish some matter that can inflame any of the other groups? Can we allow such things to happen?

To think of the other side of the coin, it is often seen that the misuse of freedom to create social tension is done not by artists but by communalists. They will do it on some or other pretext, even if artists keep their silence. Also, the issue remains as to who decides what is offensive and deliberately made to market one’s works? Should it be done by the communalists or journalists who have never evaluated a work of art, or by art critics?

Obviously, these are not black and white issues.  There are no clear answers to all these questions.  That is why we need to find a mid-path.

While respecting the artistic freedom of expression, the artists have to ensure that the freedom is not misused in a way that it results in creating social tensions. At the same time if a third party, whether it is moral police, government authorities, censorship bodies or even art critics are given the power to censor the art works that can stifle the genuine freedom of the artist.

Artists cannot compare themselves with militant groups that are fuelled by religious or other retrograde agendas.  Artists are part of the civil society and must feel more responsible for its well being. They must value their freedom and show a sense of responsibility in exercising it. Every artist must ensure that he or she is exercising self imposed reasonable restrictions on his/her freedom of expression, so that the social harmony is not disturbed by their works.  They can use the test of reasonableness, wherein they decide not to do something that a reasonable man would find offensive in a given situation. I am sure there are enough ways to create a work of art, without using offensive language or symbols.

First step towards this objective is for artists to realise and admit that no one has absolute freedom of expression and that the right is subject to reasonable restrictions and social responsibility. They must understand that they have more responsibility towards society than hooligans and violent groups.

Having said that, let us analyse in detail the three distinct approaches to the issue of freedom of expression.  No one can deny the fact that there are thousands and thousands of artistic expressions in all forms of arts that do not hurt any sentiments yet manage to be great works.   There are also certain artistic works that by their very nature and subject might cause some hurt to some people, not because of the work as such, but because these people are unduly possessive or sentimental about the subject itself.

It is not the above mentioned works but the third group of works where an artist causes hurt to the sentiments of a large section of normal population, whether deliberately or otherwise, that concerns us.  When I say normal population, I mean any population of rational beings excluding the fundamentalist or extremist elements.

Unfettered and absolute freedom

Proponents of this view do not believe in any kind of restrictions, self imposed or otherwise, on the freedom of artists.  They believe that artists should have complete freedom for expressing themselves in the artistic way they want to and should not be subjected to any form of restrictions.  If someone is offended by a work of art s/he should have the freedom not to see/read/hear that work.  This view corresponds to the view expressed by Ms Nasreen in her interview cited above.

As per this view of absolute freedom, if a person or a group of people is of the opinion that an artist is deliberately maligning their religion or culture they have the freedom to protest in a peaceful manner.  At the same time the Government has the duty to protect the artists’ freedom and the freedom of others to protest peacefully. But the Government or the Courts should never stop an artist from expressing himself as the aggrieved parties always have the choice not to see/read/listen to the work

I do not agree with the practicality of this view.  For example, if a university chooses offensive portions to be included in its syllabus, would it be possible to tell the students that if they are offended by the work they don’t have to study it?  Taking the artistic freedom little further, is it fine for an artist to deliberately carry out character assassination of a person by including a distorted version of the family history of that person in some artistic work?   Wouldn’t affected person have a right to sue the artist for defamation and wouldn’t it be improper for the State/Courts to punish the artist, if it is proved that the work amounted to defamation as per the laws of the land?  Or, should the Court merely tell that affected person to restrain from reading the artistic work containing defamatory matter?

Violence is not limited to physical form alone; even psychological and emotional violence is equally deplorable.  No matter what the mode of expression, every form of violence is to be condemned and stopped.  That includes a violent artistic work as well.

Further, this view pre-supposes a superior right to artists to express themselves, in whatever form and fashion they choose, while imposing a burden on all others to be apologetic about their sentiments and to be choosy about what they read, listen, view etc.  Artists can violate others’ sentiments through their work, but the affected people have to resort only to courts and peaceful protests to register their hurt feelings.  In the real world, this kind of a classification of rights may not be feasible or practical.

