Unveiling the Muse: Art as Expression and Embodiment in Ka Bodyscapes
In a time and place where a sexual orientation that deviates from what is perceived as “straight” or heteronormative itself raises eyebrows, Ka Bodyscapes (Jayan K Cherian, 2016) sets the touchy subject of queerness within religious and patriarchal frameworks. Centered around three main characters and their friends, the film is bold in its portrayal of gay love between two young men: Harris, a painter, and Vishnu, a kabaddi 1 player. The creativity that Harris expresses through his drawings and paintings intertwines with his sexuality, which he wishes to explore and exhibit. Vishnu is seen struggling at times to find a space in society, represented by his uncle, to the point of concealing what he really wants in life. The burning of Harris’ drawings at an exhibition and the loss of Vishnu to social pressure occur simultaneously. Art as a haven to express his sensitivity is ridiculed and dismissed by society, which triggers feelings of sexual humiliation and a loss of self-determination, with tragic results.
Very few Malayalam films discuss homosexuality. The earliest depiction of homosexuality in Malayalam cinema was in Randu Penkuttikal (Mohan, 1978), followed by Deshadanakkili Karayarilla (Padmarajan, 1986). Released nearly 20 years later, Sancharam (Ligy J Pullappally, 2004) is an offbeat film that traces the trajectory of the emotional and physical relationship between two girls without passing moral judgement. More recent Malayalam films about overt homosexual bonding include My Life Partner (M B Padmakumar, 2004), Rithu (Shyamaprasad, 2009), and Mumbai Police (Rosshan Andrews, 2013). Apart from Sancharam, these are films that have been appropriated by a society-approved heteronormativity. The characters in My Life Partner and Mumbai Police either smother their true identities or lead double lives. These are the alternatives provided by these mainstream films, with characters choosing what is presented as the best recourse available for homosexuals, which does not include leading a way of life enjoyed by heterosexuals. Ka Bodyscapes stands apart from these films by having characters refrain from creating choices for themselves. They do not conform to society’s expectations and Harris refuses to be cowed by the threat of violence masked by the name of propriety.
Ka Bodyscapes presents Harris’ art as an expression and embodiment of his sexuality. His paintings and drawings are exclusively male nudes in various postures. He is an aspiring artist who wishes to exhibit his work and, after months of hard work, finds a perfect opportunity for an exhibition which he names “Ka Bodyscapes.” His landlord frequently visits to remind him that his rent is due and to remove the paintings. Harris remains unapologetic and engages in activism with his fellow non-conformist friends, who are equally dissatisfied with the oppressive patriarchal and parochial status quo. The relationship between Harris and one of these friends, Vishnu, is particularly close, reminiscent of that between Kapila and Devadatta in Girish Karnad’s 1971 play Hayavadana.
Vishnu arrives in Kerala, the south Indian state where the story is set, to work in the graphics department of his uncle’s right wing magazine. Vishnu is rebuked by his uncle for living with Harris, who has a “bad” reputation. Things take a nasty turn when their friend Nisa, hailing from a traditional Muslim background, gets herself embroiled in a situation at her workplace that challenges her patriarchal boss. When one of her co-workers is strip searched to find out who littered the toilet with bloody sanitary pads, she takes the issue to the police and then to a public space, where she exposes a bloodied napkin. The landlord evicts Harris, Vishnu, and Nisa, who by this time has been forced to leave her own house in the name of honour, decency, and propriety. Amidst all this, Harris holds his exhibition, resulting in all his portraits being set on fire in the middle of the night. Harris loses his will to go on. The final scene shows him sitting on a seashore with a flamboyant painting of a nude masculine figure partially resembling Vishnu and Lord Hanuman, as well as a handful of gay literature and a textbook on IPC, in the manner of Lord Hanuman carrying Mritasanjeevani. 2 A group of people arrive, observe the picture, and then throw stones at Harris. Enraged, the fuming Harris strips naked and walks into the sea that is ready to engulf him.
