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Sunday, June 24, 2001
Time Off

Degrees of intolerance
Manohar Malgonkar

I, for one was a little taken aback when I first heard about the controversy sparked off by Husainís nude Saraswati. In fact, I remember asking a friend who knows a lot about our religion: "But do Gods and Goddesses wear clothes?"

Mind you, Iím no expert. Still, Iíve visited a lot of temples a hundred, letís say and also perhaps as many ruins of temples. And in these temples the very walls and pillars are festooned with images of gods and goddesses and their attendants. In most of these temples, the principal deities are seldom more than scantily clad. Indeed only the soldiers, the fighting men with their swords and shields and lances, seem to be encumbered with clothes. As a rule, the male gods only wore dhotis which fell in drapes below their knees, as do some of their spouses. But a fully dressed female figure was almost an exception.

A statue of Mahishasur-Mardini, two feet high, and carved out of stone in the era of the Kadamba rulers is the pride and boast of my modest collection of temple sculptures. She is bare-breasted, as are most of the female temple figures of this period. Indeed, I rather doubt if a family magazine such as the Readerís Digest would print a photograph of my statue because it would be thought to overstep the conventions of modesty.

The point is, especially in South Indian temples, goddesses are seldom fully dressed.

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But, of course, logic is no answer to strongly-held belief systems which is a catchallí term for a basket of prejudices. Those who were offended by Husainís nude Saraswati would argue that it is all very well for the stone-carvers of ancient Hindu kingdoms to depict their gods and goddesses as clothed ó or unclothed ó according to the custom of the times, centuries ago. But, over the years, while our religion itself had remained unchanged, the way we dress has changed drastically. Goddesses and royal women may well have gone about bare-breasted in ancient times. But, as we can see from 17th and 18th century pictures, Hindu women have taken to wearing saris and, more recently, cholis. And that is how we like to think, our goddesses as always dressed.

The painter Ravi Varma started this trend. Himself of princely descent, in his paintings, he painted the gods as though they were Maharajas, and their women in saris. His famous painting of the gambling scene in Mahabharata may be a replica of a Maharajaís durbar, and his Draupadi, the polyandrous wife of the five Pandavas who had been gambled away by the eldest brother ó a woman in despair who is dressed like a suburban Hindu housewife ó in a nine-yard sari.

As it happens, the woman who modelled for Ravi Varma for that painting of the gambling session, is the same Mumbai housewife who had come from the temple-maid clan of a village in Goa whom Ravi Varma also painted as Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning.

Anyhow, for nearly a 100 years now, Lakshmi and Saraswati for most Hindus are Ravi Varmaís Lakshmi and Saraswati. Maybe a time will come when a future Ravi Varma might redefine both images for us by giving us goddesses who are more in line with contemporary concepts of feminine beauty, slimmer, wearing less gaudy garments and ó who knows ó without those two quite unnecessary extra arms. Sure, England and France donít believe in goddesses, but both countries have feminine figures who, as it were, represent the essence of their identities as nations. Great Britain has its Britannia, France its Marianne. The original Britannia was an empire-building battle-axe, a large woman draped in a Roman robe and holding up a shield draped with the Union Jack. The new Britannia is less warlike, less imperious figure, more like an average middle-class housewife, not a grand woman. And as to Franceís Marianne, she was, as it were, elected by an offices overwhelming vote of all the city mayors in France: a ravishingly beautiful film actress called Letitia Casta.

To the Hindus, Lakshmi and Saraswati are goddesses, but to the British and French, Britannia and Marianne are merely personifications of their national identities ó not objects of worship. Even so, it is unlikely that the British and the French would not feel horrified if some artist took it into his head to show them how their national symbols would look like if they had no clothes on.

Horrified, and affronted, yes: but not infuriated enough to send them out in the streets to vandalise the artistís studio or to do him bodily harm. To that extent our protesters to Husainís nude Saraswati did go overboard, especially when it is common knowledge that Husain himself, on his track record, is an agreeably secular person as well as artist, who delights in churning out paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses ó Ganeshas, Durgas, Saraswatis ó for which, if he were to be a citizen of an Islamic state, he would have been excommunicated by the mullahs or marched off to jail by the authorities.

Some Islamic countries are known for their fanaticism: There are places where they chop of peopleís hands for petty thefts, stone adulterous women to death; where women may not go to school, or to offices and music ó even traditional music is banned ó only holy music is permitted. By comparison, Pakistan is far more permissive. But there too, it is important for writers and artists to mind their Ps and Qs, lest they offend the susceptibilities of some religious group or the other.

V.S. Naipaul has written of a journalist friend in Karachi, Nusrat, who was an editor of the Morning Postí Himself a devout Shia, Nusrat, during the Moharram festival, thought he would print in his paper an article in the Arab News which he had particularly liked. It was a piece on the granddaughter of Ali, who the Shias revere. The article emphasised that this granddaughter was a talented and goodlooking woman.

Insulting! Heretical! ó screamed Shia mobs in Karachi. They organised street protests and threatened to burn the offices of the Post. The paper had to remain unpublished for three days till the trouble subsided.

But what was their objection? It was that anyone should have dared to dwell upon the looks of so venerated a woman ó not even to say that she was both gifted and beautiful.

Home This feature was published on June 10, 2001
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