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Modern Indian Family in the Age of Hurt Sensibilities: Lessons from Literature and Art

Sunday, 29 December 2013 - 6:30am IST | Agency: DNA

Supreme Court of India’s judgment on Sec 377 has brought back the focus on ‘family’ in India. People are raising questions around procreative aspects of sex and the idea of a perfect family which presupposes the presence of a man, his wife and their children. Supporters of criminalization of homosexuality say that seeing same sex couples hurts their sensibilities rooted in the Indian family system. Also, it is difficult to explain the phenomenon to their children! How important really is ‘family’ or the idea thereof for Indians? There are multiple answers to this question. A decade back three contemporary mainstream writers/artists reimagined the ‘family’ and courted trouble. 

An institution that exists between the private and the public, family becomes an important marker in the analysis of a society or a nation. Artists and writers have always watched family curiously as it holds many elements that feed their creativity and ideologies. At least a decade back Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, Khushwant Singh’s The Company of Women and Vivan Sundaram’s digital photomontages dealing with the Shergil family presented some real/fictional modern Indian families. The families in question were heterosexual and yet they ended up hurting Indian sensibilities.  

The two literary works in question have faced severe criticism and even lawsuits on the grounds of obscenity and moral corruption. In an age of freely accessible video pornography obscenity charges appear slightly anachronistic. However, such incidents make one think, what is considered as an appropriate representation? In his 2001/2 series of photomontages titled Re-take of Amrita Sundaram attempts to create a spectacle by collecting and re-arranging the myriad images of the Shergil family in the form of photographs and paintings. The paintings and the photographs by the Shergil father and daughter provide Sundaram with a starting point, and the reality that presents itself through the series is not only often disturbing, it sets the beholder reconsidering his/her notions about the Shergil family in particular and about families in general. 

In the works of Roy, Singh and Sundaram, on one hand family is shown as a necessity and a desirable state, on the other hand it is seen as impinging upon the individual will. While the Shergil family is shown as providing conducive environment to Amrita’s art, the families in TGOST and TCW are shown as stifling the individual. The families depicted are largely multicultural. All three of them acknowledge that the modern Indian family is an amalgamation of myriad cultural experiences and consider the cross-cultural transactions within the family as desirable. Nevertheless, they are conscious of the hostility faced by such liaisons. 

Roy gives us a big unhappy family where cross-cultural alliances are looked down upon and are held responsible for the family’s misery. Mammachi and Baby Kochamma do not approve of the marriages of Ammu and Chacko outside their community. However, Roy slips in the fact that Mammachi’s socially approved marriage, too, has not brought her any happiness. Roy, thus, segregates familial happiness and multiculturalism suggesting that it is the individuals and not the cultures that are responsible for the happy or otherwise status of a family. Sundaram’s Retake can be seen as a celebration of multiculturalism. Amrita is shown as a perfect product of her twin heritage: Sikh father and Hungarian mother. As her art is seen as a fusion of the best elements of the East and the West, her personality too, represents this hybridity. Multiple cultural influences become an advantage for Amrita and she puts them to good use like her contemporary Frida Kahlo. Sundaram’s ‘Doppleganger’ best captures Amrita’s twin heritage and her ease with her mixed identity. 

Roy, Singh and Sundaram surprised the reader/beholder with their unconventional constructions of family. In Sundaram’s photomontage titled ‘Lovers,’ we come across Umrao Singh Shergil, Amrita Shergil and Boris Tazlitsky. The composition has shock value due to the presence of Umrao Singh in the pose of a lover: languorously standing in an almost naked state. Umrao Singh appears in the similar semi-naked state alongside his wife in another photomontage titled ‘Preening’. Sundaram managed to sensationalize the father-daughter relationship through his re-workings. 

In Amrita’s photographs taken by her father, there is an unmistakable sexual energy. The gaze of the photographer appears far from being that of the father. The person behind the lens captures the posed womanliness and stylized sexuality of Amrita. On one hand Sundaram’s series appears as a collection of stories that the family members tell about each other, while on the other both Umrao Singh Shergil and Sundaram make Amrita an object of their gaze and see her not as a daughter or aunt but as a woman. 

