It wouldn’t have been outlandish to emerge from Paromita Vohra’s immersive installation, A Love Latika, singing RD Burman’s Samundar mein nahake aur bhi namkeen ho gayi ho. The light emanating from a corner — separated by diaphanous net curtains, in the pitch-black Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi — is the voice of reason that society would rather leave in the dark. Inside, a tetraptych of four wall-mounted, flat-screen TVs, connected with headphones and a mouse, has a latika (long vine/creeper) — a “heterogeneity of desire”, out of a colouring book — running through it. Wild, uncontrollable, growing in all directions in “an electronic forest of erotic verse”, with its many flowers and fruits, a butterfly, a suspicious-looking bird, and a plant eating a fish. One feels awashed and enriched.
The electronic installation that travelled to Delhi and Kolkata, recently, as part of Goethe-Institut’s year-long ‘Five Million Incidents’ series of art projects, is an exercise in self-reflection.
Mumbai-based Vohra, whose online sex-education portal ‘Agents of Ishq’ turns four this month, says, “We are sanitising sexual culture either through woke censoriousness or cultural morality.” The Latika is born out of her love for “poetry and the diverse, layered, erotic tradition of India: from Sanskrit erotic verse, Sangam poetry, Bihari or Punjabi folk songs, Gita Govinda, Urdu verse and film songs”.
Produced by Hamsi Manglani, coded by Harish Ranganathan, and animation by Stuti Bansal, each flower/fruit, like the tactile, red, juicy pomegranate, in Vohra’s personal art project, hides two poems within it. Move the cursor over it, and it will quiver like the first hesitant touch of a lover. In Vohra’s voice, we hear Fehmida Riyaz’s poem, Kis se ab arzu-e-vasi karen (A plea for union, to whom should I make?) and DH Lawrence’s The elephant, the huge old beast, is slow to mate/ he finds a female, they show no haste, they wait. Others, who lend their voices to the 38 poems, shortlisted from a 100, include mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, filmmaker Q (Qaushik Mukherjee), writers Sharanya Manivannan, Amruta Patil, poet Akhil Katyal, among others. There’s longing and urgency, forceful and playful lust, purring, giggling, and joking.
Sound — of waves, windchimes, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Lavani, Bhojpuri folk, SD Burman’s playful Janu janu ri kaahe khanke hai tora kangna (Insaan Jaag Utha, 1959) — accompanies the verses. The sonic is pivotal to the granddaughter of yesteryear actor Ashalata Biswas and composer Anil Biswas.
The translated Greek poem Nothing Is Sweeter than Eros by Nossis — in filmmaker Samina Mishra’s voice — dates to third century BC, so, Vohra says, “Itne time se log kar hi rahe hain, why do we pretend otherwise?”
An erotic story of hers, some years ago, made some people remark “that’s not erotica, that’s porn”. But “one person’s porn is another’s erotica. Prudishness exists strongly across the political spectrum. The danger is that the seriousness of your work can be undermined,” says Vohra, the writer of Khamosh Pani (2003).
The 50-year-old Vohra, with a spring in her step and a rose in her hair, has been using erotic imagery in her work for a while, like last year’s music video Love in the Garden of Consent. She made a film about toilets, Q2P, in 2006, when noone was talking about them, her Morality TV Aur Loving Jehad: Ek Manohar Kahani (2007) is, ostensibly, the first public documentary to talk about Love Jihad. Her 2016 Lavani music video on consent, The Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha in the Valley of Consent preceded the #MeToo movement, which, Vohra says, is “the first time when we heard people talk in granular detail about the actual nitty-gritties of sex, which reveals a lot about human nature and social relations.” Sex is also about “emotions, sensuality, eroticism”; unless it’s talked about in a positive way in music, art and poetry, it will only be thought of as a “bad thing”. “Had I been a guy doing this, I would have been hailed as a hero,” she says. Her remark is for friend Q (Gandu, 2010), who, she says, “will be put on magazine covers. The revolutionary guy is taken more seriously than the revolutionary chick.”