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BBC Arts Hour: How Tolerant is Indian Culture of New Ideas?

British Council New Delhi

Depending on how you look at it, India is either a deeply divided place where new ideas are constantly held back, or a land brimming with energy and new, diverse voices befitting the world’s biggest democracy.

A panel of artists and commentators came together at the British Council in New Delhi on 17 September, to talk about the boundaries of acceptability of India’s art, books and culture. Is India at a cultural crossroads and how tolerant is it of new ideas?

On the one hand are cases like the exile of legendary artist M. F. Husain, who was driven away after certain of his artworks were forbidden from being exhibited. Senior journalist and columnist Swapan Dasgupta highlighted the contradiction in the fact that painter Raja Ravi Varma was celebrated for his portraits of voluptuous women as goddesses, while Husain was vilified.

His image of the naked goddess Saraswati was seen as offensive towards Hindus and led not only to legal action, but also resulted in his home being attacked by right-wing activists.

At the same time, there is a proliferation of new and diverse voices, as writer and journalist Raghu Karnad pointed out. They are difficult to track since India comprises so many languages, he explained, but there is a new explosion of writing by the Dalits. He cited the example of a Kannada lesbian romance film that wholly embraces the idea of two women in a relationship.

Although there have been recent cases of conservative reaction to, for instance, the film PK,Karnad said that there has never been a shortage of people in India whose sensibilities have been offended. Such offence should not, therefore, be assumed to be a phenomenon of our times alone.

Artist Sonia Khurana and theatre activist Shilpi Marwaha expressed their desire for women to be liberated from the shackles of tradition. Khurana said that her depictions of naked women were rejected by Indian galleries only to be received well abroad. They were finally shown after that at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, on the insistence of fellow panellist, NGMA Director Rajeev Lochan.

BBC arts hour 2

Against the backdrop of the famous “Delhi rape case”, an incident involving the tragic rape and fatal assault on 23-year-old Jyoti Singh Pandey, there is a heightened level of awareness about the treatment of women in society.

The incident, which sparked intense international coverage and mass protest in India, inevitably reared its head during the panel discussion. According to Shilpi Marwah the way people react to women has transformed as a result of the publicity around the case.

A sensational slam poet and rapper, Rene Sharanya Verma, lyrically captured the moment with her debut performance of the powerful piece Reclaim the Night, which was a call for women to be able to embrace the streets after dark.

She says her work aims to empower women and raise awareness of misogyny in India. The discussion ended on the subject of digital media’s capability to empower huge numbers of people. The proliferation of mobile phones is encouraging and enabling art to be consumed and shared more easily. On the flip side, this can mean more opinions are expressed which leaves art in India open to more criticism.

The jury is divided as to how open Indian culture is to new ideas. A live performance by the two-member electro-fusion band ‘Basanti aur Woh’, fusing Led Zeppelin rock with Sanskrit lyrics certainly left our live audience feeling optimistic about the chances for diverse, fresh ideas to flourish.

Written whilst employed as the Head of Arts Programmes for the British Council in India. The original version can be accessed here.

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