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Sex Before Viagra

Very few Indians have actually read the Kamasutra, which is boringly pedantic and — shockingly to many — did not contain pictures in the original.

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One of the greatest fallacies Indians live with is that they have greater expertise or consciousness in the areas of sexuality and erotica. The myth is almost as dangerous as believing that there is anything fundamentally “Indian” in any context.

 
Much of what we believe in the areas of sexuality and erotica is based on a mythology that very few of us practice or know about. Most of that mythology comes from the inheritance we claim over the Kamasutra, the great and perhaps the only text on sexuality at the heart of religious-cultural heritage in the world, let alone in India.

Our ownership of that text is legendary. It is a claim often dropped over cold samosas and masala tea at parties. With non-Indians present, the references get richer and the pseudo-knowledge even thicker. Very few Indians have actually read the text, which is boringly pedantic and — shockingly to many — did not contain pictures in the original. In fact, the most popular edition was translated by one Sir Richard Burton in 1883. And yet, walk into a bookstore or a tourist shop targeting gullible commodity-seekers, and you will find richly illustrated texts with pictures of cavorting men and women, meant to drive your imagination wild and your reverence of all things Indian, even wilder. It needn’t be mentioned that the Kamasutra has made it possible to get closer to women or to claim a mystery in that valuable area of inter-personal relations only to be led to an abyss, where experience has no relationship to the text.

Since we own the heritage by default, we like to think we live by it. It explains away quite a few things about our culture. The exploding population that underscores our sexual productivity, the overwhelming ooze of sexuality in gigantic billboards of “Bollywood” movies, and of course, the films themselves, which, let us admit, have provided quite a large population around the world a dependable outlet for understanding and vicariously enjoying their lust. There are easy justifications on why we are so wild in the area of representation, because we own the authoritative text on it like no one else does. It allows the West to intensify its stereotypes that there is something inexplicably mysterious and wild about Eastern cultures. It deepens our self-image that what others say about us must be true and separates further our real life and our delusions about ourselves.

 
It is not just the Kamasutra, of course. We also invoke the great temple sculptures that live alongside the pious images of gods and deities. The explicit sexuality of some of these images is startling and prods us to probe and understand the complex heritage we inherit. Instead, all that gels together is one giant gestalt about how rich our religious heritage is on things sexual and erotic.

There is no doubt about the richness of these sites, sculptures and temples. We dwelt on them in the pages of Little India earlier (June 2008). But a myopic focus on that alone allows us to gloss over how our heritage has become an excuse for the oppressive practices in our culture to date. There is still no place for women to express their sexuality on their own terms. We turn a blind eye on the polymorphous sexuality between sexes (as much as across) expressed in this heritage. We continue to mete out deferential treatment to relations among men and among women. And above all, we continue to believe that sexuality is a realm of its own.

The lesson taught by the quasi-religious texts was that all life, not just sexuality, was to be lived as a rigorous commitment to sincere and intense practice. The dedication to the principles of yoga that the Kamasutra and other texts invoked was connected to similar approaches to economics, to duties in family life, and to other areas, which allowed us to define life amongst other living creatures. Indeed, early on the Kamasutra itself admonishes: “Man, the period of whose life is one hundred years, should practice Dharma, Artha and Kama at different times and in such a manner that they may harmonize together and not clash in any way. He should acquire learning in his childhood, in his youth and middle age he should attend to Artha and Kama, and in his old age he should perform Dharma, and thus seek to gain Moksha, i.e. release from further transmigration.” Indeed, for all its focus on sexuality, the Kamasutra cautions, “When all the three, viz. Dharma, Artha and Kama, come together, the former is better than the one which follows it, i.e. Dharma is better than Artha, and Artha is better than Kama.”

We have conveniently figured out that sexuality is an independent sphere; it works by itself, confined to relations that are for pleasures defined by the dominant and, of course, confined to bed. We have bought the image that others sold to us only to delude ourselves by believing that we are richer by what we own, not by what we practice. This separation between what traditions tell us and what we practice is not unique to Indian culture alone, of course. All religions are rife with the rift — a pretense that what is written somewhere makes them superior. This blinds them to the hypocrisies of religions and their mythologies.

Indians are very conservative when it comes to the practice of sexuality in public life. Kissing is still a prize accomplishment on the silver screen and sexuality is still constructed figuratively, only to hint at what is happening. Our clothing, influenced by traditions that are hardly indigenous, barely speaks of gender equality or convenience that is fair to women in particular. Indian men, presumably influenced by their heritage of erotica and sexuality, are still abusing women in social and inter-personal relations.

