No matter how much some sections of the media ?balance? the Maharaja Sayajirao University art scandal as a multi-religious assault, the fact remains that the controversy has emerged in the public domain as a purely ?Hindu? affair. This is because Christian activists who are prone to seek media publicity for every alleged incident involving Hindu opposition to conversions have been embarrassed by the suo moto objections of local pastors and have asked them to shut up.
The All India Christian Council has doggedly refused to join the controversy on grounds that it is a local issue. All prominent Christian leaders are conspicuous by their silence. This raises critical questions regarding the religious affiliation of impugned student Chandramohan, and of the institutions that are funding his studies in the country'smost prestigious art college.
An attack on the religious icons of a community can be either intra-religious or inter-religious. Artist M.F. Husain'sobscene portraitures of Sitaji, Bharat Mata, and other Hindu deities falls in the latter category; author Salman Rushdie'sprofanity about the Prophet'swives (Satanic Verses) falls in the former. Both are objectionable and have been rightly condemned by orthodox Muslims and liberal Hindus. It is only when it comes to cultural assaults upon Hindu dharma that the Lib-Left Hindu activists have a problem.
In the present controversy, Andhra native Chandramohan painted a huge cross with a nude Christ apparently urinating into a commode. Since Christ on the cross has traditionally been depicted in a loincloth, the painting caused consternation when seen by members of the public who had come to make purchases to patronise and encourage the budding artists. Shocked Christians like Catholic lawyer Mariam S. Dhabi and Methodist pastor Rev. Emmanuel Kant joined the Hindu community in protesting the paintings on May 9, 2007, but found little support from the politically-savvy community leaders at the national level.
Thus, the BJP'sNiraj Jain was left to bear the brunt of nation-wide liberal anger alone when he objected to a painting that showed the goddess Durga delivering a child. Vadodara police had no choice but to arrest Chandramohan for misusing religious symbols and causing religious offence once her and Prof. S.K. Pannikar, Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, refused to remove the paintings from the public domain.
Prof. Pannikar added fuel to the fire by arranging an impromptu exhibition of nude paintings, to make the point that Indian (especially Hindu) art had always been sexually explicit. This, in turn, raises serious questions about the political and ideological affiliations to Prof. Pannikar (since suspended by the Vice Chancellor), as every iconoclast in the country is busy trying to equate the unity symbolised by the Mithun concept in Indian philosophy and art with playboy-type vulgarity.
The concerted nature of the attack in fact proves how orchestrated it is. Father Jolly Nadukudiyil, who runs a school in Vadodara, threw the first salvo, asking why ?Hindu radicals? (whatever that means) do not oppose nudity and sexually explicit scenes in some ancient paintings. The usual anti-Hindu suspects, from the publicly-funded Sahmat, to Arundhati Roy, Anjolie Ela Menon, Nandita Das, Sitaram Yechury, and others quickly jumped into the fray. Others like Romila Thapar and Deepak Nayyar have asked President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to intervene in the matter. And not to be undone, HRD minister Arjun Singh has asked the University Grants Commission to see if it can fish in troubled waters.
While Thapar, Nayyar, Shabnam Hashmi and Singh can plead artistic ignorance if cornered, there is no excuse for the self-proclaimed artists who are defending Chandramohan and Pannikar. Indeed, the authorities at Maharaja Sayajirao University need to explain to the nation the nature of the course content taught at the university and the calibre of the faculty.
This is pertinent because art is first and foremost about understanding the meaning of the symbols of religion and culture. This involves deep immersion in the culture and philosophy of the tradition one is studying. An art college would teach students about such symbols and their meaning and usage in all world cultures, and would also teach them not to mix or impose symbols from one culture upon another. Respect for each cultural tradition and art form would be inbuilt into the programme, and would be expected to be inbuilt in students professing a desire to become artists.
What we have witnessed at Vadodara, however, raises serious questions about modern India'shuman and academic resources. Far from showing any sensitivity and shame for the controversy, the art students, no doubt instigated by a section of the Faculty, staged a dharna like trade union activists and ranted about ?freedom?. I am at a loss to understand how such culturally impoverished and morally bankrupt young men and women could be enrolled in an art programme in the first place.
Much noise has been made in the media about Chandramohan'sorigins as the son of a poor carpenter family from Andhra Pradesh, a state whose Seventh Day Adventist Chief Minister actively encourages missionaries. Chandramohan'sreligious affiliations have been carefully concealed by the media. Yet, whatever these may be, a person from such a humble background would normally be expected to have a far more reverential attitude towards the religious symbols and icons of the various communities. Some have suggested that he hails from a Naxal-prone region of the state, and this may suggest a certain ideological orientation.
The Vadodara incident must receive zero tolerance from Hindu society because it marks a dangerous trend ? of bringing into India the attempt by certain western Christian corporations to denigrate Hindu dharna by depicting Hindu gods on toilet seats, shoes, paper napkins, etc. The concerted silence of all Christian denominations in India on the offensive portrayal of Christ (which they will privately ensure will not happen again) gives the game away.