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Kama Sutra: It's potent, popular & a money spinner

February 02, 2009 13:15 IST

At eight kilos, bound in silk, with paper of a grammage normally reserved for magazine covers, it's probably the heaviest, lushest book I have handled, but while it might be good for building biceps, it is unlikely to be useful as a pillow book, which many might consider to be its intended purpose.

This, the latest Kama Sutra (The Indian Treatise on Love and Living) with seven-colour printing, a foreword by psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, and text by Sandhya Mulchandani -- for both of whom this is not their first Kama Sutra -- is among possibly hundreds of Kama Sutras published every year stretching into billions of copies around the world.

Come to think of it, Brand Kama Sutra is possibly India's oldest, largest and most potent, though perhaps least celebrated, icon: first assembled somewhere in the 4th or the 5th century, not only has it survived over a millennia-and-a-half, it has also withstood the challenge of instant porn-on-the-net, now just as easily available on the mobile.

Roli Books, the purveyors of this weighty tome, can claim the privilege of having published at least a dozen-odd earlier versions -- a Kama Sutra his and hers 'that alone sold at least a million copies', says publisher Pramod Kapoor, KS for women, others labelled Indian erotica, or the art of love.

"At any given point in time we have three or four versions in print," Kapoor says -- considering the translations into different languages these go into, it is hardly surprising that he can claim, "We would have printed several million copies of the Kama Sutra since our first one in 1982."

Already, the new volume, priced at a steep Rs 12,500 and encased in a ribbon-sealed gift pack, has been sold in France (published in French by La Martiniere), Germany (where luxury book publishers Collection Rolf Heyne have taken it on) with English language editions shipped to Russia, Hungary, the Slovak and Czech republics, and Spain.

"A book like this is an investment in property for a publishing house," says Kapoor, "it will keep moving at book fairs."

This is just one publishing house in India, among dozens that do illustrated books and versions of the Kama Sutra, books that, according to one publisher, "we publish every time we're running low on funds".

Seventeen centuries after it was conceived, the Kama Sutra continues to have currency, and whether as a book or a brand, is probably India's biggest money spinner from that heritage. But does anyone truly understand what it represents?

I decide to do my own little survey, anonymously, naturally, in a market where hopefully no one knows me.

Have you heard of the Kama Sutra? I ask a group of middle-aged women at a fruit stall. They pretend not to hear me, I can make out a smothered giggle, then the fruit-seller waves me away. I am disturbing his custom. A young couple at a multiplex window calls me a dirty old man, and when it looks like they might call the police, I move hastily away. My informal survey comes to an end when a boy tells me if I am looking for condoms, I will find them in the chemist shop two lanes away.

Instead, I decide to Google the word and in 0.4 seconds I have a listing of 13,000,000 results, everything I might desire, from prophylactics to the Mira Nair movie starring Rekha that bombed at the box office, from candies to lingerie, from deodorants and aftershaves and balms to a Canadian beer infused with special herbs to enhance sexual pleasure.

If the Kama Sutra has become a dirty word with salacious connotations, it was never quite intended to be that. Indeed, the scholar Vatsyayana, who wrote the treatise, could not have been any more academic about it, or more prosaic.

Anyone who has actually read the Kama Sutra will tell you that it's anything but a sex manual, more actually a compendium of manners that, rather pedantically, guides you on such seemingly banal subjects as "on the arrangements of a house, and household furniture, and daily life of a citizen, his companions, amusements, etc", or "on the manner of living of a virtuous woman, and her behaviour during the absence of her husband", or even "on the conduct of the eldest wife towards the other wives of her husband, and the younger wife towards the elder ones".

That is not to say there is not the stuff that it is better known for, the most appropriate of which appears now to be "ways of love to be employed with regard to women of different countries"! But mostly, it is for its visual content, a rich mine of erotic miniatures (and yogic poses of mostly impossible contortions) from different schools, that the Kama Sutra is, in fact known.

