That the large media group in Kerala, Malayala Manorama, was forced to withdraw copies of its 125-year-old literary magazine, Bhashaposhini, from newsstands and issue an apology over a couple of art works following outrage by community groups points to the precarious state of public expression in the state. Some Christian groups reportedly protested the use of a painting that drew inspiration from Da Vinci’s iconic Last Supper to illustrate a play that Bhashaposhini ran in its December issue. The play discussed the last days of Mata Hari, a dancer who was sentenced to death for spying during World War I, and the painting depicted her, bare-breasted, surrounded by nuns. Protestors reportedly felt the painting insulted the spirit of Christ’s last supper. Yet another group, a political newbie that claims to represent Hindu interests, found its cause in the cover visual, which was the photograph of a 11-year-old sculpture. Riyas Komu’s work in bronze was an unusual profile of Sree Narayana Guru, a major enlightenment figure. The political outfit, which draws support from the Ezhava community, felt the sculpture denigrated Guru, who, it claimed, is revered as god.
The outrage is misplaced and based on a misunderstanding of what art is supposed to convey. It reveals the tendency of even marginal bodies to assume ownership over community beliefs, customs, and representations. Tom Vattakkuzhy, who did the Mata Hari painting, and Komu were interpreting iconic images in a personal language. Vattakuzhy’s painting could be deemed radical, and hence, as good art is meant to, subversive — he was referring to the episode where the dancer-courtesan, the night before her execution, tells her guardians in a nunnery that her last wish was to dance. If such art is deemed disrespectful, a large corpus of Renaissance art will need to be censored. Komu’s bronze bust reveals the Guru as a tortured soul, a saint who had experienced the caste discrimination that prevailed in his time. It is disturbing that the self-appointed custodians of religious and community, though incapable of grasping the nuances in artistic expressions, now insist for art works to be subjected to their approval.
The Bhashaposhini episode has precedents in Kerala. Sectarian groups have in the past used the threat of violence to force writers and publishers to submission. Their success has emboldened more people to invoke their numerical strength and the will to violence to harass artists. The onus is on political parties and the civil society to keep such “moralists” under check and retrieve the space for artists to work without fear and inhibition.