When Kaali Descends: A Poster, a Cigarette, a Film

Detractors of Leena Manimekalai and Mahua Moitra have only proved that they lack a true understanding of Kali worship, Tantra and the Shakta traditions.

‘সাত টানেতে তুমি হবে – ব্রহ্মা বিষ্ণু কালী’
On the seventh drag, you will become, Brahma, Vishnu, Kali

∼ Fragment of a ‘smoking-up’ song sung by Kishore Kumar from the 1982 Bengali film ত্রয়ী (Trayee), lyrics by Swapan Chakraborty

My Kaali believes in love and sharing. She accepts the cigarette from a black street dweller at a park around Kensington Market in Toronto and listens to reggaeWhen Kaali descends on me, the queer filmmaker, she will definitely hold a pride flag and a camera. Kaali is my embodiment.”

∼ Leena Manimekalai in an interview to Priyanka Thirumurthy for The Wire

 ‘মা আমার পাগলিনী, বাবা গাঁজাখোর’
‘My mother is a crazy woman, My father smokes weed’

∼ Chorus of a traditional Baul devotional song from Bengal about Kali (mother) and Shiva (father)


There’s a kalava (red and yellow wrist thread worn for ritual protection by Hindu men) wearing man’s hand holding a mobile phone in very first frame of Leena Manimekalai’s short film (she calls it a ‘performance documentary’) Kaali. The phone’s screen shows the video image of a woman performing as the Goddess Kali against the backdrop of what looks like a busy street at night, somewhere in the vastness of the Global North. It looks cold, despite global warming.

Seeing it now, in the wake of the Hindutva-manufactured outrage against Manimekalai (because the poster for this film, which she shared on social media, shows the performer smoking), one can see this strange first image (of an image), a digital image manifold, as a premonition of the viral surge of hatred unleashed by (probably) the itchy fingers of kalava-wearing enraged Hindu men who live, consumed and suspended between devices and screens, from one instance of feeling outraged to another, within the murkier, labyrinthine reaches of their (anti-)social-media covens.

It could be ‘love jihad’ one day, ‘Muslim fruit vendors’ the second day, ‘children in Christian schools’ the third day, ‘cow protection’ the fourth day, ‘defend Nupur Sharma’ the fifth day, ‘tear down a mosque’ the sixth day, and an innocuous film poster of ‘a smoking Kali’ on the seventh day, and then the cycle can begin again, the week after, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. As the weeks accumulate, the debris of their wrecked and injured sentiments becomes a volatile mountain, like the piles of flammable garbage that sometimes explode in flames at the edges of our cities. The image of Manimekalai’s film’s poster is just the match that set this particular garbage mountain of memes, threats and condemnations alight.

Manimekalai’s film moves out of the phone screen, and the image-field expands from the world inside the phone to the world outside it, to show us this uncannily pedestrian incarnation of the South Asian goddess of mercy and rage, sojourner of cremation grounds and forests, beloved and feared in equal measure in many Indic traditions of faith. In this instance, the incarnation is hosted within the body of the filmmaker, Manimekalai herself, who also performs in the film as the performer who performs Kali. This is a fact that the Hindutva hotheads have conveniently forgotten, or overlooked, or never bothered to investigate. The person smoking is a performer performing Kali. She is, and is not, Kali.

Also read: ‘My Kaali Is Deeply Rooted in Tribal Folklore’: Leena Manimekalai Defends Film Poster

She is dressed in a blue body suit that is both technically modest as well as generously suggestive of Kali’s nakedness. It is night, cars whiz past behind her on the busy street. She looks straight towards the camera, resplendent, confident, utterly regal. It doesn’t look as if this figure needs anyone to defend her honour.

The body of the performer playing the goddess is garlanded with flowers, and studded, as it should be, with objects that look like human skulls. She is fitted with an accessory that signifies an extended tongue, and attaches herself to several prosthetic arms that hold, along with a trident, a sharp curving blade, and the customary decapitated male head, a camera (to witness), a megaphone (to rally) and the rainbow of an LGBTQ flag (to signal her pride, her compassion, her inclusiveness). She is a media and tech savvy, 21st century, vernacularly cosmopolitan divinity made of very queer flesh. Some would say, (and not without reason) that she looks, ‘divine’. So far, the only objections to the image have been triggered by the presence of the cigarette. Luckily, no one has as yet latched on to the presence of the LGBTQ flag in association with Kali. Were that to happen, we would know that the forces of global Hindutva were approaching the likelihood of hitting an all-time homophobic low.

