Space of Art
Space of Art
 20 November 2017

Hurdles to freedom are sprouting in every field in India; artistic expression has become a sphere of struggle. Works of art, particularly films and often books, are almost always suspected of offending someone's sensibilities or of being anti-national or even just anti-traditional.

So it is deeply reassuring when the Supreme Court does not merely speak in crystal clear terms of the non-negotiability of the freedom of expression - it is "sacrosanct" - but also leaves no doubt as to the distinct freedom that creativity must be accorded.

The court's remarks about the freedom of speech and expression were made in connection with a plea against the release of a documentary on the life of Arvind Kejriwal. The petitioner, who had once thrown ink at Mr Kejriwal, felt that a sequence in the film could harm his case in court.

The Supreme Court reportedly refused to delete this sequence, saying that courts should be "extremely slow" in passing any restraint order in such situations. If this can be read as a message to all courts in the country, it is possible to hope for fewer bans.

The Supreme Court referred to the "respect" that should be 'allowed' a "creative man" who enjoys producing a book, play, playlet, book on philosophy or any thought expressed on celluloid or in the theatre. The list is important because the court mentioned the various arenas in which the thought police are most active. Visual arts are left out, perhaps because little has happened in that space after the shameful tragedy regarding M.F. Husain.

The most remarkable item on the list is the book on philosophy. The Supreme Court seems to be saying, in effect, that thought is creative - an understanding that is of immeasurable importance for these times.

To foil the repeated claim that all freedoms have limits that the Constitution itself identifies, the Supreme Court underlined the artist's "own freedom" to express himself in a manner which is "not prohibited in law", that is, such prohibitions are not meant to be used "by implication to crucify the rights of [an] expressive mind". The word, "crucify", suggests perfectly the attitude of the dominant dispensation towards artistic and intellectual freedom and its impact on culture.

This is one of the strongest statements upholding creative rights at a time when art and thought are repeatedly attacked because they pose the dangers of insight and criticism. The fear of the transgressive nature of art dictates its repression by forces that cannot bear scrutiny or a different plane of thinking or fulfilment. The Supreme Court's remarks were sorely needed.

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