September 14, 2012
This week Manish Harijan, a young Nepali painter, whose newest work is mounted in a one-man show at Kathmandu’s Siddhartha Art Gallery, received death threats from representatives of the World Hindu Federation (WHF). On display were several Hindu deities who had been visually reinterpreted with contemporary influences including comic book heroes.
Twelve men led by Hem Bahadur Karki, a member of the WHF, stormed the opening of Harijan’s exhibition, confronted Harijan, accused him of blasphemy and “started issuing life threats”, according the artist.
The Kathmandu Post reported:
Karki, a former colonel of the Nepal Army, had filed a case at the District Administration Office (DAO) last Friday, demanding that the expo be stopped and the artist be arrested. “The way our gods have been depicted is totally offensive,” a statement filed at the DAO read. The statement said Harijan’s portrayal of the Hindu goddess Kali in miniskirts and Hanuman carrying a bottle of alcohol is “abuse of freedom of expression”.
However, the WHF refused to own up the matter and said it was not the Federation’s decision to take any action against the art exhibition. “This could be a personal action taken by any member of our group,” said Nil Prasad Bhandari, the Chairman of the Nepal Chapter of the WHF. Police and DAO officials reached the gallery a couple of hours after the incident, which took place at 2 pm. “Investigations are on,” said DSP Dhiraj Pratap Singh, the Spokesperson of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Range. “We have padlocked the gallery and issued a notice to its owner to be present at the DAO at 1 pm on Wednesday.” Asked to explain the threats received by the artist, Singh said police were not “officially communicated about it.”
After viewing Harijan’s portrait of Kali, it is this author’s view that the artist is merely exploring the extent to which contemporary culture has impacted Hindu culture.
Traditionally, Kali is depicted either in her peaceful or wrathful form, the latter being by far the most popular. In this incarnation, Kali’s eyes are described as red with intoxication, and in absolute rage, her hair is shown disheveled, small fangs sometimes protrude out of her mouth, and her tongue is lolling. She is often shown naked or just wearing a skirt made of human arms and a garland of human heads. She is also accompanied by serpents and a jackal while standing on a seemingly dead Shiva.
It’s difficult to find a Kathmandu street catering to tourism that doesn’t have Kali’s portrait for sale, either in postcard or poster size. By comparison, Harijan’s version seems quite mild. If one were trying to make a case for blasphemy – and I am not – I would think that the only argument would be that Harijan’s Kali is not outrageous enough.
And in any case, threatening to kill Manish Harijan, the artist, is far more unsettling than his contextually justifiable art.
As Axel Plathe, Head of the UNESCO Office in Kathmandu commented several days ago: “The right to freedom of expression must also apply to artistic expression. Tension that may arise between artistic creation and religious and ethical values should be openly discussed instead of becoming subject of intimidation or even death threat to the artist.”
I applaud Harijan’s right to visually explore 21st century influences on Hinduism, just as I applaud Sangeeta Thapa , Siddhartha Art Gallery’s director, for her many years of courageously providing Nepal’s best young artists with a very handsome venue in which to display their work.