Manimekalai’s Kali-persona reminds us of other moments where the divine incarnates, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the form of a bahurupee (a shape-shifting polymorph) in Indian cinema. No, not in exemplars of the ‘mythological’ film genre, but in films that speak to our mundane here and now, interrupting the flow of the cinematic time of ordinariness with electrifying epiphanies. From the emaciated, ‘Bahurupee’ Kali in an abandoned Second World War airfield who appears to startle a boy and a girl in Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha, to the amazingly whimsical, androgynous, ardhanarishwara, corseted Rabi Ghosh, lounging on a chair, and yes, smoking a beedi, prior to getting up and casually practicing languid Natajara dance moves in front of a mirror in Satyajit Ray’s brilliantly comic send up of spiritual charlatanry in Mahapurush; the cinematic avatar of the shape-shifting bahurupee has had a distinguished lineage. Manimekalai’s embodiment of this figure places her squarely within many traditions – cinematic, iconographic, performative, transgressive and even, we might say, devotional.

Rabi Ghosh in Satyajit Ray’s Mahapurush.

The Bahurupee Kali in Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha.

She walks the streets of Toronto, injecting a southern, subaltern subversion into a northern climate of anxious order, pauses in a pub, offers the kindness that only strangers can give to strangers while posing for ‘selfies’ with them, strikes up conversations with rejects and refugees about the collision of different worlds, and for one brief moment, takes a drag from cigarette offered by a homeless man on a park bench. It is this moment, captured in the film’s poster (which is all that the Bhatks have seen), that is at the eye of the storm. But as moments go, it is a passage of searing gentleness and compassion, a man offering someone who looks life a goddess the only thing he probably has to share – a cigarette – and she generously accepts his offering. Then, they sleep, companionably, he supine, she sitting upright on the park bench. The film, and this brief and glorious camaraderie between the human and the possibly divine within the human, ends.

Ramprasad Sen, the poet and Kali devotee of 18th-century Bengal, has a song about Kali that begins – ‘শ্যামা মা উড়াচ্ছ ঘুড়ি, ভব-সংসার বাজারের মাঝে’ (‘shyama ma uraccho ghuri, bhaba-sangsar bajarer majhe’) / ’o dark mother, youre flying a kite in the worlds market-place.

When people rise to defend the ‘honour’ of deities and figures that need no worldly defence, I always feel that they become like silly little kites that dare to try and entangle their strings with the string of the dark one’s magnificent kite. They fall from the sky of sense and meaning, their vain strings sliced by Kali’s razor sharp manja (kite string).

I could not help but recall those words that express what Ramprasad (Sadhak, or Devoted Ramprasad, as he is fondly remembered in Bengal) and any Kali devotee would see as her ruthlessly ludic nature, as I watched Manimekalai’s film online (she sent me a password protected link to a site where I could watch it, perfectly legally), and tried to make sense of the pathetic outrage that it’s flickering online life has generated.

From the digital recesses of the image folded within the image within this short film, this goddess of the night and the street has become a viral sensation, buoyed by the turbulent winds of the Nupur Sharma-precipitated storm of allegations of blasphemy and counter-blasphemy, which show no signs of abating.

And so, the image of the poster of Manimekalai’s film, shared innocuously by herself on her social media accounts, becomes the casus belli of the latest episode in the pathetic culture war that grips our decadent society. Hindutva gets excited whenever it can find itself in the throes of manufactured righteous indignation, and it has been looking for something to cling to ever since Nupur Sharma offered her deliberate televised provocations.

Meanwhile, the Trinamool Congress parliamentarian Mahua Moitra spoke some home truths about Kali worship, in a measured and thoughtful response to a typically badly phrased question posed by an on-stage interlocutor at an India Today event in Kolkata. She stated simply that the Bengali Shakta traditions of Kali worship, within which she squarely places herself, have always celebrated offerings to Kali in the form of meat and alcohol.

Also read: TMC’s Condemnation of Mahua Moitra’s Comments on Kali Has Party Supporters Perplexed

Moitra’s naive interlocutor was obviously trying to riff off the mediatised controversy triggered by the outrage against Manimekalai’s film’s poster, in that typically flippant and irresponsible way that we have long come to expect of Indian mainstream media. Moitra refused, correctly, to get drawn into commenting on the poster that lay at the centre of the controversy because she said that she had seen neither the film nor the poster. But she stood her ground about what she, and everyone who knows anything about Kali worship in Bengal, holds to be self evident – the goddess Kali demands, and regularly receives, meat and alcohol. The protocols for worshipping Kali, immersed as they are in tantrik practice as it evolved in Bengal and elsewhere, require the deployment of the specific acts and substances. It is held that these, being especially beloved of Kali and her associate goddesses, if offered, please the worshipped deity to the extent that she opens the doors to the devotee’s liberation.