Artists have to be aware that for a State, maintaining social harmony is more important than allowing individual creative freedom.  Therefore, given the choice a State is likely to stifle freedom than allow anarchy by allowing every group to exercise their respective ‘absolute freedoms’. The concept of society and nation-states are based on giving up certain individual freedoms for the common good.

 Absolute control over the Freedom

The other end of the spectrum demands absolute control on an artist’s freedom of expression.  This is the view of the ‘offended’.  As per this view, there is a thin line between freedom and hurting someone’s feelings. Freedom of expression cannot intrude others’ sentiments. If an artist portrays someone in a way which may be hurting and indecent, to quote freedom of expression as an excuse would be arbitrary and unjustified.

Problem with this view is that who will decide where the thin line that separates freedom and hurt is?  Sentiments differ from person to person.  Can an artist realistically determine what the line is where he can be sure of not hurting anybody’s feelings?

Let us turn the argument on its head.  As much as there could be an artist who is deliberately out to destroy social harmony, isn’t there a possibility of some motivated individuals, wanting to instigate a large groups of people to indulge in violence,  accusing an artistic work of hurting their sentiments (real or imaginary)?  In fact, it is the so called ‘offended people’ who often resort to violence without even trying to find out the truth behind the allegations about offending their sentiments!  Most of the violence that occurred in the past against artistic works was precisely due to misguided reactions, at the behest of trouble makers and without actual reading, viewing or listening, as the case may be.

Case for Self Restraint

Between the two extreme views above, we have to find a line which has balance of convenience, even if not ideal, so that we can ensure maximum social harmony with minimum interference in artistic freedom.  It is towards this end that I suggest self-restraint as the method, wherein the artist himself acts as any prudent artist would act in the given situation.   I am sure there are thousands of ways to express one’s creativity and ideas without hurting other normal people’s sentiments.

Concept of ‘Swatantrata’ is found in Indian culture from ancient times. ‘Swa‘ means self;  ‘Tantra‘ means method, discipline, or rules. So, Swatantrata means acting according to our own methods or rules, which is the ideal type of ‘freedom’.  In other words, freedom is not absolute but subject to self discipline and self regulation.

This is not limited to artists alone. In fact, this principle of self regulation applies to all the members of a society.  I agree that each one of us have absolute right to hold a view, opinion or belief, howsoever extreme it may be.  But we do not have such an absolute right to manifest that view etc in public, without considering its impact on other members of the society.  That restraint is the little cost that we have to pay for enjoying the membership and associated benefits of a society.

Self restraint is the best form of censorship, as it gives the artist sufficient opportunity to express his ideas or art in a way that the essence of the work is not compromised.

First step towards this objective is for artists to realise and admit that no one has absolute freedom of expression and that the right is subject to reasonable restrictions and social responsibility. They must understand that they have more responsibility towards society than hooligans and violent groups.
Having said that, let us analyse in detail the three distinct approaches to the issue of freedom of expression.No one can deny the fact that there are thousands and thousands of artistic expressions in all forms of arts that do not hurt any sentiments yet manage to be great works.There are also certain artistic works that by their very nature and subject might cause some hurt to some people, not because of the work as such, but because these people are unduly possessive or sentimental about the subject itself.
It is not the above mentioned works but the third group of works where an artist causes hurt to the sentiments of a large section of normal population, whether deliberately or otherwise, that concerns us. When I say normal population, I mean any population of rational beings excluding the fundamentalist or extremist elements.

Unfettered and absolute freedom

Proponents of this view do not believe in any kind of restrictions, self imposed or otherwise, on the freedom of artists.They believe that artists should have complete freedom for expressing themselves in the artistic way they want to and should not be subjected to any form of restrictions. If someone is offended by a work of art s/he should have the freedom not to see/read/hear that work.This view corresponds to the view expressed by Ms Nasreen in her interview cited above.

