“I am definitely a believer. When you believe in dharma, it is about doing things ethically, in a correct manner. I am not Left or Right-wing. I am a liberal-leaning person. Having said that, I dont like all things liberal. Frankly, I dont want to be an arm-chair fat-cat. Yes, I believe in the language of dharma and in humanism. And Hinduism is a way of life, it is not a religion,” says art historian, curator and author Alka Pande.
As her latest book ‘Pha(bu)llus: A Cultural History’ (HarperCollins India) with contributions by Johan Mattelaer, Philip Van Kerrebroeck and Amrita Narayanan hits the stands, this recipient of the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters Award by the French Government says that that the she wanted to explore the Shiva lingam as a metaphor and take into account the cultural significance. “I worked with the two Belgian scholars and urologists who had a collection of phallic. Mattelaer is also the author of ‘For this Relief, Much Thanks! Peeing in Art’.”
In fact, the two had also contributed for the exhibition ‘The Kama Sutra, Spirituality and Eroticism in Indian Art’ which was put together by her at Pinacothèque de Paris in 2016.
Adding that the effort was not just to stress on the Shiva Lingam, but the cultural history of this universal organ which is an inseparable part of magic societies, this curator says, “I also wanted to look at indigenous sculptures. Then I realised that whether it is the male gaze or the female gaze, the idea is that we should also look at the psychology of it. That is when I asked Amrita to contribute an essay for the book.”
Pande’s interest in the subject took root three decades back when she started her research on the ‘Ardhanarishvara’. “And it took me another three years to turn it into a book after my post-doctorate, where I did not just look at the image of ‘Ardhanarishvara’, but at transgenders and transvestites. The gender may be fixed but sexuality is not.”
Talking about her collaboration with the Belgians, with whom she had become close friends ever since their collaboration for the Kama Sutra show, she says, “It has been an eight-nine years of friendship through work. I also went to Antwerp and stayed there. In fact they are doing an exhibition in one of the churches next year, on probably the phallus. And the book is coming around at a very opportune moment.”
Adding that the cross cultural collaboration is close to her heart as she worked on the book as a cultural historian more than an art historian, Pande who completed her Post-Doctoral Degree from Goldsmiths College in England says such collaborations defy all barriers. “While working with them during my Kamasutra show, I found out interesting details like how in Victorian England, how they used a shield to cover their phalluses. It is a very important universal subject — how the male organ is viewed in different cultures. India is all about cross-culture. Whether it is the Pathans, the Portuguese, the Dutch. They have all come. We have never lost our identity, but have enriched ourselves. Our culture is all about enrichment, so I believe a lot in inclusion in cross-cultures.”
Pande feels that putting oneself out of his/her comfort zone is the key to absorbing. “The wider you travel, the more people you meet — that is when learning happens. As a woman, one might feel apprehensive approaching a naked Naga sadhu. But you need to push yourself. And yes, one is never too old to learn.”
Even as the phallus is considered a tool of aggression by some quarters, Pande clarifies that it becomes that only when used in a hostile way. “Let us not forget that it is also a tool of pleasure, of great creativity. How else does the world grow? Remember, everything goes hand in hand — the good, the bad, the ugly. Also, I believe in the inclusion of men, and not in their exclusion.”
For this curator and scholar, the long lockdowns have translated into “zero years”. Considering she travels extensively, work may have suffered but in some ways, she is taking this year as a ‘sabbatical’. “I have joined a multiple courses. I am learning Sanskrit, and I have enrolled for a course at Harvard University. So, I am doing a lot of things. The present is about absorbing and living in the moment, because tomorrow I really don’t know what is going to happen.”
And when it comes to the art world, she foresees a hybrid future. “I have been talking about the hybrid for a long time. However, in the art world, the real experience cannot be replicated by the digital one. There is a huge loss in translation.”
(Sukant Deepak can be reached at email@example.com)