This soteriological axiom of Shakta faith was succinctly expressed by the highly respected early-20th-century scholar and writer Panchkori Bandopadhyay in a 1915 essay titled ‘Pancha Makar’ that was included in Banglar Tantra (Tantra in Bengal) – an anthology of his writings, first published in 1943. The very first sentence of Panchkori Bandopadhyay’s essay says ‘মদ্য, মাংস, মৎস্য, মুদ্রা ও মৈথুনইহাই তন্ত্রসাধনার পঞ্চ মকার বা পঞ্চতত্ত্ব’ – ‘(‘madya’ (alcohol), ‘mangsa’ (meat) , ‘matsya’ (fish), mudra(parched grain) and maithuna(sex) – these are the the five ‘m’s, or five foundational elements, of Tantrik practice’).

There is nothing either spectacular or scandalous in this statement. Every Bengali knows this to be true. Now, it is a well-known fact that north Indian, vegetarian, BJP-voting, Modi-Yogi fanboys tend to be illiterate about unfamiliar traditions within the big tent of Indic faiths that do not conform to their anodyne version of sacrality. Their relentless quest to impose their own narrow-minded, NRI-friendly, caricature of the religion and tradition that they claim to espouse on to others who do not subscribe to their sanitised, one-size-fits-all Hindutva (which is not ‘Hinduism’) is pathetic at best, and at worst, actually deeply offensive to many practicing Hindus and other adherents of Indic faiths.

I recently saw Pathikrit Pyne, a commentator affiliated to the right-wing think-tank Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, insist while on a recent Republic TV ‘debate’ that meat and alcohol are offered not to the goddess Kali, but to the bhutas and pretas (ghosts and vampires) who accompany her, to satisfy there insatiable appetites.

He was egged on in saying this by Republic’s anchor Arnab Goswami, who being Assamese himself, and that too from Gauhati, should have had a fairly good idea of what is actually offered to the presiding deity of the Kamakhya temple in his home town, but he did not let on that he did.

This kind of ‘embarrassment’ about the use of panchamakara elements, and the invention of fanciful narrative ploys to suggest that meat and alcohol are offered not for the goddess to consume but to placate the hunger of her spectral minions or defeated demons, flies in the face of the strict, formulaic codification and standardisation of the liturgy and practice of Kali worship, which began occurring in Bengal with the writing of the ‘শ্যামা-সপর্যা বিধি’, the Shyama-Saparya-Vidhi, Kali/Shyama Worship Manual of Kashinath Tarkalankara in the late 18th century.

This ‘manual’ spells out the list of ingredients, incantations and ritual actions that an ordained priest has to know in order to complete a successful Kali Puja. An early-20th-century recension of this manual, redacted by Swami Paramatmanandanatha Bhairav Giri, and still in use today, states the minimum necessities for Kali worship, plainly, in its introduction:

মদ্য, মাংস, মৎস্য, মুদ্রা ও মৈথূন – এই পঞ্চতত্ত্ব ব্যাতীর্ত বীরাচারীদের কোন পূজাই সিদ্ধ হয় না |পূর্ণাভিষিক্ত কৌল সাধকগণ এসব জানেন | পঞ্চতত্ত্বপূজা বীরের নিত্যকর্ম্ম | যিনি নিত্যই পঞ্চতত্ত্বদ্বারা দেবতার অর্চনা করেন  তিনিই উত্তম কৌল |

[শ্যামা-সপর্যা বিধি, ভূমিকা
শ্রীমৎ স্বামী পারামাত্মানন্দনাথ ভৈরব (গিরি), কাশীনাথ তর্কালংকারের অবলম্বনে, সদেশ, কোলকাতা]

‘Alcohol, meat, fish, parched grain and coitus – without these five elements (panchatattva) no (Kali) Puja is realised. The elect, ritually pure adept, who is trained in the ritual arts and sciences, know this well. The Puja with the Five Elements is the daily task of the ritual protagonist. He who performs worship with the five elements daily is the most excellent adept.

