This appeared in The Week...
A few weeks ago, I was sent a link by a female friend in America to a website featuring dramatically altered images of popular Hindu Goddesses. She asked me whether the images would cause trouble for the designers of the visuals in India. On the face of it, the ‘cause’ being addressed via the campaign was worthy enough. It was meant to draw attention to the alarming increase in violent crimes against women in India. But the manner in which this serious issue was being tackled, left me feeling disturbed and upset. Perhaps, that was the whole point. The images chosen for this purpose were the ones we are entirely familiar with….. and love! Our pantheon of Goddesses (as depicted through popular calendar art ) is easily and instantly recognizable. Garishly painted posters of Saraswati, Lakshmi, Durga in traditional forms (think Raja Ravi Varma), can be seen across the country, often on pavements of our temple towns. Pilgrims buy these glossy prints to display on their walls back home. The devout offer prayers and worship these vivid art works. To be confronted by the same images …. but grotesquely distorted and digitally transformed, came as a terrible shock. I certainly didn’t want to look closely at this Saraswati’s face or Lakshmi’s. Not if the well loved faces were projected with black eyes and bruises, gashes and cuts. Was I being over sensitive? Goddesses as victims of physical abuse ? Even if the intention is to draw parallels between the battered state of our women in real life and the exalted position of our Goddesses , sorry, but the message was lost in the sensationalistic approach that shocked but did not connect. To me, those terrible images were an assault on my senses. The horrible truth about how we treat women in India is known to all. That the same woman who is publicly hailed as a Goddess, is often beaten black and blue at home, is also not a secret. Even so, I couldn’t look at the pictures without cringing. Purpose well served? Or side tracked?
I am sure there must be thousands of others who took equal offence. Call it an exaggerated sense of sentimentality, but there it is. I experienced strong revulsion and deep anger, that has stayed. One can argue that the cause is bigger than the depicted desecration. To that, I would counter argue : what about emotion? Just as we respect the feelings of rape victims and refrain from flashing close ups that high light evidence of physical brutality, believing such an act would further traumatize the person, why not extend the same logic here? My more cerebral girl friends have assured me this controversial campaign has succeeded in what it set out to do. They say it has generated global attention and jolted enough people. I am sure that is true. But jolted them into doing something about the crisis? Or merely jolted them? There’s a huge difference.
We must know where to draw the line. Especially when it involves religious sensitivities. I refuse to wear my religion on the sleeve, but that does not give anybody the right to offend me in the name of a social cause. We are in the midst of an overwhelming crisis involving defenceless women and children – their safety, their health, their well being, their future. Drawing world wide attention to this problem is our collective obligation. But in the process, we also have a huge responsibility towards the very segment we are attempting to aid. Campaigns that are so in your face, can often be counter- productive. Rather than pushing us to do something about the stepped up atrocities against women, such a strategy can push us away from dealing with harsh and ugly realities. I must have been taken off guard when I first encountered the Abused Goddesses. But I experienced a sharp stab of pain, as I hastily turned away and tried in vain to obliterate what I had seen.
Diwali will be here soon. Goddess Lakshmi in all her glory, will be welcomed into millions of homes. Indians across the world will pray for prosperity and peace for all. In those prayers will be included the fervent hope that the future of women and children, not just in our country, but wherever they are, will be safer and significantly more secure. It is time for reflection and respect. Not shock and abuse. Let a thousand lights illuminate our minds and hearts.