Are There Emotional No-go Areas for Artists?



Pic: Raj Shetye.

Published first in The Hoot, August 2014. 

Like most things these days, it started with a Facebook post. A photographer in Mumbai shot a series of photos in a bus depicting harassment faced by women in public transport. The link to the photos was shared on Facebook. They instantly lit a fuse. It was quickly decided that the photos were a portrayal of the Delhi gang-rape of 2012 and that this was insensitive and in poor taste.

“Moronic”, “twisted”, “sickening”, “fucked up” where the adjectives that flew thick and fast. “One should know where to draw the line ”, said one. “ Here’s where I would really like the MNS (Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) to do some rampaging”, cried another.

What was shocking was that the vitriol and cry for rioting came not from political goons as is so often the case in India over art, but largely from the creative community itself. They drummed up such an uproar on the social media that the photographer, Raj Shetye, cowering under pressure, quietly removed the photos.

It has often been this way in India. The biggest enemies of free expression in this country have been the artists, writers and journalists themselves. I have enormous respect for the late Khushwant Singh, but he was the first man (as Penguin’s consulting editor) to suggest that the Satanic Verses should not be published.

Pic: Raj Shetye

There were a legion of Indian painters who rejoiced at painter M. F. Husain’s harassment by the Hindu right. And only recently,it transpired, from leaked emails, that scholar Ananya Vajpayi tried to instigate someone to ban writer Arundhati Roy’s book, Annihilation of Caste.

Professional jealously is only a small part of the problem. The photographer,  Raj Shetye, to whom I spoke on the phone, said he was only trying to depict the harassment Indian women face everyday in public transport. He said he had been working on the concept for months and had put in a lot of money to get it done.

Of course, when photographs  enter  the public space anyone is free to make their own inferences. But the photographer’s motive, when he is available to explain it ,  should also be considered.   Shetye  told me, as he  told others, that his work was not about the Delhi gang rape or rape at all. But by this time the anger had spilled all over the internet and no one wanted to listen to what he had to say.

If I found fault in Shetye’s images, it was his use of skin and bone models, perpetuating the skinny- is -beautiful stereotype. One can even argue that the execution was all bad and that the photos hardly portray the harassment of women.

Pic: Raj Shetye

Pic: Raj Shetye

Moreover, it was not an unusually original idea as scores of short films by filmmakers including by the famous Director Anurag Kayshap have already been made on the subject and watched by millions. All these films were in some measure inspired by the horrific events of the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape.

But had someone mischievously linked them to Nirbhaya rape, as it was done with Raj Shetye’s photos, they could very easily have drawn the same denunciation.

So the question is: Are there some emotional no-go areas for artists? I don’t think so. On the contrary, I think its     incumbent on the artists, writers, poets and playwrights to explore those areas for us. It only broadens our understanding about these issues. Admittedly such emotional topics, invite lazy knee-jerk reactions. But that’s exactly what we should avoid and instead adopt a nuanced approach. But where emotions reign supreme, reason dare not show its face.

From what I have read, those who have protested against the photos seem to believe that gang rape should not be depicted in any way at all, that it amounts to a trivialization of crimes against women and is therefore in bad taste.

Pic: Raj Shetye

Pic: Raj Shetye

This self-righteous hand wringing is false and hypocritical because when Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen was released, except for (who else?) Arundhati Roy, every critic agreed the film’s centerpiece -the public stripping and the gang-rape- was ‘tastefully’ done.

It did not matter then that the rape-victim, Phoolan Devi, who was alive, did not want the rape scene to be shown at all. But the avalanche of praise that the film received drowned Phoolan’s   protests completely with some critics calling them ‘tantrums’.

But then Phoolan was Phoolan- an illiterate woman from the ravines, a consort of bandits, a woman out on bail. What did she know about these things? But Nirbhaya? She was one of us.

So not only are there emotional no-go areas but our moral indignation is negotiable. It blows where the wind blows. It changes with the times. And it depends on who is involved. The feminist narrative riding on the Nirbhaya rape, suddenly makes us all touchy about the subject now. But in 1994, when Bandit Queen was released, it was okay.

Perhaps it’s not about the filmmakers or artists really. Perhaps it’s about us the audience. And about what our moral temperature is at that time.

It took a very long time for Indian filmmakers to document Partition. It was an emotional no-go zone because of the horrors that millions went through. But from 60’s onwards when filmmakers began to depict Partition the audiences flocked to see the films.

Screen shot of Shekar Kapur’s film -Bandit Queen. The Gang-rape scene.


Similarly films on the Holocaust- like The Pianist or Schindler’s List, which graphically depict the Nazi’s slaughter of Jews, were made when the audiences were mature enough to handle them. Today, the films do not offend any Jews.