I have come across a further particularly specious objection to the notion that meat, alcohol etc. are offered to Kali, and that is that these ‘offerings’ are merely metaphors. That meat is suggestive of restraint, particularly over speech, that alcohol is indicative of the ‘nectar’ of immortality, or intoxication with the divine, that fish is symbolic of the syncopated control of inhalation and exhalation (twin S curves that join to form a piscine shape), that a heap of parched grain stands for the company of spiritual seekers and that the act of coitus is just a euphemism for the raising of the kundalini. Be that as it may, this series of symbolic correspondences and semantic transfers only make sense if the original referents are understood for being what they are. Only then does the metaphor acquire force. When we use the metaphor ‘heart of gold’ we implicitly know what both ‘heart’ and ‘gold’ mean, separately, for us to know what they come to mean when used as a semantic dyad.

Similarly, understanding that alcohol stands for ‘nectar’, or ‘spiritual intoxication’ requires the person faced with this congruence to know both what alcohol is, and what nectar and intoxication are. The ‘sense’ of the metaphor, if it is to make sense, requires an awareness of, and experience of, both the object (or meaning) being indicated as well as the substance that does the indicating. The success of the metaphor ‘alcohol is spiritual intoxication’ does not require us to jettison the meaning of alcohol upon the achievement of the comprehension of ‘spiritual intoxication’. To do that would be to act in bad faith.

Tantrik practice recognises this. Panchokori Bandyopadhyay states clearly that Tantra and the Shakta traditions do not make distinctions between what he calls হেয় (‘heya’ – trivial, profane, mundane) and শ্রেয় (‘shreya’ – significant, sacred, holy). What may be profane in one context may be sacred in another. This means that the worship of Shakti, the female principle, explicitly emphasises, indeed privileges, bodily needs and pleasures. Ramprasad’s poetry for Kali repeatedly returns to food and desire. At one point he addresses her hungrily, saying,

এবার কালী তোমায় খাব
(খাব খাব গো দীনময়ী)
তারা গন্ডযোগে জন্ম আমার,
গন্ডযোগে জন্মিলে,
সে হয় যে মা-খেকো ছেলে,
এবার তুমি খাও কি আমি খাই মা,
দু’টার একটা করে যাব।।

And now, Kali I will eat you
I will eat you, I will eat you, o lady of the meek
Tara, I’m born under an unauspicious star
the one that makes a son eat his mother
Now either you eat me, or I eat you
One of these two will have to be

There is a clear reference to Kali as a being fond of alcohol and meat in the Mahabharata. The alcohol preference is very specific – it’s for something called ‘Sidhu/Shidhu’ – alcohol fermented from molasses (গুড়) or from raw sugarcane juice. Rum, basically.

It’s in the most unexpected place. In the Virata Parva (one of my favourite sections of the Mahabharata) where the Pandavas and Draupadi spend a spell in disguise in the court of King Virata. This is where Arjun cross dresses to become the female dancer Brihannala and Yudhishthir becomes a gambler etc. Anyway, early on in this section, Yudhishthir invokes the goddess, first as Durga, then as Kali. And in the bit where he calls on Kali he says:

युधिष्ठिर उवाच :
“काली काली महाकाली सीधुमांसपशुप्रिये
कृतानुयात्रा भूतैसत्वं वरदा कामचारिणी”

Yudhishthir Uvāch :
“Kali, Kali, Mahakali,
Krtânuyātrā bhūtais-tvam,
varadā, kamacharini”

Yudhishthir Said:
“Kali, Kali, great Kali,
fond of rum, meat and animal sacrifice !
Your followers are made up of all living beings !
You are the granter of boons, lady who travels where she pleases.”

In the standard Bangla Mahabharata – of the renowned 19th-century scholar and translator Kaliprasanna Singha – this section has the same words:

“হে সীধু-মাংসপশুপ্রিয়ে, কামচারিনী ! …হে কালী, মহাকালী |” (‘hé sīdhumamsapashupriye, kamacharini ! … hé Kali, mahakali’)

The edition I read has a footnote at the bottom of the page that says ‘সীধু’ (Sīdhu here mean alcoholic beverage).

This is on page 689 of the first volume of Kaliprasanna Singha’s Bengali Mahabharata (13th edition) as published by Sahitya Tirtha, Kolkata, in 2014.

It is not at all surprising that Swami Vivekananda himself referred to Kali as a meat-eating goddess in fairly plain words in প্রাচ্য ও পাশ্চাত্য (‘Prachya o Paschatya’ – ‘East or West’). He says:

‘ঐ বুড়ো শিব ডমরু বাজাবেন, মা কালী পাঁঠা খাবেন, আর কৃষ্ণ বাঁশী বাজাবেন— এ দেশে চিরকাল।
যদি না পছন্দ হয়, সরে পড় না কেন? তোমাদের দু-চারজনের জন্য দেশসুদ্ধ লোককে হাড়-জ্বালাতন হতে হবে বুঝি? চরে খাওগে না কেন?’
স্বামী বিবেকানন্দ : প্রাচ্য ও পাশ্চাত্য

‘Here in India will ever be the Old Shiva laboring on his Damaru, the Mother Kali worshipped with animal sacrifice, and the lovable Shri Krishna playing on His flute.

