Does it make sense to pledge allegiance to India before watching Hate Story 3?

The short answer is “No”. The long answer is below.

(First published on Boom.)

Hate Story 3 and The Good Dinosaur are releasing this Friday. If you choose to watch any of these films at a movie theatre, then there’s a good chance you’ll be expected to stand up when the national anthem plays before the film. Because if there’s a decision that demands you confirm your respect for the nation, it most definitely is choosing to watch Hate Story 3. And what could be more opportune a moment to salute India than before watching a dinosaur and his pet human beat the evolutionary odds in a Pixar film?

In case you think a cinema is not a place to make a patriotic statement and you don’t stand up, then you would be committing an action that at least one court in the country deemed more serious than murder.

Last year, six people in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, didn’t stand up when the anthem was played before a film screening. They were charged with sedition and disrespecting the national anthem. Four went into hiding and two, Harihara Sharma and M. Salman, were arrested. Sharma got anticipatory bail. Salman didn’t. The local police said, “We are also looking into whether Salman has any links with anti-national forces.” It would be a month before Salman would finally get bail, even though there was no evidence connecting him to any seditious activity.

Suddenly, in comparison, the Muslim family that was harassed for not standing up when the national anthem played in a Mumbai cinema seems to have gotten off lightly. All the people in the theatre did was abuse and threaten them. No one has formally charged them of sedition. None of them are in jail. After a few cuss words and threats, “a peaceful environment” (to quote PVR Cinemas’ official statement) was restored. Maximum City really must be liberal and progressive. Depending on your sarcasm radar, you may either roll your eyes or nod earnestly now.

Oh, all this happened before a show of Tamasha. Whether or not you like black comedy, the universe certainly does.

Ever since the video showing the family being surrounded and harassed by belligerent men in a movie theatre was uploaded on November 29, there has been what passes for debate in India these days. On social media, quotes were circulated from the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act of 1971 and people howled about how ridiculous it is that one could go to jail for three years for not standing up during the anthem. Only that’s incorrect: The law says that you must intentionally prevent the national anthem from being sung or cause disturbance while it’s being sung in order to qualify for its prescribed punishments. It shouldn’t take a lawyer to prove sitting down doesn’t amount to disturbance or prevent anyone else from either hearing or singing the anthem. Neither should sitting amount to sedition.

For a vast number of Indians, however, the family’s action is unpardonable because it’s being seen as unpatriotic, rather than simply criminal. As director Raj Konar said to Mumbai Mirror, “People got angry because they [the family] could not even stand for two minutes for the people who sacrificed their lives for us.” Konar is the man responsible for the video of “Jana Gana Mana” that shows survivors and heroes of 26/11. “It took me three years to make this film,” said Konar, no doubt in an effort to underline his patriotic spirit.

And yet, despite all his passion, Konar didn’t notice that in the English version of his film, the slide that exhorts the audience to stand up, the word “martyr” is wrongly spelt. That’s how important the memory of those who died in 26/11 is to Konar. When writing about them, he couldn’t be bothered to run a spell check.

Who decides that this carelessness is less offensive to those who died and the idea of India? Who decides people don’t have a right to register their dissent? Who decides standing up during the national anthem is the only way to be patriotic? Would there be as much furore about the decision to sit through the anthem if the family didn’t have members wearing hijab? Had they not been identifiable as Muslims, would the audience have satisfied itself by only abusing them rather than escalating tension to the point where the family had to be escorted out?

It makes no sense that you have to declare your allegiance to the nation before watching a film. It’s hilariously absurd when you have to do it before watching, for instance, Captain America or a film about a ship’s crew that turns to cannibalism to survive (In the Heart of the Sea also releases on Friday, by the way).

The directive to re-introduce the national anthem in Mumbai cinemas came in 2003, following a demand from the National Youth Congress. At the time, many described it as a political stunt. Few believed the obviously computer-generated Indian flag that waved mechanically on screen in the early “Jana Gana Mana” videos could inspire patriotism.

Soon enough, people figured they may as well make the national anthem work for them. Special videos started being made. Of late, producers have made “Jana Gana Mana” videos featuring stars from their upcoming films. These usually show up a few months before the film release (I’ll leave you to figure out why Farhan Akhtar may have been chosen to do the voiceover for the video that’s currently playing in many Mumbai theatres).

