She stands tall and proud, 10 arms raised in battle-readiness. Despite her benign expression, each hand holds a weapon as she towers over the demon Mahishasura whom she has vanquished. Her graceful form is made of pliant clay - the goddess-in-evolution grows, then acquires drapes of silk or innovative materials.
Such scenes are common in the crowded bylanes of Kumartulli in Kolkata, where local artisans create thousands of 'protimas' (images) of the mother goddess for the annual Durga Puja, an intense, weeklong, socio-cultural celebration that transcends religion or community.
The scene is replicated at dozens of venues in Chennai, Bangalore or Hyderabad, where the Bengali community congregates to celebrate the festival to the resounding beat of the dhaak (drum), the fragrance of incense at the evening arati (puja), and the crisp rustle of handloom saris.
Images of the goddess and the rituals surrounding Durga Puja are etched on the nation's collective psyche. And over time, hundreds of photographers have documented the making of the Kumartulli images. And yet, when "The Greenroom of the Goddess" - a black-and-white photo-essay on the theme by Kolkata-based photographer, publisher, and theatre person Naveen Kishore - opened at an upmarket lifestyle store in Bangalore recently, it was forced to close within a week.
What happened? Reliable sources reveal that a dozen well-dressed men who visited the show objected to the "inadequately draped" depiction of the goddess as "offensive" to their religious sensibilities. They demanded that 15 of Kishore's 29 frames be withdrawn, effectively bringing the show to a close.
The store, which had earlier exhibited Kishore's photographs on another theme, had also displayed outstanding photographic essays by Ketaki Sheth, Dayanita Singh and Pallon Daruwala.
What does this radical reaction portend? Does it spell a throwback to the 1996 storming of the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, sparked by a 20-year old rendition of Saraswati in the nude, during which 16 of the 26 M F Husain originals were burnt? Or the continuing saga of rightist morality being superimposed on contemporary Indian culture - a morality glimpsed more often in Mumbai and New Delhi than in the Indian south?
"What I feel is numbness, in the way you can hear silence in a vacuum. I feel resignation and sadness. Extreme exhaustion," says Kishore, a self-confessed amateur photographer, the spirit behind Seagull Books, known for its quality publishing.
As a photographer, Kishore sees possibilities through a camera lens: "Of fragments, of moments, of whimsies, of memories that images trigger in me on a daily basis. That's all." Of the artisan's clothing casually draped over the image. Of idols stockpiled by the riverside, recycled by urban urchins, or the debris from the immersion. Just visuals triggered when novelist Amit Chaudhuri was exploring the idea of an essay on the transformation of Kolkata during the Pujas, a few years ago.
How do creative people respond to these private intrusions into public spaces? Noted writer-activist Mahasweta Devi reacts spontaneously: "It's all part of what the establishment is trying to do. I think we should resist fundamentalism in every form."
Referring to her recent candidature for the position of President of the Sahitya Akademi, the feisty Mahasweta Devi adds, "Do you know what canards were being spread in this context? That the Akademi is being taken over by the Marxists, the communists, the leftists! I think there should be all-India protests about every infringement of our basic freedom."
Husain, amidst his 'Theorama' series that depicts nine religions and humanity at large, veers vehemently in another direction: "This has nothing to do with religious sentiments. It's all petty politics. These elements want attention. We should ignore them, just as history will."
What of others who use photography as an artistic tool? Says Bangalore-based Pushpamala N, "It's the first time this has happened in Bangalore. I think the intention behind this completely irrational act is to create an atmosphere of fear in which fundamentalism can grow. After all, it's just a year to the elections."
Seagull Theatre Quarterly's editor Anjum Katyal, who has lived in Kolkata for many years, has another view. "Immorality is an imported, perhaps Victorian, notion. Culturally, we've been traditionally very comfortable with nudity/nakedness. These images have been created in the same way for over a century, with an armature fleshed out, covered with paint and cloth. Don't these elements, who are basically ignorant of our religious practices, realize that the image is not a goddess until a puja (prayer) invests it with divine powers?"
How does Bangalore-based Balan Nambiar, a National Award winning artist and researcher into ritual performing arts of the Indian west coast, enter the ongoing debate? "Throughout history," he says, "Chola and Pallava bronzes of goddesses used for worship were depicted bare-breasted, never with a covered torso. And 'abhishekams' (worship) were conducted on these figures."
Balan adds, "In Indian mythology, even the goddess Saraswati was always depicted with her breasts bare." Saraswati symbolises learning, literature and music.
Is Puritanism, then, replacing the wisdom of our Puranas? Has Indian society lost sight of the creative latitude it once embraced, including self-portraiture through nudes that generated wide-scale public debate? Have we daubed messy fingerprints on the lens of our times?
Even as the debate over such censorship "not by the law" rages, we have a few choices. To stand up and protest. To turn away and ignore those who espouse the right of might, whether political or pecuniary. Or to form coalitions of conscience to safeguard the freedom of expression invested in each Indian individual by the Constitution.
Aren't these the fundamental norms on which Indian art thrived for centuries? Will our self-appointed moral brigade take time off to study our rich cultural ancestry? How will history gauge us in retrospect? Whether as artists, photographers, viewers or those engaged in the commerce of art, our time starts now.