As per this view of absolute freedom, if a person or a group of people is of the opinion that an artist is deliberately maligning their religion or culture they have the freedom to protest in a peaceful manner.At the same time the Government has the duty to protect the artists’ freedom and the freedom of others to protest peacefully. But the Government or the Courts should never stop an artist from expressing himself as the aggrieved parties always have the choice not to see/read/listen to the work

I do not agree with the practicality of this view.For example, if a university chooses offensive portions to be included in its syllabus, would it be possible to tell the students that if they are offended by the work they don’t have to study it?Taking the artistic freedom little further, is it fine for an artist to deliberately carry out character assassination of a person by including a distorted version of the family history of that person in some artistic work?Wouldn’t affected person have a right to sue the artist for defamation and wouldn’t it be improper for the State/Courts to punish the artist, if it is proved that the work amounted to defamation as per the laws of the land? Or, should the Court merely tell that affected person to restrain from reading the artistic work containing defamatory matter?

Violence is not limited to physical form alone; even psychological and emotional violence is equally deplorable.No matter what the mode of expression, every form of violence is to be condemned and stopped.That includes a violent artistic work as well.

Further, this view pre-supposes a superior right to artists to express themselves, in whatever form and fashion they choose, while imposing a burden on all others to be apologetic about their sentiments and to be choosy about what they read, listen, view etc. Artists can violate others’ sentiments through their work, but the affected people have to resort only to courts and peaceful protests to register their hurt feelings.In the real world, this kind of a classification of rights may not be feasible or practical.

Artists have to be aware that for a State, maintaining social harmony is more important than allowing individual creative freedom.Therefore, given the choice a State is likely to stifle freedom than allow anarchy by allowing every group to exercise their respective ‘absolute freedoms’. The concept of society and nation-states are based on giving up certain individual freedoms for the common good.

Absolute control over the Freedom

The other end of the spectrum demands absolute control on an artist’s freedom of expression.This is the view of the ‘offended’.As per this view, there is a thin line between freedom and hurting someone’s feelings. Freedom of expression cannot intrude others’ sentiments. If an artist portrays someone in a way which may be hurting and indecent, to quote freedom of expression as an excuse would be arbitrary and unjustified.

Problem with this view is that who will decide where the thin line that separates freedom and hurt is? Sentiments differ from person to person.Can an artist realistically determine what the line is where he can be sure of not hurting anybody’s feelings?
Let us turn the argument on its head. As much as there could be an artist who is deliberately out to destroy social harmony, isn’t there a possibility of some motivated individuals, wanting to instigate a large groups of people to indulge in violence,accusing an artistic work of hurting their sentiments (real or imaginary)?In fact, it is the so called ‘offended people’ who often resort to violence without even trying to find out the truth behind the allegations about offending their sentiments!Most of the violence that occurred in the past against artistic works was precisely due to misguided reactions, at the behest of trouble makers and without actual reading, viewing or listening, as the case may be.

Case for Self Restraint

Between the two extreme views above, we have to find a line which has balance of convenience, even if not ideal, so that we can ensure maximum social harmony with minimum interference in artistic freedom. It is towards this end that I suggest self-restraint as the method, wherein the artist himself acts as any prudent artist would act in the given situation.I am sure there are thousands of ways to express one’s creativity and ideas without hurting other normal people’s sentiments.

Concept of ‘Swatantrata’ is found in Indian culture from ancient times. ‘Swa‘ means self;‘Tantra‘ means method, discipline, or rules. So, Swatantrata means acting according to our own methods or rules, which is the ideal type of ‘freedom’.In other words, freedom is not absolute but subject to self discipline and self regulation.

This is not limited to artists alone. In fact, this principle of self regulation applies to all the members of a society.I agree that each one of us have absolute right to hold a view, opinion or belief, howsoever extreme it may be.But we do not have such an absolute right to manifest that view etc in public, without considering its impact on other members of the society.That restraint is the little cost that we have to pay for enjoying the membership and associated benefits of a society.

Self restraint is the best form of censorship, as it gives the artist sufficient opportunity to express his ideas or art in a way that the essence of the work is not compromised.