Five years ago, Samyukta Madhu was starting to be popular on the internet. The Brooklyn-based digital artist was concerned with the existential highs and lows of a single, brown woman. Blending Indian traditions with a pop punk aesthetic, her women were bold and sharp in electric pink and effervescent green. She was in her early 20s, and she drew Kali and other blue-skinned goddesses as representatives of the contemporary Indian woman.
“My first viral artwork was a picture of a woman looking into a bathroom mirror and seeing the goddess Kali looking back at her,” says Madhu, who now lives in Berlin as a freelance artist. “This image sent waves around the internet. I went from 800 to 20,000 followers overnight. People even got it tattooed. I felt so powerful. I felt invincible, validated, recognised, cherished. In a way, Kali had given me this power.”
With accolades, came a steady trickle of hate messages. Her parents kept warning her not to mess with religion. Eventually, Madhu stopped using Kali in her work. “Now I’m sitting in my apartment in Berlin, and it’s a lot harder for me to be an artist,” she says. “Kali was the source of all my power; my ideas would flow so easily when I could use her. I ended up inadvertently creating my own goddess—a black, bald, sightless figure with six arms. A goddess that represents the void.… I applaud Leena Manimekalai for her strength and resilience.”
Manimekalai is at the centre of a much bigger storm. The Canada-based filmmaker, poet and actor released the poster of her “performance documentary”, Kaali, on July 2, showing a woman dressed as the deity, which many might regard as an impressionist image in the behrupiya tradition. The woman is seen smoking a cigarette, with an LGBTQIA+ flag in the background. The film is about the events that unfold as the woman strolls through the streets of Toronto one evening.
The poster created a social media furore. Police cases, death threats and doxxing followed for presenting the goddess in a “derogatory and offensive manner”, thereby hurting “religious sentiments of millions of devotees.” Manimekalai has been summoned to the Delhi High Court on August 6.
On July 5, Lok Sabha member Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress reacted to the poster row thus: “Kaali to me is a meat-eating, alcohol-accepting goddess. You have the freedom to imagine your goddess. There are some places where whiskey is offered to the gods and in some other places it would be blasphemy.” Within hours, her party distanced itself from her remarks and condemned them. BJP members criticised West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for not pulling up her party MP for her “hurtful” comments.
“The party did not approve the Kaali poster nor did it approve Mahua’s comment on the same,” Sougata Ray, Trinamool leader and three-time MP, tells the THE WEEK. “It is not our party’s policy to comment on religious matters. Artists should not make their reimagining of Kali (or any gods and goddesses) public because many people worship them. Nobody should do anything that would hurt their sentiments.”
Smokers in the south have been smoking Ganesh beedi for more than six decades, and no god, priest or bhakt took offence. And no one would mind that the god Shiva likes bhang. But over the last few decades, gods have been weaned away from not just tobacco and alcohol, but from almost anything that someone thinks would pollute them.
Even the proximity of people and practices of another faith have become un-divine. So meat cannot be taken near temples, and people take offence when someone makes a remark about the Prophet or talks down about immaculate conception. In Uttar Pradesh, a shopkeeper is arrested for selling chicken wrapped in a newspaper with images of deities.
This month on the eve of Kanwar Yatra, an annual pilgrimage, the Noida administration has mandated that meat and liquor shops along the procession route will remain closed until the yatra is over. In 2018, some Kanwarias vandalised a car driven by a woman in west Delhi, after the car brushed past one of them and spilled some holy water he was carrying.
Cases of sacrilege are in vogue with a vengeance. The divine have to be ferociously guarded against any perceived impiety. While such cases of blasphemy would create a firestorm once a decade earlier, they now have to have their turn once every week.
Religion and freedom of expression have been at loggerheads for a long time now. Commentators have brought to the fore the 1924 case of Rangila Rasool (The Colourful Prophet) written by an Arya Samaj activist on the Prophet’s private life. Its publisher Mahashe Rajpal was eventually assassinated. Decades later, no one really knows what Salman Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses when India banned the book in 1988. A campaign against portraying Hindu goddesses in the nude forced M.F. Husain into exile in 2006. That same year, seven states in India banned Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, calling it insulting to Christians.
Interestingly, in 2008, police registered a case against ceramic artist Vineet Kacker who sketched images of gods and goddesses on kharaus (slippers) made of ceramic stone. He exhibited his work at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai in a show called ‘(R)evolution, A Solo Exhibition of New Ceramic’. The Bombay High Court quashed the FIR, pointing out that the slippers were not meant to be worn but displayed.
According to National Crime Records Bureau data from 2018 to 2020, Punjab’s rate of crimes under IPC sections dealing with sacrilege was the highest. The spate of cases found their climax in a mob lynching at the Golden Temple in December 2021 when an unidentified man was accused of desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, the holiest scripture in Sikhism. The dead man was charged with “attempted murder” for his beadbi (sacrilege). The same year, a 35-year-old labourer was hacked to death at the farmers’ protest site on the Delhi-Singhu border for “disrespecting” Sarbloh Granth, the sacred text of Nihang Sikhs.
