Around the time film star Shah Rukh Khan went to make peace with Raj Thackeray, the supremo of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, for an uneventful and smooth release of the actor’s new film, which carries name of a Pakistani actor on marquee, a similar incident happened in less netherworldly Kerala. Thackeray whose his political graph is inexorably going southwards, was desperately foraging for softer targets.
Vellappally Natesan and his son Tushar, novitiates to Kerala’s inchoate bullydom, are not yet in the Thackeray league, but these cartoon Corleones, did succeed in making the media behemoth Malayala Manorama to retract the December issue of Bhashaposhini, the 125-year-old literary magazine from its stable.
It might have been a horrible week for Kottayam grandma, as Manorama is called; a tragicomedy of, what are perceived as, errors played out at an unlikely place, its usually vapid literary arm, Bhashaposhini. Lightening struck, not once, but twice at the same place — on the venerable magazine’s covers. On both occasions, the covers were reproductions of works by reputed artists.
The first was a painting by Tom Vattakuzhy, to go with a play on last days of Mata Hari in a convent, printed inside. The painting was unmistakably inspired Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, in which the famous female spy of World War I days is shown bare-breasted, with nuns sitting around her on a dining table.
Following protests from a section of the Christian community, the magazine which hit the stands on December 6 was recalled the next day. It came out with another cover, this time a photograph of the head of Sri Narayana Guru, taken from a sculpture by Riyas Komu. The photograph originally appeared in the cover of a book on Sri Narayana Guru’s thoughts, which was extracted in the magazine.
That was when Tushar Vellappally, the president of Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political ally of BJP and an outfit that claims the support of Ezhavas felt offended about “distorted image” of Guru — born an Ezhava — in Riyas Komu’s deeply pensive, cobweb-cracked visage of the savant. “Unless Malayala Manorama takes strong action and tenders an apology, all the offices of Manorama will witness angry protests by Kerala’s majority community,” said the Hindutva bandwagoner. Malayala Manorama apologised and the magazine was withdrawn. “In view of this,” said a triumphalist Vellappalli Natesan, the founder of BDJS and Tushar’s father, “all programmes of protests and agitation are suspended.”
How do splinter groups come to acquire so much power in Kerala, where except for a small wedge, the electoral
pie is shared among secular, sanguine political parties. Kerala has logically no business to be like this. Still, of late, the plight of individuals and institutions are not dissimilar to say, Maharashtra, where communal parties like Shiv Sena, MNS or BJP hold sway.
Take the case of Tom Vattakuzhy. Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper had inspired so many artists from Jamini Roy to Andy Warhol to Zeng Fanshi. Multi-media artist Vivek Vilasini, made two versions of it, one set in battleground Gaza, where once Jesus lived and preached, and the other, exhibited in the first edition of the Kochi Biennale in 2012, showed those sitting at the table wearing chuvanna thadi (red beard), fiercest of Kathakali costumes. Vattakuzhy’s Mata Hari and nuns is the last in a series in a derivative tradition, yet it is singled out for blacking.
Komu’s head of Sri Narayana Guru is actually a detail from of an installation called Cult of Dead and Memory Loss, which was exhibited in Kochi in 2006. The work was reflective, and even prophetic as to how Guru and his message would be manipulated and appropriated on a later day. In the decade-long existence of the work, why only now part of it is seen as “blasphemous” to Guru?
Malayala Manorama has a history of fighting and surviving a battle, which would have crippled and killed any other organisation, against the formidable Dewan of Travancore, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. Mathrubhumi, the other big newspaper in Kerala, too had a testing past; it was proscribed many times during the British rule for its nationalist stand. Recently, the paper was forced to stop publishing a series on the Ramayana by a Hindutva splinter group, only because the author was a Muslim. Similar incidents happening in the recent past to individuals as well as institutions are too many to recount; have times gone sour in Kerala?
Part of the problem is deliberate silence of the majority. The Left Democratic Front led by the CPM and the United Democratic Front led by the Congress together cover most of the political space in Kerala, yet they seldom condemn such incidents. Why condemn, not even a comment, or a squeak, comes out of them. Both fronts are very touchy-feely about matters communal; blame that on vote-bank politics. It is this silence that is helping radical Hindutva and other communal forces to gain traction in Kerala. Idea of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Kerala is slowly dying, not on ground, but in mind-space.