But maybe one is on slippery grounds with the film analogy. As a somewhat practicing photographer, I  admit photography  is a very limiting  medium compared to say filmmaking or writing. Photos either shock us or lull us into a happy stupor. They lack the nuance that other mediums allow you. And depicting social issues using fashion photography has always  faced ridicule.

However, the fact remains that books, paintings, films have always depicted, real-life events in all their gory minutiae.

If we go further back in history we have a wide body of rape paintings, called  ‘heroic’ rape paintings. And painters such as Ruben, Michelangelo, Poussin all depicted rape as it happened in history. All these paintings find pride of place in some of the prestigious art museums of the world.

Raj Shetye’s photos are neither graphic nor gory nor do they show rape. That they represent the Nirbhaya rape was someone else’s conclusion.

Therefore all the noise over Raj Shetye’s photos is very baffling. Or maybe not. We live in times of self-righteous indignations. So Shetye’s protestations that it was not a Nirbhaya rape depiction, will fall on deaf ears. Like the mob in Julius Caesar, we just need a vent for our moral fury. Anyone would do. Its no matter if he is not the conspirator. Cinna the Poet, will always be ripped apart for his bad verses.

Screen shot of Shekar Kapur’s film -Bandit Queen



The Rape of the Sabine Women

The Rape of the Sabine Women- Oil on Canvas by Pietro da Cortona. (1627-29)


The Rape of the Daughters of Leucip .  Oil on Canvas by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1600-1700)

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucip . Oil on Canvas by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1597-1669)





22 Responses to “Are There Emotional No-go Areas for Artists?”

  1. Nimeran Singh says:

    One, this photoshoot is literally glamourizing rape. No two ways about it.
    Two, it’s not even well done.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Nimeran I tend to agree with both your points. But things that are mediocre or not well done also have a right to exist. Where will people like Chetan Bhagat go then?

  2. Kunal Naithani says:

    Sorry at being a complete outsider here but I don’t understand how one can even compare the phoolan Devi rape scene by Shekhar Kapur … Or the holocast movie scenes etc with something like this … ?

    Does intent matter ? Did you even understand the simple purpose of showing those horrendous acts of mankind as against the purpose of this shoot ?
    (Which “glorifies” another horrendous act of men)

    I can take a dump on a canvas … That is not art … Yes it is free expression … And yes it answers your question … There ARE emotional no-go areas

  3. Mahesh Shantaram says:

    People are simply shocked that fashion is used as a mode of expression. It’s really ok for them to be shocked, but wow, look at the arguments being thrown around! Looking around on the net and especially in within comments, what really worries me is a full-on frontal attack on the artist rather than the ideas. Anything Raj Shetye says now can and will be used against him. Anyone who even sounds like a voice in his support will be bullied into oblivion

  4. Parul Chopra says:

    In a country like ours where the old men of the village think its eating “chow mien” which makes men rape. OR its the women who go out alone or provoke men with the way they dress to be molested or manhandled. Discouraging this is a good idea . In spite of being a Creative expression this shoot does hurt a lot of sensibilities.If Nirbhaya was alive to witness a photo shoot inspired by her on not is secondary but yes when most os us see a few odd Men manhandling a woman in a bus does trigger a lot of gory memories

  5. Uday Sahay says:

    Even the votaries of free for all hold that ‘every thing is ethical, until illegal’. In this case even if we forget about the ethical boundaries in exercise of freedom of expression, how do you address the issue of infringement of law? Which this shoot has clearly done Sanjay Austa.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Uday you are an ex-cop, you would know that even liking a Facebook post these days can land one in prison. So i am not surprised if you say this is an infringement of law.

  6. Archie Misra says:

    So I guess Paintings of the Renaissance Era like ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’, ‘The Rape of Europa’ should be banned and discarded too?

  7. Aparna Viplov Rao says:

    There are no-go areas for everybody, artists or not! Just like the ad which is glorifying abuse we cannot abuse our right to expression!

  8. Anubha Yadav says:

    I am outraged, but I condemn the ban. He has a right to his expression. I choose to ignore and condemn them. I find them problematic at various levels.

  9. Parul Abrol says:

    Sanjay- Some years ago, I’d asked a senior painter about painting nudes. He said before an artist begins doing that, one must learn everything there is to a body – anatomically, and more. Art doesnt become art without intelligence.
    Calling for a ban is giving this idiot too much importance – and also unnecessary. But so is comparing his thoughtless (and most probably a copy of D&G ad) shit to The Rape of the Sabine Women. That painting is a classic – it is not celebrating rape, not glamourising rape – it is a serious piece of work.

