From Apsara to Jhandu Balm: Vulgarity in the Arts

The story of Shakuntala begins with her beautiful mother, the apsara* Menaka, seducing sage Vishvamitra ­- disrupting his penance and provoking him towards worldly life. The stories of apsaras who are known for their expertise in dance, often playing a role of a seductress, is a recurring theme in South East Asian mythologies. Similarly, including item numbers in Indian cinema is a common theme where a central figure plays the role of the seductress. It can be noted that the seductress while not playing a role of the protagonist is still pivotal to the narrative. Oftentimes, we find that this common theme dangerously falls under the idea of vulgarity.

Vulgarity can be defined as lacking sophistication; or as rudeness; making explicit references to bodily functions. As it is a notion based on emotional responses, it is subject to judgments. This is asserted by the prominent institution which propagates teaching art without vulgarity and clearly distinguishes between cultured and vulgar art. On the other hand, the nature of arts is to encapsulate and reflect society and its perceptions including the tensions surrounding the idea of vulgarity. Any attempt to exclude or censor vulgar art, potentially increases the risk of the loss of vitality and relatability of art to life. Even though the representation of the vulgar in arts is highly disputed, its inclusion remains important.

This edition of Write Art Connect invites essays across disciplines in performing and visual arts, and film studies to confront vulgarity – its varied genres, importance and usage. Essays may include character sketches, idiosyncrasies and stereotypes in performances through history; evolution of performance traditions, which are viewed as crass; the narratives surrounding the obscene and its consumption in the art world. Please submit brief outlines not exceeding 200 words to [email protected] latest by 27th March 2020.

*Celestial Nymph

Header image caption: Krishna Spying on Radha, Date: ca.1780–90, Culture: India (Punjab Hills, Mandi), Taken from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Medium: Ink and opaque watercolor on paper, Classification: Paintings, Credit Line: Gift of Mr.and Mrs.Alvin N.Haas,1977, Accession Number: 1977.443.1