Harris sees art as a liberating force which allows him free to unpologetically explore his sexuality and sexual fantasies without fear of judgement. His friend Vishnu is his model and his muse. Traditionally, the term “muse” is taken from the Greek goddess of creativity, a passive female figure subject to the whims of heterosexual artists. The film, with its desire to subvert traditional icons, transfers the muse-like features to Vishnu. One painting features two figures resembling Vishnu and Harris embrace, which Harris tries to hide from Vishnu, who has not yet completely come to terms with his sexuality. In a country like India where sex and sexuality are taboo, a disease to be stamped out and cured, and a psychological disorder not to be discussed, the film crashes straight into the hearts of those who publicly and secretly aspire for change.
Harris’ attempts to subvert traditional ideas concerning sexual dynamics through his art are constantly circumscribed by society and its institutions. The intrusion of society’s peering eyes is satirized by the Jewish lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz in “they’re always curious” when she writes “they’re always curious about what you eat as if you were/some strange breed still unclassified by Darwin” (Powers of Desire, 228). He has to deal with a society where identity is constructed along the jagged lines of gender rather than sexuality and art helps Harris pursue what his society considers unspeakable. Unlike Harris, Vishnu’s response to society’s homophobia and homosexual panic is to remain closeted, even, to a certain extent, to himself. Harris’ problems suggest that to be an artist is one thing and to be both gay and an artist at once is another. For Harris and Vishnu, their masculine gender identity is culturally assigned to them at birth; with these labels come gender behavior rules dictated by society. Harris’ paintings emphasize the masculine characteristics of the male human body, but the fact that they also reveal the artist’s sexual identity challenges society’s construction of gender roles that adhere to heteronormativity.
In a patriarchal society that has a set of established notions regarding gender roles and considers anything that strays from conventions as diseases or aberrations to be strangled and buried underground, art becomes a form of resistance and survival. Painting, drawing, and exhibiting art become strategies to surmount oppression and erase prejudices. In Ka Bodyscapes, these activities ultimately transform into a battle between one man and the many tangible and intangible forces employed by the dominant heterosexual patriarchy. Harris is distressed over the loss of his creative inspiration and struggles against the destruction of the wall of resistance that he built around himself through his artistic practice. The nude figure of the lost artist disappearing into the crashing waves in this way becomes an act of self-negation.
Nisa’s father, Vishnu’s uncle, and the landlord are defenders of Kerala’s reactionary social politics, seeking to protect traditional male and female gender roles. Vishnu’s uncle takes him to a doctor, reflecting the societal attitude towards homosexuality as an ailment that requires a cure, an attitude that still lingers in contemporary Kerala. This is the context of Ka Bodyscapes, where Harris’ art allows him to create a space for himself in a society dominated by homophobic values. Art is not always about the expression of the unspeakable and the repressed. It can be a comment on the artist’s world, questioning its values, providing new insights and fresh perspectives, and instigating subversive thoughts.
Harris never considers turning away from the art he wants to make and see exhibited, even in the shadow of censorship. The final scene of the movie, in which only the roaring sea is heard in the background, becomes a silent yet emotional outburst against all social, traditional limiting frameworks. The film’s director, Jayan K Cherian, argues that the film’s denouement is open-ended. The film’s title, Ka Bodyscapes, can also be considered ambiguous. The initial scenes of the film have Harris taking photographs of Vishnu playing kabaddi. Harris’ focus is on treating Vishnu’s body parts and postures just as a landscape is treated, offering an alternative title for the film: “kabaddi scapes.” The word “ka” comes from Egyptian culture, referring to the spirit of a person that differentiates the living from the dead. In this sense, “ka” is a person’s vital essence that is unquestionable and irreducible, with the body becoming a metaphorical cultural battlefield. A character in the movie suggests, “we are not just bodies, and that should be proven with our bodies.”
In India, questions related to sexuality have always been discussed in the context of moral codes solidified in works such as Manusmriti. While ancient Hindu texts and scriptures do not approve of same-sex marriage, queerness is mentioned in the Vedas through the tropes of divinity. “Divine beings were depicted as fluid in gender identities and rise above such categorizations which permits heterosexual as well as homosexual liaisons. ‘Ardhanareeswara’ as the halves of Siva and Sakti, Mahavishnu as Mohini, and the birth of Lord Ayyappa as the son of Lord Siva and Mahavishnu (as Mohini) can be mentioned in this context.” (Raj, et al, 42).
Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) was an Indian artist who chose his paintings as the ambit within which he could come out of the closet, particularly in his self-portraits. In You Can’t Please All (1981), he presents a naked man looking out from the balcony of his house. Below him is a depiction of the fable in which a father and son walk a donkey to the market. On their way they encounter people who offer advice on who should ride the donkey. Some suggest that the father should ride the donkey as he is old, while some complain that the father is heavy and will overload the donkey. Often pointed to as the painting with which Khakhar came out of the closet, its message seems to be that no one can please everyone and that it is better to embrace oneself fully. The film’s portrait of Harris, both as an artist and as a human being, is clearly influenced by Khakhar’s example.
Cherian has also compared Harris’ paintings with those of the French actor and artist Roland Caillaux (1905-1977), who is known for the sexually explicit illustrations he drew to accompany Jean Genet’s poetry, 20 lithographs for a book I read (1945). Interestingly, a portrait of Genet can also be seen alongside other drawings by Harris, whose drawings are not just male nudes, but also have homosexual overtones. Harris’ portraits range from single male figures to scenes of two men in amorous embraces. Harris’ art is not only a form of protest against the laws then in place (the film is set at a time when homosexuality and other “unnatural” offences were still illegal under the notorious Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code), but it is his means to claim a space where he can be himself unburdened by social expectations and labels. Harris never says, even once, in the movie that he is gay. Art is his way of asserting his identity as a gay person without using words.
This stance is also reminiscent of the Indian-Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955). When brought up on charges for short stories that included characters who were prostitutes and prominently featured rape, Manto asserted that his stories merely reflected what society nurtured and that there was nothing illegal or immoral in them. Pointing accusing fingers against his work of art only suggests that society is immoral. As a movie that emerged unscathed from its own battle with censorship, Ka Bodyscapes makes viewers think not only about sexual orientation, but also about the concept of personal freedom as expressed in art and the limits placed upon it by society’s oppressive values. While art allows Harris to unveil his muse, the social reality that rains down on him does not let him embrace his Vishnu.
Anandan, S. “On the Angst, before and after ‘Coming Out’.” The Hindu, 02 September, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/ontheangstbeforeandaftercomingout/article19605349.ece. Accessed 03 Feb. 2020.
Burk, Tara. “Sexuality in Art.” AHTR, http://arthistorytechingresources.orf/lessons/sexuality-in-art. Accessed 05 Jan, 2020.
Cooper, Emmanuel. The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West. Routledge, 2005.
Ka Bodyscapes. Directed by Jayan K Cherian. Performance by Jason Chacko, Inner Silence Films, 2016.
Kuriakose, Jijo. “The Continuing Practice of Considering Homosexuality as a Deviance and Misleading Families of Gay Persons.” queerala.org, 23 Aug, 2019, http://queerala.org/the-continuing-practice-of-considering-homosexualit-as-a-deviance-and-misleading-families-of-gay-persons/. Accessed 03 Feb, 2020.
“Nude in Visual Arts.” Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History. Encyclopedia.com. 03 Feb.2020
Raj, Sony Jalarajan., et al. “On the Margins of Heterosexuality! Representation of Queerness in Malayalam Cinema.” Chalachitra Sameeksha, March 2018, www.academia.edu/37276659/On_the_Margins_of_Heterosexuality_Representation_of_Queerness_in_Malayalam_Cinema. Accessed 22 March. 2020.
Snitow, Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell., and Sharon Thompson, editors. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Monthly Review Press, 1983.
- Field team sport popular across south Asia. ↩
- In the epic Ramayana by Maharshi Valmiki, Lord Hanuman searches for a miraculous herb that will save the life of Laxman, brother of Lord Ram. Since he could not identify the herb, he carried the entire mountain (Mritasanjeevani) where the herb could be found back with him. ↩