Tag Archives: censorship

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Radhika Santawanam: The Appeasement of Radhika by Muddupalani (trans. Sandhya Mulchandani)

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The figure of the medieval devadasi in popular thought is an interesting one: many narratives about these artist-courtesans rest on the notion of their having been downtrodden, whether by British lawmakers, Brahminical oppression or patriarchal hegemony. Without glorifying a past in which exploitation certainly occurred, or glossing over the difficult realities of modern offshoot systems like the Yellamma cult, it remains that such narratives overlook elements of agency – devadasis were learned, accomplished women who had an autonomy which other women of their time, restrained by “securities” like husband and household, did not. Basic literacy was a given, and in the grander courts, so was multilingualism (in the 19th century, a talented devadasi might know English, Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu) and proficiency in numerous art forms. They not only had access to power, but also wielded it themselves: the legal right to possess land and wealth gave them the ability to make endowments, as evidenced by the 11th century Shantavve’s commissioning of present-day Karnataka’s largest, still functional, water tank or the 8th century Paravai’s continued veneration in numerous Shiva shrines in Tamil Nadu. These may be selective examples, but in a context in which women were predominantly not allowed education and forced into arranged marriage, not having the opportunity to wed seems a small price to pay for so many relative rights and freedoms.

Sandhya Mulchandani’s The Appeasement of Radhika, a translation from the Telugu ofa narrative poem by Muddupalani (1730-1790) of the illustrious Thanjavur court, makes a fine case for the reconsideration of those standard narratives of oppression. The original Radhika Santawanam was writtenaround 250 years ago, when Muddupalani was a favoured courtesan of the Nayaka king Pratapsimha. The text experienced a revival at the turn of the 20th century at the hands of another devadasi, the erudite Nagarathnamma (who founded the Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru, which continues to be the world’s most famous Carnatic music festival). When Nagarathnamma republished the manuscript, with portions which had been excised by an earlier editor intact, it was found to be objectionable for its sexual content under the prevalent morality of that period, and banned in 1911.

The ban was lifted in 1952, but the politics around the text remain interesting, if complicated. Mulchandani’s introduction itself carries a deeply problematic passage, reproduced here in part: “Muddupalani cannot, in all honesty, be called the forerunner of the feminist movement in India. Being a courtesan, whose very existence was dedicated to providing pleasure to God and men, she reveled in her trade and never consciously took up the struggle of sexual equality for women”. These are late 20th century feminist ideas: they cannot be so dismissively juxtaposed upon a context of centuries ago, just as they no longer hold water for the sex-positive feminism of today, in which the sexual initiative, and indeed the “revelry” displayed in The Appeasement of Radhika would certainly be applauded.

As it were, the beauty of the poem does not in fact lie in its descriptions of lovemaking or physical attributes, which are not truly that different from other works in the canon, but in its emotional landscape. Much is made in this book about the fact that its author is a woman of sexual experience, but the template of the poet approaching the divine in a concubine’s voice, by turns jealous, pining or desirous, is not in itself unusual in Telugu devotional poetry, even that which predates Muddupalani by centuries (see When God Is A Customer, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman). That it is a courtesan herself who has penned the text, rather than a male poet transcreating the experience, matters politically, but perhaps more so than it does creatively.

What makes the poem utterly convincing, however, is Radhika’s yearning. Here, a curious fact emerges in the autobiographical parallel that takes place between the author’s life and the archetypal. The heroine can be surmised to be based not on Muddupalani, but on her grandmother, the gifted Tanjanayaki. Both women were courtesans of King Pratapsimha, and Muddupalani is said to have been envious of the attention the monarch continued to lavish on her grandmother despite her own youthful charms.

But as a poet, Muddupalani successfully puts on the older woman’s anklets, so to speak: in Radhika Santawanam, the middle-aged Radha gives her protégé Iladevi away in marriage to her own lover. Although she bedecks the young bride and blesses her, and even instructs Krishna on the gentle treatment of the virgin, she becomes wracked with pain afterwards at the thought of the two of them together, made worse by Iladevi’s betrayal – she asks Krishna to leave Radha for good, and he agrees. This news comes to her by way of her spying emissary, a parrot, and devastates her.

Muddupalani’s empathy for Radha is striking – the lovemaking in the book, though extensive and at times erotic, is not nearly as memorable as the lamentation. Radha grieves: “Has she forgotten that she learnt/ To sing like the nightingale from me?/ Has she forgotten she learnt to write poetry from me?/ Has she forgotten she learnt to play musical instruments from me? Has she forgotten she even learnt to make love from me?” Krishna’s inveterate disloyalty is one thing, but to have Iladevi turn ungrateful embitters her perspective of everyone around her, from her sakhis to even her spy: “The parrot that carried out only my orders/ Is it now sitting on that woman’s wrist?”

“I wouldn’t wish love like this to even my foes, Krishna!” Radha finally unleashes her ire when he returns begging to be allowed back into her bed. Which, sadly or not so sadly (depending on your taste for masochism), she does – although not before a pleasantly subversive kick to the head.

The reimagining of devadasis is tricky terrain: on the one hand, there is the risk of glorification, on the other, the danger of undercutting their self-evident influence as cultural catalysts. The Appeasement of Radhika is touching, though not masterful, and thoughts of Nagarathnamma’s recovery of the original text linger. The litigation around it adds dimension to how we approach the empowerment or disempowerment of this community, but artistically too, there is reason to reflect. Somewhere, the suspicion remains that Mulchandani’s translation does not do complete justice to the original, which we are told was praised both in Muddupalani’s lifetime and later. Once again, perhaps, a different editrix may have to come to the rescue of its English incarnation.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Mira Sundara Rajan: Moral Rights

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Your new book, Moral Rights, deals with the issue of intellectual property in the digital domain, which is a new area of concern. Can you give us a brief introduction to moral rights and their doctrine?