Will standing up to a publicity campaign really prove your love for the nation? One of the recent multiplex anthems is a karaoke version of the song, complete with a bouncing dot. Is that really what will keep national honour intact?

The bitter irony in the way “Jana Gana Mana” is being used to force Muslims and dissenters to cow down, is that it was selected as the national anthem because it celebrated our diversity. If you only know the song as what is played in cinemas, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at this cloud castle of an idea. After all, when the lyrics list the states, “Jana Gana Mana” casually includes a bit of Pakistan and completely misses vast tracts of India, including Uttar Pradesh, the North East and new members of the republic like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

But if you’d like to feel a little spurt of patriotic warmth, read or hear the second verse of “Jana Gana Mana“:

 

Ohoroho tobo aahbaano prachaarito,
Shuni tobo udaaro baani
Hindu Bouddho Shikho Jaino
Parashiko Musholmaano Christaani.
Purabo pashchimo aashey,
Tabo singhaasano paashey
Premohaaro hoye gaanthaa

 

Jana gana oikyo bidhayaka jaya hey,
Bharata bhagya bidhata
Jaya he, jaya he, jaya he
Jaya jaya jaya jaya he.

 

Roughly, this stanza translates to:

 

Your call is heard throughout,
We hear its gracious melody.
Hindu, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains,
Parsis, Muslims, Christians,
The East and the West,
All gather around your throne and
Weave a garland of love.

 

The chorus replaces the ruler (“adhinayak“) with the one who unifies everyone (“oikyo bidhayaka“).

This was the vision of India as a brilliant miscellany that Rabindranath Tagore crafted while writing “Jana Gana Mana“. (Incidentally, it was not dedicated to George V.) When in 1950, Tagore’s poem was chosen as the national anthem over “Vande Mataram“, the reasoning was simple. “Vande Mataram” was a beautiful and rousing cry, but Bankimchandra’s poem had been tainted by Hindu communalism. It was a slogan that divided India along religious lines. Too often violence had flared with one group shouting “Vande mataram” and the other responding with “Allahu Akbar” (or vice versa).

Tagore, with the romanticism that gleams out of so much of his poetry, imagined an India of distinctions, rather than divides. He imagined differences that stood shoulder to shoulder and created a more vibrant, stronger nation. Today, with “Jana Gana Mana” going the “Vande Mataram” way and being claimed by Hindu nationalists to foster animosity, Tagore’s idealism seems almost naive.

Maybe if some of us sit this one down a few times, the rest will remember just what they’re standing up for. Or have we reached that point where we need a new anthem? Is the India that Tagore imagined in “Jana Gana Mana” so out of sync with the India we live in today? This much is for certain: considering how we’re baying for the blood of anyone who dares to dissent or protest, this country isn’t the one Tagore was celebrating in his poem.

On Freedom of Expression in Art

This article was first published in Mint Lounge.

The Brush Speaks Louder Than Words

In 2006, Sanjeev Khandekar and Vaishali Narkar had a show in Jehangir Art Gallery titled Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick. It catapulted Khandekar to notoriety because there were vociferous protests accusing the show of obscenity and it was shut down. Considering the quality of the works in Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick, there’s a strong argument for the protesters having done what many aesthetes may have recommended. However, regardless of the mediocrity of the art on display, the point was that Khandekar as an artist should be free to create and show his work. Mumbai’s art community rallied around him and suddenly, Khandekar shared something with one of modern Indian art’s masters, M.F. Husain: They’d both been accused of creating art that was considered obscene by some.

Two years later in 2008, student artist Chandra Mohan’s paintings of Durga, a Shiva lingam and Jesus were destroyed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members during an internal evaluation of final-year art students at Vadodara’s MS University. For once, the VHP had the support of a certain section of the local Christian community, which was not amused by Chandra Mohan’s depictions of Christ. The police followed the vandals and alarmingly, they let the vandals go scot-free but arrested Chandra Mohan for threatening Vadodara’s secular atmosphere. The art community protested again, this time at a national level. Freedom of artistic expression, it seemed, was under attack.

Montage: (from top) M.F. Husain’s Bharat Mata; a work by Bhupen Khakhar; Manu Parekh’s Interpretation of Benares ; and a work by Sanjeev Khandekar, from the show Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick.

