Mr. Raj Shetye. This is my comment on his latest work showcased on Behance, a website, couple of days ago before being taken down as a result of protests starting to pour in. I shall not reproduce here the pictures that have gone viral overnight, as has Mr Shetye’s name (infamy!?).
For those who haven’t yet come upon this man’s creative expression, allow me to describe: Mr Shetye recently showcased his latest addition to his fashion photography portfolio under the title ‘The Wrong Turn’, which shows a female model and a group of 4-5 male models on the background of the interiors of an Indian public bus. The model is dressed in various fashionable ensemble that certainly would leave Haryana’s Khap Panchayats asking “what was she wearing” and not in a fashionably bitchy way or in a ‘I-want-the-name-of-her-label’ way’. She is being handled dirtily by two male models on one row of seats on the bus while in another shot she’s crouching under a male model, his legs astride, a commanding pose. In another, two male models’ muscular arms are seen grabbing her from both sides of an aisle between two adjoining rows of seats. The most evocative accessory the female model has on is the ugly look on her face. She’s scowling like a prey being mauled, molested, manhandled. It doesn’t take even a layman’s thought to wonder why the backdrop of a bus, 4-5 males (man)handling (lascivious looks, suggestive postures) one female who is clearly the opposite of assertive, happy, smiling, protected in her own personal space SHOULD NOT BE connected to Jyoti Singh Pandey’s gangrape on a Delhi bus on a wintry night in December, 2012.
And this is what Mr. Shetye says to Huffington Post, “I have been planning a series of photo shoots around gender insensitivity and this particular photo shoot around sexual violence against women was the first one of those. Dowry, domestic violence, marital rape are some of the other I have been brainstorming over.” This is his explanation of intent.
And, his explanation of intent clearly jars with Buzzfeed to whom Mr. Shetye said that the shoot was not based on the fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012. “But”, and he adds, “Being a part of society and being a photographer, that topic moves me from inside”.
And Mr. Shetye had come prepared, just in case you ended up asking in true Bollywood flair – tumhari maa-behen nahin hai kya (meaning “Don’t you have mother or sisters?” an oft-repeated line mouthed by heroines falling prey to the evil-intentioned villain/his sidekick aimed at evoking sympathy and/or mercy) because he further backs up with, “I stay in a society where my mother, my girlfriend, my sister are out there and something like this can happen to them also.”
You know, when the controversy erupted over M F Husain’s paintings of Mother India and his paintings were trashed in Amdavad ni Gufa, when Hindus globally condemned the appearing of Hindu deities on bikinis and footwear, when the Danish cartoon controversy bloomed, I was nevermore disappointed in artists and citizenry alike. Yes, as artists, we have to push boundaries, question and challenge status quo, yes we have to start dialogues about traditionally held perceptions, cultural posts, etc. But, this is quite unlike any of these issues.
This photoshoot is a twisted take on a person who underwent the worst brutality one can imagine, with her parents still battling the trauma of her traumatic passing, a nation is still mourning in its susceptibility to bristle and protest at all the horrific crimes against women that keep getting reported now and then. As an artist, I think Mr. Shetye approached the subject with a certain thought process but I think he forgot to process the thought as a citizen of the society wherein to put a work up for display in public is to subject the artist and his work to common criteria of acceptability. An artist is entitled to ignoring or even not accepting the plaudits he receives for his creation but an artist, being a human being, owes it to the society to humbly retract if the society roundly rejects his work.
The struggle is always on and the boundaries always appear unfair to the artist, why wouldn’t they! To have the appropriate talent to express a thought be it in writing or in pictures or in music itself entitles one the aura of a creator – it’s a great high. But, to put creation over common sensibilities – art for art’s sake – is bound to jeopardize the balance of respect.
Raj Shetye’s clarification that the shoot was “just a depiction of the situation of women in our country” and not based on the rape just doesn’t quite cut it. The way I see it, and I think we all see something as what kind of person we are, Mr Shetye, when he thinks of fashion, photography, fame, and how to achieve it, thinks of showing men owning a woman’s body. It did not appear to him to show a man being pumelled and assaulted by the rapists for trying to protect his friend, nor did it occur to him to show this man also being thrown off on streets. Because that wouldn’t be interesting (or fashionable), would it!
Find the link here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-28670663
I think if people can be arrested for posting negative and violent comments about politicians (read PM Modi and Mr. Balasaheb Thackeray), this person should be held legally accountable for such lack of taste as to challenge the dignity of a woman who only lives on in our hearts now, to provoke a section of the society, and to misguide people and society in general.