Basically, moral rights protect an author’s non-commercial, personal and cultural rights. The expression comes from the French – droit moral – which means “personal rights” or “intellectual rights”, but doesn’t have the same connotation in English. Attribution and integrity are the two rights that are protected: attribution is the right to be named and identified as the author, and integrity is what protects the work from harm (for example, preventing a moustache being painted on the Mona Lisa!). The moral rights aspect of creative work in the technological context has not been addressed. Discussion of copyright issues, especially at the international level is focused on the economic rights and how much money an author can make from his or her work. My interest is in the cultural side of things, not the economic side. And I think it’s a serious concern in the Internet age. To give you an example, a person could find a poem online that is attributed to Subramania Bharati, He or she would suffer the harm of false knowledge; this would affect how someone understands his or her own culture.

You’ve explored moral rights in various global contexts in your book. Do you feel that the concept, or the understanding of it, varies based on the cultural and historical framework?

The short answer is: it does, yes. Each country has its own perspective on moral rights, depending not just on legal factors but also on cultural factors. The law is really an expression of the culture. I’ll give you two examples – in England, they have moral rights in the Copyright Act, but they are bit skeptical about authors’ personal interests, so they don’t really embrace the concept. And in contrast would be India, which has a very strong understanding of moral rights, and even more than the government, the courts really feel they have a mission to protect India’s culture.

But the protection of culture is also something that has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, communalists, misogynists and the like. How do you see this in relation to moral rights?

Actually, moral rights are a very important way of fighting against that. The whole concept of moral rights is to protect the special relationship between an author and his or her work. So think of the implications for censorship for example – no one can interfere with that relationship if the moral right is upheld. For example, Anand Patwardhan sued because parts of his film had been reused by filmmakers who had misrepresented his secular perspective, and the Mumbai High Court upheld his right.

How are moral rights placed in relation to the Copyleft movement, and movements like Creative Commons?

The common wisdom is that moral rights and Copyleft/Creative Commons don’t get along. But if you look more closely, they actually do protect moral rights. My observation is that they are highly compatible. In the US, apart from one very conservative federal law that only covers visual arts, they have no legislative protection for moral rights. In this sense, the Creative Commons might be the only protection generally available there for moral rights because the Creative Commons system of licenses is based on attribution. The Creative Commons community is really interested in protecting the quality of the knowledge that is disseminated, protecting it from adulteration. But, these movements – Open Source, Copyleft, Creative Commons – the question of how authors are supposed to earn a living from their work, and I do criticize them for this in my book. In order to write the book, I had to take a year’s sabbatical, and I question whether any serious author could have done otherwise. There has to be a way to provide financial support for artists and writers.

What are your thoughts on censorship, which is also connected to creative rights and freedoms?

I think censorship is a very bad thing, to put it very simply, and I think moral rights are a very important legal mechanism to protect people from censorship. And remember you are protecting both the author and the reader, because censorship distorts the truth, it distorts what was created, and that is just as bad for the reader as for the writer.

Intellectual property law is only one aspect of your work – you’re also an acclaimed classical pianist. How does your academic research lend itself to your creative life, and vice versa?

They have quite a natural relationship. I got interested in this aspect of law because I am an artist. And the artistic community is interested in me because of my knowledge of IP rights. I think it’s much easier, or even necessary, to have an understanding of art in order to have an understanding of IP law. And that’s a deficiency a lot of IP lawyers have – they don’t understand the psychological impact of how an artist feels when something is done to his or her work.

I don’t mean to embarrass you, but do you feel genius can be inherited? You’re a great-granddaughter of Subramania Bharati, after all.

No, I don’t think so. I think genius is the most unexpected thing in the universe. It can come up anywhere, and that’s why it is wonderful. In the US there are a lot of parents who think they can educate their children to be geniuses from the age of 2! But the factors that make a person a genius are so complex – it has to do with historical circumstances, the environment and many other factors. I don’t want to discredit my great-grandfather for my own accomplishments, whatever they may be, because of the access to education I had because of him, and my family background. My mother was the first Bharati scholar, and my father was an English professor and Bharati devotee, so I had a parallel education in addition to school. The environment in which I grew up was completely shaped by Bharati’s writings and his ideas on education and the development of the human personality. But Bharati’s own example is a case in point of the unexpectedness of genius. Why would this man coming from Ettayapuram think that he could singlehandedly get rid of the British empire, which was then the most powerful entity on earth? And he did, in a sense.

You also write poetry, but have only published your academic work so far. Can you tell us more about your poetry, what inspires it, and why you haven’t yet shared it with the world as you have your compositions and legal research?

I write poetry and prose (short stories and non-fiction essays). I’ve been writing since I was about 7 years old and the prosaic answer to your question is that I just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because of my education and what followed. But I have plans. In terms of what it’s about, there are lots of different themes; I am interested in all aspects of human experience. Bharati is definitely an inspiration because his writing is very comprehensive and deals with aspects of life. His optimism as an artist and thinker is also unique, and a tremendous inspiration.. The classics are important to me – I’ve read a lot of French literature in the original, and because of my interest in Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are also influences. Reading bad writing can be like eating junk food.!

Having grown up outside of India, in what ways – if any – do you remain connected to this cultural ethos?

It is important to me and my connection is really through Subramania Bharati. That’s everything.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu.