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Interview: Sandhya Mulchandani and the Kama Sutra

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-02

EVERYBODY wants to talk about sex with Ms Sandhya Mulchandani these days. She's India's hottest writer, selling well in Europe, too. Her latest work is a beautifully illustrated sex manual, "Kama Sutra for Women" (Roli Books, New Delhi), which draws on ancient India's erotic classic. When she's not writing sex manuals, Ms Mulchandani is a scholar of Sanskrit scriptures. She spoke recently with The Straits Times.

What made you write a Kama Sutra for women?

The Kama Sutra is probably the best-known book on eroticism in the world. Composed around the 3rd century A.D. in India by a man named Vatsayana, it's seen as a manual - a kind of handbook for men on sexual matters. Although widely viewed today as a treatise that describes physically challenging techniques and sexual positions, the Kama Sutra actually provides a window to an ancient Hindu heritage very different from the one conveyed in most philosophical, historical and religious discourses. And this text was not restricted to men alone. In fact, Vedic India is often seen as being a landmark in the history of Indian womanhood. Although a patriarchal and male-dominated society, the sexes were seen as equal in matters of pleasure. The emphasis was on mutual pleasure and interestingly Vatsayana had no need to emphasize equality, it was already a matter of custom and social grace. His work thus does not need to champion the cause of women, for when it was written women were indeed treated as equals and sexuality was not seen as the preserve of men.

But do women need the kind of sexual advice that men do?

There have been many books and translations on the Kama Sutra, most of them having been written from the viewpoint of men by men. This is the first time that the Kama Sutra has been interpreted for women, who in contemporary society have begun to realise that they too have a sexual identity. The most important lesson that this book has for modern society is that anything worth doing - and yes, this includes making love - is worth doing well and that happiness is not restricted to any one gender.

Why do you feel that men need to be more sensitized and caring toward women? How can contemporary Asians, already known for their sexual proclivities and pace, benefit by reaching into the past and studying the Kama Sutra?

Men in general, and Asian men specifically, have traditionally set social trends and the pace and place that women occupy in society. While all societies have been male dominated where men have taken their pleasure as their right, in the past there was a recognition that women - whatever their place in the social hierarchy - indeed had emotions and feelings. The Kama Sutra recognises this and clearly states that "Because they belong to the same species, men and women seek the same pleasure in sexual relations." Modern men could very well take a lesson or two from the text, for the very important lesson in it is one of attentiveness. There is enough documented evidence that one of the first casualties in this modern pace of life is sexuality. Too much stress, no time, and certainly no inclination to understand one's partner's needs and expectations. Asian men have traditionally put their own needs first before those of their women; the enduring lesson of the Kama Sutra is that all relationships require attention if sex is not to become a reflexive act of habit. Clearly, the biggest threat to sex comes from ennui. Keeping interest alive in sex today is becoming an enormous challenge.

Is the Kama Sutra really a sex manual, or is it more a treatise on society?

It's certainly much more than a manual. Few people actually read the book preferring rather voyeuristically to look at the explicit miniature paintings that usually accompany it. The truth is that out of the seven chapters in it only one is exclusively dedicated to sexual positions. The rest concentrates on lessons on living. It advises men on the art of seduction, on how to go about setting the right environment and pace - clean silk sheets, music playing in the background, scented candles and incense sticks, jasmine flowers and rose petals, a clean washed body, clipped nails and hair that is cut and groomed - it would very well be the 21st century. Besides it talks about physical and emotional well being, has advice for dealing with male impotency, and how sexually dysfunctional men can acquire the ways and means to understanding what women want and seek. It's about celebrating life in its myriad forms and accepting all that it has to offer.

You're also a Sanskrit scholar. Why bother with a dead language now?

