By Mandara Vishwanath
It’s hard to imagine that the Khajuraho sculptures had to be ‘re-discovered’ in the 1800s. Once the world found these 10th century masterpieces in the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, the temple complex became part of India’s mental map again. Modern Khajuraho is a place where tour guides may try to take menfolk aside for a ‘bold’ discussion but aunties and school children can gaze unselfconsciously at sculptures that remain worldly and beautiful — unbothered by being cited endlessly in India’s culture wars.
Almost a thousand years after their creation, the Khajuraho sculptures have inspired a young visual artist, Akshita Chandra, to speak up against censorship and moral policing in India. The talented artist has created gifs animating the stone figures of Khajuraho with drawings and colours. Her project weaves together the past and the present, juxtaposing her artworks with recent news headlines — of couples being dragged out from hotel rooms for ‘indecent behaviour’, banning sex education, banning lingerie on mannequins, censoring images on television, the T.V. and criminalising homosexuality.
Dinanath Batra of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, banned sex education in schools, claiming it would pollute young minds.
The launching of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan also led to ministers saying they wanted to rid the country of sanskritik pradushan, or cultural pollution.
The Durga Vahini of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded a ban on the exhibition ‘Naked and the Nude’ in Delhi.
Section 377 came into play
And a TV channel blurred out cleavage for not being acceptable.
Chandra is a recent graduate from Srishti School of Art and Design in Bangalore. The 21-year-old artist was like many others outraged by the Mumbai police arresting 40 couples in private hotel rooms in September 2015. It brought to Chandra questions that we ask ourselves daily, why is our society is so unpredictable around questions of sex and intimacy and what does Indian culture mean. Chandra looked back in time at an India that she perceives was more liberal, more accepting and less restrictive. Her project cleverly weaves history into the present via craft, poetry and artwork. As a young girl coming to terms with society, much like Marjane Satrapi’s protagonist in her Persepolis, Chandra too tries to make meaning in her work; she does this by playing tricks of concealing and revealing ( a la the pattachitras of Raghurajpur) which make her animations especially remarkable. The first animation on her blog shows the opening and closing of ‘hotel’ room windows revealing, only for a split second a couple having sex. In another GIF the lingerie of two mannequins is stripped off as one peels off the transparent sheet over the naked figures.
‘Being Censitive’ is a response to the one statement that has driven Chandra to a point of frustration – “this is not part of our culture!” After visiting the temples several times when she was younger, she decided to ground her work in history. The project includes several pop-ups that illustrate recent news headlines, and the figures she uses are from those of the Khajuraho temples thus blending different time periods seamlessly. Her intention is to show how ridiculous the news pieces are by using Khajuraho bodies that depict diverse sexuality of human beings. Once again, these bodies are covered by hands, black patches or by simply blurring ‘private’ parts.
At the same time, the fight is not only against censorship of nude bodies. The recent ban on beef, porn sites, release of certain books and censorship of film scenes are but a few examples of an entrapped society. Being Censitive is part of this protest against censorship. Not all sculptures in the several temples of Khajuraho depict sexual postures or nudity. Chandra is of the (not so uncommon) view that ancient civilisations in India were more liberal and balanced about the four founding principles of man – dharma, artha, kama, moksha. She feels that kama or pleasure almost has no place except within the domain of guilt and shame today. “Our ancient civilisations were more open minded than our society today.” While you may not be so hot on Chandra’s ‘golden age’ thinking, you will enjoy Chandra’s art for its ability to stitch together different eras of Indian civilisation seamlessly.