Yesterday, while scanning a set of disks for a movie to watch, I stumbled upon Utsav. I had bought the movie a couple of years previously on a trip to India but had never got around to watching it. The choice for this Saturday evening seemed to agree with Wife also, so we settled down under a quilt on the sofa, in a dark room suffused with the dim glow of city lights filtering in through the windows.
Early in the movie there’s a scene where Charudatta (played by a youthful Shekar Suman) helps Vasantsena (the alluring Rekha) take off her jewellery. It is a sensual scene, and this is only the beginning; later in the movie we are treated with a bathing ritual that begins with a mud bath and then has Charudatta slowing exploring the contours of Vasantsena’s glistening body. Then there are glimpses – some shockingly hilarious – of sage Vatsyayana gathering his material for the text he is writing. Watching those scenes brought back memories of a weekend during childhood when I was not allowed to join the adults who were watching this movie.
This was in the mid-eighties in Kathmandu, and I must have been around nine or ten. My parents and a group of other South India families usually gathered on a Saturday or a Sunday, either for a party at someones home or for a picnic in one of the spots in the city’s outskirts. Movies were sometimes on the agenda, and for us kids this was the most eagerly awaited event. (We didn’t have a TV at home, and the only way to watch a movie was to go to a cinema hall or be invited to a movie at someones place; both were infrequent occurrences). On this particular day there was a movie for the kids (which didn’t run in the VCR, somehow) and a movie kids weren’t allowed to watch. I caught the name on the video cassette: Utsav, it said, and seemed harmless to me. But the adults were firm, and we had to suffer the disappointment of missing not one but two movies. (Which probably explains why the incident remains in memory.) After a while, bored of the games other kids were playing, I wandered around the house and into the room Utsav was being played. It took a few seconds for the adults to realize the breach and usher me out, and in that time I saw on the screen a man wearing an elaborate costume I had seen before in mythological films; he seemed to be urging two men with large swords to go on with the execution of someone lying with his head on a rock. Just as the sword fell there was a loud shout: “Wait!!”, and then I was out of the room.
That scene is part of the dramatic climax of this immensely enjoyable film. There are many delights it offers: portrayal of the thief as an artist; reasons that Charudatta’s wife gives to explain her lack of anger towards Vasanthasena (who is now Charudatta’s lover); the darkness that envelops large portions of the movie; the evolution of The Kama Sutra positions; the startlingly authentic sword-fight sequences; the use of a flag to convey to the masses that power is now in new hands – these are a few that readily come to mind.
After the movie I pulled out the copy of The Kama Sutra at home (well hidden by Wife between stacks of files from office). The book – The Kama Sutra Illuminated– is rich with illustrations (by nineteenth or early twentieth century painters) and photographs of sculptures, wood engravings and terra cotta figures. It also explains the lists contained in the text:
“…Although the format of a list itself lends an air of scientific authority, a closer look at the items listed reveals that the logic of the list combines both uncontroversial truisms (i.e. “friction” is a method of having sexual intercourse) with entries of extreme specificity, such as: “scarlet rows of bites left across the top of the breasts are called ‘boar-bites’.” As a style of expository writing, the lists provided in the Kama Sutra encompass every possible mutation of circumstance, from an abstracted law of nature to catalogued minutae. …”
The lists make for interesting reading. Apart from appearing strange and humorous to someone reading them after so many centuries, some items also show how certain things haven’t changed at all. Among the list of “the sixty-four arts catalogues indispensible skills”, include:
5. Cutting stencils to make patterns on the body for cosmetic use
29. Ability to complete well-known quotations
30. Reciting tongue twisters
33. Citing examples from the classic texts you have memorized at crucial junctures in conversation to prove your point
56. Literary criticism
Another one lists the possible causes of failure of a would-be seducer (Or why would the wife of another man refuse you):
3. There’s just no chance
13. His intellect is overwhelming
14. “But I have only thought of him as a friend…”
23. Perhaps he was sent by the husband as a test
What kind of men are most likely to succeed in seducing the wife of another man:
1. Men who know the Kama Sutra
8. Men who do what women want
14. Men she has grown up with
16. The sexy servant
23. Men who are smarter, better-looking, or more cultured than the husband
Of ways to get rid of an unwanted lover:
1. Whatever he says he doesn’t want – do those things
12. Get testy when it seems he wants to have sex
20. Become active when he gets tired
32. Finally, get the servants to toss him out once and for all, or just do it yourself
I’m pretty sure our history books at school carried no mention of The Kama Sutra, but if there’s ever a chance to argue for its inclusion, the singular aspect one could use to argue in its favour is the text’s ability to convey the power of lists to instruct and entertain. As a device to attract and maintain attention, the list is second to none. It has even brought you to the end of this piece filled with trivia.