HOW APPROPRIATE IS IT WHEN THE WEST BORROWS OUR RELIGIOUS ICONS?
A magazine recently decided to capture the cultural icons from around the world for a photoshoot. One of them was Will Smith’s daughter Willow, dressed as Goddess Kali, which led to a debate on how appropriate it was.
And this is what Willow knows about Kali. “When I was little, I would go into my mom’s meditation room and read her books about goddesses. Kali stayed with me because she is terrifying yet beautiful.”
Choosing a Hindu Goddess could have been a matter of pride for Indians too, but the imagery sparked a furore online. Indian or not, many commented on the photo, with one user even commenting: “No need to reduce other people’s culture into a game of exotic dress up.”
WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I WOULD GO INTO MY MOM’S MEDITATION ROOM AND READ HER BOOKS ABOUT GODDESSES. KALI STAYED WITH ME BECAUSE SHE IS TERRIFYING YET BEAUTIFUL
There were elements missing, for example, experts have pointed out how skulls — integral to Kali — were missing. Willow is pretty much covered by a corset and a skirt.
Others spoke about how this was a tad disrespectful. Jahangir Asgar Jani, sculptor, says, “I firmly believe one has to be sensitive towards sacredness. The context is also very important though. When it’s a religious iconograph that becomes a symbol of oppression, it needs to be relooked into. If the point of the portrayal was just nudity that’s also associated with Goddess Kali, then it’s obviously wrong.”
However, Jahangir also adds, “Art thrives on being subversive. There needs to be freedom for all kinds of expression.” Citing a personal example, Jahangir says, “There’s a difference. Once I was holding an exhibition, and there was a nude sculpture which I wasn’t allowed to exhibit. I created a poster of it and pixilated the naked parts. That was just ridiculous.”
There are also talks of how everyone is allowed to have their versions of God. Artist Seema Kohli says, “I’m a devout Hindu and I have always believed that everyone is free to choose their own image of God. Goddess Kali is one of the most fierce and liberal Goddesses, someone who can’t be domesticated. For me Kali is how I perceive her. It’s very easy to say ‘what do they know about our culture’? but we also need to think sometimes, what do we know about our culture? We are very possessive about our boundaries, but faith is about breaking boundaries.”
But this also brings about the question, do we have to be careful with art? “Artists don’t belong to a gharana. We are free in our minds and that is our asset.”
And this brings to the fore the topic of portraying art appropriately. Anju Poddar, author, says with reference to the Willow Smith photograph that this is not done at all. She says, “The photograph looks more like a dance troupe version of whatever they were trying to portray. When you say Goddess Kali, the photograph doesn’t show her at all. Where is the red tongue, the black eyes… This looks more like a blue Shiva to me. It doesn’t emit the power Goddess Kali is known to possess. When doing sensitive shoots like this, one needs to do the research well. They clearly haven’t done their homework. They have to be more responsible.”