Censorship in art forms like paintings or cartoons- which are political in nature- also encompasses the gender quotient of the art as well as the artist. This leads to varying gendered censorship experiences.
The famous Sanitary Panels cartoonist, Rachita Taneja, was recently issued a contempt notice by the Supreme Court of India. The court alleged her cartoon of trying to defame the respect of the apex court. Well, this incident on-the-face-of-it can be looked at from a simpler censorship angle. However, what one really needs to focus on is the intersection of gender and politics that comes in- not just in this case, but in many others.
This article is an attempt to look at how both the gender identity of the artist, as well as the object in art, carve a way for different kinds of censorship experiences. It is also to be noticed that when I say art and artist, I refer to the larger umbrella arena of comedy, visual art, poetry, and writing.
Rupi Kaur’s Art
In around 2015, Rupi Kaur, who is now a New York Times best-selling author, had posted a so-called “politically incorrect picture” on Instagram. The picture showed her lying on bed with visible period stains. Instagram deleted the post, and what followed this was a controversy that left an impact on the literary and artistic world. Famous journals like The Independent, Huffpost, etc. traced the entire issue, and people all across the world debated around this bold kind of art.
The censorship of online content, which is today being done by online trolls, social media platforms, and institutions like the judiciary, is very much a legacy of Rupi Kaur’s art. Her art is extremely women-centric. Even though she uses subtleties like leaves, flowers, or shrubs to depict pubic hair, genitals, and breasts, it still gets censored by certain sections of society. So, her censorship experience is very much entrenched in her identity as a woman writer who is writing about women and drawing women’s bodies.
Put in a nutshell, had a man created women-centric poetry and artwork like her, it would be safe to assume that he would not have been subject to censorship, or at least not in the same way as she has been scrutinized.
When Milind Soman posted an “aesthetic” picture of him running nude on the beach, the same kind of debate ensued, though his picture was not taken down by Instagram. He was definitely booked, but I very much agree to gender playing an important role in determining the audience’s reaction to artwork as most evidently-woke social media users quickly pointed out how women get censored for even posting a normal picture.
Agrima Joshua and Gender-Politics
trigger warning: sexual harassment and r*pe threats
In regards to censorship based on gender identity, let us now look at something that happened much closer to home. Agrima Joshua, as a comedian, cracked a joke on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s statue, which then led to many extremist elements threatening her. One such person was Shubham Mishra, who openly threatened to rape her. My understanding of this incident works in two ways: it openly testifies as to how women artists have no safety net when they satirize political issues. The second takeaway is that censorship on verbal art (comedy) by women also happens through verbal misogynistic slurs including the obvious, direct target on her body (rape threats).
Thus, Joshua’s case lays it all bare that the experiences of any artist who is not an upper-class Hindu man in India, and who tries to do anti-establishment comedy, would be heavily censored via means that immediately invoke their gender identity.
Kunal Kamra and Privilege Scenario
Both Kunal Kamra and Rachita Taneja got contempt notices from the Supreme Court. Both satirized the Supreme Court. Both got equal treatment. Fair enough? However, a magnifying difference is in the way Taneja has been subjected to a kind of dual censorship by external societal elements. This is in no way to say that Kamra’s experience was less horrifying.
But it is important to understand that Taneja isn’t just a political cartoonist. She makes bold cartoons that mock anti-feminist elements. Sanitary Panels is, in itself, a very feminist comic. The comic she was censored on was purely political in nature. Yet, being a woman artist who creates women-centric content, her censorship can’t be studied in isolation of her gender identity because she is constantly fighting sexist slurs while commenting on political events. Kamra as we know is more inclined to creating political and anti-establishment content, yet Taneja creates both political and feminist art.
Thus, what Kamra has as privilege is his male identity which doesn’t get attacked by trolls as frequently as his female counterparts. This pertinent point was acknowledged by the satirist Varun Grover in a 2019 interview with Anupama Chopra wherein he accepted his male privilege of being able to make political jokes, something women don’t have.
Watch the entire interview.
Experiences of Queer Artists
It is quite painful- yet not surprising- to see that apart from the normative dichotomy of male and female, other gender identities get severely censored in the domain of art. It is especially visible in art forms like stand up comedies, wherein the artist is superficially present as opposed to behind-the-scenes art like paintings, etc.
Sadly, not a lot of sources are available on transgender, non-binary, gender-neutral artists, etc. in India. Thus, owing to the lack of documentation, we will try to get some idea about this kind of censorship via the sexual orientation of the artists. In 2014, Navin Noronha, a queer comedian came out as a gay man. He said to The Economic Times that being queer in comedy was not easy. In fact, Noronha could be India’s only openly gay stand-up comedian.
Similarly, a lesbian comedian, Vasu Primlani, talks about how people react to homosexuality in India:
“She seems so normal, how could she be gay?”
It’s so enigmatic and interesting to see that in the case of queer artists, both gender and sexual orientation become the point of censoring their content. Censorship need not always manifest itself in open ways like arrests and bans. The very fact that there’s almost nil visibility of queer artists in mainstream media is in itself, an act of censorship because it shows zero acceptability of them and their content.
Thus, what we have navigated so far, is how gender- and sexual orientation- as an identity plays an important role in determining the kind of censorship experience an artist has.
In my opinion, art and artist can’t be studied in seclusion or hidden corners, because they are heavily political in nature. The extra layer of gender, mixed with political art, produces varying reactions.
In the case of mainstream art, it is always the female gender identity that gets invoked and censored in debilitating ways. Censorship in art and on artists should always be studied in the larger social framework of the society we are living in, where all genders have varying “gendered” censorship stories.
Feature Image Credits: Getty Images