These date from perhaps the Mughal period on, and indeed, every school of every kingdom would have a rich treasure of such paintings not just as part of its library but also painted in those chambers where men entertained or were entertained by courtesans.

The Kama Sutra, as we know it, was translated from four different versions, or aspects of the Sanskrit originals obtained from Bombay, Benares, Calcutta and Jaipur by the traveller and writer Sir Richard Francis Burton, though it has since come to light that the main work was done by the Indologist Bhagvanlal Indraji under the supervision of civil servant Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot.

This archaic translation was to survive for almost a century before other attempts were made to translate the original -- the first by Indra Simha in 1980, another version by Alain Danielou in 1994, and a more thorough one by Sudhir Kakar and Wendy Doniger in 2002, the last, published in 2002 by Oxford University Press, now considered the most comprehensive translation and revised update of the Kama Sutra.

Books, magazines and people refer to the Kama Sutra every time there is an attempt to subvert any aspect of public culture that alludes to the sexual or the sensual. Again, and again, and yet again people are wont to ask, "How can this happen in the land of the Kama Sutra and Khajuraho?"

The erotic sculptures that form the facades of the temples of Khajuraho have little to do with the Kama Sutra, say experts, but the referencing to them as how-to-do-it sex guides can aggravate modern scholars.

"The Kama Sutra is neither exclusively a sex manual nor, as also commonly believed, a sacred or religious work. It is certainly not a tantric text," writes Indra Simha, and indeed, at its core, it is not unlike a book on, say, architecture, or cooking - made up of rules and observations that are tedious rather than naughty.

"In opening with a discussion on the three aims of ancient Hindu life -- dharma, artha and kama -- Vatsyayana's purpose is to set kama, or enjoyment of the senses, in context. Thus dharma or virtuous living is the highest aim, artha, the amassing of wealth is next, and kama is the least of the three," she observes.

Kakar refers to it as a "comprehensive guide to living an erotic life in all its fullness", alluding therefore to it the dullness of self-help management books and theories. Mulchandani too agrees that the Kama Sutra does not deal in prurience or, indeed, with "furtive sex in dark, secluded corners".

When Kakar writes that "the woman's thoughts on such subjects as how to get a lover, how to get rid of him, or how to tell when he is cooling towards her, ring as true in the twenty-first century as in the fourth", he might be referring to the contents of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Durable brand though it might be, the Kama Sutra has connotations that do not allow extensions easily, even in a society that might be seen as fairly liberal by the standards of medieval India.

"You can't have a breakfast cereal called Kama Sutra," a graphic designer says, "or indeed anything that cannot be associated with love, or lust, or a similar emotion." Incense sticks, wine, mood music, food festivals of an aphrodisiacal nature based on their contents, "but almost nothing else translates into the use of that name" explains the designer.

On a night, returning from a late dinner, I tell a friend who is looking for an opportunity to turn into a business entrepreneur that the Kama Sutra is the cash cow for publishers wanting to peddle exotica art books -- all you need is a new spin and design, I say, the very hint of the ancient treatise in the title will do the rest.

A few moments pass before she says, "I haven't seen a gay Kama Sutra yet, that is what I will publish, there are millions of gays out there in the world."

Sitting in my office, checking the 13,000,000 sites my research throws up, I try and track gay references to help my friend. I find erotic fiction, many, many translations, gifts for lovers, comics, lots of short films -- all of which I watch in the line of work, though my heart pops into my mouth every time the door to the room opens: it's one thing to be thorough about research, another thing to be denounced, as earlier by the couple at the cinema hall, as a dirty old man - but find nothing that would help my friend. Which doesn't mean you can't write an entirely fictional account anyway -- where's the copyright on the Kama Sutra? -- as perhaps have been written by dozens of prurient writers around the world.

But I'm done with research on the net for now. Instead, I'm undergoing some weight-training: I have an eight-kilo Kama Sutra I'm going to wade through next: It is work, innit?

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Kishore Singh