Published on July 28th, 2022 | by Harmonist staff9
My Kali is Queer
By Sunita Viswanath, originally published by Religion News Service. Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder and executive director of Hindus for Human Rights.
(RNS) — Leena Manimekalai’s 2019 film “Maadathy,” about the brutalization of a Dalit girl who becomes a village deity, began with the words, “Behind every deity in India, there is a story of injustice.” These words have proven prescient. An injustice is brewing around Manimekalai’s new film “Kaali”: The film and its poster have brought the filmmaker threats of arrest, rape, and murder.
Manimekalai calls “Kaali” a “performance documentary” — a personal and poetic meditation on the female divine. In a six-minute excerpt shown at a multimedia exhibition in Toronto last week, Mother Kali, Hinduism’s powerful goddess of death and the end of time, wanders through a pride festival in Toronto at night. She observes groups of people out on the town, takes a subway ride, stops in a bar. People take selfies with her. In the last frame, she is on a park bench where a man gives her a cigarette. The poster for the film shows the goddess smoking a cigarette and holding a pride flag.
The Aga Khan Museum and Toronto Metropolitan University caved in to pressure from the Indian government and issued apologies for screening the film. Twitter removed Manimekalai’s tweet showing the film’s poster. Manimekalai is wanted for arrest for “hurting religious feelings” in Assam, Uttarakhand, Haridwar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and several other states and has received numerous death and rape threats.
In an email, Manimekalai said the controversy had made it impossible for her to return to India. “My safety is a big question mark now and I feel totally derailed, to be honest. But I don’t want to bow down, and so I’m fighting with full power.”
Manimekalai comes from a South Indian community that worships the Goddess Kali as “a pagan goddess” who “eats meat cooked in goat’s blood, drinks arrack, smokes and dances wild,” the filmmaker told The Guardian.
Manimekalai, who identifies as bisexual, says, “My Kali is queer. She is a free spirit. She spits at the patriarchy. She dismantles Hindutva. She destroys capitalism. She embraces everyone with all her thousand hands.”
Someone unfamiliar with Hinduism might say Hindus are justified in their outrage. It’s important to understand, however, that the film and its poster are in line with a long tradition of diversity of Hindu practice and belief and immense personal freedom in one’s relationship with the divine.
An Indian member of parliament, Mahua Moitra, defended the film, saying, “To me, Kali is a meat-eating, alcohol-accepting goddess. I am a Kali worshipper. I am not afraid of anything. Not your goons. Not your police. And most certainly not your trolls.” Moitra is now facing criminal charges, too.
Kali first appeared in Indian culture as an Indigenous deity before being absorbed into the Brahminical traditions and Sanskrit texts in the present-day form “as a dangerous, blood-loving battle queen.” Hindu Goddesses are at the same time fierce warriors against evil and injustice and unconditionally loving and protective, and Kali’s devotees consider her the Divine Mother of all humanity.
Neither cigarettes nor queer pride is forbidden in Hinduism. Hinduism is historically very open toward sex and sexual difference. Innumerable stories in Hindu Scriptures tell of same-sex relationships, children born of same-sex relationships and characters — some of them gods — who are gay, queer or trans.
The South Indian Goddess Mariamman is often offered alcohol, and animals are sacrificed for her. The Guyanese “Madrassi” community comprises Hindus who worship Devi (the Mother Goddess) in all her forms, particularly Mariamman and Kateri Amma. “We firmly believe that devotion to Amma is subjective, and she comes to each of us in a unique way,” Vijah Ramjattan, president and founder of the United Madrassi Association in New York, told me. The community’s first Madrassi Day parade in 2017 featured an LGBTQ artist and dancer, Zaman, perform as the goddess Sundari.
Hindu deities smoke, drink, get high, and sometimes eat meat. It is very common for alcohol, meat, and even cigarettes to be offered to deities, particularly Kali. As the writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta explains, in the late 19th century, a Kali brand of cigarettes was produced in Calcutta.
One advertisement read, ‘If you care for the development of ‘svadeshi’ [homegrown Indian] products, if you feel responsible for the poor, miserable, working people of this land, if you can truly distinguish between good and evil, then, o Hindu brothers, you must use these ‘Kali’ cigarettes!”
This article was originally published by Religion News Service and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.