On voyeurs and exhibitionists, love and the Gaze in India

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 “I can feel myself under the gaze of someone whose eyes I do not see, not even discern. All that is necessary is for something to signify to me that there may be others there. This window, if it gets a bit dark, and if I have reasons for thinking that there is someone behind it, is straight-away a gaze”

– Jacques Lacan

Sometimes, songs seem to find me when I’m looking for them the hardest. Superstitious crap, perhaps? I’m not sure. There are times when I hear a random song playing in a mall and need to find out who it is, suddenly something will lead me to the artist. For instance at a restaurant called Marche in Singapore once, I heard a clip of what seemed like soulful jazz, sung in something that sounded like French. I immediately asked one of the servers who it was singing, and she had no clue. Five minutes later she popped up, with an iPhone, no less, and told me, “It must be this woman – her name is Cesaria Evora, and the song is apparently ‘Petit Pays. It’s in the Cape Verdean language that has French roots!”

She had an iPhone app to detect songs from recording just a clip.

Things like this have happened time and time again. Just this week, I was humming a folksy tune that I remembered from a few years ago. But I couldn’t remember the words or the artist. I remembered that the music video was shot in an Indian village with lots of TV-like illusions popping up in frames, and that the singer was an Indian female. I googled and tried to YouTube this video for days with every combination of keywords I could imagine, but to no avail, and I just gave up. Then this week, I was being made to watch Satyamev Jayate – an Indian talk show with a bit of a do-gooder host (who I quite dislike) by my mother – and in suffering through it, I sat up when a singer began performing as the end credits began to roll. Her name was Sona Mohapatra and I knew instantly the song I’d been searching for was hers and sure enough, this popped up on YouTube:

What struck me immediately was that for some reason in my mind, this video had been memorable. I remembered most of it including that little kid in large shorts bopping along out-of-rhythm. And I realised a lot of it had to do with the framing of the singer in these convenient ‘frames’ that popped up in corners of this little village. Let me explain why.

I’m very interested in ideas of voyeurism, of subjecting people to a constant gaze of curiosity or fascination. Living in close-knit communities like I do in small-town India can make you do that yourself, despite knowing better. The flip side of that of course, is exhibitionism, and the tendency of the viewed person to live like they’re aware of being watched. The twin experiences of watching and being watched make daily living seem almost like a performance. Like a reality TV show.

While I know voyeurism/exhibitionism are usually discussed in a sexual context, I’m only discussing the social context here, and particularly, an Indian social context.

India can’t help itself when it comes to staring. Several of my ‘foreign’ friends often complain about it, disapproving of the non-stop staring they’re subjected to when they travel through India. I often rush to commiserate and defend it by saying other Indians themselves are subjected to it, and it’s not just a white/brown or man/woman phenomenon. People from both sides are subjected to uncomfortable group stares at some point or the other. And I find this both unnerving and interesting. I remember the first time I came back to India after having been in Melbourne for more than two years, without a single visit back home. And my first brush was panic-inducing. I felt like I was being watched non-stop, as I tried to navigate my way through the Mumbai local train and I was alternating between being frenzied and being utterly still, all the while inwardly squirming, and I finally fled to a Sulabh Shouchalay to calm myself down in one of the toilets. Having since come back to India for good, I eventually absorbed the effects of being stared at as nothing more than a way of life. But I’m aware that I constantly participate in this culture of watching and being watched in interesting ways.

I want to bring some ideas of Lacan into this discussion on voyeurism and exhibitionism. Lacan talks of a mirror stage of development, particularly during young infancy. The first time an infant identifies her image in a mirror, it’s the first understanding of self a child has. Lacan claims this image is then held to be an ideal image that the child can aspire to for her life, and when she enters the world of culture and language, the image is the model on which she fills in the roles of other people in her life.

Lacan followed this up by looking at power relations and the Gaze. The Gaze that Lacan refers to is the uncanny sense that the object of our eye’s glance is somehow looking back at us out of its own will. And this reverse Gaze makes the gazer the object instead, and brings an anxiety similar to castration anxiety, subverting the power structure of the gazer and the gazed. Where the gazer is believed to have the power, the gazed objects subverts it by gazing back. This becomes part of a complicated process of Othering – of making and shaping the object of the Gaze as “the Other”, “the Exotic”.

In India, particularly in tourism in India, you can observe this happening both as the Westerner-as-Voyeur, and Indian-as-Voyeur-Exhibitionist. Something that bothers me greatly is when Western depictions of India tend to roam around the obvious — sensory overload, cows, dirt, crowds, chaos (I’m looking at you, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). The Western Gaze on India cannot seem to portray human interaction beyond the superficial structures around it. In return, the Indian Gaze sees the Western Gaze perpetually as something that validates the Indian’s existence. There is enough evidence that India’s days of sycophancy to the West (of white people, to be specific) haven’t gone away. And as a result, the Indian lives his/her life in constant awareness of the Gaze of the Other. In particular, our sense of validation can come from nothing less than a perception of approval from the Other.

