Unhindered artistic expression
Restraint is rapidly gaining relevance today, though its practice still remains limited. The Supreme Court on vouching for the right to artistic expression, yet again, emphasised the value of this quality, when it said that courts should practice maximum restraint when dealing with issues that impinge upon the sacrosanct right to expression. In our society, which is growing to become intolerant by the minute, the right to unabashed expression is a pricey gift. The Supreme Court is playing its part in constantly emphasising the right to individuality. Recently it had pleasantly surprised all citizens of the country when it said that right to privacy is a fundamental right—it is amazing that in our 21st century society, this fact still needs reiteration. Surveillance is an aspect of the past, associated with the most hostile spaces of prisons and mental homes. Yet, in our society, privacy is almost always impinged upon. The same stands for expression.
The recent row surrounding the film Padmavati is a testimony to this growing insecurity in our society, where offence is taken at the bat of an eyelid and expression, well its freedom is clouded in a metaphorical dark smog akin to the one that routinely hangs over Delhi and Beijing. Art, whether literature, paintings, film, dance, music or theatre, is essentially a propagation of expression. Surely, it was never meant to express only the obvious fundamentals that rule any given populace. Its scope was much larger—it provided a platform for expressing esoteric beliefs, revolutionary thoughts and provocative sentiments. It is the performance that unfurls outside the ordinary. To seek for a ban on expression on the basis that it is offensive actually paralyses the very essence of artistic expression.
If bounded, art would lose the value that drives so many artists to find the most profound methods of detailing the most complex ideas. Stagnancy then would become intrinsic to our being, hindering qualitative progress that cannot be numbered in percentages or figures. Hearing a plea on the ban of a film based on Arvind Kejriwal, titled 'An Insignificant Man', a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court emphasised that courts must drop their pace and exercise maximum restraint when interfering with the freedom of artistic expression. One must hail the Supreme Court for this bold decision given the current atmosphere of fear across the country where people are being forced to succumb to the belief that they must toe the line or their expression would be altogether eliminated. Though the Court refused to pass any indictment on the Padmavati row, securing that space for the Central Board of Film Certification, it did hint by saying that thought-provoking ideas must not be equated to puritanical expression only.
This equation of sanctimony with art has been an aspect that has time and again resurfaced with protests erupting from different sections of society. Religious historian and philosopher, Wendy Doniger's book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, had faced a similar whiplash with Hindutva groups stating that the book, written by a white woman distorts India religiosity by painting our Gods and Goddesses in a bad light. Doniger has been appreciated the world over for her interpretation of sexuality in ancient traditions and her unique style of playful writing. Her artistic expression did not circumscribe to the so-called values of modern-day Hindus, because of which the publishers Penguin eventually succumbed under pressure caving in to demands of dislodging her book.
Those familiar with religious studies, will know of the renown that Doniger has gained the world over, for her writing and analyses—which unfortunately did not gain precedence in Indian society. Time and over it is reflected how narrow minded we are becoming by gaining recognition for our baseless sentiments that are offended at the slightest aberration. Not only is this reflective of the intolerance that is seeping in, but it is also reflective of how fragile our knowledge and information system is—that it breaks down at the slightest point of a finger. Those that routinely abuse women, submit them to their whims, torture, rape, and murder them brutally are today suddenly very sensitive of Queen Padmavati, who apparently has become central to their own ethnohistoric narrative. This is the other face of opportunism which unlike gaining benefits is directed only to restrict others' success. The threats to the actors and director are so unwarranted and degenerative. As the Supreme Court reminded other judicial bodies, it must remind the citizens too, that restraint is essential—of action, counter-provocation and even life philosophy. Our civilisation will be doomed if artists are not allowed their expression.