    Just because one has a camera in hand, one isnt a photographer/artist. Hemingway was a writer, Marquez was a writer – Chetan Bhagat is not.
    What this man did is brainless piece of shit. Although I doubt it falls under art, but if it really does – art’s also supposed to disgust and offend people. And people are offended – I think it is okay.

    • sanjay austa says:

      Parul I dont understand much about art but I will take your point about it. . I was just pointing out the depiction of rape in art not comparing. Ya I agree Chetan Bhagat is not a writer. But he is certainly a novelist. Damn, why can’t one have a discussion about anything without mentioning Bhagat?

      • Parul Abrol says:

        haha! Just like the measure for power is horsepower, the measure for low is Bhagat

        I think the technical word to use for Bhagat is author – someone who’s been published – that should do

  10. Sid Aryan says:

    So couple of mistakes done under big banners/names in the past wont ever make it sound correct. All counter arguments render themselves weak and in this case of a deliberate attempt to gag audience under the name of creativity. Or for a quick claim to fame, with an extremely sensitive subject in this case. I wonder if one has/had to tell this being a – no go. You cant just shove everything in the name of creativity.

    Anything attempted here, in any manner & intent, just offers hint of a dark mind and what society has left itself onto to take learning from or express talent with. At the same time it comfortably leaves aside the horrendous years of life, that start for the poor soul where in she shall breathe to live – never the same. Likewise her family & everyone who knows her.

    Kindly dont take me seriously when I use these words as a mere expression of my stand, I would not want a validation in some context like anyone else. My opinion or mindset possibly could not get to the modern-comfortable state of existence and the better side to this Godforsaken attempt.

    For even till now I would believe, If its left to any sane soul, he/she shall rip the perpetrators heart out, without any remorse, if anything like that touch their family/friefnds.

    Possibly the family will later decide to go all creative and call up a production unit & arrange a shoot “to communicate the message” behind the rape or could well be this gentleman’s family too. Just saying.

  11. Bharati Motwani says:

    Nobody is suggesting that the Nirbhaya tragedy is a no-go zone for artistic expression. People are simply disgusted by the juxtaposition of fashion and violence against women. Movies such as Bandit Queen etc. did not trivialise the horror of rape – it in fact underscored it. This man Shetye is glamourising rape. His shoot is a brainless, cheap, sensationalist exercise that makes Chetan Bhagat look like Shakespeare.

  12. Meghna Singhai says:

    There are no emotional no-go areas for artists. But depicting something like sexual violence should be done as sensitively as possible! I totally condemn this photo shoot as an atrocious piece of art, one that glamorizes assault and is highly insensitive (and dont even get me started on the anorexic stereotype!)

  13. Peter Armand Menon says:

    I do not think it is a question of “Emotional No-Go”. An Artist always performs for some community. The sensibilities of the Community cannot be given a lesser place than that Artist’s Emotions. Of course, the Artist can ignore Community Sensibilities, in which case the Artist has to face the Community’s reaction and should not be allowed to cry “Unfair”. Fairness is a two way street.

  14. Parul Abrol says:

    Actually, I wasn’t saying this at all. Commercial or purely artistic (I dont understand the latter bcoz there is some commercial aspect to all we create), one must understand what the person is doing. I wont be surprised if this photographer had no idea of what he was creating.
    It is a classic case of ‘bandar ke hath mein koochi’.
    I am not the one to call for bans, primarily because offense is a relative emotion. I found his work dumb and stupid and I (individually) dont want to engage with it .

  15. Subina Arora Khaneja says:

    I think the article itself gives answers to why this depiction raised such strong objections.
    Time, distance and sensitivity – The too short a time from the incident means that the public doesn’t have the distance from it. It’s too close to the tragedy and sensitivities are still high. As the writer himself recognises that some time passed before stories about the Partition and Holocaust could be told and watched.
    Also, aesthetically, is it good verse or bad verse. As photography goes, did the picture invoke the emotion it was trying to convey well enough? Therein also lies the confusion… that is what emotion?
    And mostly, that is the one big reason of the unease it is creating is because it is using a tragic aspect of a world reality, harassment of women, to essentially sell clothes and jewellery!
    Let’s not confuse the intent here. It is not using the medium to create awareness, or some jagriti in society, or some self-growth in the viewer. It wants you to feel the need to change this horrific attitude, then admire the models, clothes and jewellery, and then go shopping!
    All the others were using the medium for a message and story telling. Bandit Queen wasn’t selling her clothes sense, lifestyle nor were the paintings being used to tell you where to buy those beautiful white horses. They used their art and craft to portray a truth which moved them and which they felt needed to be told.
    IN this case, there is a serious clash of intent and lack of understanding of role of the medium I feel.

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