If you cannot bear them — avaunt! For a handful of you, shall a whole nation be wearied out of all patience and bored to death? Why don’t you make your way somewhere else where you may find fields to graze upon freely.’

The culture that has grown around the worship of Kali does not insist on abandoning the corporeal means (eating, sex, sensory experience) once the ends of ‘spiritual mastery’ is attained. Rather it proceeds by operating at multiple levels of experience and embodiment by refusing to inscribe into its practice any hierarchy between the corporeal and the intangible, between the material and the spiritual, between the prohibited and the permitted. The figure of Kali is powerful because she transgresses taboos, because she eats and is eaten, because she breaks the distinctions between what is forbidden and what is authorised. Cigarettes will be smoked, especially if there is a ‘no smoking’ sign.

I doubt if Pyne (or Goswami, for that matter) have ever read the essay written by Panchkori Bandyopadhyay that I referred to, the poetry of Ramprasad Sen or Nazrul Islam or anything else in the vast literature of Shakta faith and Tantrik practice, but given that Pyne appears to be a prominent luminary of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, his (and Goswami’s) ignorance of what the term ’Shyama Prasad’ (the residue of offerings to the dark goddess, Kali, that is consumed by her devotees) is truly shocking. The followers of Mookerjee have no idea of what Shyama Prasad is. What can be a greater sign of the utter bankruptcy of the Hindutva camp’s claim to understand or correctly represent anything in the traditions that they claim to uphold?

But let us come back to our smoking Kali. In addition to a healthy appetite for meat, alcohol, fish, carbs (what else are grains?) and sex, the fact that a particular form of Kali likes to smoke, and to smoke up, and is accordingly offered cigarettes, tobacco, beedis and spliffs is a commonly known feature of those initiated into the worship of Dhumavati, the ‘smoky one’. Offerings make sense only if the devotee assumes that the deity will ingest what is offered, and that her ‘leavings’ can then be a source of grace when consumed by the devotee. This is how the offering (naivadya) and the leavings consumed by devotees (prasad, hence, shyama prasad, which we have already talked of before) transforms a ritual habit into a cycle of reciprocal exchange. It sacralises the mundane offering, and transforms the leavings into a potent source of grace. This is the dynamic embraced within the sharing of a cigarette between devotee and Dhumavati.

Dhumavati is one of the ten ‘Mahavidyas’, powerful and ambivalent tantrik incarnations, of the goddess. Dhumavati is the closest amongst them in terms of identification with Shmashan Kali, the Kali of the (appropriately smoky) cremation ground.

Anyone who has ever been to the Dhumavati Temple in the neighbourhood of Dhoopchandi in the Nati-Imli area of Varanasi will instantly recognise the presence of cigarettes, and beedis, in the votive items offered to the temple’s presiding deity for her consumption. This temple is within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency. I think it has survived his ugly makeover of Varanasi.

David Kinsley, professor of religion at MacMaster University, Canada, has an entire chapter on Dhumavati in his book on the Mahavidyas, Tantrik Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. A description of the Dhumavati temple at Varanasi and the offerings left by the devotees forms a part of this chapter. It is worth quoting at some length.

Dhumavati temples are few and far between. In Varanasi, I visited one of these rare temples on several occasions. Although the central image there is covered with clothing, the priest assured me that it represents DhumavatiShe receives as offerings the usual things, such as flour and fruit, but also likes liquor, bhang (a form of hashish), cigarettes, and meatshe does not like offerings burnt in a fire that are not smoky. Smoke attracts her because it suggests destruction. She herself, the priest said, exists in the form of smoke, and like smoke she drifts everywhere at will.

So, if Kali as the adrift, smoky Dhumavati can smoke in Varanasi, why can’t Manimekalai, as Kali, smoke, while drifting, in Toronto? Do the champions of Hindutva want to suggest that Kali’s domain does not extend as far as Toronto? Or that she cannot incarnate herself in the body of a queer Tamil woman? If the soteriology of Tantra is to be taken seriously, then Manimekalai is only an instrument of Kali’s compassion on a cold night in a distant land, and her sharing a cigarette, as one drifter with another, on a park bench, is yet another instance of Kali’s kite flying in the market place of the world. This time, her kite rises gently, like a satisfied exhalation of cigarette smoke.

