Gurjar’s Gandhi Misunderstood

"Somebody puts words in the mouth of Queen Victoria, how the British society would have reacted," said the Supreme Court to senior counsel Gopal Subramanium who was arguing in defence of Vasant Dattatreya Gurjar's poem Gandhi Mala Bhetla  (I met Gandhi). "There should not be curtailment of artistic freedom," he conceded graciously, "but I have not come across any English author who has written about Queen Victoria."

Since the Victoria-fixated court insisted on displaying its ignorance of English literature, (why go to 19th century England for an analogy anyway?) it must be pointed out that Lytton Strachey wrote his not entirely complimentary biography Queen Victoria in 1921 and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for it. As for putting words in the revered queen's mouth, one of her courtiers, Caroline Holland did that in Notebooks of a Spinster Lady. "There is a tale of the unfortunate equerry," wrote the Lady, "who ventured during dinner at Windsor to tell a story with a spice of scandal or impropriety in it. 'We are not amused,' said the Queen when he had finished." Ever since then the world has attributed that cryptic comment to the royal mouth without any corroborative evidence to prove that she said it.

Forget English literature. It is more appalling that the court had totally failed to understand Gurjar's poem. Even more damagingly, it had disrespected the traditions and methods of poetry. "The question is whether I can put vulgar words in the mouth of Mahatma Gandhi by using a symbol, surreal voice, saying it is not Mahatma Gandhi but some other Gandhi," it said, dismissing Gurjar's use of symbolism as a cunning cover-up. It would appear that the court had not read the opening lines of the poem in which the poet makes his intention quite clear: I met Gandhi / on the 6 X 2  1/2 bed / in Vasant Dattatreya Gurjar's 10X12 room / as a symbol of / the people of Bharat.

So he's talking about the people of Bharat, chiefly the netas of the post-Emergency Janata Government which collapsed ignominously in 1980. Gandhi provides the symbolic context because, in 1977, the newly elected MPs had gone to Raj Ghat and pledged themselves to continuing his work. By January 1980, however, their clay feet had been exposed. Prime Minister Morarji Desai, forced to resign, retired to his home in Mumbai. In the elections that followed, Indira Gandhi apologised for her mistakes and won with a reasonable majority. Gurjar writes: I met Gandhi / in Morarji's Oceana. / High on auto-urine he said, / women are fools and devoid of reason. / You must know who / I am referring to.

Raj Narain, the Health Minister in the Janata Government also comes in for a deadly swipe: I met Gandhi / in the Family Welfare Centre / of the self-styled leader Raj Narain.  / Lounging on a cushy bed / bare-torsoed / being massaged / eating almonds and pistachios and mithai / he was addressing a press conference / on why socialism has not taken  root in Bharat.

Gandhi himself appears only in the closing lines of the poem as a disillusioned Mahatma: Gandhibaba said at Raj Ghat / his hand on Vasant Dattatreya Gurjar's shoulder / God is dead and so is the man of God. / There is no escape for God from this world of demons. / Even less so for men of God /-- And within a trice he took samadhi--.

Obscenities? Of course there are. In protest poetry, obscenities express legitimate rage. They are meant to shock readers into sharing the poet's view of an unjust situation. You cannot take single words out of their context and say they are obscene. In this regard Dr Shreeram Lagoo memorably said to the Censor Board, which had demanded the deletion of 150 obscene words from Vijay Tendulkar's play Gidhade, "The play is about vultures, not sparrows."

Back in 2008, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi High Court ruled there was nothing obscene in M. F. Husain's painting of Bharat Mata. "Art has to be understood in its own context," he had said. "The criminal justice system should not be used as an easy recourse to ventilate against a creative act.” If only we had more judges who respected the traditions, forms, conventions and historical contexts of art and literature, the increasing tribe of jack-in-the-box offence-takers would not feel legally encouraged to hound artists and writers.  

Published On : 20-05-2015