We could start a civil debate on the extent to which our artists and writers can exercise their right to freedom of expression
SEP 21 -
The talk of the town these days is the threat issued to the artist Manish Harijan by some members of the Hindu community over his paintings of some of the Hindu deities as superheroes in modern garbs and with offensive gestures. Much has been said and written about it already in support of the artist and his right to creative expression or freedom of expression by almost everyone who matters in today’s Nepal. There is absolutely no denying the fact that issuing death threats to artists or anyone else for that matter is outright wrong and goes against the norms of a civilised society.
However, in a country like ours where religion plays an important part in people’s daily lives, is it alright to offend the religious sensitivities of the majority in the name of art? Sadly, this question is yet to be raised and many of those who are in the position to do so and thereby start a public debate on the whole issue hold back for the fear of being labeled illiberal or the most popular term for condemnation in new Nepal—feudal. Can we not be critical of the goons who threatened Harijan and at the same time of his art that is outright offensive and blatantly disrespectful of the people’s religious sentiments the same way many western scholars are critical of the senseless movie “Innocence of Muslims” and the violence it has sparked in much of the Arab world?
Religion is a sensitive issue almost everywhere in the world and it has been like this for ages. Given its influence in people’s daily lives (and afterlife) it is likely to remain a sensitive issue for ages to come. Except for some enlightened ones who probably know the answer to all things, ordinary people count on their god(s) for happiness in this life and guarantee them a place in heaven when they die. Many wars have been fought over it and are being fought even today, albeit, the differences in modes and means—all to preserve and promote the originality and or superiority of any given religion. Therefore, people, as history proves, do not take it too kindly when new ideas are interjected in their religion. It takes a long time for them to accept those ideas and the new sects emanating from those ideas, provided the ideas and sects do not deviate drastically from the original. A cursory reading of world history provides one with many such examples. If even an idea that does not drastically deviate from the original has a hard time finding acceptance, it is indeed quite senseless to imagine that depiction of gods themselves in ways not sanctioned by scriptures and iconographic traditions will find acceptance in the minds of the public.
If we are to analyse the recent controversy over Harijan’s art from this angle, the anger seems normal. Of course, the way it was expressed is outright condemnable. However, the media and the scholars who have written/spoken about the issue have only focused on the reaction, not the reasons that led to such extreme reaction.
Opinion-makers in Nepal find it appealing to analyse such issues from the “victim’s” point of view to, among other things, establish their liberal credentials among the elite readers of English and Nepali dailies. Liberal, is perhaps the most grossly misunderstood word in Nepal these days. We mistakenly believe that being liberal means quietly swallowing all humiliations upon our culture, traditions and beliefs and allowing them to be criticised or analysed from every nonsensical angle perceivable. But that’s not being liberal, that’s being, to put it bluntly, an intellectual coward. And when the elites and perception-shapers remain mum to become liberal and politically correct to the point of cowardice, the fanatics among us raise their heads and turn the bad situation into ugly. This is exactly what happened in the case of Harijan.
Of course, we should all make sure that those who threatened Harijan get the legal sentence they deserve and we should all be absolutely clear in telling these fanatics that what they did is a disgrace to Hinduism. But at the same time, perhaps, we could also start a civil debate on the extent to which our artists and writers can exercise their right to freedom of expression. It actually helps the community as a whole if we dare to become politically incorrect at times: if the elites who went to Harijan’s opening, had politely but firmly told him that his paintings are outright offensive and it would be better to withdraw those, then the fanatics would not have gone to the gallery to manhandle and threaten the artist and raised their profile among would-be fanatics. Let’s look at it this way: just as pedestrians and customers are not always right, artists and writers too are wrong at times and we should not hesitate, under any pretext to make them aware of it.
Posted on: 2012-09-21 08:26