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IT WAS late evening and the front lawn at the Jaipur Literature Festival was packed. ‘Reimagining the Kamasutra’ had come to a choice between two points of view: is the Kama Sutra a philosophical treatise teaching men that pleasure is an exchange between equals, or is it responsible for rape?
It was no coincidence that several of Jaipur’s sessions this year focussed on the issues of gender and violence. Earlier this month, reacting to the torrent of public protests, TEHELKA ran a story speaking to Indian men about women, asking, among other things, how far pop culture caused us to absorb misogynistic attitudes. Several men spoke about the immoral influence of Western cinema, how women who smoked or danced or had sex on screen, were “asking for it”.
At Jaipur, a woman who has spent most of her life in the Indian film industry, admitted that filmmakers needed to think about what they create. “Why stop at films,” lyricist and writer Prasoon Joshi asked his co-panelist Shabana Azmi, “It begins at childhood. When we hear about Krishna teasing the gopis, why don’t we realise it’s harassment?”
Fortunately for Joshi, a more controversial statement would soon eclipse his. But it was certainly an idea worth considering, particularly now that the most ancient Indian treatise on sexual relations, the Kama Sutra had been opened up for discussion. Pavan K Varma, while writing what he describes as a far more serious book, Becoming Indian, wrote Kama Sutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman as a lighter side project. Varma believes his book is particularly relevant because the central point of the Kama Sutra is one that more men today need to learn: “How to create the right mood and setting, how to please a woman and become a more attentive lover.” His co-panelist, KR Indira, did not quite share his perspective, “The Kama Sutra might not tell men to get together in groups and rape women, or put an iron rod inside her, but it certainly creates the space for it.” Indira, who first read the Kama Sutra when she was 24, had to wait until she was 48 and “bold enough” to criticise the book in a work of her own. During the course of her research, she discovered that women were unable to speak of their sexual desires even when merely putting pen to paper. “I interviewed 500 women and got only 120 response sheets back. I understood that the first step to being equal would be to realise that our desire was autonomous, not subservient to that of men,” she says.
That the Kama Sutra is written from a male perspective is evident at first glance. Its chapters are divided thus: Introduction, The Embrace, The Union, The Wife, The Wives of Others, The Courtesans, The Art of Seductions and Tonics. In his examination of a woman’s “state of mind”, Vātsyāyana sounds much like the men TEHELKA interviewed: “If she comes to meet him better dressed than before, or comes to him in some lonely place, he should be certain that she is capable of being enjoyed by the use of a little force.”
Meanwhile, the Ratirahasya, a medieval sexual treatise, offers a useful classification of women based on skin colour, physical proportions and levels of carnal desire: Padmini (lotus woman), Chitrini (art woman), Shankhini (conch woman) and Hastini (elephant woman). There is a specific time of the day each woman is to be taken, and in a specific way. The poet Kokkoka explains the signs by which we are to know that a woman wants sex, describing the entire range of human social behaviour: “She rubs and repeatedly smoothes her hair. She scratches her head (that notice may be drawn to it). She strokes her own cheeks (so as to entice her husband). She draws her dress over her bosom, apparently to readjust it, but leaves her breasts partly exposed…”
There are some sections of the Kama Sutra that seem encouraging of female pleasure. The Kama Shastra is one of the few arts that both men and women are encouraged to learn; and preparation to study it involves an education in 64 skills, everything from music, dancing, blending cocktails and mimicry to solving puzzles and fencing. ‘Public women’ or courtesans, who were “trained for association with men” were, at least, permitted to attend social gatherings and match wits with men. “Courtesans were not prostitutes,” Varma said, trying to assure the thousands-strong audience that women in the age of the Kama Sutra were far more liberal and pleasure-seeking than their modern compatriots.
But while the courtesans were educated and had agency beyond that of the women in households, their positions were precarious: they were to separate the men they slept with for financial gain, for religious leverage and for genuine affection. In a bit of sage advice for his reader, Vātsyāyana sums up his position on female desire: “Men want pleasure while women want money. This part, which deals with the means of gaining wealth, should be studied.”
No examination of the classics could be called genuine, without a glance at least, at the Mahabharata. Here too, the idea of female sexual desire is repeatedly reviled. Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata is as necessary to read for its affectionate humanising of the characters as for Pattanaik’s footnotes. “While Valmiki’s Shakuntala is a brave woman, unaffected by the king’s refusal to recognise her after coition, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala cannot live with herself once he refuses her. It’s a good way to track different attitudes towards women and sex,” he says.
As Pattanaik’s retelling reveals, the epic is filled with stories of waternymphs seducing hermits, an allegory of the churning between the sensual and the spiritual. Yet, in story after story, female desire arouses only disgust. The story of Draupadi is perhaps the best example of a woman punished for her pleasure. At the surface, it appears she is shared by five men because they are obedient sons. Soon, we learn that Draupadi had also prayed for a man who could fulfill her desires: let him be strong, wise, skilled and beautiful, she asked. Since no man alone could embody these qualities, she is given five husbands instead of one.
But true to Hindu beliefs, there is a more karmic reason offered for Draupadi’s fate. In her past life as Nalayani, Draupadi was married to a sage named Maudgalya, a man wracked with coughing fits and covered in scales. To reward her devotion, the sage offers her a boon. Nalayani asks the sage to use his magical powers to satisfy her lust. The sage assumes the form of various beautiful men and mates with her for many years. As he is finally about to renounce the world, Nalayani wonders, “Who will satisfy me now?” Livid, the sage curses her to be reborn as no single man’s wife.
The most reassuring moment from the session on the Kama Sutra was when Pavan Varma reminded the audience that elsewhere in the classics female desire continued to surge and crackle. Surdas’ Bhramar Geet begins with Krishna worried about the gopis he has left behind in Mathura. Krishna asks his friend Uddhav to go console them. “Turn to spiritual meditation and forget physical pleasure,” Uddhav begs the women.
“What do you know of our pleasure?” The gopis laugh and chase him off.