These instances of outrage should not be hashed together with the beheading of a Hindu tailor in Udaipur, says Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. The people who are responsible for the Udaipur event, he says, were keen to produce an Indian version of Jihadi Islam. Ahmed works on political Islam, Muslim politics of representation, and politics of symbols in South Asia. “I think we must be clear that every incident of this kind has its own specificity,” he says. “Who are these people? Why are they doing this and what is the context in which they are allowed to do it?”
He argues that while we do have competitive communalism in post-colonial India, at the moment the nature of communal discourse has changed. “In fact, we don’t have communalism now, but a dominant narrative of hindutva,” he says. “This narrative is not based on majoritarianism, but on a very strange sense of majority victimhood.”
There are three categories when it comes to ‘hurt sentiment politics’ with respect to religion, says Ahmed. “First is invoked in relation to any artistic expression. It can be a book, a movie or a painting,” he explains. “Second is the hurt sentiment of the everyday type, which is evoked to create a conflict like wrapping chicken in a newspaper printed with images of Hindu deities.”
“The third is very dangerous and violent in which the mere existence of an individual is seen as a threat of civilisational conflict, which is exactly what happened in Udaipur,” he says. “Here you don’t just kill a person but film it and later provide an explanation for the killing. And then put it on social media with a message. The killer drew resources from two traditions: the Islamic State and the lynchings of Muslims.”
The violent variety, he adds, is almost a culmination of everything that happened before—from stray events to pro-sensationalist media discourse to the silence of the top leadership.
Targeting a piece of art is seen as the easiest invocation of ‘hurt sentiment politics’. And the Kaali poster row has laid bare conservatism around religious symbols even in Bengal, where the emphatic victory of the Trinamool Congress was seen as a crushing blow to the idea of a monolithic Hindu India and a thumping nod to ‘Bengali exceptionalism’ and Indian secularism.
“The last time I saw such pushback, many years ago, was when Matchbox Toys produced a children’s series, titled ‘A Monster in my Pocket’, and included Ganesh and Kali,” remembers Suchitra Samanta, collegiate associate professor at the women’s and gender studies programme in the department of sociology at Virginia Tech. “There were protests (in the UK, if I remember), and Matchbox withdrew the two toys in 2013. I personally was outraged, even though I am a feminist myself, teach on feminist issues and am all for free speech!”
She finds Moitra’s comments on Kali “uninformed and shallow”. “By definition, a symbol, which Kali is, can be manipulated in many ways—often offensive to some,” says Samanta, who draws a distinction between the Tantric and the Bhakti traditions of worshipping Kali. “In the Tantric tradition, alcohol is indeed part of ritual offerings to Shakti goddesses, but not in orgiastic offerings, to my knowledge. She takes different forms in different parts of India. In Bengal, while there are those who practise Tantric rites, the dominant contemporary conceptual framework for understanding, and worshipping, Kali is that of Bhakti, where she is fiercely protective and a loving mother—the ultimate resort in life’s storms.”
Samanta asserts that “meat-eating” by the goddess is also a simplistic and sensationalist understanding of the highly complex deity. “The offering of goats as gift/sacrificial offerings (balidan) has profound philosophical meanings, a ritual carefully regulated in manuals and scriptures,” she says. “The animal is, in fact, our flawed human selves. While the sacrificed animal is offered to the goddess daily (at Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, for example), the cooked meat is, in fact, eaten as her grace (prasad) by the people making the offering.”
Caleb Simmons, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Arizona, has been fascinated by the different forms and ritual worship of Kali for more than 20 years. His first encounter with worship of the goddess in India was at the Ramakrishna Mission in Delhi. And he has grown up seeing images of Kali worship in popular fiction, like the highly orientalist and sensationalised Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
“During my many years studying and researching in India, I have seen many different forms of worship to goddesses that are associated with Kali.… As I discuss in my most recent book—Singing the Goddess into Place: Locality, Myth and Social Change in Chamundi of the Hill, a Kannada Folk Ballad—there are still some blood rituals performed by laity outside of the temple, particularly at its base,” he says. “Her sister [goddess], whose iconography and mythology more closely resemble that of Kali, accepts blood sacrifice with regularity.”
Simmons says there are different understandings of Kali in the western imagination, including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which comes from the colonial fascination with the thugee tradition. “However, there are more recent, strong currents of people of western origins being interested in the Hindu goddess as a source of strength for women,” he says. “In fact, the first issue of Ms. magazine (published by noted feminist Gloria Steinem) featured a modern reimagining of Durga. Kali, in particular, has captured the imagination of many who see her as both a loving mother and a fierce individual.”
Ultimately, Ahmed points out, the distinction between spirituality and dogma is diminishing. The philosophical or the spiritual underpinnings of religion are not given adequate attention and that’s why people are in search of living gods or a dogmatic religion. This view was one of the key findings in an extensive Pew Research Center survey on religion across India between late 2019 and early 2020. Ahmed was one of the consultants there.
He invokes a scene from a 1957 Dilip Kumar film Naya Daur where a pandit places an idol of Lord Ram at a road construction site to prevent its progress. The hero, however, carries on, saying the idol is placed to actually encourage the construction of the road. “Such was the public culture then,” says Ahmed. “We need that kind of an egalitarian religion where God resides in the public good.”