In one of the sessions at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, Karan Johar talked about how one of his most unhappy childhood memories was of being called a "pansy". He recounted the experience of coming home with the baggage and spending sleepless nights, having to cope with the curse of being called pansy.
As someone who was also at the receiving end of such nasty remarks at one point, I feel compelled to assess the stigma around being effeminate or "pansy".
Krishna possesses all the qualities that attract women... without being manly in the contemporary sense.
The notion that "real men" have to be burly, bleached of any trace of vanity, uninterested in the finer things in life such as music, dance, poetry, is a rather recent one. The classical and medieval conception of masculinity was incredibly different from the idea of it that we tend to subscribe to today. Historically, we have had an array of men who have not displayed any of the above qualities and have yet been idealized.
A couple of months ago, a friend and I were ambling in Delhi Haat, where we encountered an exquisite painting. The painting depicted Krishna massaging Radha's feet. My friend found the painting a bit curious. When we sat down to treat ourselves with some melt-in-the-mouth pooranpolis at the Maharashtra food stall, he asked me," Isn't Krishna supposed to be the alpha-male, the chick-magnet? How can he be shown to be so subservient?"
Yes, Krishna is the alpha-male, the chick-magnet; but he's not macho in the sense we understand the term today. He possesses all the qualities that attract women – and there's plenty of lore that suggests so – without being manly in the contemporary sense. How would people react in today's India if they saw a boy of, say, 16 roaming the streets, wearing bright yellow clothes, bedecking himself with the choicest of jewels and the most vibrant of flowers, playing a flute, and, to crown it all, sporting a plume of peacock feathers on his head? He would certainly be hounded and called unmentionable names on the streets and maybe even on Twitter. #KrishnaSoGay might start trending.
But the irony is that this is exactly how Vyas describes Krishna in the much-revered Bhagwat Puran (5,21,10) . Clearly, Krishna wouldn't fare very well on our macho-meter by today's standards. And yet Krishna is called the adi-purusha, the primeval man. Among all the other incarnations of Vishnu, some of whom were even brutish (such as Parashuram, the axe-wielder), Krishna is called the purna avtar, the plenary incarnation. So here we have a man who is a woman-charmer or, as my friend would say, a chick-magnet, and yet he doesn't fit into the mould of masculinity as we conceive it today. He is perfectly comfortable with the idea of being "submissive".
A man who is not comfortable with the idea of floridity and humility may actually be deeply insecure about his own masculinity.
Sample this legend associated with the celebrated work of Jaydev, Geet Govind (circa 12th century). Geet Govind comprises many ashtapadis (set of eight verses). The 19th ashtapadi of Geet Govind is popularly known as darshana-ashtapdi. It is called so because, it is believed, Jaydev had a divine vision while composing it. The 7th verse of the ashtapadi describes Krishna imploring Radha to place her feet upon his head. Jaydev wrote this verse in a trance-like state. But when he regained his wits, he realized that such a depiction could be seen as impropriety. Thus he expunged this verse from the manuscript and went about his business. When he returned to his desk, he saw Krishna himself re-writing the omitted verse. So, Jaydev, having had this vision, decided to retain the said verse in the compilation.
Irrespective of whether actually Krishna wrote the verse or Jaydev, it should make us re-examine our contemporary conception of masculinity. And we have plenty of other such examples. Arjun, the warrior prince, arguably the protagonist of the grandest epic Mahabharata, chose to masquerade as a transvestite. Arjun was also extremely fond of dance (the very reason he was obsessed with watching Urvashi dance).
A man who is not comfortable with the idea of floridity and humility may actually be deeply insecure about his own masculinity. His ridiculing the "effeminacy" of another man may smack of his inherent anxiety about his own manhood. A man at ease with his own sexuality would readily embrace floridity and humility, and may even use them to his own advantage.
Why has our conception of masculinity has become so unidimensional and bland? Is it time to re-assess and recalibrate?
We could turn to more recent examples, if you will. We recently had Jaden Smith posing for Vogue Korea wearing a skirt and nail-paint, and a red flower tucked behind his ear. Closer home, we have Ranveer Singh. He is a man who is extremely confident of his sexuality and has never hesitated to talk about it. While on screen Ranveer essayed the role of Bajirao Peshwa, the epitome of Maratha valour, with such finesse, off the screen he has been making gender-defying style statements. He can carry off nose-rings, skirts and floral prints with equal panache. Contrast this with the ridiculous attempt by Abhishek Bachchan to play an effeminate man, Abbas, in the 2012 film Bol Bachchan.
Yuval Noah Harari in his fascinating account of human history points out that in nature it is usual for the male counterpart of a species to be the more colourful and accessorized. Look at a peacock's vibrant tail or a lion's thick mane, for instance. He further remarks that in the history of humankind it's the current alpha-male that has looked the most dreary and dull. Be it our rajas and maharajas or nawabs, with their jewels and silks; or the chiefs of the Native American tribes, with their feathered headdresses; or the likes of Louis XIV of France with wigs, stockings and high-heeled shoes, the most powerful men have always been also the most flamboyant.
Why then, has our conception of masculinity has become so unidimensional and bland? Is it time to re-assess and recalibrate?