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Did India export The Kiss to the West?

February 07, 2009 17:04 IST

Perhaps Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi High Court had Valentine's Day in mind when, earlier this week, he threw out a criminal complaint of obscenity by the police against a young couple who were found kissing under a Metro pillar.

Two policemen bustled up to the newly-weds last September and filed an FIR against them for "sitting in an objectionable position near Metro's pillar number 1140 and kissing each other." According to the FIR, the act was obscene and offended passers-by.

But the good, liberal judge wasn't having any of it. How could an expression of love and warmth between a married couple be construed as obscene, he asked? And who precisely were the passers-by they offended?

As far as the judge or many of us are concerned, the couple could exchange 1,140 kisses in public places and get away with it. Still, the moral police won't let go. The hit melody from Casablanca summed it up nicely years ago: "You must remember this/ A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh/ The fundamental things apply/ As time goes by."

One person's prudery may be another's prurience but, as time goes by, the more things change the more they remain the same.

To Devika Rani, the first lady of Indian cinema, goes the credit of the big smooch on the Indian screen in her 1933 hit, Karma. According to a Wikipedia entry, it was four minutes long and the longest kissing scene in the movie world. There was nothing low about it-or her.

Devika Rani was the great grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and later founded the Bombay Talkies film studio which produced stars of the caliber of Ashok Kumar and Prithviraj Kapoor.

Yet as late as the 1970s, the government, in its misplaced authority, rather like the cops sniffing out the kissing couple under the Metro pillar, appointed a committee under Justice G D Khosla to look into the matter of sex and film censorship.

 It derogatorily came to be known as the 'kissing commission' after the judge said kissing on screen was fine by him.

And the protests haven't really petered out. Two years ago when Richard Gere swept Shilpa Shetty low in his arms and planted a few kisses on her cheek at a charity event, a judge promptly issued a warrant for his arrest calling the action 'highly sexually erotic'.

The actors couldn't see what the terrific fuss was about, but Gere had to apologise saying that the dance move was 'a naïve misreading of Indian customs'.

The jury is out about whether public kissing is alien to some cultures and intrinsic to others. In the Arab world, it is the custom for men to plant kisses on each other's cheeks in respectful greeting.

Eskimos, who were observed by early explorers to do it with their noses, later turned out to be smelling cheeks in companionship. Clearly the Chinese don't like the idea.  An editorial is the party mouthpiece, Worker's Daily, believes kissing to be a European import and "a vulgar practice which is all too suggestive of cannibalism".

Behaviour analysts are also divided on where the habit originated. Some believe that kissing, in fact, is a Vedic habit. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist from Texas quoted in the International Herald Tribune, believes that the first recorded kiss, around 1500 BC, is in scriptures which mention people sniffing with their mouths; later Vedic texts describe lovers "setting mouth to mouth".

Far from being a European import, he says, kissing went west from India, after Alexander's conquest of Punjab in 326 BC. If such is the case then the Romans and Latins, whose kisses range from the overtly sexual to the deeply spiritual, are truly the kissing cousins of the Aryans.

But why go so far back? No one has counted but there could well be 1,140 pillars in Konarak and Khajuraho with couples kissing -- and utterly oblivious of who's looking.

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Sunil Sethi
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