Censorship of content is heavily debated, especially in the current scenario in India. While there is a large number of people speak up for protecting freedom of expression, there is also a loud opposition that says that content that is hurtful to their sentiments should be banned. In the wake of the recent controversy surrounding the movie Padmavati, questions have been raised about treating mythology almost as historical fact.
Author Anuja Chandramouli countered this at a session held at the Bangalore Literature Festival, which was called ‘Scandals of Mythology’.
“Now if you take Padmavati, you'll find that serious historians do not even acknowledge that Padmavati ever existed. The fact that the mighty Khilji emperor went after her - people feel it's entirely fictional and I agree. I went over the original account and it is a fictional account involving talking parrots, and they claim that Rawal Ratan Singh travelled to Ceylon for 12 years to find his bride which is kind of ridiculous. It's not real. It wasn't even intended to be read as history. It was a fictional story which captured the imagination of the people and survived. So serious historians refuse to acknowledge Padmavati as a real historical character,” she says.
When questioned about whether or not it is problematic to treat mythology as historical fact, Anuja says that even treating history as history is wrong.
“We have to understand that our Indian kings faced epic defeats and they came off looking really bad. The poets had to fictionalise it and make it more glorious and something to sing about. So I would say whether it is history or mythology you can't really say that yes, this is the scholarly version because we don't have any scholarly version as such. Historians both Indian and from the west have never agreed on most of the things which we consider as 'fact',” she says.
“For instance, if you take in India, it is an oral tradition. We started writing many centuries after it had taken place. So we had the stories which were told and then retold with things that kept getting added. And then, the same thing happened when it was written down, so there are many versions - a lot of it is fictional - so we can't say that this is a scholarly account of what happened,” she says.
Anuja says that these are only stories, and that they should be treated that way.
“There are only stories. Very few facts in this part of the world. We should learn to read between the lines, because what you’re reading, the information that's being fed to you, that's not the accurate version. The truth can't be put out there nakedly. People keep running around saying that things are 'facts'. They are all stories. The only things that survive are stories, for better or worse,” Anuja says.
Anuja has published five books so far, which cover characters from mythology such as Yama, Shakti and Arjuna. All of her books talk about Indian mythological characters, but she speaks of Yama in a matter-of-fact fashion.
She adds her own interpretations to her work, as she says it is necessary to read between the lines to understand what is going on. She uses the example of her bestselling book ‘Shakti’ to talk about Mahishasura, a character that was born in blood.
“In Shakti, the traditional story is that none of the male gods could destroy Mahishasura. Which is why they needed a female to do that job and she emerged from the essence. That's how the story goes – and she's usually portrayed with 100 arms, each arm wielding a different weapon. I felt that it was ridiculous because violence clearly did not work for Mahishasura. He was the most savage of them all. That's how he rose to be the ruler. He was born in violence, so that bloodlust was there in him. I felt that when you respond to him with violence, he will beat you down. He will destroy you. So Shakti/Durga, why on earth would she feel the need to resort to violence when it clearly did not work,” she asks.
Speaking about popular misconceptions in mythology, Anuja says that we have become puritanical now, which wasn’t the case earlier. Things were very matter-of-fact before, she says, and many things such as incest, violence, not being bound to monogamy, homosexuality etc. were accepted, and not really questioned. Even things such as Kali embracing violence, Shiva lusting after Vishnu (when he had to change his avatar to Mohini), Yama lusting after his twin sister etc.
In terms of censorship, Anuja says there has been a shift in how publishers react to it as well. They are more cautious now, as compared to when she published ‘Shakti’, which she says was far more scandalous.
“When I wrote ‘Shakti’, I wrote about Brahma's incestuous passion for the goddess of Dawn, and I felt that it wasn't consensual. We're discussing a rape scene here, and my editor called me to discuss it and I told her the context for it. I told her that he was the creator and she didn't have his power and influence so it couldn't have been consensual. It was accepted then, and there wasn't a big fuss around it. Now, while working on ‘Karthikeya’, my publishers are terrified. They called me and asked me to dial down the language, because they're scared of being sued, of being dragged to court because people will tell them that you've damaged our culture. They called me and we went over every word with a fine-toothed comb,” she says.
She goes on to add that she’s against censorship of any kind. “People should be allowed to say whatever they want – don't listen, don't read, but don't call for a ban,” she says.