6 Questions On Sex And Fetishization Of Indian Erotica With A Kamasutra Expert

58-year-old Seema Anand says she lost friends in her pursuit to make people comfortable discussing sex.
Seema Anand
Seema Anand

Seema Anand, dressed in a cream silk saree and a black ikat blouse, is explaining how important it is to make sure the bottom sheet on your bed is tightly tucked in on the sides, with no visible creases. The comments section of her Instagram video is flooded with messages, mostly from women, who seem to agree that though they haven’t consciously realised it, making their bed and something as seemingly trivial as changing the sheets make them feel great. No, Anand is not helping one Mary Kondo a messy bedroom, instead she is talking about how the Kama Sutra emphasises the need to make a bed in a way so as to signal a ‘lover’ that they are desired.

Anand’s 21,000 followers on Instagram is a mix of women who seem enamoured by her short videos attempting to normalise sexual desire and men who range from ones being curious or sounding grateful to the usual ones that leave a handful of distasteful comments.

58-year-old Anand calls herself a ‘mythologist’ and she told HuffPost India that she has been studying and researching Hindu mythology and erotica since 1986. While Anand has been a familiar face in seminars and talks on erotology, she joined Instagram in 2018 to take her interpretation of the Kama Sutra and the depiction of sex and desire in epics and works of mythology to a younger audience.

Anand told HuffPost India that the Kama Sutra was originally written as a guide to men to successfully conduct their social personal lives, but if read carefully at present, it can serve as a primer to pleasure and respect for both men and women.

Is Kama Sutra A Sexist Text?

While Anand insists that Kama Sutra is an interesting text that emphasised the importance of consent — a similar argument was made by historian Wendy Doniger — several critiques of the text point out that it is incredibly sexist.

Anand argues that Kama Sutra asserts that a woman’s pleasure is paramount and by doing that makes the idea of a woman’s consent non-negotiable. However, she also points out that in one chapter the text says that it is up to women to stop the men from getting violent and how to deal with those who will not listen. It can be argued that putting the responsibility of stopping the violence of men on women cannot be fair or very progressive.

A woman looks at paintings as she visits the exhibition The Kama-Sutra : spirituality and erotism in Indian art, at the Paris' pinacotheque on October 1, 2014 in Paris. The exhibition takes place from October 2 2014 until January 11, 2015.
 AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE        (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman looks at paintings as she visits the exhibition The Kama-Sutra : spirituality and erotism in Indian art, at the Paris' pinacotheque on October 1, 2014 in Paris. The exhibition takes place from October 2 2014 until January 11, 2015. AFP PHOTO / LIONEL BONAVENTURE (Photo credit should read LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

There have been conflicting opinions around the Kama Sutra and ideas of women’s agency in it. While like Anand, historian Wendy Doniger argues it is feminist, several others criticise the text and the version translated by Richard Burton as orientalist fetishization.

In her interview to The News Minute, Doniger claims that Kama Sutra is a ‘feminist text’. She points out that it advises married women to bear ‘the primary financial responsibility’ in the household and to consider leaving abusive husbands. She also mentions how the text highlights a woman’s pleasure as an essential part of the sexual act and how it doesn’t limit sex to just procreation.

This essay on Feminism in India refutes the claim that Kama Sutra acknowledges the consent of the woman during sex, as it only focusses on ‘sexual subjugation’. “While the text prescribes that there are limits to a woman’s protestations, it only warns the man against the use of excessive violence,” the article argues.

This article on Bitchmedia adds that the version translated by Richard Burton in the nineteenth century was ‘meant to fetishize Oriental women’ as well as expect similar experimental behaviour from ‘frigid Victorian women’, all the while ensuring they met the sexual needs of Victorian men.

Seduction as ‘art’

‘If everything else we do in life needs to be perfected and upskilled constantly, then why not love?’ And for love to remain fresh, exciting and alive it has to be nourished and practiced with great skill as well. However, with the general attitude of looking down on women for being active participants of sex, seduction has also taken on a negative connotation.