I don't see myself as a scholar in the classic sense. I have taught myself the language and this helps because I probably carry no academic baggage. It's not the language and whether it is dead or alive that's important but the vast cache of wisdom and knowledge that lies hidden and inaccessible in it that relevant. Ancient India was extremely wise, not just in matters of religion, philosophy and sexuality but in ethics and principles, statesmanship, democracy, mathematics, Vedic sciences, astronomy and many aspects of alternative medicine like homeopathy, Ayurveda. Much of the ancient literature on this remains untranslated and therefore unavailable to the general public. The endeavor here is to bring back to the people what is truly their heritage.

Where would you like to see cultural links strengthened between India and South-east Asia?

What I said earlier is true not only for India but for much of South-east Asia which have in the past shared much of the rich tradition and culture. Be it trade, religion, architecture, music, dance or even mythologies, India and South-east Asia are irrevocably bound together by their similar outlook and approach to life. It's a vast canvas in which common themes - be it Buddhism or Vaishnavism as in the case of the Angkor Wat or rituals still performed in far-flung places like Bali - have been painted in different hues, allowing for variations in local customs and traditions. The region has a richness that far surpasses the rest of the world put together and it is becoming imperative for us not only to recognise and ensure that all nations put their best foot forward to preserve their heritage and not lose it to the inane banalities that modernity has come to mean.

How do you explain the paradox of social conservatism in Asia and sexual libertinism?

It's true that all of Asia appears not just traditional but extremely conservative on the surface. But the underlying sexuality has never really gone away. There is also a prevailing sense of hypocrisy. Take India, for example, where graphic books like the Kama Sutra were written over a thousand years ago - and yet the authorities are unable to accept kissing scenes on screen. The coming of the Muslims around 11th century A.D. had an impact on societal structures that up until then had sustained a vibrant acceptance of the erotic - be it in art, music, painting or literature. These libertine South Asian societies were colonized by one European power or the other who saw the East as a land of heathens, wallowing in corrosive moral evil and full of horrible beliefs and customs and un-mentionable thoughts. The Hindu form of worship for example was seen to be disgusting and immoral. The tragedy is that most of these counties viewed this approach as being entirely valid and set about reforming society, thereby jettisoning an entire way of life. All this by way of saying that whatever be the moral codes that were superimposed on us over the past two or three centuries, the underpinning philosophical acceptance of desire and the erotic sentiment is never really too far from the surface.

Isn't there a danger that books like your Kama Sutra will encourage young people to become more promiscuous?

Rather to the contrary. This is an age-old fallacious argument that talking about sex or teaching sex education in schools will necessarily make children promiscuous. One cannot wish away sexuality: it's what gives you fundamental identity: given that, isn't it better to acknowledge it and learn to deal with it in a mature manner? The Kama Sutra helps one to accept and regard sexuality as an intrinsic part of human nature. At no time or place does this book, the scriptures, or any other literature advocate hedonism. Rather, these tomes are always stressing the need to exercise restraint and sexual responsibility. This comes with knowledge, discussion and open dialogue and certainly not by sweeping it under the bed.

Do you see changing social and sexual mores are being related to economic growth and globalisation?

This is a huge concern and a case in point against globalisation. There is little argument against the need for economic development and liberalisation in most South Asian countries. The challenge is learning to deal with this growth. Growth necessarily means change - in lifestyles, attitudes, ethics and traditions. Globalisation need not necessarily mean standardization; it does not necessarily mean that I instantly become a global citizen if I eat burgers instead of dosas or wear pantsuits instead of sarongs. Which is what is unfortunately happening. How to compete in the global market place while staying within the regional context and ethos is the challenge before society and governments.

Do people come up to you and seek personal advice on their, ah, sexual and marital problems?

That's the funny thing. Every since Kama Sutra for women has come out, I have any number of women asking me to tell them about the book and what it advises - what they are supposed to do. I am not a sexologist or a psychologist and really am unqualified to discuss this. But on the other hand it's rather interesting to see how keen women are to discuss their sexual problems openly these days - even in a conservative society such as India.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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