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When symbols of faith become cultural motifs

The cultural space to ‘play’ with icons of faith is shrinking. The problem also is that too many of us understand our own faith and culture too little

While purists look askance at the more gimmicky Kalis crafted in Kolkata’s by-lanes, everyone shrugs and carries on.
While purists look askance at the more gimmicky Kalis crafted in Kolkata’s by-lanes, everyone shrugs and carries on. (iStockphoto)

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Some of the Kalis I have met have no basis in the scriptures.

I am thinking of Mohun Bagan Kali. Here the Goddess is dressed in the colours of the Mohun Bagan football team and worshipped in one of the lanes of Chetla, a neighbourhood right next to Kolkata’s famous Kali temple and the burning ghat.

On Kali Puja night, Chetla turns into a playground of Kalis big and small. Rakta Chamunda, with red skin, red tongue and red hair standing on end, Krishna-Kali, half Krishna, half Kali, Chhinamasta Kali, holding her severed head in her hands while jets of blood spring out of her neck and Rati and Kamdev copulate beneath her feet. And Mohun Bagan Kali.

Also Read: Loudspeakers have become an article of faith

No one knows for sure how and why Chetla became such a stomping ground of Kalis. While purists look askance at the more gimmicky Kalis, everyone shrugs and carries on.

The brouhaha over the poster of a short film named Kaali and Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra’s comments about it have proceeded along expected lines. The film’s poster shows the film-maker Leena Manimekalai dressed as Kali, smoking a cigarette and holding an LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. That has resulted in FIRs against her for hurting religious sentiments. Moitra is being roasted for saying “Kali to me is meat eating… alcohol accepting Goddess”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), smarting from the international ruckus over its spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s comments about Islam, has gone after Moitra. Kali, like Murugan, might have tribal roots “but we still pray to them across the country…. Irrespective of the roots, we will not accept a picture of a God smoking tobacco,” BJP spokesperson Narayanan Thirupathy told The Wire. (Rainbow flags seem to not raise hackles as much.)

Moitra’s own party, anxious to expand beyond Bengal, has distanced itself from Moitra’s comments but she is unfazed, saying this is another instance of the BJP trying to impose a monolithic one-size-fits-all version of Hinduism on the country. “Can the Assam chief minister explain in writing to the court what offerings are made to the presiding deity of the Kamakhya temple?” she asked on a Bengali news channel.

One issue here is Kali herself. Bengalis often chafe that she needs to be “explained” in a way the more family-friendly Goddess Durga doesn’t. Kali is both fierce and fiercely beloved. Durga is part of Bengal’s tourism brochures, the Goddess of the daytime. Kali is held close to the heart, part of the night. “The two are the wild and domestic aspects of the same goddess who complements Shiva,” writes mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik in The Times Of India. He says that while Kali’s association with “blood, meat, alcohol, sex and violence” places her outside the “purity zone”, it’s also true that “What the Vedic culture rejects, the Tantrik culture celebrates.The two are the two streams of Hinduism.” The tension between the safe and controlled and the unsafe and uncontrollable is the dance of life itself.

Film-maker Manimekalai told The Guardian in an interview that in her native Tamil Nadu, Kali is believed to be a “pagan goddess” who “eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks arrack, smokes beedi and dances wild”. She says she herself identifies as an atheist who believes in science, but has a deep artistic interest in faith and folklore.

Therein lies the zone of conflict. It’s not about this one Kali taking a drag from a cigarette. When symbols of faith, whether a Kali or a Krishna or a Ganesha, also become cultural motifs, friction is inevitable. In this case, it’s a film poster. It could be an advertisement. Or a painting, as the late M.F. Husain found out the hard way. The cases pile up every year. There was a criminal complaint against cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni in 2014 when he was put on the cover of a magazine as Lord Vishnu in a “God of Big Deals” avatar, holding, among other things, sneakers and potato chips. That complaint was quashed in court. It was a morphed image anyway.

Yet one can understand why many Hindus might feel queasy seeing objects of their faith co-opted to sell everything from slippers to toilet seats. But if Dhoni was selling not shoes but laptops, would that be inoffensive? Many might think so but others could object to their God selling anything at all. Each of us has our own Lakshmanrekha.

It’s always worth remembering, however, that while Ganesha might look cute, that does not render him less holy. In 2009, when Burger King perched Goddess Lakshmi on top of a meat sandwich with the catchphrase “A snack that’s sacred”, it was basically treating the object of veneration in someone’s puja room as a way to sell a ham-and-cheese sandwich. No wonder that caused cultural indigestion.

Even when the intentions are more noble, this is tricky territory. In 2013, an awareness campaign showed Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga as the bruised victims of domestic violence. The text read: “Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.” At the time, journalist Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote in an article in Firstpost, “The advertisements rob Indian women of our culture’s most enduring images of feminine authority by reducing our goddesses to victims, stripping them of their awesome divinity.”

The “awesome divinity” is subjective. Manimekalai can claim she was celebrating the “awesome divinity” of Kali and her detractors will claim otherwise. They each have their own truth. But the conflict has a ripple effect. Recently, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal went after a couple dressed as Shiva and Parvati protesting price rise in Assam in a street play. Luckily, the state’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, tweeted: “Nukkad natak on current issues is not blasphemous. Dressing up is not a crime unless offensive material is said.” While his common sense intervention is a relief, it shows how we have come to unquestioningly internalise the concept of blasphemy as being part and parcel of Hinduism, just like Abrahamic faiths. The blasphemy wars have truly been globalised.

Unsurprisingly, then, the cultural space to “play” with icons of faith is shrinking. Recently, while watching Thor: Love And Thunder, I was struck by a scene where Thor goes to what is basically a clubhouse of gods and goddesses presided over by Zeus. I didn’t notice any Hindu gods there and was miffed for a moment at this cultural erasure but then realised it was wise. Russell Crowe could play a campy Zeus and no one would mind but would we be able to stomach Vishnu being one-upped by Thor, even one who looks like Chris Hemsworth?

The problem also is that too many of us, and I struggle with this daily, understand our own faith and culture too little. We are unable to stand up for our art with real cultural conviction beyond the usual “freedom of expression” hand-wringing. As the controversy around the Kaali poster swirled, it took social media to point out something I wish I had known before—a quote from a book where the writer scoffs that some Christian padre cannot shake Mount Kailash when Ravan with his 10 heads and 20 arms could not. “This old Shiva will play his damaru, this Ma Kali will eat her mutton, this Krishna will play his flute forever in this land,” he writes.

How would those itching to be offended react when they learn the writer is Swami Vivekananda in the book Prachya O Paschatya (East And West)? We often forget what should be the real litmus test of hurting sentiments—was the intention to offend? We are just fixated on those who get offended because they are the loudest. And with each new case, their numbers keep growing because like Raktabeeja, each drop of blood spawns a clone as it hits the ground.

But where is the Kali who will drink that blood before it turns into a bloodbath?

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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