Sex in our society is acceptable as long as it is a tool for procreation and not for pleasure. Since seduction has nothing to do with procreation as such, it is mostly treated as a tool for pleasure and hence the taboo around it. Anand says seduction should instead be treated as ‘rasa’ or the essence of life. Rasa is a Sanskrit term for emotion generally and in one of its manifestations it is the feeling of pleasure evoked through love, happiness, desire and seduction. As a part of literary representation, it helps reduce the vast ocean of human emotions to a handful of headings in order to express feelings.

“People think they become great lovers simply by being lovers! You don’t become a great musician just because you have the most extensive playlist or become a fabulous writer because you have access to a library. You need to dedicate time and understanding, you need to learn your skill. Similarly, to be a great lover you need to educate yourself and the Kama Sutra acts as the guide,” Anand explains.

Richard Francis Burton, English explorer and orientalist, 1880. Burton's (1821-1890) extensive travels included a journey to Mecca, disguised as a Pathan, and an expedition to locate the source of the Nile, with John Hanning Speke. He also translated the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English. Burton was knighted in 1886. From Men of Mark by Thompson Cooper. (London, c1880). (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Richard Francis Burton, English explorer and orientalist, 1880. Burton's (1821-1890) extensive travels included a journey to Mecca, disguised as a Pathan, and an expedition to locate the source of the Nile, with John Hanning Speke. He also translated the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra into English. Burton was knighted in 1886. From Men of Mark by Thompson Cooper. (London, c1880). (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

According to Anand, the Kama Sutra breaks this art of seduction into the “Chaunsath Kalas” or the 64 skills, an artillery of art forms that make the experience of love more elegant, more refined, more uplifting and more desirable. The skills, explains Anand, often have nothing to do with ‘sex’ directly. Since a cursory read of these 64 skills can leave the unaccustomed reader confused, she tries to break down the subtlety of the concepts as a part of her discourse.

When Anand began studying women’s narratives across mythologies and ancient Indian texts, she noticed a gaping hole when it came to telling stories about the woman’s right to her own sexuality.

For her, it was a continuous combination of reading almost everything connected with the subject, including translations, originals (with help of experts) and commentaries as well as working with scholars. Since many of the texts are not translated while many more lie half destroyed, she sought for information almost one sentence at a time from different sources.

Trolling and shaming

Over these three and a half decades of studying ancient texts, Anand discovered that the common and easily accepted stories were of the woman’s body being depicted as someone else’s property. “I decided to explore stories that had been silenced and the search brought me to the ancient erotic literatures around 15 years ago. As I delved deeper, I got hungry for more. I don’t think there is any other subject in the world more beautiful, more subtle, more layered than ancient Indian erotica,” she says.

Anand said that she has lost several friends who were embarrassed of her talking about sex and desire in public. She added that the criticism aimed at her singed her children as well. Not thrilled with what she does, her husband tried to dissuade her from continuing as it initially didn’t suit his idea of what ‘good wives’ do.

She started studying kama shastras when she was in her 40s, before which her work was mostly on mythology. She initially tried to include her husband and explain to him the beauty and the academia behind the work. However, she said, with time she decided that she needn’t seek approvals or permissions for her work and it was up to him to accept it or not. She still doesn’t know if he has quite accepted her work, but he doesn’t tell her anything about it.

What keeps her going is the difference her work makes and the impact it has on people. “People attend my talks for a variety of reasons, maybe for a laugh or they’ve been invited by a friend or the organiser. But they leave in a very different frame of mind, with a different part of their brain activated and with a whole new sensibility. I see the change in them and it makes everything worthwhile,” he says.

When it came to her children, Anand says unfortunately the bullying and trolling never came from their peers but from hers, from her friends and acquaintances who felt their remarks would be more effective if they attacked her children with them. Hence, she chose to be open about her work with her children from the start. She talked to them and her friends about it and the stacks of books she read were on the bookshelves at home for everyone to see. She ensured her children attended her lectures on the Kama Sutra at The British Museum or the British Library and understood the value of her work and the respect it received.

The trolling often brought back memories from her childhood. Born to a mother who was divorced while still pregnant with her, Anand recalls the nasty comments relatives would make about her mother while she was growing up. Her work, hence is deeply rooted in her understanding of women and their liberty as well, and she hopes to change the perspective around sex, pleasure and women for the future generation.

