Row over painting, sculpture: Kerala literary circles express concern after magazine withdraws latest issue

The abrupt withdrawal of the latest issue of a literary magazine and the apology tendered by the publishers following protests against the publication of a painting and the image of a sculpture from communal quarters have caused anxiety in literary circles in Kerala.

Malayala Manorama, the biggest media group in the state, recalled the December issue of its 125-year-old literary magazine Bhashaposhini after objections were raised against an illustration showing a half-naked dancer surrounded by nuns and the photograph of a sculpture of the spiritual leader of Ezhava community.

The painting, an artistic interpolation of Leonardo da Vinci’s classic 15th century mural — 'The Last Supper' — by noted painter Tom Vattakkuzhi accompanied the review of a play Mrudwangiyudeh Durmruthyu (The Unnatural Death of the Fragile) was carried in the issue of the literary magazine.

 Row over painting, sculpture: Kerala literary circles express concern after magazine withdraws latest issue

The image of the sculpture was used on the cover of a book which was reproduced later by the literary magazine 'Bhashaposhini'. Photo courtesy: TK Devasia

The play by C Gopan is based on Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon’s poem Narthaki (Dancer) on Mata Hari, a Dutch dancer and courtesan who was executed by the French during World War 1 on the charge of spying. The poem depicts the dance she performed as per the last wish granted to her.

The sculpture of Sree Narayana Guru, on the other hand, was created by Riyas Komu, a well-known artist and sculptor, as part of an exhibition held on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Kashi Art Gallery 11 years ago.

The image of the sculpture was used as cover visual of a book on Guru, Guruchinthana: Oru Mughavura, published by Kottayam-based DC Books last month. Bhashaposhini reproduced the image on its cover while carrying an extract on the book in its December issue.

Trouble started after Vattakkuzhi posted the painting and the report carried by the magazine on his Facebook page. The publishers faced a backlash on social media and outside. They recalled the issue and removed the painting after some Christian groups questioned the portrayal of the nuns in bad light.

But when it reappeared in the newsstands, fresh objections came from Hindu groups that felt that the sculpture showed a distorted image of their spiritual leader. The publishers once again recalled the issue and removed the cover picture after various Ezhava groups like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam and its political arm the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) threatened to take to the streets.

The protests were called off only after an unconditional apology was published by the group in its daily, Malayala Manorama, which incidentally is the largest circulated daily in the state. The apology appearing in the front page of the daily in all its editions in the state and outside said that they had realised that the pictures published on the cover and in the inside page of the December issue had hurt the readers and had apologised for the mistake.

Manorama editorial director Thomas Jacob refused to say anything further on the issue. He said that they had said whatever they had to say on the matter in the newspaper. “It is a closed chapter as far as we are concerned,” he added.

However, artistes and writers have termed the Manorama group’s decision to remove the works of art in the wake of protests by certain sections very dangerous. This is not the first time that publications have succumbed to such pressures.

Mathrubhumi, which is the second largest circulated daily published from the state, had last year ended a series on the Ramayana by noted scholar and critic, MM Basheer after a Hindutva group questioned the propriety of a Muslim writing on a Hindu subject.

Tom Vattakkuzhi said he was shocked by the Bhashaposhini’s decision to recall the issue because of the protests against his work. He felt protests against certain artistic works were coming up because of misunderstanding among the people.

“I think it is the duty of media and cultural leaders to clear the misunderstandings. If they run away from their responsibility and succumb to pressures there will be nobody to protect the creative freedom in the country,” says the painter.

The painter told Firstpost that the protests against his painting may have arisen because of the reading of the painting out of context. He said the work was the essence of the play that captures a poignant moment in the life of the Dutch dancer.

“The two have different languages. A writer may not be able to express everything through words. Feelings or ideas which cannot be articulated through words can be presented through visual. Both are complimentary in a work of art,” says Vattakkuzhi.

He said that the piece of art was also being misunderstood due to the air of intolerance prevailing in the country at present. The people are becoming intolerant because they have not internalised the democratic values. He said that the painters were unable to do much in this respect as they have no popular medium to share their works.

“The painters need galleries and other niche places to display their works. Only the elite have access to such places. I grabbed the opportunity to do the painting for Gopan’s play thinking it will get better viewership,” Vattakkuzhi added.

Noted writer MN Karaserry has viewed the protests against the painting and sculpture as an indication that people had lost their sense to appreciate the work of art. Keralites have stopped understanding art, he added.

“The painter has placed Mata Hari in place of Jesus Christ not because of any disrespect to Christ. His intention was to show how women are being crucified now. If people understand the work in this sense there will be no protests,” said Karaserry.

He said that Riyas Komu had rightly portrayed Sree Narayana Guru in the current social context. He may have been influenced by the misuse of Guru for political and other gains by the present generation. If Guru is to be presented in the way these people treat him there is no need for a sculpture. A picture is enough.

“Art interprets people and the times. Those who do not understand this or those who pretend not to understand are creating troubles. It is not easy to guide them correctly," says Karaserry.

Komu, who is a founder member of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India’s biggest exhibition of contemporary art, refused to say anything about the controversy.

“I am currently concentrating on the third edition of the biennale now on in Kochi. I don’t want to be dragged into a controversy as I am fully engaged with the biennale activities,” Komu said.

Updated Date: Dec 14, 2016 20:42:50 IST