But who can let be what must be let be?

Enough damage has been done already.

Within hours of Manimekalai’s having shared the poster of her film, bhakts from Toronto to Tilak Nagar were sharing screenshots of her post in excited indignation, noting as they did so that other posts by Manimekalai had expressed support for the UAPA detenu Umar Khalid and the Bhima Koregaon case prisoners. A smoking Kali turned into a smoking gun.

And then, the virus of ‘injured sentiment’ passed from mobile phone to mobile phone, bouncing from outraged snarl to outraged FIRs (in Delhi, Bhopal and Uttar Pradesh), and even to the odd call for Manimekalai’s decapitation by an incensed Hindu monk sitting in Ayodhya, or the social media-delivered threat to kill her made by the Tamil Nadu ‘president’ of a Coimbatore-based group that styles itself as the ‘Shakti Sena Hindu Makkal Iyakkam’.

Less ominously, but still just as sadly, the film was pulled from being exhibited in ‘Under the Tent’, the student film festival that was being held at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, following a petulant letter from the Indian High Commission in Canada. The Aga Khan Museum’s ‘apology’ for the film’s presence on the programme of the festival was a sad, craven instance of submission to the repressive agenda of India’s Ministry of Embarrassing Arguments, and its officers in the Indian High Commission in Canada.

Then, following Mahua Moitra’s statement, a relentless wave of angry and hateful reactions began focusing on the parliamentarian. They picked up momentum as the Hindutva ecosystem asserted that her behaviour, as a ‘serial offender’ against the dignity of Hindu deities, needed to be punished. BJP politicians in different parts of the country, and sundry busybodies of the Hindutva persuasion, entered the fray, tweeting their outrage to their heart’s content.

Ram Chandra, a tea vendor, lodged a First Information Report (an ‘FIR’) against Moitra under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code at the Crime Branch Police Station in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. A few hours later, a BJP leader, Durgesh Keswani, ‘patron’ of the Jagat Hindu Manch (World Hindu Platform) filed a complaint with the same ‘Crime Branch’ police station in Bhopal, that became the basis of another FIR, this time against Manimekalai. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the chief minister of the state where these two FIRs have been filed, stated, “We will not tolerate disrespect to any Hindu Gods and Goddesses at any cost.” Suddenly, it was as if the brief interval of reticence that had taken hold of the BJP and the extreme right on social media in the wake of the discovery that the two ‘Muslim terrorists’ (and that is indeed what they were) happened to be BJP activists was overtaken by an enthusiastically welcomed resurgence of hatred self-righteously justified by Hindutva enthusiasts, awakened by what they saw as the Manimekalai-Moitra mashup.

In a shameless instance of Hindutva appeasement, the All India Trinamool Congress, instead of defending their ablest parliamentarian against the onslaught of Hindutva trolls and baseless FIRs, condemned Moitra’s absolutely accurate statements, notwithstanding the fact that they were insulting their own voters, Bengalis, especially Kali worshipping Bengalis, by doing so.

Amongst mainstream politicians, only Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Kerala, came out in Moitra’s defence.

The only other political figures of significance to voice support for Mahua Moitra was Dipankar Bhattacharya, the secretary general of the CPI(ML-Liberation).

As for Manimekalai, only the All India Progressive Women’s Organisation (the women’s organisation affiliated with the CPI(ML-Liberation), signed and released a statement in support of the filmmaker. The statement said:

The death threats, abuse and threats of censorship faced by filmmaker Leena Manimekalai over the poster of her new film Kaali are abhorrent, and reflect the growing climate of Hindu-supremacist intolerance in India.

We assert that Indian women have a right to imagine the goddess Kaali as embodying and embracing independence and inclusivity in women and LGBTQIA persons. The attempts to censor the image of Kaali (depicted on the poster as smoking and holding a Pride flag) are symptomatic of the attempts n by the patriarchal custodians of most faiths to control and censor the lives of women and LGBTQIA persons. Violence and threats of violence on the pretext of allegations of blasphemyare shameful and condemnable – in any faith.

We stand by the rights of citizens, artists and filmmakers to freely express themselves. In the past we have seen hate mongers threaten writers like Perumal Murugan, Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, as well as artists like MF Husain – those who threaten Leena Manimekalai are of the same ilk.

Barring these stray voices, it is as if the entire political class has been struck dumb by calls to arrest a sitting MP and threats to kill a young woman filmmaker. The mainstream media is doing what it always does – it is continuing to platform those who scream the loudest for hatred and violence.

