Events arise from time to time that compel us to look beyond their fleeting news value. The controversy around the award conferred by the Kerala Lalithakala Academy on K. K. Subhash for his cartoon titled "Faith saves" is clearly one such. The alleged offence is that the cartoon caricatures a bishop and his crook, a quaintly anachronistic symbol of episcopal authority.
A basic question in this regard: "Whose grievance is this?" Obviously, the grievance is aired by the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council. But, does it also echo the sentiments of the Christian community in Kerala? A second question pertains to the genre in which this alleged offence is encased. A cartoon is a cartoon, after all. Cartoons are not exercises in piety! It is not the work or duty of a cartoonist to fence the Mexican border of popular piety or episcopal gravity. His task is to prick the bubbles of pretensions so that the hypocritical visages emerge into public view. Caricature is an art of irreverence. His work assumes significance only because there are sentiments and hypocrisies that need to be hurt. The crucial question, therefore, is if a cartoonist should be free to exercise the irreverent, creative freedom that is the essence of his art. Should we allow artistic freedom be shackled by the forebodings of the religious elite?
This last question needs to be engaged with also because it is of supreme importance from the perspective of biblical spirituality as well. Human freedom is at the core of the biblical faith. Jesus Christ came to set the captives free. Death on the cross was the price he paid for human freedom. So, one thing is clear. No symbol of the church can bedistanced from human freedom and used as an alibi for suppressing creativity, which is the purest form of freedom. It is a blasphemous abuse of Christianity to turn it into an alibi for suppressing freedom. The allergy to freedom of expression smacks of the tyrannical, which is also, ironically, the justification of the need for caricature. So, in the very process of turning against the present cartoonist the KCBC lends additional value to his work of art.
The KCBC bestirs itself in the defence of the bishop's crook. It is its business to do so. But the KCBC is laughably deluded if it assumes that the crook needs to be defended only against cartoonists and the alleged enemies of religion - a formulation ominously reminiscent of the Sangh Parivar rhetoric in the wake of Sabarimala - in the form of Communists. In strange times like ours, the crook may have to be defended -which is perhaps the point the cartoonist makes- also from the bishops who wield it. To assume otherwise is to be wilfully blind to the glaring historical truth that the foremost enemies of Christian religious symbols have been Christians themselves. Only Christians can drain their symbols of truth and meaning, and make them a quarry for cartoonists. From the Bible, to the cross, to the rites, to the vestments, to symbols of spiritual authority, Christians have cheapened nearly all of them over the decades.
Consider, if you are not convinced, this very commonplace thing. There are scores of Christian colleges in Kerala. They sport crosses as identity marks. Nearly all of them also abound in corruption. I have no doubt at all that the cross is desecrated by being placed on these institutional buildings, given what they symbolise to the general public. In comparison the extent to which a cartoonist can belittle the cross is insignificant. What the protesting bishops overlook is the fact the people -unlike priests and prelates- see a cartoon only as a cartoon, and not as a theological or communal treatise! The bishops, by failing to see the dividing line between art and reality, caricature themselves! Especially so, when they are a silent party to the caricaturing of the faith itself, which is the reality to which this cartoon draws attention. In doing so, the cartoonist has, in my opinion, done a service to the Christian community.
It is deeply disappointing that the government of Kerala has buckled under episcopal pressure. Kerala Lalithakala Academy is an autonomous body. By dictating a re-consideration of the award, the government has incurred an indefensible interference in a domain where it has no expertise, or business, to intervene. The cartoon in question was selected for the award by a three-member independent jury. Is the sense of artistic merit to be fine-tuned to the political ad hocism of the government? If experts are treated in this fashion, which self-respecting person will venture to serve on such juries in future? The statement by Fr. Varghese Vallikkatt, the KCBC spokesperson, that the church is protesting only because the awarding body is a government institution is meant to showcase the clout of the bishops with the government.
Unwittingly he admits that the issue is not the sanctity of the episcopal crook, but the quasi-governmental status of the awarding agency. This is condemnable. Unless Fr. Vallikkatt is able to prove that the members of the jury acted as per a governmental nod, he needs to withdraw his statement.
A word about 'hurting the religious sentiments of the people' as alleged by KCBC. It is dishonest to claim that the KCBC has monopoly over the religious sense and sensibility of Kerala Christians. None of the church organs is democratic. They have no margin for accommodating 'people's sentiments'. Most church leaders live isolated from the lives and struggles of fellow Christians. They come out of their splendid hideouts when their interests are felt to be at risk. This is not the first time that a Christian religious symbol figures in a cartoon. We have rarely had bishops protesting against such'abuses' by cartoonists. We have to wait a while to decide for ourselves if it is the cartoonist or Franco Mulakkal who has desecrated the crook.
Until this issue is settled by the court, the KCBC has no right to militate against the award, or the government any excuse for eroding creative freedom to oblige church oligarchs. If consulted, Christians by and large might say, "Well, let this award be shared between the cartoonist and those who make Christianity itself a goldmine for cartoonists."
(The writer is former principal of St Stephen’s College, Delhi)...