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Same Difference

While it’s not unusual for art to be censored in the country,does the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 make it harder for artists to express themselves?

While it’s not unusual for art to be censored in the country,does the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 make it harder for artists to express themselves?

Early this year in February,while Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) was preparing for the launch of its magnum opus of nude paintings in India spanning more than a century titled “The Naked and the Nude-The Body in Indian Modern Art”,a sizable crowd was gathering outside. With works of masters such as Jehangir Sabavala,FN Souza and Akbar Padamsee inside,the show was surrounded more by anger than curiosity,mostly from Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s women’s wing. “When Right-wing parties take a particular stand and a crowd gathers around you,it leaves you extremely uneasy and can also be threatening. And with this (Supreme Court) verdict,I don’t know what kind of power it would give to men in uniform,” says Kishore Singh,DAG’s publication and exhibition head.

There has been anger and dismay in the art community,not only because consensual gay sex has been criminalised,but because there could be far-reaching effects of the law,including censorship of the arts. There have been ample instances where artists have faced the ire of the moral police,from MF Husain and Akbar Padamsee to Tejal Shah. There is a fear that the law could be misinterpreted to censor art.

Artist Balbir Krishan’s tryst with censorship and moral police hasn’t been pleasant. In 2012,he was physically attacked while installing his show on homosexuality at Lalit Kala Akademi. Earlier this month,his works were taken off at Lower Tank Bund gallery in Hyderabad. “The fear that is always there in the LGBTI (Lesbian,Gay,Bisexual,Transgender and Intersex) community has grown now,” says Krishan. In the same year,Sunil Gupta,whose photographs explore homosexuality,was told to take off his works from Alliance Francaise after an anonymous person called the contents obscene.

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Tolerance seems to be waning and fear increasing. Six years ago,in Mumbai,artist Jehangir Jani could exhibit a work only after “an obscene part” was covered with a fig leaf. “There are very few artists who work with sexuality and LGBT issues. I am not even considered a mainstream artist. I am classified as a gay artist. It’s important for art to be created without fear. How is that going to be possible with laws like this?” he says.

The constant fear,even among those untouched by controversy till now,seems to have grown. A niche gallery in the Capital,Abadi Art Space is known for its engagement with sexuality and queer issues. Just last month,they hosted a first-of-its-kind exhibition on BDSM (Bondage and Discipline,Sadism and Masochism). Gallerist Jose Abad Lorente says,“We have always been upfront in showing cutting-edge exhibitions,using the space as a way for the community to share personal stories,and talk about sexuality. We have never had any incidents but there was always a risk. Will the 377 judgement make it harder to show these kinds of works?”

Director Onir’s I AM which won a National Award has still not been shown on Indian television. The film which was made up of four shorts has one part that speaks about the exploitation of a gay man. He says,“Young people,who are dealing with issues of their sexual identity,will be discouraged to come out. Getting new people exploring their sexuality through art will become that much more difficult.” But gallerist Abhay Maskara,of Mumbai-based Gallery Maskara which represents artists such as Baroda-based T Venkanna and Faridabad-based Shine Sivan,who question gender and sexuality,does not feel intimidated. “If the arts are going to cow down,there will be no freedom of expression. Whether it is legal or not,as gallerists and curators,our job is to give a space for the vision of an artist,” he says.

Inputs by Kevin Lobo and Nikita Puri

First published on: 14-12-2013 at 05:47 IST
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