Asinine comparisons are being made on TV channels and on social media, including by those keen on playing the game of ‘balance’ between former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma and TMC MP Mahua Moitra; as if the intention, nature and role of the very distinct statements made by these two women were identical to each other. Far from being identical, they are, as Moitra herself has made abundantly clear, completely contrary to each other. In a recent interview to News18, she said:

What Nupur Sharma said was in order to try and humiliate members of another religion and denigrate Prophet Mohammed. My statement on the other hand conveyed my personal belief as a Hindu, as a worshipper of ‘Shakti’ and an ardent devotee of Maa Kali. What I said was in celebration of the goddess and what she means to me and to convey how she is worshipped by me and, I believe, by countless other devotees. 

Manimekalai has also responded to the hate that she is getting by reaffirming her vision of Kali as an embodiment of inclusive love. In a recent interview to the New Indian Express she says:

 For me, Kaali is an abode of strength, freedom and truth. She is an undeterred spirit. A pagan goddess. In our Tamil festivals and rituals at village temples, pachakaali, pavalakaali, karunkaali and so many avatars of Kaali descend on people as spirits, drink country liquor, smoke-up and dance. That is the Kaali I know of. She descends on me, a queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Colour) filmmaker and takes a quintessential trip of being, becoming and belonging in the streets of downtown Toronto. She meets up with the indigenous community, people of African, Asian and Persian descent, people belonging to various races and ethnicities in the streets of Toronto – the grand city of immigrants and celebrates life.

Kaali, the film is all about choosing love and championing humanity. Trolls who are witch-hunting me are fueled by hate. They have nothing to do with faith. If they are patient enough to watch the film they might choose love. But thats exactly why they want the film to be banned.

In all of this, what is being forgotten is that all the hatred that both Manimekalai and Moitra are receiving is hinged on that brief moment of compassion, solidarity and frankly, love that straddles the shared cigarette at the end of the film.

Without being distracted by the legitimate question of damages to health caused by industrially produced cigarettes, and without romanticising the mystique of smoking, it is still possible for us to consider that a shared cigarette, or a spliff, can embody and engender a transient but powerful social bond. For some, this experience may verge on the transcendental, and if they close to describe it as such, who is anyone to object? It is not for nothing that Kali’s consort, Shiva, master of mystics of different kinds, is known to be a great smoker of various substances.

Even as a lifelong non-smoker, I know that the shared smoke can be a bridge between one breath and another, a marking and transcendence of time (as in a ‘smoking break’ on a busy workday, or the obligatory post-coital cigarette), and the occasion for the telling of the best stories. That is why even my non-smoker self often resorts to balconies and exterior spaces in all sorts of temperatures. This happens when smoker friends, men as well as women, leave the room to light up. And I follow, so that I can to be with them, in their intimate circle of smoke, while the bright flame of a match is struck and its flame protected from the elements, while that small, smouldering cylinder of paper and leaf passes from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth.

It does not surprise or shock me at all to think of, or imagine, the figure of Kali sharing a cigarette. It seems completely within the logic of the panchamakara principle that the pleasurable offering and exchange of breath and fire, and the hit of nicotine, or whatever other chemical element might be transported by the shared act of smoking, should be conducive to a moment of elevation in consciousness and connectedness. We live for these moments. They constitute the ‘smoking breaks’ that take back the time stolen from us by the world we live in.

Once, not so long ago, there were ‘Kali’ Cigarettes.

They share a space in the imagination with ‘Ganesh’ Beedis, with ‘Mecca’ cigarettes, with ‘Our Lady of Cigarettes’ calendars featuring the Virgin Mary, produced by Philippine cigarette brands.

The image that you can see below is of a colour lithograph, a print advertisement, of Kali cigarettes that were specially popular in Calcutta and Bengal.This advertisement dates from the late nineteenth century (1885-90). The print was published by the Calcutta Art Studio, of 185 Bowbazar Street, Calcutta. A copy of the print is in the collection of the British Museum, London.

‘Kali Cigarettes’ advertisement, Calcutta, India, c. 1885-90, Lithograph, 42 cm x 32.1 cm, British Museum 2016,3031.2

You can read about this image, and other popular images of Kali, in an article by Alex Wolfers, a scholar of theology and religious studies with a special interest in 19th-century Bengal at Cambridge University. Wolfers’ article is published in the British Museum’s blog.

The image also figures as Figure 149, on page 197 of the British Museum and Thames & Hudson published catalogue of the ‘Tantra: Enlightenment to Revolution’ exhibition curated at the British Museum, London, by Imma Ramos in 2020.

