KATHMANDU, SEP 12 -
In what could perhaps be the first-ever blasphemy charge against works of art in Nepal, a young artist has received death threats from activists of the World Hindu Federation (WHF).
A group led by one Hem Bahadur Karki, a member of the WHF, on Tuesday threatened Manish Harijan, 27, at the Siddhartha Art Gallery at Babarmahal here for “outrageous portrayals” of Hindu gods. Harijan’s solo exhibition is on since August 22. The exhibition that has 11 works by Harijan on display has several images of deities, which the artist has blended with images of Western superheroes, the ‘Ghost Rider’ and Superman.
For instance, a painting titled “The Ghost Rider in Buddha” has images of the Buddha along with a torch in flames emitted by the ‘Ghost Rider’s’ skull. Another picture titled “Super Nataraj” has an image of a darkly coloured figure standing as Lord Shiva. The person in the image, wearing the Superman’s costume and resembling Shiva through its posture, carries a pistol on one hand and a lotus on the other.
“This is just a portrayal of Western influence in Eastern culture,” Harijan said. “There is nothing to be offended about it.” According to him, the “outrageous” portrayal of Shiva or any other deity is aimed at showing how deformities have started to cripple oriental philosophies.
However, what Harijan claims to be a reality-based showcase of existing Nepali society, has not gone down well with WHF activists.
A dozen men led by Karki stormed the exhibition and asked for the artist. “When I showed up, they first charged me with blasphemy and then started issuing life threats,” said Harijan.
Karki, a former colonel of the Nepal Army, had filed a case at the District Administration Office (DAO) last Friday, demanding that the expo be stopped and the artist be arrested. “The way our gods have been depicted is totally offensive,” a statement filed at the DAO read. The statement said Harijan’s portrayal of the Hindu goddess Kali in miniskirts and Hanuman carrying a bottle of alcohol is “abuse of freedom of expression”.
However, the WHF refused to own up the matter and said it was not the Federation’s decision to take any action against the art exhibition. “This could be a personal action taken by any member of our group,” said Nil Prasad Bhandari, the Chairman of the Nepal Chapter of the WHF. Police and DAO officials reached the gallery a couple of hours after the incident, which took place at 2 pm. “Investigations are on,” said DSP Dhiraj Pratap Singh, the Spokesperson of the Kathmandu Metropolitan Police Range. “We have padlocked the gallery and issued a notice to its owner to be present at the DAO at 1 pm on Wednesday.” Asked to explain the threats received by the artist, Singh said police were not “officially communicated about it.”
Meanwhile, artists in Kathmandu have taken serious exception to the charges of blasphemy. “This is a blatant attack on the freedom of expression,” said artist Asmina Ranjit. “People can interpret a work of art in any way they like and if they fail to appreciate the intended meaning, they can bring in their views to the discourse. But threatening an artist with death for a work of art cannot be justified under any circumstances.”
After we committed not to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments, the CDO agreed to reopen the gallery,” said Sangita Thapa, the curator. “Our intention is never to hurt the sentiments of Hinduism or any other religion. The exhibition will resume on Friday.” Chief District Officer (CDO) Chudamani Sharma said the agreement was reached after the artist and the owner of the gallery convinced the administration that “the paintings were purely works of art and meant no offence.” However, the administration is yet to look into Harijan’s safety concerns after the alleged death threats. In his paintaings, Harijan has blended images of Hindu deities with Western ‘superheroes.’
Meanwhile, artists staged a sit-in at the DAO on Thursday. Over 100 artists and their supporters were later removed from the DAO premises “due to security concerns.” Under the surveillance of around two dozen police personnel, the protesters moved 500 metres away from the DAO. “An artist has every right to think his/her way,” said Nicole Thakuri, a Swiss-Nepali art lover, at the sit-in. “Tomorrow they may bar you from singing certain music and then the same on poetry and fiction. How far will it go anyway?”