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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The pleasure is also hers

In the Kama Sutra, a woman is not a passive recipient of male lust but a free sexual agent.

Written by Amrita Narayanan |
Updated: February 14, 2016 1:20:25 am
A panel in Khajuraho A panel in Khajuraho

Consider a very partial list of suggestions from the Kama Sutra: Wake up in a beautiful room, tastefully adorned with musical instruments and art supplies, poetry books and board games; amuse yourself with these activities as a prelude to love; while away some time teaching parrots to speak; eat and nap; as evening approaches, await the rendezvous of seduction in a perfumed bedroom.

Time and money, two of life’s precious luxuries, are clearly a pre-requisite for a life lived according to the Kama Sutra. There is also education. The dramatis personae of the ancient text, the “man-about-town” and courtesan de-luxe or the “Ganika”, had the privilege of a truly extraordinary and innovative education. From arranging flowers to picking fruits, watching sunsets to reading poetry, there is no aspect of the sensual life that was left uncovered by the Kama Sutra. Ganikas were educated alongside the men-about-town. Both genders learned about the art, literature and science that supported Kama.

In contemporary India, however — and perhaps worldwide — it is not the detailed aesthetic that appeals to us. It is the Kama Sutra as a metaphor. Disavowed at various times in our history, the Kama Sutra holds an enormous symbolic value. Recalling and associating ourselves with the period of Indian history represented by the Kama Sutra makes us feel modern, even sexy. But it becomes difficult to integrate that collective wish for modernity with the parallel reality of India’s history as a patriarchy.

The vision of patriarchy, in which women are simply characters in the dreams of men, is in opposition to the vision of the Kama Sutra, in which women are presented as sexual subjects with emotions, including their own lust, rather than passive recipients of male lust. Women as sexual subjects have always been on tricky ground. They defy the central tenet of patriarchy, which states that women are the sexual property of men, whether fathers, husbands or brothers. While many Indian women were content to live as sexual property so long as they were prized and safely-kept, the 2012 rape prompted a nationwide questioning of misogyny, particularly sexual misogyny, and quickened the pace of women relocating themselves as sexual subjects. A little over two years later, Indians appear to be in the throes of a massive self-reinvention when it comes to sexuality, with feminists leading the charge.

Feminism — by which I mean the process spotlighting women subjects, their wishes and dreams alongside men’s — is a philosophy that attempts to straddle multiple pasts, presents and selves.

Primer: while first and second wave feminism focused on basic rights such as the vote, equal pay and public safety, beginning with the 1990s, the third wave of feminism diversified into less concrete issues, including the importance of women as sexual subjects and agents.

The fourth wave of feminism, the most recent development in the feminist movement, uses technology and the internet for all of the above. In India, fourth-wave feminism has picked up the sutra, stitching up the thread of connection in the story of India and the erotic. Women-centred erotic literature is being shared online, first-person narratives are podcasted, girls blog about pride in their menstrual period, men and women are speaking out in favour of women’s sexual vibrancy, and Agents of Ishq are podcasting their sex-ed workshops. Alongside, sexual harassment and rape are being fought as ongoing issues.

What makes 2016 special is that while the collective nightmare of misogyny clearly still exists, so does a clearly articulated, physically present (on the internet), collective dream. Moral police exist alongside the agents of ishq.

This is both similar and different from the time period of the Kama Sutra. Similar because the marginalia of the Kama Sutra reminds the reader frequently of Manu’s laws, suggesting that the freedoms experienced by the dramatis personae took place in a cocoon. But while Vatsayan was unapologetic about the exclusive nature of Kama Sutra’s aesthetic, contemporary feminism prides itself on an awareness of intersectionality, and seeks also to redress inequalities and multiple kinds of oppression.

In 2016, it is tempting to manically associate ourselves with the Kama Sutra because that distances us from our collective history of misogyny and patriarchy. Feminism — both third and fourth wave — encourage us to resist this temptation. Re-imagining our cultural past is an important and necessary enterprise: it allows new stories to emerge, which might otherwise have stayed buried. Re-imagining also shapes the present. Yet, our wish for change is tempered by the archeological metaphor: in unearthing buried pieces of our history, we must not bury previously unearthed histories. If they are to have meaning, various imaginings of our past have to co-exist.

Last month at the Chennai Literary Festival, I was an invited speaker on a panel entitled “Kama’s Sutra”, which treated the theme of contemporary erotic literature. When we opened for audience questions, a man, in his late sixties or early seventies, took the microphone. “I appreciate your discussion on freedom of expression,” he said, “but,” and here his voice took on a momentum: “I am standing here to tell you that this is India, and this is Tamil Nadu, and you have to respect the rules of society”.

We dismissed him, amidst applause, but I was left wondering about the relationship between his moral policing and his age. After the panel closed, I was approached, this time more gently, by another man, about the same age as the dissident audience member. “We never had,” he said, “you know, the chance for all this. So it is overwhelming for us. Maybe you could understand not only me, but also that other audience member”.

Something opened inside me, a kind of gentleness that I associate with feminism. I could hear another story. If feminism is about sympathy for different oppressions, then perhaps we can remember that puritanism, too, is a form of oppression. The older audience member is past his prime, he will not experience the benefits of a sexual re-invention. How will he come to terms that this was not for him, nor for the women that he lived with? If he allows us to associate ourselves with the Kama Sutra, he must remember — and mourn — that he lived through an era where such a possibility was reduced, to the extent that it was available for only a highly wealthy and privileged minority. Those late-sixty-something audience members were born in post-Independence India, where the driving psychological wish was for an Indian identity, encompassing, solid, and unhurt by colonialism. The power of that collective wish propelled a national agenda, to set aside differences of caste and gender in order to do the work of nation-building.

Juxtapose the notion of aaram haram hai, the slogan that raised a generation of Indians, with the morning schedule of the person for whom the Kama Sutra was written. There you will see that important as post-Independence nation building was, its inherent puritanism pathologised the relaxed lifestyle on which the Kama Sutra is founded as ugly, even Western.

Sex-positive fourth wave feminism, then, will perhaps be a bit like the Kama Sutra: a possibility that not everyone will be able to explore. But unlike Vatsayan’s dream that held a measure of imperviousness to the economically less-privileged, fourth-wave feminism has inclusion on its agenda. Since it is carried on the internet, it will depend less on economic privilege and more on other aspects of human-ness: leisure, libido, zest for life and thirst for education — also, alas, by their very nature, unequally distributed.
Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Goa. She is the author of a short story collection, A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories and of numerous non-fiction psychoanalytic essays on women and sexuality.

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