By Manoj Patnaik : Few know that the enfant terrible of the modern colonial literature, Sir Vidia Naipaul visited Bhubaneswar and Puri as part of his research on South Indian temple architecture. His visit was brief but his observation on the erotic sculpture he witnessed in the Orissan temples was very much his style, offensive and insightful. “These cannot be the people who created this” he said, which brings us to the heart of Orissan sexuality. It is a paradox which many before and after Naipaul have found difficult to understand.
How in the midst of all this wonderful prurience of art and architecture, can society be so prudish? Eroticism in Orissan temples is the ultimate wet dream of the architectural fraternity. Most temples have depiction of erotica in some form but none as explicit as the graphic beauty of the Sun Temple at Konark. Straight sex, lesbian and gay sex, animalism, orgies, in every conceivable posture and combination, is frozen in luxuriant detail for posterity on its walls.
Yet the average Oriya is anything but sexually liberated. Not that sexual activity is limited; witness the density of population, nor that Orissans are sexual conformists considering the frequent eruption of sex scandals covering every form of sexual deviance, but none of this is open. A friend from the North East who visited Orissa a decade back, quipped, “this seems like a sleepy place but there is a lot of hanky-panky (sic) going on beneath the surface”. Apparently, he was offered everything from a tantric read sex massage at a Bhubaneswar salon where he went for a haircut to gay sex at the beach in the pilgrim town of Puri.
Orissa’s past is strewn with many pointers to a more mature approach to sex. Geeta Govindam the great Sanskrit treatise on love that elevates the physical to the sublime originated in eleventh century Orissa. Orissan literature can be traced back to Charya Sahitya in the tenth century AD. This poetry was steeped in tantra, a form of worship where sexual intercourse plays a key role. It is rife with sexual metaphors drawn from the existing social milieu.
This style of expression was revived by the Oriya poets of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in the Shringara Kavyas. Verbal jugglery, obscenity and eroticism became the trend of the period. Yet here we are barely a hundred years down the line with sex practically a submerged entity disguised as epic and convention in literature and society. In spite of its strong moorings in sexuality, modern Oriya society is inhibited about sex. Everyone does it, no one talks about it.
Recorded history unfortunately does not provide us with the missing link as to where and how the vibrant sexuality of the past sank into torpor. Perhaps the disintegration of the great Hindu kingdoms and the repeated invasions gradually forced society to close up in defense. Over the centuries, a Victorian hypocrisy seems to have blanketed all expression and debate on sex in Oriya society. The purdah took over, men and women were socially segregated, sex became taboo. Civilized society banished sexual discourse and it slunk back into bedrooms and bordellos.
A notable exception to this prudery was Orissa’s tribal society. A fourth of the state’s population lived in an open liberated environment where pre marital sex and sexual choice was the norm. Yet strangely this healthy attitude to sex does not seem to have impacted the mainstream. Instead of embracing it, Orissan society seems to have looked down on such so-called `promiscuity’.
Oriyas have however shown a surprising tolerance of the high and mighty by passing sexual convention. Some of Orissa’s most powerful politicians have been embroiled in sex scandals that threw up questionable sexual orientations. Yet they were forgiven and remained in public life. Society is generally not so lenient with the boy and girl next door.
The metrosexual culture has still not touched the shores of Orissa. Pre marital sex, live in relationships and promiscuity are frowned upon. While the third sex is tolerated as an oddity, same sex relationships are unacceptable. This is because Orissa does not have the acceptance and anonymity of a cosmopolis. Bhubaneswar is Orissa’s only shot at a metro. The vast majority of young Oriyas is still out there groping, sometimes literally.
The twenty first century has brought the sexual revolution to the new generation Oriya. The net has opened up a whole new world to the gen next. Young Oriyas are surfing the net, blogging, chatting, gaming and dating. They are bolder, more open and more vocal about intermixing yet sex remains the great unacknowledged fact of life.
This is because Orissa’s new age sexuality is a morph. Today’s evolving sexuality owes much to education, women’s empowerment, changing gender equations and shrinking barriers in the work space but it is nevertheless a culturally alien concept. It has no link to Orissa’s sexual heritage. It has lost its past and is yet to find its future. But it is getting there.
( Author is Citizen Journalist from Odisha )