Exploring feminine desire the Kama Sutra way

ELSA MATHEWS says that Kama Sutra,  the text compiled by Hindu philosopher Vātsyāyana, which once instructed people on the techniques of amorous behaviour, has been reduced to just another bit of Indian exotica and erotica.

Your body is my body’ you used to say, and it has come true, Muvva Gopala. Some woman has scratched nail marks on your chest, but I am the one who feels the hurt. You go sleepless all night, but it’s my eyes that turn red.” – Kshetragna: 17th century Telugu poet.

There was a time when desire was an important aspect of every ‘nagaraka’ (citizen’s) life, included in the four ‘purusharthas’, or goals of human life as per ancient Hindu philosophy, namely ‘dharma’ (duty), ‘artha’ (wealth), ‘kama’ (desire) and ‘moksha’ (liberation). While the pursuit of ‘dharma’ and ‘artha’ stood justified despite the changing times, the idea of pursuing ‘kama’ got tarnished in the supercilious entrapping of Victorianism brought to India by the British.

Today, Kama Sutra, the text compiled by Hindu philosopher Vātsyāyana, which once instructed people on the techniques of amorous behaviour, has been reduced to just another bit of Indian exotica and erotica that comes packaged with titillating pictures and pop titles like ‘Pocket Idiot’s Guide to the Kama Sutra’, ‘Kitchen Kama Sutra: 50 Ways To Seduce Each Other Outside The Bedroom’, or the ‘Kama Sutra 52: A Year’s Worth of Best Positions for Passion and Pleasure’.

Noted art curator, Alka Pande, decries this kind of urban stereotyping of an ancient Indian manuscript, which was no less than a step-by-step guide to virtuous living. And to prevent the text from falling victim to modern-day commerce and the stereotypes it perpetuates, she heads to the city of love, Paris, in the Fall with the exhibition, ‘The Kama Sutra, Spirituality and Eroticism in Indian Art’, at the Pinacotheque de Paris.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works of art from public museums and private collectors in Europe and India. These include the Musée Guimet, Paris; Das Museum Rietberg (Zurich); the Cinquantenaire Museum (Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels), the private collections of Beroze and Michel Sabatier, the erotic art collections of Belgian doctors Johan Mattelaer and Guy Martens and the sculptures hitherto unseen from the estate collection of Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur. As a woman curator Pande will be retelling the Kama Sutra, which has been mostly translated by men, from a woman’s perspective.

“Far from being a text on pornography or sexology, the Kama Sutra is about a great way of urban living, of balance in life, of joy that comes through the celebration of sensuality and desire,” shares Pande.

According to her, while it has become the best known of Indian Sanskrit texts in the West, it is also the least understood, carrying with it so many false assumptions. “When thinking about the Kama Sutra, most people think of it as a mere listing of contortionist sexual positions, whereas it is actually composed of seven books, each one related to one aspect of the pleasurable life,” she relates.

To present the Kama Sutra to an urban, primarily French but also European, audience Pande firmly believes that many stereotypes need to be shattered. The artworks she has chosen are based on that endeavour. “The idea for such an exhibition came as a result of Michel Sabatier’s great desire to share his collection of erotic Indian art in Paris. As a banker he spent many years in India with his wife, Behroz, who is a Parsi, before he relocated to La Rochelle in France,” says Pande. Sabatier, an Indophile, runs the Euro India Council where he is trying to forge ties between India and Europe.

As for Dr Johan Mattelaer, Pande met this Belgian urologist two years ago when he had come for the Kumbh Mela to India. “Johan was aware of my work and came to meet me. It was a lovely meeting and I discovered that he too was looking at aspects of sexuality but through the lens of urology and medicine. This was an extremely interesting take for me,” reveals Pande. Later, the curator went to his house in Kortrijk, Belgium, where she saw his stunning collection of phalluses and yonis and “some mind blowing erotic objects”, which she is glad he is loaning for the exhibition. And it is through Mattelaer that Pande met his friend Dr Guy Martens, who runs an erotica museum in Brussels, where she found some beautiful ivory paintings. “It has been an incredible journey and the discovery of people like Dr Johan Mattelaer and Michel Sabatier makes the work even more joyous,” she states.

Pande connected with Arvind Singh of Mewar through Marc Restellini, founder of Pinacotheque de Paris, who, on his first trip to the magnificent lake city in Rajasthan, was mesmerised by some of the sculptures he saw in the gallery at the Udaipur palace. “When Restellini expressed his desire to include them in the exhibition I was delighted. I met up with Shriji Arvind Singh who very graciously agreed to loan some of the sculptures for the show,” she reveals. Among them are the exquisite celestial beauties, or Surasundaris, that can be ascribed to the 7th – 14th Century AD.

“The exhibition is going to be extremely poetic,” says Pande. The selected pieces will demonstrate the works of women bhakti poets of the 16th century whose poetry the curator defines as “purple prose”. “Apart from Wendy Doniger, translations of the Kama Sutra have been done by men. However, they cannot think like women, who are certainly more complex. It requires maturity and breaking away from tradition to take a critical look at the text,” she says.

Pande emphasises that she is looking at a feminine rather than a ‘feminist’ retelling of the Kama Sutra. “The Kama Sutra works on the principle of balance. There is no love without balance. In it, the woman’s pleasure is as important as that of the man. During Vātsyāyana’s time a very modern and contemporary balance between men and women existed and since the Kama Sutra is just to us women, we too should make a just interpretation of his work,” she says.

Restellini, who was in India to do the ground work for the exhibition, too, feels that the Kama Sutra is impressive in the fact that it treats women as equal. “When you don’t give a woman education that indicates that you would like to keep her as slave or give her no power, and that includes sexuality too,” he remarks.

The exhibition is going to deal with different interpretations of the Kama Sutra through music, dance, paintings and sculptures in tribal and folk traditions. At the inaugural event, slated for October 2014, Lakshmi Vishwanathan will present a special dance feature using the poetry of legendary writers of India – Nammalwar, Kālidāsa, Vātsyāyana, Kshetragna, Annamacharya and Muddupalani. They will be recited in tune with Indian ragas and translations will be provided to the viewers. Additionally, a map detailing places where erotic sculptures have been found, such as Modhera, Konark, Khajuraho and Bhubaneswar, created by Michael Sabatier will also be on display.  Pande’s collection of love art, as seen through the eyes of a woman, is definitely set to break the boundaries and create a more balanced understanding of the ancient love guide.

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