It wasn’t. By and large, the mass of the Indian populace doesn’t really care about art, so artists are actually free to do whatever they want to do. Most art doesn’t register on the radar of national awareness and incidents of violence are exceptional (even if the work inspiring them generally isn’t). Art, the kind that is bought by collectors, is considered an elitist arena and as far as most of the public goes, they’re far more comfortable and familiar with a pretty landscape than the delicate violence in an Anju Dodiya painting. No matter how provocative or contentious the work, we’re far from the day when the impact of a controversial piece of art will be as widespread as a film, for example. There have been few efforts to increase public interest in visual arts and none of them have come from the government, which has let state-run art institutions sink into an abyss of mediocrity. Most art schools in the country have primitive syllabi and unimpressive faculties. The National Gallery of Modern Art in both New Delhi and Mumbai is a source of embarrassment, considering their callous attitude towards exhibitions and their own collection.

Art in India is a private and personal initiative. Gallerists have created reputations for themselves without any supporting infrastructure. Artists didn’t have a market they had to answer to until the noughties and they were free to respond to the world around them as they saw fit. This is why modern and contemporary Indian art actually has a rather impressive tradition of creating works that go against the grain of conservative thought.

Look at F.N. Souza, who poured out his rage against the Roman Catholic machine through his mesmerizing and yet grotesque depictions of Christ. He hadn’t painted as much as savaged the canvases and the contrasting compassion in his nudes is striking. Bhupen Khakhar celebrated homosexuality long before it was in vogue to do so. Paintings such as Two Men in Banares (1982) would still be considered bold for the way Khakhar brought the sacred and the profane together. Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories (2001) attacked the government’s attempt to rewrite history textbooks. For the work titled Blame(2002-04), Shilpa Gupta took on the role of a pedlar in Mumbai and sold little bottles of red fluid with a label that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good. So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality.” The directions for using Blame were: “Squeeze small quantity on dry surface. Neatly separate into four equal sections (can be unequal too). Tell apart sections according to race and religion.” Imagine trying something like this in China.

When it comes to nudity, Indian artists haven’t been coy. Almost every significant Indian painter has painted and exhibited nudes, including Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Jogen Chowdhury and, of course, Husain (who was slapped with an obscenity charge in 1996 that was finally dismissed earlier this year). In 1993, Mrinalini Mukherjee made Pushp, a hemp sculpture that showed an enormous vulva (the piece is around 40 inches tall) and can only be described as voluptuous. Subodh Gupta slathered himself in Vaseline and posed flagrantly naked in Vilas (1999). Abir Karmakar paints gender-bending self-portraits that are often unnervingly voyeuristic and still poignant, like In the Old Fashioned Way(2007). Earlier this year, T. Venkanna showed a painting that was a copy of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, except he had a limp rubber rooster stuck inside the outsized vagina (go on, think of the synonym for rooster). Inder Salim has hugged trees and walked around Delhi naked as the day he was born for a number of his performances. Viewers may have batted their eyelids a little more than usual but no one questioned an artist’s right to create or show works like these. In fact, when photographer Raghu Rai showed his tasteless and sexist “nudies” in 2007, demonstrations by feminists against that particular exhibition would probably have been justified.

There’s no doubt that incidents such as Chandra Mohan’s arrest and Husain’s 13-year legal ordeal have made some cautious but it’s worth remembering that India is a country that wants to be a democracy. One in which public demonstrations, like the ones that were organized for Chandra Mohan, can make an impact even if they are by a relatively small group of people. Our laws might be hazy on what constitutes obscenity but at least we have judges who will quote Pablo Picasso and have no qualms in labelling those who harassed Husain as ignorant and narrow-minded. In comparison to the repressive regimes of countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan (all of which produce excellent art despite legal and social straitjackets), the acts of the right-wing minority that have troubled Indian art seem almost pesky.

We complain about how the market is the master of the Indian art scene, we lament the absence of proper art education, and we gnash our teeth at the lack of museums and governmental support for art. All these are valid concerns but so far as the freedom of expression is concerned, the muzzle can only be put on an artist by the art fraternity. This will happen if the threat of a few thugs makes gallerists and curators cower, if the artists submit to anxieties instead of using their work to respond to their circumstances. If there is a gag on Indian art, then it would have to be tied by the artist himself. No one else has either the capacity or the right.