As Western modernism arrived in India in tidal waves in the past century and as we intensified our marriage to relatively unbridled consumer capitalism, we have completely lost our bearings on things we inherited and possibly once practiced. Our sexual mores are now dictated by what we look up and aspire to in the West. Our cities and communities are now impressions of the Western lifestyle, unique in an anthropological sense, but poor in every other. We may even win the race to out-imitate those who provide us with this new image. We may become a global power in consumer-strength. What we cannot do easily is to bridge the gap between what we think and what we practice.

 
What the West has done to the Kamasutra is pornographic.
And yet, there are two qualities that could make us distinct. First, our history is a great testimony to the flexibility, malleability and diversity of our culture. We have taken blows from the outside and from within; we have made our enemies our neighbors and we have managed to stake out a place where ferment can lead to a richer peace. It is possible then to own the heritage of sexuality and erotica in practice and in principle, understand the shortcomings of these texts as those written with specific interests and practice them in our social relations. Much of consumer culture and new technologies can be rendered useful in broadening what we are. There is a place in consumer culture to resist the temptations of being sold out and to fashion thought that is independent.

To be an Indian is to live with contradictions. The wide rift between the ownership of traditions we invoke and what we live with, the broad divide between our voluptuous exhibitions of sexuality and our puritanical attitudes are just new manifestations of our conceptions of ourselves over the ages. The tension between the contradictions is rendered productive by thinking more about them, as the economist Amartya Sen and others have pointed out. There never was any vitality to Indian sexuality except for the high rates of procreation and the widening gulf in our social relations, especially in our treatment of women. It is best to learn a lesson from all of this and focus on what our conceptions do to us instead of dreaming about the ideals they conjure for us.

The distinctions between sexuality, erotica and pornographic have become too slippery for public discourse. But there are some broad, though basic, assumptions to be kept in mind. What we understand to be pornography, lurid and wanton expressions of sexual acts or hints of sexual acts, is a diversion from the more subterranean notion of pornography.

Everything that is objectified for the pleasure of the subject, the viewer, at the expense of the object is pornographic. Thus, a tourist who comes to India, even if it is Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, or an ordinary tourist who stays in posh hotels and runs around with cameras to take pictures home, is objectifying all that he encounters. Colonialism is a form of pornography, where the aggressors pillaged the land without regard to the inhabitant lives or their values. What the West has done to the Kamasutra is pornographic. The West invented technologies and ways of thinking that are pornographic, where the viewer captures what he sees for his pleasure alone. Photography, cinema and the National Geographic (for example) are instruments of deepening that pornographic attitude. We extend this to women and other objects of desire in our public life and view them in a pornographic sense. It matters very little what perception those who are objectified have of this, any more than what we think about prisoners who might be happy about their prisons.

 
Sexuality has a broader meaning well beyond the act of sex and certainly beyond the codes that we have established as accepted in our social frame. It is a term that normalizes our relations. While we placed homosexuality in the midst of our social practices in various parts of Indian life, we have denigrated it as unacceptable sexuality. It makes our stomachs turn to think of men and women having sexual relations among themselves, while men are allowed and encouraged to lust after women and women are contained in their expressions of sexual desire. Heterosexual lust is considered “natural” and acceptable while sexual relations among the same sexes, which were practiced in our past, are tainted. Sexuality is as much about language as it is about representation of relations. What we call sexual and what we accept as “normal” are such because of the power that accompanies them. Let us remember that only certain kind of sexuality sells and we do a lot of it, pushing everything else under the carpet.

Conceptions of erotica are even more complex. While a case has been made, and rightfully so, that various aspects of Indian culture have articulated what erotic relations are like, it is still a challenge to decipher exactly what that means. One wishes it was as legalistic or pedestrian as saying that “one knows it, when one sees it.” Complete and full sensory engagement with that which is our perceptual world, within and beyond our sensory experiences, even in the realm of imagination makes a claim to be erotic. Declaring a pornographic act as erotic doesn’t make it so, since it is surrounded by practices that defeat that intent. Erotica is a goal to be achieved, something that the Kamasutra and other yogic texts remind us. That is the reason; we aim to reach that goal through art, through expressions of faith toward elemental spirits (sometimes embodied in gods). Dance has erotic elements because it shows a path toward reaching the erotic. The same goes with sculpture, architecture, clothing and other expressions of culture.

Anything that involves training and using senses requires slowing down time. Indian arts have had a meditative and cultivated character. Sensory and sensual involvements have always demanded, especially since the corruption of modernism, servitude of time, not its domination. Since life has to be adaptable to its changing conditions, the lesson that our cultures offer have to do with a way of life, not the specifics of activities.

There are no quick remedies for sexuality or erotica. They are not in the plastic surgery offices or in the illustrated editions of the Kamasutra; they are not in the oozing partial nudity of Bollywood or provocations of bodily exhibitions; they are not in the mythologies that we hold dear either. Learning takes its own course as it confronts the complexity of life; which is why it did not come readily available in pill form. That is perhaps the reason we did not think of the Viagra in the first place.





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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | September 2010

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