Anand said, she felt validated when she was made to give a speech on the Kama Sutra at her son’s wedding reception last year by his friends. “It was loved by all, even the elderly relatives!” she adds.

While growing up in Delhi and visiting her grandparents in Amritsar, Anand found herself surrounded by grandmothers and aunts who fought for women’s rights. “All the women in my family, going back to my great grandmother were educated, working women. My great grandmother was a social activist who fought against domestic violence all her life,” she says.

Although the women in her family were not barred from pursuing higher education or jobs or from love marriages or live-in relationships, ‘sexuality’ was never discussed as a subject even in her home. As a result, Anand grew up with a very defined idea of women’s rights but like most other Indian women had absolutely no concept of women’s pleasure.

Speaking of her dating years in the early 80s before her marriage, she says she would not get aroused easily and the couple of odd boyfriends she had could not understand or deal with it. She came to believe that there was something wrong with her and that she had to stop making the men feel intimidated with her needs. And eventually even the idea of having a right to pleasure was erased from her psychology. “It is only since my work on the subject that I have given myself permission to seek my own pleasure and to stand up for my right to it. I hope my kids do not face the dilemma I did while growing up,” she says.

In order to normalise her work, Anand chooses to be open about it in the face of all resistance. Her study table is piled with different versions of the Kama Sutra, for her children, their friends or anyone else who comes into the house to see.

Here are 6 questions on sex and Indian erotica that Anand answered for HuffPost:

1. What are the misconceptions about ancient Indian erotica that people have?

Most people associate Indian erotica with ‘freaky’ stuff, it is either about weird positions or yogic capabilities or flexibility or some strange magical contortions that can give you superhuman powers of erection. The idea that it could be an actual education on the most basic things is totally beyond people.

Do you know what the Kama Sutra recommends for foreplay? Share gossipy or raunchy stories to arouse your beloved, keep crayons in your drawing room and paint a picture of her, do magic tricks to entertain her, make her laugh, make her feel special because love and lovemaking should be joyous and fun. Yes it was a lot to do with good communication and attention.

2. Is it true that Kama Sutra is mostly about the aesthetics and politics of sex and not limited to the act of sex and sex positions? Western practitioners seem to have made it seem like a guide to sex. What are your thoughts?

The Kama Sutra, like all other treatises, is a philosophical work written in complex linguistics and grammar and described in metaphor and verse, a work of high scholarship that needs to be read through a commentary. It is, in its original form, much like the Arthashastra or the Bhagavad Gita, beyond the capacity of the average person to understand in its original form.

Unfortunately Richard Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra in 1883 sealed the book’s fate. Victorian England did not/ could not see the beauty of the work. Pleasure was a sin and sex was the path to hell! So, what was there to understand, right? Delicacy, refinement, skill were not words to be associated with the carnal and bestial act of sex.

Sadly no one takes the trouble to read a commentary and in an otherwise incomprehensible text the only thing that makes sense is the word ‘positions’ — hence the focus on that one thing only.

3. Indian erotica, especially in the case of Kama Sutra, has often been fetishised in the West, while it is barely talked about in India. How do you think this affects people’s perceptions around it?

The sheer beauty expressed by the Kama Sutra inspired 2000 years of our literature, the Padam poetry, the Prabandhams, the epic romances that speak of the joys of love, the pleasures of arousal, the exquisiteness of desire. From here was born the idea of sacred sexuality - pleasure was the path to heaven - and the more refined, the more elegant, the more beautiful it was, the more it elevated your thoughts and your emotions.

Did you know that every position was referred to by a piece of jewellery? And it was not just a banal euphemism to serve some prudish sentiment! Each piece of jewellery was a tool by which to teach the correct execution of the position, because each piece of jewellery moved in a particular way.

For instance, for the sitting position you wore a 7 or 9 string pearl necklace. As she moved, the pearl strings would swing from side to side gently, affording the lover a tantalising glimpse of the beloved’s breasts which were hidden and revealed at the same time, erotic, subtle and utterly sensual. But the expertise at this position was arrived at by understanding how to move that necklace in just the right way.

Isn’t that mind blowing? And wouldn’t it teach you much more effectively than any number of graphic diagrams and pictures or words?

