The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
Conversations with artists, musicians, actors, film makers and curators on their eccentric journeys, their absurd dreams, and the manifestation of their desires and destinies...

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning." And with T.S.Eliot in our heads we wander into a wasteland where the lost and the forgotten are reinvented so that Nostalgia gives way to Now in the Future Perfect.
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Issue 16,The End is Where We Start from II, January 2013
Hushed whispers and embarrassed giggles forced me to give up my race against time as I was preparing for the more complex final examination on Indian aesthetics the following week. I was inside the rarified cloister of the ‘rare’ book section of the Punjab University Library in Chandigarh and trying hard to deconstruct the  many layers of the ‘rasa’ theory.  I saw the Krishna of our department, Gurinder Singh, the light eyed Sikh, who was constantly surrounded by a bevy of girls, but this time it was he who looked a bit bashful.

Lured by this spectacle, I shut the dusty covers of  the iconic book on iconography by J.N. Bannerjea and quietly strolled to the table where Gurinder and his gopis were giggling. I felt like Moses as the group parted to allow me  to catch a glimpse of what was causing them to muffle their ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs”. On reaching the table, I saw the monumental Sivarmamurti tome ‘The Arts of India’ open, drawn on a double page spread of Krishna with his gopis . I too let out a gasp of awe. There was Krishna, surrounded by scantily clad gopis and every finger and toe of the blue god caressing their private parts. Never had I seen such a visual display of fondle and caress by a single man towards a bunch of women.  There it was: the proverbial masculine trope with pure machismo, in all his glory.

The scene remains in my mind not because of the content of the book, but because it was the first real visualization of the aesthetics of the erotic. And it was this image which in some way drove me when began writing my first book on Indian Erotica. This too proved to have its own moments of ‘dis’ pleasure.

When the commissioning editor from Roli Books, Veena Baswani, walked into my office and offered me my very first luscious coffee table book, I was literally over the moon. I did not even ask her what the commission was about. When she said Indian Erotica I gasped but quickly regained my composure and let out a deep thoughtful “yes”, as if I had to ponder over the academic content of the book. With contract in hand, I returned home and excitedly told my husband about my new commission. The reason why I had no compunction in saying NO to a rambunctious title like Indian Erotica, I told him, was because of his own constant scatological talk and jokes.

But my husband being a husband just brushed aside the gravity of  my concern and  airily said,

“But darling those are simply jokes and I am afraid I cannot help you at all. Yes if you were compiling a book of dirty jokes I could really help” .

My enthusiasm fell and panic rose.  ‘But what am I going to do? How will I ever write this book? I was depending on you to be my guide and mentor?”

I almost screeched in panic. My husband looked at me as if I was losing my mind and hurried off for a pretended ‘late evening jog’. I sat there in utter dismay a picture of despondency clutching my head in both hands and sighing deeply. My daughter, 15 at the time, and  naturally my adoring offspring rose to the occasion and said, “Don”t worry mom, I will download all the porn sites on the computer and you will get so much material, that you do not have to worry.”

Whaaat! You watch porn, how dare you? From when have you been watching porn?”

Despondency aside, I now felt like I had a whole new crisis at hand. My daughter was watching porn. The entire evening comprised of an interrogation, until my daughter got really pissed off with me and ticked me off saying “What world are you living in. You do not know the reach of the internet”.  

That night I could not sleep. More than my fear of being unable to fulfill a commitment of writing on Indian Erotica the thought of my daughter consuming some new age form of erotica was terrifying.

With the dawn of the morning and the bright sunlight streaming into my bedroom, the incidents of the evening before and my restless , sleepless night seemed less frightening. After speaking to a couple of parents and friends, I confronted the realities of the internet, and learnt that most teenagers trawled these sites. With the personal in place, I now sat to see how I would tackle writing on Indian Erotica.

Within a couple of hours I had the format. My Phd was on an aspect of Shiva, the Ardhanarisvara, where Purusha/Prakriti, Shiva/Shakti were conjoined. I had read huge amounts of bhakti/riti Kaleen  poetry full of erotic imagery. I had my hook and I was set. I would explore Indian erotica through the erotic ascetic Shiva and  embed the idea in the Shringara rasa which had its own layers and multivocality. With the spine in place I began my research.

Indian Erotica emerged as a fruition of my twenty years of teaching history and culture and  history of art at Panjab University. To think at that lateral level reminded me of the mythic tale of churning of the  ocean a la ‘samudra manthan’ . From fragments of memory , my own archival records of my doctoral research, to the ongoing teaching, Indian Erotica put me on the map not only as an author of a book that sold thirty five thousand copies (English) and five thousand copied (French) published by the French publisher Guy Tredaniel, but one that had its inauguration with an exhibition of erotic paintings from the Maharaja of Kishangarh’s collection as well as music and dance by Shubha Mudgal and Shovana Narayan respectively.

Thereafter, there was no looking back on my ‘erotic’ journey. Two small intimate books followed, one on Chinese erotica and Indian Erotica and a major text on the Kamastura, all commissioned by Roli. I owe Pramod Kapoor of Roli a  big thank you for catapulting me on this very exciting and bold journey. On my own, I would never ever had the guts to embark on it.

I also saw another facet of my personality. I did not know that I was so free spirited. Having being brought up in an extremely traditional Brahmanical household where patriarchy was accepted, the breaking of traditional boundaries where women did not even whisper ‘sex’ and only indulged in it in the bedroom at night with their legally wedded spouses, here I was, the dutiful daughter and chaste wife writing on how to ‘seduce other men’s wives’.

With more commissions that followed the Kamasutra, I becameeven bolder espousing my personal views in the Brijwasi book enticingly titled ‘The Kamasutra for Women’ .

I became the first woman to write on the Kamsutra with its erstwhile male stronghold, and to much critical acclaim.

One day, while waiting in the lounge of the very ‘genteel’ India International Centre, I saw a Caucasian man across making strange overtures at me. I was very confused till I realized that seeing copies of the Kamasutra on my lap, which were part of my research material,  he probably imagined me to be an oriental Ganika/courtesan.

Often I have been introduced at social gatherings as the ‘queen of erotica’ which used to frighten me, but now, sometimes, I refer to myself, partly in jest, and partly with ernesty, as that. I now accept it as the given with not even a quantum of shyness and awkwardness which I used to feel a couple of years earlier. Such was the almost ‘shame’ in writing about erotica that I would not wish to talk about the work of which I am most proud of. For, as a woman I have tread where literally ‘angels fear to tread.’ But sometimes, there are moments when I too smile. Often, men cosy up me and ask me about the Kamasutra: “ do tell us more”, or ”you really must help us to make our lives more exciting” or “what do you advisee?” I am not a sexologist people!

Now, as I write my next interpretation of the Kama texts, sans taboo, I savour the delights in the garden of earthly pleasures.

Dr. Alka Pande is an art historian and curator living and working in Delhi.

Also in this issue

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.