Point of View: For god’s sake, what‘s with the censorship of the arts?

I am amazed at the recent controversies around film censorship. Not only is this issue absurd but the people protesting against Padmavati and other films are confusing myths with history. What’s more, they seem to believe that a mere film has the influence to destroy a 5,000-year-old heritage! I wish films have such influence then all the world’s problems could be solved by making a half-a-dozen films. Yes, films do leave an impression on people’s minds, but it is rather in terms of its style than substance. TV, perhaps, has more influence on people today but did anyone question the authenticity of Ramayan and Mahabharat shown on TV? We all watched it by the millions and enjoyed the song and dances anthem too. Did the people of those times wear such clothes and use such make up (plucked eyebrows and all)? Even the language used was make believe Sanskritised Hindi or in case of Islamic rulers a fake Persianised Urdu. Both Hindi and Urdu are languages, which developed in the last 300 years. Similarly whether Akbar, Tipu Sultan, Shivaji, Mahrana Pratap, Ashoka, and many such serials never claim or did depict history. All this is mere entertainment inspired from historical and mythical characters.

It is often said that freedom of expression and creative freedom often go hand in hand in a democracy. However, since time immemorial the freedom of artistes has been challenged. Emperors and kings, despots and autocrats, religious leaders and clergy have imposed restrictions on art, literature and other forms of creative expression. In spite of this, creative masters have left behind a rich and diverse legacy of literature, art, sculpture, music and more recently films and other audiovisual expressions. Ancient India surprisingly had the most liberal cultures right from the Indus Valley civilisation. The Vedas, especially Samved, have clear examples of rich and varied points of view. Even our epics Ramayan and Mahabharat show many facets of good and evil and incorporate several interpretations. In fact, more than 5,000 years later there are different versions of the epics in various regions and languages often contrarian to the Sanskrit texts. No one has ever objected to these variations in centuries. The earliest treatises on art and philosophy, including the Upanishads, have many examples of different points of view. Debate has been the foundation of both Indian culture and Hinduism. If there are sacred hymns there is the sensual poetry of Bhartari. If there are stupas there are temples of Konark and Khajurao. If there is the mathematics of Aryabhata there are also the plays like Mudrarakshasas.

Somewhere in the Middle Ages, the openness of our culture got diluted partly due to the coming of the sematic religions, which were more conservative, and partly because amore regimented form of Hinduism took roots. One would have hoped that after a 100 year of foreign rule independent India would offer freedom of expression not only to its citizens but also ensure creative freedom for the artistes. Alas, from the beginning these hope were belied. Even a liberal Jawaharlal Nehru did not amend the old draconian law on censorship imposed by the British. The Central Board of Film Certification was constituted in 1952 and films were regularly censored. Books like Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence, Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert (as well the film version) and Katherine Mayo’s Mother India were banned. All India Radio laid down archaic rules for the kind of songs, which could be played forgetting that Indian folk music was full of ribald lyrics. Things became worse during Indira Gandhi’s regime. Several books and films were censored. I have first hand experience of the prudish censorship of films even in the pre emergency years. Of course, the tyranny of destruction of freedom of expression, including the freedom of the press are well documented.

A dangerous trend developed since then where authors and filmmakers in particular were harassed by extra constitutional forces. In mid ’70s community groups and political parties started objecting to content, often forcing withdrawal of books or screening of films. Various caste organizations, religious groups and others would raise their protest even after a film had been duly certified. This trend continued through various governments. Every now and then committees were set up to resolve this problem. But nothing came out. In a landmark judgment the Supreme Court decried after film’s certification no one had a right to tamper with the film and only in cases of extreme law and order the Central Government could impose restrictions on its viewing. Now people are demanding pre censorship. In a country of 1,300 million people every story told might contain something, which disturbs an individual or a group whose sentiments are not hurt. By the way why is Indian culture and Hinduism always about North Indians only? Why does no one mention the Sangam Literature in Tamil, which is the oldest written document of Hindu way of life after the Vedas? Or the talk about Raja Raja Chola. Or the Vijaynagar Kingdom. Or the temples of Thanjavur and Khaujurao or the Sun Temple of Orissa?

It is surprising in this digital age where the democratisation of communication has allowed access to an unlimited world of news, information and entertainment we still continue to face threats from both outdated censorship laws as well as individuals, groups and institutions opposed to a particular point of view. Unfortunately the social fabric is so tenuous that any objection and often accompanied by violence and anarchy makes a mockery out of the laid down guidelines. Self appointed arbiters of morality; culture and religion, history and social norms are making a habit of objecting to any creative work, which does not conform to their viewpoint. Without reading a book or watching a film they start their threats.  I as a Hindu protest at the mockery some people who claim to represent my religion indulge in on TV night after night. As the world’s oldest non-sematic religion Hinduism has never been reduced mere symbols like in the last 20 years. Ask any genuine scholar of Hinduism and he will agree with me.

Without realising that in most cases the work is fictional which may have been inspired from a real person or incident(s).  The creator may never claim that his work is a historical representation these extra constitutional groups continue to threaten and often blackmail creative professionals. While the prime minister and the government may not subscribe to their points of view or interpretation these people get away with impunity every time. Even a court order is sometimes flouted. Since there has been very little summary punishment in such cases of such arson and obnoxious behavior the culprits get away.

Many great artists who often went against the establishment or other norms build a part of our heritage upon the works. A nation which is paranoid of such trivial issues can never attain the heights which India aspires.

Being sensible is not anti national. The strength of Hinduism is its progressive outlook. Let’s not undermine this strength. By all means we need to respect the sentiments of the people, be nationalistic in our word and action but we do need breathing space. If we continue to stifle creativity we will be left with a one-dimensional world. We must have faith in our society and our culture, which has thrived several foreign rulers and 5,000 years of socio-economic upheavals. India is unique in its diversity and plurality. Our writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists are touching global hearts and minds let not a small group of disgruntled people hijack our progress away.

Please let the prime minister go ahead with his development agenda and let governments run and filmmakers and authors do their jobs. Our culture and Hinduism have remained safe for over 500 years ago without our intervention.

Tamso Ma Jyotir Gamya

(Amit Khanna is media guru and industry veteran)