This whole situation only validates Lacan’s notions of the ideal ego (the aspirational image we have of ourselves in the head) that is in a sort of dialogue with the ego ideal (seeing oneself  from the imaginary point of view of perfection). The former is imagined, whereas the latter is imaginary. Slavoj Žižek in fact calls the latter – “the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, and… is this same agency in its revengeful, sadistic, punishing, aspect”.

The end result is that the Indian while aspiring to an ideal self-image, is destroying herself by imagining a gaze from the perfect Westerner and sees herself as lacking and repulsive. And in becoming voyeurs we also become exhibitionists, living out the worst of our culture for the viewing of the west.

One of the other interesting things I have observed is the way Voyeur India interacts with the Other.  The Other in this case can be through a variety layers, even other than the western Others. The common man in India worships his celebrities, and celebrities are subjected to nothing less than absolute devotion. Think Sachin Tendulkar or Amitabh Bachchan and in many ways they are the ultimate Other – they have crossed the boundaries of wealth, success and fame in extraordinary ways. There is both an aspirational sentiment here, along with an atmosphere of untouchability (of a metaphorical kind). The Other exists across class barriers too. Wealthy people in social situations are subjected to the Gaze by what is derogatorily called ‘the lower classes’ in intrusive ways, and live in some sort of perpetual fear of a revolution of the masses against the classes.

But probably the most complicated and most obvious subject of the Gaze is — the female.

Feminists have explored the idea of the Gaze in feminist terms at length, but my particular interest is in the romantic relationship. The scopophilia (defined as a love of looking) that Lacan explores is also at the heart of desire. It’s clearly obvious that in love, the lover gazes upon the beloved and the beloved has to gaze back. But Lacan seems to suggest that the lover’s Gaze is nothing but a projection of his own narcissistic desires on the empty object, which becomes nothing more than a screen for that projection. The beloved’s Gaze reverts back in a similar wish-projecting way. And that ultimately love fails when it refuses to (or perhaps it is unable to) view the reality of the person, who is nothing but the object of the romantic gaze. In India, where the dominant dissemination of love is Bollywood, the division between the real and fantasy is in a state of constant tension, and is mirrored by the way Indian couples tend to live out their love lives. This lack or emptiness at the heart of desire at once allows desire to persist and threatens to smack the lovers in the face with the truth of reality. This is the core tension at the heart of love, and something I completely comprehend at an emotional level.

In Sona’s Aaja Ve, the beloved is singing to her lover to stop looking and come to her instead. It’s a rural-inspired, folk-heavy tune and in orthodox India, where interaction between the male and female is limited, it’s a woman asking her lover to break taboos and approach her. Let me quote the lyrics:

Aaja ve aaja ve aaja ah bhi ja (4)
Come here, come, just come already.

Baitha kyun badal peeche
Why are you sitting behind the clouds?
Ek baar to aake neeche
Just once, come down
Aa mujhse aankh mila ve
Just come and meet my gaze

Tu aas paas rehta hai, phir samane kyun nahi aaha
You are always around, nearby, then why don’t you come front?
Kyun parde ke peeche , khud ko phire chipata
Why, behind the curtains you wrap around yourself, do you hide?
Rehene de ankh micholi, seedhi se bhol tu boli
Leave aside this hide-and-seek, just tell me in straight words
Na tu isharon se samajha
Don’t try to explain through signs/actions

Mein teri khoj mein nikali
I went out in search of you
Tu meri khoj mein aa ja
Now you come in search of me
Tujhe bhi chahat hai meri
You too are in love with me
Yeh kehke mujhe nacha jaa
Say it and make me dance
Mein hi kyun pyaar jataun
Why should I be the only one expressing love?
Main hi kyun baat chalaun
Why should I be the only one speaking this out?
Tu bhi to baat badha
You too take this forward.

(Translation: my own)

When you look at the video, and Sona framed first on walls and boards, and then in a frame built by young boys, she embodies the beloved as an object being gazed at. And then she turns that gaze back to her lover, knowing she’s being watched, and beseeches him to come to her instead. But at the end of the video, the ‘real’ Sona, never makes it to the village and her admirer/s, and remains abandoned and lost in some hinterland.

This is not a very popular song or a popular video. Few in India actually know of Sona’s songs outside of Bollywood, but I think it’s marvellous a passing video that I saw once or maybe twice says such powerful things about the nature of love.

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