‘Indians Can’t Protest Art. We Accept Looking At Bare Lingas All The Time’

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IT IS an irony difficult to miss. One of our most celebrated artists, Anjolie Ela Menon, 72, is best known for her portraits of women and nudes. Though she has exhibited all over the world, she was stopped from showing her work in Russia and Dubai. She tells Yamini Deenadayalan why artistic freedom is non-negotiable.

Anjolie Ela Menon, Artist
Anjolie Ela Menon, Artist

Have you ever been offended by a work of art?
No, never. It only offends me in an aesthetic sense — if it [is] badly painted or badly made. The content does not offend me. I once said, jokingly, that if people are so incensed about what is shown in a puritanical manner, we should cover up all the lingas in this country with white cloth. We women are offended and don’t want to look at bare lingas all the time. We, as Indians, have no right to protest the content in art because we have accepted it beautifully all these centuries.

Why is art a bigger target than pop culture?
Everything is whipped up by politicians. [MF] Husain was whipped by them. The same politicians say nothing about many Hindu artists who are painting gods and goddesses in a subversive way. It is totally politicised. The Rushdie issue was blown out of proportion by the media. Very important writers were present there — Ben Okri, Tom Stoppard — and there was not a line in the media about them. Being absent, he got the maximum mileage and took full advantage of it.

Do we need to draw a line for what can constitute art?
No, it depends on the artist. The artist should be aware and willing to face the consequences.

Has anyone ever been offended by your own work?
I don’t think so. I’ve never been political. I am not a didactic painter. Yes, once in Dubai, they didn’t want to show the nudes and also in Vladivostok, Russia. Too bad. If they don’t want to see it, it is fine. I don’t care.

Yamini Deenadayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka. 
yamini@tehelka.com