Roy, too, offers an unconventional family in TGOST. The twins and their mother are reminded that it is not normal for them to stay at the Ayemenem house. They have no claim on the comforts of the Indian joint family as they refuse to abide by its rules. “Perhaps Ammu, Estha and she were the worst transgressors...They all tampered with the laws that laid down who should be loved and how. And how much. The laws that make grandmothers grandmothers, uncles uncles, mothers mothers, cousins cousins, jam jam, and jelly jelly” (Roy 31). Roy creates a family which is far from being the ideal Indian family where grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and children love and support each other. Instead, it is a family where Baby Kochamma is happy about outliving everybody as she has inherited all the material possessions of the family. In this family Mammachi, a mother, tries to commodify the relationship between her son and his ex-wife by stealthily putting money in her pockets as the price for her suspected sexual favours.

     Singh’s TCW, a novel that claims to be a biography, is shown to be born out of the breakdown of a family. Mohan Kumar’s house at Maharani Bagh, which was once home to his family comprising his father, wife and children, begins to accommodate his live-in partners. The women who responded to his advertisement become his alternate family and satisfy his physical and emotional needs. Interestingly, people are tricked into perceiving the partners (Sarojini Bharadwaj and Molly Gomes) in familial terms: the former as a cousin and the latter as a prospective wife. 

Family is often seen as the first set-up where an individual imbibes sexual values like absolutism or relativism. This apparently holds true for both Sonu in TCW and Amrita Shergil- the two extremes. Brought up in a noveue-rich male dominated household Sonu appears to be an absolutist who disapproves of her husband’s sexual adventures even though they get separated. Sundaram, on the other hand, manages to present Shergil as the polyamorous artist who believes in relativism. Her sexual values are likely to be an outcome of the bohemian nature of the Shergil family. Sundaram’s selection of photographs and paintings for the photomontages obliquely indicates his acceptance of Amrita’s controversial sex life. Ammu’s case in TGOST is slightly different. Not an outright rebel like Shergil, Ammu asserts herself while making sexual choices. In her case, as the degree of family oppression rises, the more outrageous her sexual choices become. First she chooses to marry a Bengali and later starts an affair with an untouchable handyman.  

     One of the most disturbing elements in TGOST is the incestuous sex between the twins. Roy shows that the strongest relationship in the novel is between Rahel and Estha “Because whatever She was, He was too” (Roy 86). However, when Rahel and Estha meet each other as grown-ups after a lapse of few years, they meet almost as strangers. Estha does not recognize Rahel, as was pre-empted by Baby Kochamma. Roy reminds the reader just before the act, “They were strangers who had met in a chance encounter” (Roy 327). Growing up in a less than ideal family and under strange circumstances, the twins end up as strangers and now the collapse of the ‘family’ is absolute. 

     The process of imaging and imagining the family has undeniable links with voyeurism. The artist/writer not only follows the lives of the characters s/he lays them bare for others as well. Roy’s TGOST is slightly different from the works of Singh and Sundaram as she intends it as fiction. Roy, the voyeur, has seen and exposed her fictional characters while they indulge in socially abhorred practices, and even this has resulted in outraging the moral sensibilities of some people. The lawsuit faced by her is an outcome of the same. The interest in TCW and Re-take partially lies in their biographical nature. Thus, the issue of voyeurism is more pertinent in the cases of these two. Amrita paints herself naked as a Tahitian, it can be called the artistic narcissism but when Sundaram creates ‘Self as Tahitian,’ he, like a voyeur, probes into Amrita’s personal life and foregrounds it. In this photomontage Amrita’s painting is used as a background to a semi-naked photo of hers taken by her husband. Re-take is voyeurism at its best. Sundaram not only follows and exposes the ‘images’ of the Shergil family, he conjures the stories behind these images as well.

 And with this we come back to the hurt sensibilities, guilt and punishment with respect to homosexual relations. Laura Mulvey suggests, “Voyeurism has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt, asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness.” A private choice of consenting adults is brought in the public domain to feed the voyeuristic appetites of people who ascertain control and affix guilt on those that are seen to be hurting the sensibilities. The works of Roy, Singh and Sundaram managed to open up new ways of representing the family life in modern India. They dared to bring to forefront those aspects of family life that were hitherto lying concealed from the public eye. To say that homosexuality hurts family values in India, therefore, is hypocritical at best. 


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