Millennium Post

Artistic licence and sexual exploitation

A day after the death of Khushwant Singh on Thursday, just under a year short of the century mark, allegations and accusations that had existed in the subterranean circuits of literary and social gossip until now have surfaced with gusto. Most of them revolve around the journalist-cum-historian’s several brushes with sexual transgressions, his self-admitted ‘preying’ upon a domestic help, the infamous sobriquet that he had earned as ‘bottom-pincher of Bombay’, and his self-proclaimed ‘lust for women.’ Inasmuch as most of the eulogies that poured in soon after the news of death hit national headlines came from fellow writers and literary artists, it was interesting to note the comparisons made, or vehemently denied, with prominent men of letters who too have faced allegations or charges of sexual assault. Although television channels and frontpage obituaries steered clear of the nonagenarian’s sexual escapades, social media has been brimming with anecdotes, counter-anecdotes, hushed confessions, hurled accusations, as well as direct comparisons with the likes of Tarun Tejpal, as well as David Davidar, a big name in Indian publishing industry. Singh’s demise opened the floodgates of what has been evidently festering in the underbelly of our vast literary battlefield, its generalissimos, captains and foot soldiers, who have very different opinions on the issue of what they call ‘artistic licence to sexually exploit’ others. Terms like ‘bossophilia’ (used by Davidar to dismiss allegations against him by one of his female colleagues), ‘artistic depravity’ and other phrases, voiced by entities as divided in political affiliations as they are split in their assessment of literary, indeed artistic worth, of the said persons, have been doing the rounds, illuminating many a dark and hidden corner in the narrow alleys between the worlds of art and the continents of commerce.

Examples from foreign shores too have been furnished to support the theory of how artistic licence is peddled to gain sexual access and favours. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, among others, have been called into question. While individual cases of sexual predation among artists cannot be denied or dismissed, what needs to be thoroughly shunned is the currently fashionable tendency to straitjacket artists, academics, and those in the creative industry of all hues, as inherently disgusting, morally bankrupt persons. This conflation and moralisation of art and life is not only regressive, but in fact takes away from the wider argument of entrenched patriarchy at every sphere of operation. It is a logical fallacy of great proportions to equate consensual promiscuity with sexual harassment and to directly map sexually permissible cultures upon sexual exploitation, without leaving out crevasses for either distinction or overlap. Our grasp of sexualities, seductions, expressions of love, life and art have inconceivably dwindled over time and we have erected edifices of morality, drained of lived experiences. It is easy to isolate ‘art’ as a licence to rape, when the real culprit is the sense of male entitlement that is handed down systematically from one rung of the patriarchal ladder to the other. Exploiters don’t need art to do damage and conflation of art with viciousness takes away from the actual causes and effects of sexual violence.
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