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regular-article-logo Saturday, 13 April 2024

BOOKS, SHELVED: Photographer Rohit Chawla's latest exhibition puts a spin on books and the cancel culture

The books, which are actually wooden blocks with the reimagined covers, were displayed on a shelf with yellow tape crisscrossing it as at a crime scene; the only difference, the itinerant word 'BANNED' all over the tape

Paromita Sen Published 25.02.24, 07:47 AM
POSE COMPOSE: Rohit Chawla (bottom, right) with some of the book covers he has reimagined.

POSE COMPOSE: Rohit Chawla (bottom, right) with some of the book covers he has reimagined. Photo, courtesy Chawla

What is the link between Alice in Wonderland, Black Beauty and The Adven-
tures of Huckle-berry Finn
? That they are all children’s classics? Yes, but also that all three were banned at one time or another. What about prescribed texts such as Of Mice and Men, Doctor Zhivago and A Farewell to Arms? Banned again.

Black Beauty, the story of a beautiful black horse, was once banned in South Africa. “During the apartheid regime, black could simply not be beautiful,” says photographer and visual artist Rohit Chawla, whose latest installation, Banned, was part of The Art of India 2024 show, which recently concluded at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre.

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For the installation, Chawla has reimagined the covers of 30 banned books. So, Alice in Wonderland features a Black girl on the cover and Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis has a photograph of a girl veiled in her own hair. The photo is part of a project Chawla created as tribute to Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for opposing the mandatory hijab in Iran and died in custody. There are also the men in uniform led by a pig in Animal Farm; an Indian girl with a red heart-shaped balloon on the beach for Lolita and a close-up of an eye for 1984, which spoke of Big Brother watching.

The books, which are actually wooden blocks with the reimagined covers, were displayed on a shelf with yellow tape crisscrossing it as at a crime scene; the only difference, the itinerant word “BANNED” all over the tape.

“I have always been fascinated with book covers and have done many conceptual covers,” says Chawla, who has shifted from a long career in advertising to journalistic photography.

He continues, “I have no illusions that what I do will change the world but all of us need to keep reminding ourselves of what is important. People will always find reasons to get affronted if they choose to get affronted, our job as artists is to always make an oblique comment on things we see around us.”

Talking of affronts, Lewis Carroll’s Alice was banned by a school in the US in 1900 for seemingly undercutting the authority of adults and again in the 1930s in Hunan in China for its “distasterous” depiction of human-like animals. And as recently as 2015, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was banned in Philadelphia in the US, for using the N-word.

Says Chawla, “This need to be politically correct is, at times, completely hypocritical; there has to be a pushback. Everybody needs to be politically incorrect, what is the fun in being politically correct.” He adds, “Even the spaces for artists in which we can say what we need to say is shrinking. So when you find an opportunity you take it. Banned is such an opportunity.”

The reason he did Banned, he explains, was to bring back to public memory certain bans. “I thought it was the right time to broach this topic since this is a time when we are afflicted by a sense of censorship. People are very careful about what they say in public, even what they write on social media, because one such post can become the reason for your undoing.”

A good portion of the classics that are part of Chawla’s installation — Sophie’s Choice, A Clockwork Orange, Fear of Flying, Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover — were banned for their graphic description of sex. “With the luxury of time upon us, we find the literary bans so ridiculous. In the same way, what we see as cancel culture today will be laughable some time in the future,” says Chawla. He goes on, “In today’s world of 24x7 access to pornography, imagine banning Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” While D.H. Lawrence’s novel depicts the physical relationship between the eponymous character and her groundsman, it is also a comment on class, its privileges and deprivations.

With time and ever-altering contexts, the logic behind a ban is often lost. But Chawla takes it a step further. He says, “This banning nonsense has to stop. If you are affronted, don’t watch the film, don’t read that book, don’t listen to that comedian. Why do you have to ban them?”

And if the installation can induce even one curious person of the current generation to pick up a book and be introduced to the joy of reading, that would be a bonus.

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