The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sex, society & sensibility

From being a treatise held in awe, read with furtive interest and gifted with aplomb, the Kamasutra suddenly got a new surge in sexplicity with a national initiative by the Oxford Bookstore. A series of five events under the banner of “Reading Kamasutra” rapidly found the dust-jackets back on coffee table books on the Kamasutra, just as much as it saw the dusting away of prim veneers to reveal a society hungry to discuss, dessicate and, uh, just do it.

“You cannot keep sexuality under wraps any longer,” was the way Maina Bhagat, consultant to the Oxford Bookstore, put it. Having crafted this quintet of awareness sessions that had authors, actresses, theatre and film personalities, journalists, advertising specialists — a wide spectrum of Calcutta’s cognoscenti as participants and presenters — it fulfilled a two-fold objective, she felt. The need to give it an informative and need-based stance and also to provide targeted material.

It perhaps did much more. For what did take place was a scintillating and steamy set of sessions which saw groups of gawking audiences asking a lot of brazen questions and receiving equally forthright feedback on matters of — shhh — infidelity, foreplay, pre-marital romps, post-marriage anxieties, homosexuality, molestation and who got more satisfaction out of sex: man or woman. But more than bandying around statistics (including the one that talked about Calcuttans having the highest incidence of promiscuity from amongst all metros) the discussions provided some unstoppered nuances of sex and sensuality. Hushed whispers gave way to bold outbursts. And at social gatherings where we went to post the events, when asked what one was busy with at the moment, and the answer was “sexual interludes”, people would perk up and want to eagerly talk about that three-letter word.

So, when Janet Fine, an American writer who has specialised as a journalist in international cinema, but also equally writes extensively on sexual issues, launched Lazzat un Nisa: The Pleasure of Woman, there was an arousal once more of an interest in this 19th century erotic manuscript, complete with positional illustrations in the style of the Kamasutra. Fine, who lives with equal facility in the US, Egypt and India, is currently based in Mumbai’s Colaba, and has created a sort of Soho, which she calls Coho — the Colaba-Cuffe Parade beat, where performances are held from gallery to gallery. The book, which has been rendered into English from an ancient Persian and Urdu text, is naughty and playful and the translator talks of the manuscript “being attributed with a special magical sexual alchemistry to excite passion and sensuality”. It is a kind of Chaucerian tale where the narrator is the most virile man in the court of a Raja from the Deccan Plateau in the Islamic year of 1296, a man called Harichand, who journeys forth and does a discovery of lovemaking in its most erogenic aspects.

But we shall go no further. Taken out of context, what is winsomely wicked could sound puerile. But it certainly stimulated discussion that went into the depths of exploring the Mahabharata, which, one panellist thought, comprised some of the most stunning departures from sexual norms of our society. Where polygamy, polyandry, yakshas, gandharvas, courtesans, dasis, pleasure-slaves abound. The audience grew bolder by the minute and even went into discussions of whether oral sex was safe, not whether it was an aberration. The extent of opening up was most evident in the session for teenagers, where the panel did not look upon homosexuality as unnatural but a matter of genes and a question of choice.

The Kamasutra, at the end of the day, ceased to be the shock-and-awe text that it had been perceived as by many people present. A well-known yoga exponent who has been attending these sessions revealed how he insists that his students focus on the four most important texts that our civilisation has thrown up —Manusmriti; Kautilya’s Arthashastra; Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra and Patanjali’s Yogasutra — spanning the gamut of dharma-artha-kama-moksha. In fact, he had no problems with his daughter attending the sessions.

The concluding session was amazingly crafted and entitled “Acts of Seduction; Words of Love”. The selections from prose, poetry and plays were handpicked to depict how their authors have made sex beautiful, not pornographic. Rendered more dramatic with the use of candlelight in some parts, there were pieces from the Bible, Omar Khayyam, John Donne to readings from Anais Nin set to Ravel’s Bolero, strains from the Phantom of the Opera and even bits from Lolita set to music. A book entitled The Sound of the Kiss got its launch at the same time. You could say this was a multi-genic lift-off for the whole sex and sensuality awareness series, one that took some of the conferring from voyeuristic to value-based. Not lust, but literature at its leavened best.

What the series of parleys did was to make for clearing away the cobwebs of societal norms, opening up areas of non-judgmental thinking and paving the way for an easier access to consideration and contemplation of matters relating to sex, marriage, the art or act of living together in or out of wedlock; the nuances of lovemaking.

A new version of the Kamasutra, freshly translated by Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar, got an airing. The 50-odd pages of introduction to this version is probably what lifts it to new heights of empathetic scholarship where the translator-authors describe the Kamasutra as “a play in seven acts”— a work of dramatic fiction, as “part of a literary climate during the first six centuries of the common era when the erotic was associated with all that was bright, shining and beautiful in the ordinary world”.

According to the new duo, the Kamasutra combines all imaginable aspects of sex with a closely observed sexual psychology and a dramatic, novelistic narrative of seduction, consummation, and disentanglement.” And hence, Sir Richard Burton’s better known version is thought to be to mannered and padded, while the new one brings out the objective through vivid, sexually frank English. With a huge pride of place for women. The courtesan de luxe — beautiful, talented, virtuous.

Virtuosity over venality. That is what appeared to emerge from the talks. Altered attitudes, from prudish to prurient, from a previous reticence to a surge for revelation. Suddenly, everywhere the shelves are full of How To manuals. No longer the scare of ungainly sexual positions which only a sextosaur could perform. Here’s to a new look at sexth sense, which could ease the generation and gender gap.

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