On Tuesday, Malayala Manorama, the largest selling daily in Malayalam, ran a front-page apology for a visual that appeared on the cover of a literary magazine published by the Kottayam-based media group and a painting that illustrated a play in the inside pages of the same magazine. Manorama also withdrew copies of the magazine, the December issue of Bhashaposhini, from newsstands.
The apology and the recall of copies from newsstands followed separate protests by some Christian groups and the BDJS (Bharat Dharma Jana Sena), a political outfit that claims the support of the Ezhava community and a constituent of the NDA in Kerala. “It is a closed chapter as far as we are concerned. Whatever we wanted to express, we have said in today’s paper,” Thomas Jacob, the Editorial Director of Malayala Manorama told indianexpress.com.
The Christian groups were upset with Tom Vattakuzhy’s painting that accompanied a play by C. Gopan, best-known as script-writer of the movie, Iyyobinte Pustakam. The play, Mrudwangudeh Durmruthyu (The Unnatural Death of the Fragile), referred to the last days of Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, better known as Mata Hari, a Dutch dancer and courtesan, who was executed by the French during World War I on charges of spying. The play drew its inspiration from a poem, Nartaki, by the celebrated poet, Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon. In Narthaki, the dancer, on the eve of her execution, tells the nuns guarding her that her last wish was to dance. Vattakuzhy took the image of the Last Supper and drew a painting with nuns sitting around a bare-breasted figure, presumably the dancer waiting execution.
The BDJS took umbrage to the cover of the Bhashaposhini, which was a photograph of a sculpture of Sree Narayana Guru by Riyas Komu, director of programmes at the Kochi Muziris Biennale that opened on Monday. The sculpture, done by Komu some years ago, was the cover visual of a study on Guru, Guruchinthana: Oru Mughavura, published some weeks ago by DC Books. The December issue of Bhashaposhini carried extracts from the book.
The magazine, which hit the stands on December 6, had disappeared a day later. Copies available at newsstands and with vendors were reportedly recalled by the publishers the next day, apparently following complaints by a section of the Christian community. “I was surprised at the removal of the painting from Bhashaposhini. I was shocked,” Vattakuzhy said. “The problem arose because of reading the painting out of context. Art is a language. Even though it transcends the written word, it also complements. Those words which cannot be articulated can be presented in the meditative realm through visual.” A student of late KG Subramaniam, Vattakuzhy is a recipient of many awards and prestigious fellowships.
As the corrected edition of Bhashaposhini reappeared on the stands, BDJS president Thushar Vellapally slammed the publishers for using a “distorted image” of Guru on the cover. In a post on Facebook, the NDA leader said Sree Narayana Guru was revered by all and any disrespect to the social reformer would not be brooked. “Unless Malayala Manorama takes strong action and tenders an apology, all the offices of Manorama will witness angry protests by Kerala’s majority community.”
However, in a Facebook post on Saturday, Thushar said BDJS was cancelling all protests planned against Malayala Manorama following the assurances given by Thomas Jacob.
Kerala is going through a dangerous situation, the playwright Gopan said. “The intolerance to Komu’s sculpture and Vattakuzhy’s painting is frightening. It’s a war against the image. It is a pity that we have to live in these times. What frightens me most is the sculpting of a new generation without images. This is not a problem of communalism alone, but of dangerous aesthetics. This should be discussed by the cultural world,” Gopan said.
In September 2015, a Hindutva group had forced Mathrubhumi, another Malayalam daily to end a series on the Ramayana by noted scholar and critic, M.M. Basheer. Some years ago, Christian groups forced a ban on a play, Christhuvinte Aaram Thirumurivu by P.M. Anthony, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ.