The judgment rewarding freedom to author Perumal Murugan by the Madras High Court is possibly one of the best-articulated expressions of the role of art in recent times.
It in fact doubles up as a peace message we all need to see now, more than ever. The last week has been one of vile revelations for us in Chennai and Tamil Nadu. We have shared our space with savages we didn’t know existed; stalkers we would usually forget the minute we turned into a street with more lights, shadowy thumbnails we would let pass the second we nondescriptly clicked "delete request".
|The creative process needs courage to end up in fruition.|
Could these monsters have existed in those several thousands of faceless men and women we manoeuver through every day? Could we ever again carelessly trust every trigger and thought that may arise within their deepest beings, as it does in us?
Even as we grapple with these questions that potentially alter everything we know about our support systems, that justices SK Kaul and Pushpa Sathyanarayana have displayed such intrepidity protecting someone’s creative and existential right, warms your heart and warriors hope during these times of hopelessness. Justice Kaul has in fact even previously stood his ground for this truth when he pronounced the historic judgment that ended celebrated artist MF Hussain’s exile in 2008.
“Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone, nor does it compel the whole society to see it. The choice is left with the viewer,” reads the judgment for Murugan.
And just how accurate is this? In the same breath, what it also asks of the viewer is the largeness and discretion to look into someone and be hit by the honesty of their thought. It tells them that such an expression is rare and commands value, as it strives to grow life in a society that is marred by fear, lack of ownership and denial, instead of curiosity, truth and nerve.
Saying things as they are; communicating every inquiry, conflict, fear, heartache and elation as it first hits you; this is every writer’s drug and if you will, every reader’s too. It’s what evokes the faintest empathy or even intent observation – amidst and in spite of any dissent - for the one who’s talking to you through those pages. It’s your 3am friend over coffee, a parallel life in the making, with its own independent journey alongside your own. It is an instinct - which if grown in all of us - could make this world many notches more inhabitable.
The creative process needs courage to end up in fruition. Furthermore, it takes faith to draw up the curtains on your head and let the world see what’s going on inside. And this applies for every work of art that ever was.
"Offence" then, is not even contextual here.
When you threaten an artist for letting you into their world and demand that they alter what they show you, you reveal your own incompleteness as a thinking individual. Interestingly, the judgment also points out that artists expressing themselves fall under the ambit of the law, while every individual threatening their cathartic, outside of it.
We cannot claim to be alien to the kind of liberties Perumal Murugan took in his Madhorubagan, exploring cultural phenomena that make his characters come alive in conflict.
In the immediate instant, it reminds you of Mathampu Kunjukuttan's Brashtu, later translated from Malayalam to English as Outcaste by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, which passionately recounts the spirit of Thathri Kutty, a Namboodiri woman who used her sexuality to avenge the dreaded "Smarthavicharam", a chastity ritual that was once practiced in Kerala.
There have been several such commentaries on a land’s most defining value systems, and in a work of fiction, how far and fluid you take them to facilitate your narrative is arbitrary.
Our artists have sufficiently demonstrated to us over history that they have the power to redeem us by offering perspectives that are alternative and important. They are our puzzles’ greatest misfits, and yet, the only ones that can complete them. So let them “get up”, as Murugan wishes to.