A recent advertisement released by well-known hairstylist Jawed Habib's Kolkata franchisee was at the receiving end of much flak on the social media and, apparently, it so inflamed an Uttar Pradesh resident, that he filed a case against it. What caused the heartburn, it seems, were cartoon sketches that showed Goddess Durga and her children enjoying a relaxed grooming session at a Jawed Habib salon, probably in preparation for the approaching festive Durga Puja season, a point driven home by the tagline ‘Gods too visit the JH salon’.
This harmless, humorous take was immediately deemed as being offensive to Hindu religious sentiment and a new uproar got manufactured, forcing Jawed Habib to apologise profusely, despite the fact that nobody in Bengal seemed in the least bit offended. This did not, however, stop a Jawed Habib salon from being vandalised in faraway Unnao in Uttar Pradesh, as retribution for the advertisement in distant Kolkata.
If this is not a case of motivated intimidation, what is? More importantly, who are these people who seek to redefine our relationship with our gods? What exactly is wrong with this advertisement? How does it offend religious sentiments? Is it the depiction of deities as cartoon figures? Or is it the idea that they are shown indulging in earthly pleasures such as grooming, manicure, pedicure or getting a facial done? Or wait, is it deemed blasphemous just because the gods are presented as visiting the salon of a Muslim hairstylist? And, hence, all the social media fury, the legal case, the vandalism?
We have fun bonds with our gods
Has India reached a stage where a funny advertisement can be perversely interpreted as sacrilegious to our gods? That nothing has remained light-hearted or humorous anymore? That we will go looking for offence even in the most non-offensive of things? Even worse, have we become that country where someone has to hastily apologise to all and sundry, to avoid backlash, humiliation and even physical violence?
We Hindus have for ages displayed a fascinating array of attitudes towards our gods. One such legacy is that of playfulness, of friendship, of cheekiness — a kind of familiarity that enables us to take liberties, even bordering on irreverence. Our mythology too is full of antics and escapades of various Gods — Krishna, Hanuman, Ganesha, especially — which make them fun and divine, yet endearingly human in our imagination. It is these traits that make them so lovable and they are in the true sense, people's deities — not aloof or haughty or so high up on the pedestal that we have to be only devout towards them. Goddess Durga, too, enjoys a similar relationship with the people of Bengal.
The Jawed Habib salon advertisement is a perfect example of that sense of warm, affectionate bonhomie and belonging that many Indians share with their favourite gods. Whereas, the outrage attributing offensiveness to it, is actually a mischievous attempt to dictate the kind of relationship we should enjoy with our gods — a boring, unidimensional, awestruck, bhakt-like form of piety or a melodramatic, loud, cowering reverence of the kind seen in mythological films or TV serials.
The argument aggressively being brandished in support of taking offence, is that why no such cartoons are made depicting Prophet Mohammed or Christ or Buddha or Mahaveer or the Sikh gurus. Why only Hindu gods? That all hell would break loose if such creative liberties were to be taken with the divine icons of the other faiths.
Prima facie, the argument cannot be dismissed, because there is some merit and truth in it. But the question is, are we now going to emulate the orthodox and stuffy rigidities of other faiths to rob Hinduism of the wholesome, cultural flexibilities it enjoys? Why should we allow self-appointed guardians of our religious sentiments, to narrow down the many ways, moods and spirits in which we connect to our gods and celebrate them? Won't that impoverish rather than enrich Indians as a people?
Isn't it ironical that instead of focusing on the regressive, intolerant aspects of our religion, a concerted attempt seems to be under way to dismantle the progressive, liberal nuances of the Hindu faith by picking up frivolous grievances, in the name of speaking for us all? The danger lies in how effective such tactics are turning out to be in the age of social media and the current unabashed majoritarian mood in the nation, as can be seen from the instant capitulation by Jawed Habib in apologising and withdrawing the advertisement.
Whether the legal case amounts to anything, the complainant in Uttar Pradesh has already tasted victory and one daresay, thus emboldened other hypersensitive humbugs and organisations to forever be on the lookout in pushing their narrow, orthodox agendas, under the pretext of protecting Hindu religious sentiments. Similarly, every such mindless success, creates a sense of siege, self-censorship and a tame, timid acceptance of 'do's and dont's' thrust upon us by conservative elements of society, rather than by the law, the Constitution or the state.
The question also arises, whether anyone's religious sentiments would have been offended if such an advertisement had been released by a Hindu hairstylist. The niggling suspicion is that probably not. Everybody would just have had a hearty chuckle, because there really isn't anything in the cartoon to have caused the slightest offence.
This is what makes it all the more worrying, that the controversy appears to have been generated, like so many others, only with the objective of signalling that minorities in India will have to exist at the mercy of the majority, which can declare at its whim, what is acceptable and what isn't.
Unless resisted, bullying quickly becomes a habit and to be effective, the resistance needs to come from the majority itself.
The writer is a Pune-based author and filmmaker
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