Right-wing Hindu activists are once again targeting artists. Eleena Banik, a Bengali painter, says she fears for her life after members of a Hindu extremist organization threatened her, saying they found two of her paintings offensive.
One of the paintings, displayed at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery, depicted Kali, a Hindu goddess, in the nude – without the garland of skulls that traditionally cover her breasts. The other painting showed Kali with strawberries on the palms of her hands, on her breasts, and over her vagina.
The paintings, first put on display April 2, came under fire by members of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an extremist Hindu organization, and were removed over the weekend.
Several members of the group confronted Ms. Banik and filed a police complaint against her on Saturday on the grounds that she insulted their religion. This led to the removal of her artwork from the gallery, police says.
On its website, the right-wing Hindu group hailed the removal of the paintings from the show as a victory. “HJS effect: Indecent picture of Shri Durga Devi removed from exhibition,” said a note on the website. Kali is a manifestation of the goddess Durga.
“We found the images objectionable,” says Ramesh Shinde, a spokesperson for the group. “If she’s displaying something in public, she should think about the feelings of other people,” he adds.
Ms. Banik told India Real Time that over the past few days she has been receiving anonymous calls saying that she would be harmed if she failed to remove pictures of the paintings from her website. Callers also warned her against portraying Hindu gods in this way again.
“I got a call from someone saying that if I don’t remove these paintings from my website, they will cut my body in pieces and throw me in a river,” says Ms. Banik, who removed the paintings from her website on Monday.
“I’m scared to go out, and to reveal my whereabouts to anyone,” says Ms. Banik, who has since left Mumbai.
How did these crazies get her number? HJS, the Hindu group, shared her details on their website – that’s how.
When asked about the threatening calls on Friday, Mr. Shinde, the group’s spokesman, said: “Why did she put up the paintings? And then she says she’s receiving threatening calls.”
The administration of Jehangir Art Gallery had earlier requested Ms. Banik to pull down her paintings. K.G. Menon, secretary of the gallery, told the Times of India: “”We are mindful to not display artworks that can offend people’s religious sensibilities. Our staff found the canvas of Durga offensive and because children and senior citizens alike visit the gallery, we urged her to take it down. She chose not to do so, and on April 6, the HJS arrived to object.”
Ms. Banik defends her work, saying “nudity isn’t obscene in art.” To her critics, she pointed out that she too is Hindu, and that she prays to the goddess Kali. “The image of Kali was important for the exhibition,” the theme of which was single motherhood, “She is a strong feminine icon,” adds Ms. Banik.
Geeta Seshu, who monitors violations of free speech in India for TheHoot.org, a media-focused website, says she was alarmed by the news. “Organizations like these, they choose to go to the art gallery. If they find it offensive, they have all the right to leave the space,” she said, referring to HJS.
Ms. Banik says she’ll continue painting similar subjects in the future. “I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings unintentionally. But If I feel like painting, I will,” she said, “It is my freedom of creative expression.”
This is not the first time extremist Hindu groups show little tolerance for artistic freedom.
M. F. Husain, one of India’s most celebrated painters, was repeatedly targeted by Hindu activists, who found his depictions of goddess in the nude obscene. Mr. Husain, who died in 2011, was deeply hurt by this response, and called for greater tolerance. Opposition to his work, and the failure of Indian authorities to meaningfully stand up in his defense, eventually pushed him to give up his Indian nationality and become a Qatari citizen.
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta in 1996 sparked the outrage of Hindu extremists with her movie “Fire,” a lesbian love story. Activists stormed theaters where it was showing, and many cinemas withdrew the film as a result.
Law enforcement authorities have come under fire for not doing enough to protect free speech. In one extreme case, last year two women who were detained for posting a comment that criticized the shutdown in Mumbai after the death of right-wing leader Bal Thackeray on Facebook, were accused of hate speech. The case was widely condemned and charges against the young women were later dropped.