Or take the vocabulary of paan or the betel leaf — a directory of erotic sentiments all wrapped up in a small little leaf that would serve lovers for almost any conceivable emotion or occasion. For instance if the bride was young and inexperienced the first kiss would be exchanged through paan. The man would take a bite and offer the other half to her and that would be the first touch of his lips on hers.

But of course if you have no idea what the pearl necklace meant then all you have is the architecture of the seated position. And the paan would remain a preliminary to sex without an understanding of the delicacy or beauty that it represented.

4. Has your being a woman talking about erotica ever enraged people? Have you ever faced online abuse because of the work you do?

Trolls! There is always one in the wings, whether it is to abuse me about what I say or to abuse me because I’m “too old” to be talking about this subject. I’ve been called a ‘dried-up old hag who would make a young man sick’, an ‘aunty’, a ‘junglee’ even!

But actually, worse than the abusive trolls are the ones who get disgustingly graphic, those who send me dick pics or tell me, in gory detail, how they would like to have me. I will never understand why men think it is sexy to say crude, explicit things to a woman. When did a woman ever want to be with a man who goes “Whistle, whistle. I could f... you right here right now”! Has a woman ever responded with “take me, take me now! Right here on the roadside, with your filthy teeth and sweaty underarms!”

5. Often Indian women are not empowered to look at sex through the prism of pleasure. And women who do, are slut-shamed. What are your thoughts?

Slut shaming is not just confined to women who want to explore pleasure or remove taboos around their sexuality. A desire for independence, a desire to express an opinion that may be contrary to her husband’s, or sometimes even the desire to eat different food is all fodder for the ‘kalankini’ label.

And this is certainly not random abuse but a very carefully constructed narrative. It is about retaining power and control. Let me explain with a story from The Mahabharata:

Panchachuda, an apsara and a woman, is found describing the ‘vileness’ of women to sage Narada (in response to Yudhishthira asking why women are referred to as the root of all evil). It goes something like this: “Even if high-born and endowed with beauty and possessed of protectors, women wish to transgress the restraints assigned to them. This fault truly stains them, O Narada! There is nothing else that is more sinful than women. Verily, women are the root of all faults. Women, even when possessed of husbands having fame and wealth, of handsome features and completely obedient to them, are prepared to disregard them if they get the opportunity...”

These lines are often quoted to claim that ‘even women think other women are vile’ in the modern context. However, I disagree. What we forget is that Panchachuda was not an actual apsara who had descended from heaven to vilify the race of women. This was a fictional story about a fictional character, written for a very definite purpose — to create a narrative, to establish an identity.

One must notice how the entire diatribe is directed towards a woman’s sexuality. We know none of this is true but the allegations are so unbelievably vicious that it has one jumping through hoops to vindicate oneself, pushing ourselves into impossible standards of sanctification in order to prove our purity and innocence. Isn’t that exactly what the society wants us to do?

6. There is a resurgence of conservative politics and emphasis on conservatism across societies in the world. Where do you see yourself and your work in that context?

Conservatism or not, I would like the world, or at least the people of India, to understand that the Kama Sutra is a huge part of our cultural heritage. Far from being a book about acrobatic positions and mindless sex, this is the text that inspired 2000 years of Indian literature, art and philosophy. It served as the muse for entire families of raagas, of musical compositions based on kama in all its manifold and splendiferous forms.

At the moment my work on the Kama Sutra is really hitting a spot and I’m managing to break hackneyed long-standing stereotypes. People are loving the new understanding of the ancient kama shastras for the mythology, the wisdom and the beauty they offer; and the missing stories are slowly falling into place. I hope I can sustain this work long enough for the narrative to change.

The Kama Sutra did not rise to stardom because it was the only sexual treatise ever written (it is one of several hundred) but because it was the first book to talk about the pleasure of women. Until then it had been held that women did not have an independent source of pleasure, that their pleasure depended on the pleasure of a man. The Kama Sutra stated that not only did women have their own source of pleasure but that it had nothing to do with that of a man. This was such a controversial idea, it created such a furore that it put the book on the map.

This was the text that gave women the right to consent, which even today stands on shaky ground, and an absolute insistence on the unacceptably of violence and abuse during sex. It was a brave book that tried to change the narrative of women. And that is the knowledge I want people to take forward when they speak of this text.