Opinionista Kalim Rajab 4 November 2013

Zapiro Ganesha cartoon: the equality of taking offence

The nation’s favourite cartoonist has once again managed to incur someone’s wrath. Added to his growing list of those who will not be sending him a Christmas card - to go with President Zuma, Muslims upset by his Prophet Mohammed cartoon and Julius Malema - are members of the Hindu community who view his latest cartoon featuring the deity Ganesha as distasteful.

My first thought upon seeing the Zapiro cartoon was that it was a irreverent parody of the popular adventure of my childhood, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in which the much-loved 1930s hero is trapped by the hypnotised, knife-wielding Amrish Puri who wants to sacrifice him to the dark Goddess Kali.

It’s a ghoulish scene which an entire generation of us grew up on, full of the symbols – horribly dated now and very colonial – which for many years were associated with Orientalism and with India – as a place full of mysticism, ancient wonder, spice and intrigue. The film has curiously never suffered from major criticism from Hindu or Indian groups – but then Kali (the goddess of time and change but also of destruction) is very different to Ganesha, who is a sacred deity to millions of Hindus and revered as the remover of obstacles. By so prominently using Ganesha as a wicked, wealth-obsessed metaphor for the BCCI, Zapiro has run the risk of upsetting large segments of the Indian community.

Looking at the cartoon again, I do think that it was an unfortunate choice of deity and fully expect Hindus to voice their concerns, as they have done. I also look forward to the planned demonstration in Durban by the Hindu Youth Movement. Peaceful demonstrations are an important part of our constitutional framework; as much as drawing a cartoon, however offensive, equally is. A lot of discussion to date has tended to focus on the limits of the freedom of expression privilege that we enjoy as South Africans, and of the need to balance artistic freedoms with responsibility. But while this is a valid debate to have, I think it also important to consider the role of the artist as a social commentator in society because this should also shape our reaction to the cartoon.

Artists (and particularly satirists, which Zapiro is) are there to provoke, to push the boundaries, to ask the uncomfortable questions – because this is ultimately how we move forward as a society. While we debate Zapiro’s imagery in this country, it’s worth considering that away from our shores a similar issue is playing out.

In India, the subject of who can lay claim to sacred Hindu goddess imagery and for what reasons, has also been stirring rising discussion recently. Amidst a series of barbarically brutal gang rapes which have played out across the country, a group of female artists are invoking “goddess power” by releasing an “Abused Goddesses” campaign to highlight the vulnerability of women.

In the campaign, photographs of women dressed according to depictions of Hindu goddesses have been marred by bruises and open wounds. It’s a pretty disturbing image. “Pray that we never see this day,” reads the text. “Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

Both the Zapiro cartoon and the “Abused Goddesses” campaign share many things in common. On the one hand, they have both offended many Hindus with there being calls to censor both pieces of art. But on another, deeper level, they share a common basis of using religion as a way to make a social comment about something disturbing happening in their respective societies.

The intention behind both sets of art is worth highlighting. In South Africa, the capitulation of Cricket South Africa to the BCCI’s bullying tactics is a classic test of the power of money over principles which has important implications for our democracy as we battle with insidious corruption. Indeed, it is seen as an omnipotent god, bestowing and curtailing favour at will to its sycophants. In India, the abuse of women is a scourge which highlights how riven the society is by misogyny.

So ultimately, while it was an unfortunate choice of symbol, I don’t believe that Zapiro made use of Ganesha in order to belittle Hindus, or to degrade their religion. My maternal Hindu ancestry is not offended by Zapiro, although I can understand how others may feel differently. While I respect the right of such people to criticise him fully, my personal viewpoint is similar to how I felt when Zapiro pushed the envelope with the Prophet Mohammed cartoon – that our community should show that we are capable of receiving genuine social comment without thinking that our God is under attack. The God of my faith is far too resolute for that. DM

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