The furore over Malayala Manorama’s inclusion of a controversial artistic interpolation of ‘The Last Supper’ in its December issue of Bashaposhini -a literary review magazine- and the subsequent withdrawal from circulation now seems to have taken on the contours of a personal battle for at least some.
Manorama had issued a front page apology for the same, and re-issued the magazine with a heavily censored version of the picture to make it almost unrecognizable.
Controversy had erupted over Tom Vattakuzhy’s accompanying illustration for C Gopan’s play ‘Mrudwangiyudeh Durmruthyu’ (The Unnatural Death of a Soft-Bodied Soul) featured in the issue.
The play itself is based on Vyloppilly’s poem ‘Narthaki’ (Dancer) based on a significant moment in the life of the Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan Mata Hari, who was executed on spying charges by a firing squad in France during World War I.
Vattakuzhy’s painting shows a half-naked dancer occupying the place Jesus has in Leonardo da Vinci’s classic 15th century mural. The dancer is seen surrounded by nuns who replace Jesus’ disciples in the original.
Support however poured in for the artist from all quarters, with many well-known personalities -writer Benny Benyamin one among them- airing their views on Emergency-type censorship that curtails an artist’s freedom of expression.
That Benyamin specifically chose to target a few Catholic priests who had protested against the apparent insult to nuns in the painting did not go down well with a section of believers.
Father Joseph Elinjamattom -Chief Editor of Kudumbajyothi magazine- shot off a letter to Benyamin criticizing him which went viral on social media.
The priest while declaring himself to be an ardent admirer of Benyamin’s literary outpourings did not however mince words when he took on the popular novelist for portraying all Catholic priests as sexual predators.
“If for the sake of his family, the goat-herder (from Benyamin’s blockbuster novel ‘Goat Days’) can abstain from sex for 11 months spent in the Gulf as the bread-winner, a Catholic priest does not need your (Benyamin’s) advice to remain chaste all throughout the year for the sake of God and the devout,” Fr. Elinjamattom thundered.
He was also quick to point out that had Manorama extended the scope of artistic freedom of expression to include other religions, not all the water in the Meenachil River would suffice Kerala’s Fire Force to extinguish the subsequent explosion of criticism that would come its way.
Father Elanjimattom also took potshots at the popular writer for acting as a stooge for Manorama, hinting at some sort of a mutually beneficial relationship between Benyamin and the regional publishing giant.
He even went to the extent of issuing a subtle threat on the lines of how easy it would be to fix a price for Benyamin’s head on the lines of what Salman Rushdie had to face, post publication of the ‘Satanic Verses’.
Maintaining the same superficial tone of friendliness that the priest bestowed on him in the letter, Benyamin was quick to post a rejoinder on Facebook on Wednesday.
Benyamin wittily reiterated that it would any day be better to be killed for standing by what one said, rather than die in passing with a coconut falling on one’s head. He did not also forget to remind the priest of the Catholic Church’s barbaric past in persecuting the heretics in the Middle Ages in this regard.
The writer drew Fr. Elanjimattom’s attention to the fact that he had in no way painted all the priests in the Catholic Church as sexual perverts, but had spoken of only those who chose to be so, despite taking the vow of chastity before God and man.
“Such doublespeak is what I spoke about…the disparity between words and action,” Benyamin wrote, specifically mentioning about the Sister Abhaya murder case in this regard.
“For how many such victims have you written editorials in support or sought justice….if you had spent even a fraction of the time that you have spent in celebration on the social media blasting me, they would at least have remembered you in their prayers,” Benyamin thundered right back.
He also asked the priest why he had not protested when similar works of art (both literary and otherwise) taking supposed digs at Christ and Christianity were published in the past, and are still available to readers and viewers alike.
Had he done so -Benyamin quips- Fr. Elanjimattom would have had no time for anything else but a string of protests on the streets. He also believes had the painting been left to itself, it would hardly have garnered any attention it had now, thanks to the concerted efforts of the priest and his supporters.