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Kamasutra: Is it about pleasuring women or oppressing them?

Is the Kamasutra just a book for the boys? Or can it be re-imagined?

A standing room only crowd on the front lawns of the Jaipur Literature Festival watched diplomat, author and now would-be JDU politician Pavan Varma spar with KR Indira about what is arguably India’s most famous book.

Moderator Urvashi Butalia put out the question: Is Kamasutra about the pursuit of male desire?

A tortoise ring decorated with kama sutra artwork: Reuters

A tortoise ring decorated with kama sutra artwork: Reuters

“I have rarely read a text written as far back as the Kamasutra that is so sensitive to fulfillment of a woman’s need,” said Varma. “It is not about impossible postures.”

He read it as a book that about “evoking an erotic mood – the rasa of desire.” Varma has written the book Kamasutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman.

What it’s telling men is that “if men are willing to invest in that, for lack of a better word, foreplay and put aside their primary obsession, and invest in the creation of a mood in which the woman is a part of the process, that alone is it worth it.”

In short it’s teaching men how to make a woman happy.

KR Indira, an AIR bureaucrat who has written Sthraina Kamasutram, her critique on the Kamasutra in Malayalam, vehemently disagreed.

She said what most people called the Kamasutra was just one chapter, the one about coition.

The other chapter topics were much more telling about how the Kamasutra regarded women – one was on the duties of the wife, another on how to seduce another man’s wife, another about the duties of a prostitute.

“A woman who reads this cannot tolerate it, “ said Indira. “Since our male-female relations are based on the Kamasutra, that’s why all the problems take place.”

“It’s true Vatsyayana never asked men to rape a woman or insert an iron rod in her but he showed how you can forcefully extract sex from a woman and then marry her. In fact a judge has also ruled that that is okay recently.”

That produced quite a stir in the crowd. "If no one has read those chapters, how could we have imbibed those values?", asked one audience member. "Madam, other countries don’t have the Kamasutra, they aren’t exactly rape free", said another.

Varma also told Indira that her reading was one-sided. “It’s a mistake to transpose everything Vatsyayana said to today,” he added. “We should understand the philosophy of the basis of the Kamasutra.” And for its worth Vatsyayana was celibate by choice when he wrote his magnum opus. Varma’s take on the Kamasutra was that its message to men was “it’s time for you to do much more to attract women instead of thinking you are the centre of the world.”

“For the first time the onus is on the men,” he said. And for its time, that was worth noting. Varma said that during the British rule, when there was “complete condemnation of the dark pursuits of the natives” and then the Indian elite “internalized that critique and went even more backwards.” So now in the land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho, we have the “peculiar situation of lumpen elements attacking young couples in the park claiming that what they are doing is against Indian values.”

But Indira was having none of that. “One or two temples will not decide the history of the nation,” she said. Common life, she felt, was much different from the free love of the lower panels of the Khajuraho temples.

“There is only one solution – women must be equal to men.”

The last word came from the audience. "What is this book you all talk about", one woman asked in Hindi. "How many in our country have ever seen it? My hands have never touched such a book".

“I didn’t learn about sex from the Kamasutra,” said one man. “I learned it from Harold Robbins.”