No country for artistic quests

No country for artistic quests

Jaswant Singh is laughing all the way to the bank. His ‘Jinnah: India, Partition and Independence’ is reportedly ‘flying off the bookshelves’. Whether or not the book has any literary or scholarly merit no longer matters, it is now de rigueur to have it on your coffee table.

“To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it,” said writer Michel de Montaigne, in ‘Essays’, 1559. The game of censorship is a paradoxical one. At the psychological level, it heightens our desire for that which has been deemed undesirable. At the socio-political level as Michel Foucault points out in The History of Sexuality, any attempt at censorship, legal or otherwise, necessarily propagates the language it seeks to forbid. The subversive material often seeps out of the cracks in the crackdown.

But the history of censorship is an ancient one and those that choose to ban or banish are not unaware of its double-edged nature. Preoccupation with the spectacle of silencing often makes us deaf to its call for context. In itself, censorship is difficult to evaluate or dismiss. But when it is used as a tool for political propaganda; when artists are told what version of the truth they are allowed to represent; when threats are issued to those who question this authoritarianism; and when the majoritarian agenda is inescapable, censorship is indefensible.

For the government in Gujarat, banning has become a fetish with a contagious power. After official bans on Fanaa, a penalty for Aamir Khan’s association with the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Parzania, for its depiction of the 2002 pogrom, and Sayeed Alam’s historical play Maulana Azad, purportedly because of a dialogue on Sardar Patel, an unofficial ban was imposed on Nandita Das’s Firaaq, also based on the 2002 massacre. Those who admire chief minister Narendra Modi’s ‘resolve’ and ‘management skills,’ would have to agree that quashing dissent and debate makes administration a lot easier, albeit less democratic.

Part of the game

But the need to control a people’s imagination runs across the political and social spectrum. Censorious power circulates among different agents and the ‘consumers’ and ‘curators’ of art are a part of the game. At times it is by meeting the silencing with silence. Why isn’t civil society up in arms against the increasing intrusion of the establishment in art? Candlelight vigils seem to be meant only for most select reasons, lest they lose their aura.

Leading cultural institutions like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), the National School of Drama (NSD), the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the ministry of culture are equally apathetic. But there’s more to this than simple indifference, there’s also the economics.

The Indian art market for instance is said to be worth Rs 2000 crore. At this year’s India Art Summit (August 19-22) in New Delhi, galleries raked in nearly Rs 26 crore. M F Husain’s work was banned for the second consecutive year from this mega-mart for ‘security reasons.’ Many expressed annoyance at the state’s continuing unwillingness to protect the ‘Picasso of India,’ resigned to a life in exile.   

This kind of institutional censorship is not restricted to India. The Istanbul-based artist and academic Lanfranco Aceti refers to it as “the cowardly defence of the capital instead of the principle of art.” After years of battling various forms of censorship, he came to the conclusion that the artist has been left with only one possibility:

Self-censorship.

This discovery led to his organising ‘I Am Sorry the Exhibition Has Been Censored by the Artist’, at the Tate Modern, London, in 2007. People were invited to the venue to scream ‘I am sorry’, thus expressing their concern for artistic censorship. Through this Anceti aimed to reveal “the dichotomy between the necessity to exercise freedom in order to witness the reality of democracy and the illusion of a democracy of non-exercised freedoms, of a democracy not exercised for fear of retaliation, for fear of punishment.”

The need to censor a work of art is a validation of its power, its ability to shake the status quo. Artistic censors await the day when artists will willingly toe the line. And an increasing number of artists are beginning to do so.

Self-censorship

In their introduction to Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression, Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva describe self-censorship as “the interiorisation of every mechanism and rationale for censorship: It is present when an artist hesitates about creating a work that might disturb viewers or might infringe on copyrighted material… and it is apparent when museum curators refuse even to consider exhibiting work by artists with politically contentious points of view, fearing that showing such work might lead to losses of support from audiences, public officials and funders.”
But suppressing the quest for the truth comes at its own price. At the end of each cycle of censorship, the foundations of the state appear weaker than before. It tries to hold onto its power through increasingly repressive measures.
This makes you wonder, if the real threat to the state is from an invasion of ideas, then what are they going to do with the Rs 1,41,703 crore allocated to national defence in the annual budget?

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