Blog by Loveleen Kacker
Spring is in the air. Snowdrops and daffodils are underfoot, the bare branches of trees dotted with tentative buds that will become new leaves and the sun is peeking bashfully behind the last of the water laden winter skies. Nature is bursting with the sap of new life and it was the time for love. So when Dr Alka Pande, art historian, curator and the author of four books on the Kamasutra came to London I had to speak to her about her interest in gender and sexuality for the Cineink podcast series My Book.
The Kamasutra is one of those books that was written by the celibate sage, Vatsyayana in the fourth century but it was not until it was translated and published in English in the west did the world sit up and take notice of this extraordinary book that talks about acrobatic sexual positions, same sex love, courtesans and aphrodisiacs like they are all part of everyday conversation. Alka, the Queen of Erotica, tells us that the Kamasutra is all of this and much more.
The four books by Alka Pande in the Kama traditions in Indian art series are, namely: ‘Al Fresco Kama: Love Under the Open Sky’, ‘Yoga and Kama: The Acrobatics of Love’, ‘The Nayika and Kama: She Takes Her Pleasure’, and ‘The Adulterer and Kama: The Seduction of Illicit Love’. They are published by Speaking Tiger.
The Kamasutra, she says, is a Book of Life. Alka and I sat down to eat cupcakes with pink icing and a cup of coffee to talk about her four books on the Kamasutra for My Book.
The Four Pillars of Life
In Indian culture and thinking an ideal life is a balance of four essentials purusharthas. Dharma or righteousness or living the right life, artha or the creation of wealth, kama or the fulfilment of desires and finally of course, moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. So ancient sages have given kama a place of equal importance as earning a living or living a right life. For a man to live a full and fulfilled life all four pillars are essential. Thus Kamasutra says find the time for pleasure, for the world of soft music and flowers, good food and the moonlight, seek the company of your beloved and if you give kama the same importance as other purusharthas, you will lead a full and fulfilled life.
Gender and Sexuality
Alka tells us that in the Kamasutra the man is the initiator, he sets up the scene, perfects his technique, seduces the virgin and marries her, when bored with his wife he goes to the courtesan and finally, an ageing man resorts to aphrodisiacs and magic spells to enhance his prowess. Kamasutra gives advice on all these things. Listening to Alka, an expert on gender and sexuality I had to ask her that the whole seduction scene seemed stacked in favour of the man. What role, if any, does the woman have in this scene of seduction? After all, men have always used sex to establish their domination and to shame women. You hear of inter-generational family feuds where revenge is taken by inflicting violence upon the woman’s body. Listen to her talk about the centrality of women in the game of sex and love.
Does the Kamasutra thus suggest that ancient Indian woman, who spent hours on shringara, beautifying and adorning herself for her lover and perfecting the forgotten art of seduction, was freer than the modern Indian woman who is seemingly hedged in by endless rules of conduct and behaviour? After a sexual conquest the man struts about with pride but the woman goes down the narrow road of shame. How did these different rules for men and women become so central to the discussions around gender and sexuality? According to Alka, patriarchy has played an enormous role and the growth of an increasingly prudish society.
Kamasutra and Same Sex Love
Hindu mythology is replete with references of same sex love, the Kamasutra affirms and recognises this and there are images depicting same sex relations in several Hindu temples. Not just ancient India even Mughal India was pleasure loving and cross-dressing was not unheard of the courts of Awadh. Wajid Ali Shah himself liked to dress like a woman. In fact, it was the British who first criminalised homosexuality in 1860 and probably started the trend towards prudery that so dominates Indian society today. Though, after a landmark court judgement, India has decriminalised same sex relationships yet they are still grappling with the question of gay marriages.
Kamasutra is a whole web of interpersonal relationships
Freedom of choice is an oft misunderstood phrase. Does anyone have the freedom to go against the set norms of society? Who in society set those norms that are today considered normal? Let us not forget Wendy Doniger and Sudhir Kakar said in their translation of the Kamasutra; Kama means love, sex and pleasure and Sutra means treatise, a scientific work…Kamasutra is a whole web of interpersonal relationships which has an erotic basis. So the game of love should be approached with tenderness, equality and the desire of creating better relationships. On that note Alka and I rode the London Tube to the enormous Waterstones in Piccadilly to breathe in the heady scent of books and watch the sun set over Buckingham Palace, gearing up for the coronation of Charles III and his wife, Camilla, as king and queen of the United Kingdom, once also known for their passionate relationship.
My Book is a Cineink Podcast Series in English about books and their authors with a South Asian touch. Author and Podcaster, Loveleen Kacker is a former Indian Administrative Service Officer based in London. The Series Producers are Achala Sharma and Pervaiz Alam. This podcast was recorded in London in April, 2023.