Banned | Rohit Chawla’s installation on books that were silenced

The specter of censorship has loomed over literary expression since humans first began to record their thoughts. On a fateful day back in 1497, Florence, Italy bore witness to a sinister display of this suppression when friar Giralamo Savanarola, along with his devout followers known as the Weepers, ravaged the city’s cultural and intellectual landmarks. They ransacked the hub of the Renaissance, amassing a wide array of objects they deemed corrupt and incendiary: books, cosmetics, playing cards, musical instruments, and pieces of art. All of which were condemned to the voracious flames of the Bonfire of the Vanities. Savanarola’s own narrative reached a grim denouement as three months following his pyre, having refused to prove his sanctity through trial by fire, he met his end at the hands of the church for heresy and sedition—elements he formerly denounced.

Such historical episodes underscore the axiomatic truth expressed by Alka Pande, curator of The Art of India exhibition: since the dawn of the written word, censorship has threatened its existence. Esteemed works ranging from the holy scriptures to the cultivated prose of Shakespeare have, at different junctures, found themselves on the index of forbidden texts. Within the confines of this context, Rohit Chawla, a photographer stationed in Goa, debuted his installation “Banned” as a centerpiece of reflection in literature’s ongoing battle with censure. His provocative exhibition features a re-envisioned display of 30 renowned book covers, each representing a publication that has at some point been subject to banning across the manifold jurisdictions of the world. From Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and even Lewis Carroll’s fantastical “Alice in Wonderland,” the showcase is a mosaic of taboo creativity.

Chawla juxtaposes the current climate of preemptive self-censorship, wherein creators cautiously self-edit in public spheres, with his artistic statement that reclaims the narrative around these silenced tomes, drawing the observer’s focus toward the persistent culture of banning and cancelling.

In a world that often rushes to judgment, Chawla’s work stands as a reminder of individual perspective—one that isn’t, necessarily, reflective of a collective stance. This sentiment resonates with the thoughts of Swati Bhattacharya, Group VP of Marketing Communications at Raintree Foundation, who touched upon the pertinence of this exhibition to contemporary discourse. She implores the public to delve into the irony that many of these once forbidden books now serve as revered classics, stirring the minds of students and intellectuals globally.

The public is invited to ponder why certain books drew ire and prohibition in particular locales. “Persepolis,” which chronicles the Iranian Revolution, has been blacklisted in its native Iran. Yet, it found itself wrapping up in controversy in a very different setting—Chicago, 2013—only to have the term “censorship” downplayed when the ban was overturned.

Stripping bookshelves of titles such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence might raise eyebrows; however, Chawla feels a personal connection to the potential loss of more contemporary works like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Catcher In The Rye,” which for many, including himself, have been a wellspring of courage to uphold one’s ideals.

The notable Indian-book “The Satanic Verses” is also part of Chawla’s visual commentary, with Rushdie’s visage adorned with an eye patch on the reimagined cover—a powerful symbol of the author’s sacrifices for literary freedom.

The stirring exhibition “Banned” will welcome visitors to Stir Gallery in New Delhi until March 10. It stands both as an artistic interrogation and a historic testament to the resilience of the written word in the face of incessant censorship.

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