The image is also a part of the collection of the museum at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata.

As you can probably tell from the image (which I have seen, separately, framed and displayed in the shops and homes of devout Kali devotees, especially in somewhat older homes and establishments, in north Calcutta and in rural and small-town Bengal), the brand being sold here is ‘Kali Cigarettes’. As was often the case in those days, the cigarettes were advertised as being beneficial for health.

Additionally, the advertisement carries the following text, which I thought would be interesting for today’s Hindu zealots to read. Since I am assuming that most of them would not be able to read Bangla, I have taken the trouble to translate the text into English for them. The English translations, following after the transcriptions of the original Bangla text, are in square parentheses.

‘কালী সিগারেট – বিশুদ্ধ স্বাদেশি
ইস্ট ইন্ডিয়া সিগারেট ম্যানুফ্যাকচারিং কোম্পানি লিমিটেড দ্বারা প্রস্তুত | ১৩১ ন., হ্যারিসন রোড, কলিকাতা ’

[‘Kali Cigarettes. Pure Swadeshi. Presented by the East India Cigarette Manufacturing Company, 131 No., Harrison Road, Calcutta.’]

‘যদি স্বদেশী দ্রব্যের উন্নতি সাধনে আপনাদের  যত্ন থাকে, যদি দেশের দীন দুঃখী শ্রমজীবীদিগকে প্রতিপালন করা আপনাদের কর্ত্তব্য হয়, যদি যথার্থই ভাল মন্দ বিচার করেন, তবে হে হিন্দু ভ্রাতৃগণ ! এই কালী সিগারেট ব্যবহার করুন |’

[‘If you care for the development of ‘svadeshi’ (home-grown in India) products, if you feel responsible for the poor, miserable, working people of this land, if you can truly distinguish between good and evil, then, o Hindu brothers, you must use these ‘Kali’ cigarettes!’]

The Kali Cigarette brand has sadly expired. But a brand of beedis, known as Ma Kali Special Beedi, is still being produced somewhere in East Midnapore. Their packets carry signs warning against imitations.

Ma Kali Special Bidi. Photo: Faruk Ali, found on Facebook

It has been claimed by some that the image or name of the goddess, or a god, on a cigarette or beedi packet is not the same as the image of a goddess taking a drag. While no one objects to Shiva lighting up, the annoyance at Kali doing the same seems to be a bit sexist. Why should Kali not do what Shiva can? Are they not essentially, theologically speaking, just ‘aspects’ of each other? But the theological claim to divine gender equality apart, there is also the simple fact that, as we have seen already, the breaking of traditional taboos about what can or must not be ingested is an essential part of the conceptual framework of Kali worship. If there is a taboo, say against women smoking, then Kali will break it, and will encourage her devotees to do the same.

Still, old habits die hard. And some of the devout do take umbrage at their gods as ornaments on cigarette packets. In a case that is not as well known as it ought to be, a devotee of Lord Ganesh took a beedi manufacturer to court because his religious sentiments were hurt by the depiction of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles, on the design of the wrapping of packets of the popular brand of ‘Ganesh’ beedis. An adverse ruling against the beedi manufacturer led them to file a petition in a higher court (the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court). A hearing took place, and the judgment, delivered in January, 2005 by Justice Tiwari, is of relevance even to this instance of devout Hindus being affronted by the image of Kali smoking in the poster of Manimekalai’s film.

Justice Tiwari dismisses the respondent’s argument against the petitioner, the manufacturer of Ganesh Beedis, by saying:

The petitioner had been using the said trade mark of ‘Ganesh’ for its product- ‘Bidies’ for over more than 50 years. No basis, or material, has been provided by the respondent – that  (shows) that the religious feelings of Hindus are hurt by smoking Bidi or (that) smoking Bidi is prohibited by Hindu Dharmashastras.  

Dharmashastras have no statutory binding force unless it is enacted by law.

The respondent, for self aggrandizement ,has taken a stand of (the) hurt of religious feelings. As is apparent from the use of the devise (sic.) and trademark of ‘Ganesh’ on various products, particularly, on tobaccos, it is also apparent that people are associated with the picture or idle (sic. idol) of ‘Ganesh’ and might be preferring to buy Bidies produced by the petitioner.

Had it been otherwise, they would have revolted not only against the petitioner but against others who have been marketing the tobacco products by using the devise (sic.) of ‘Ganesh’ as trademark.

It is firmly established that use of the symbol of ‘Lord Ganesh’ in the Bidis manufactured by the petitioner is not prohibited in law. It does not hurt the feelings of any Hindu, in any manner.

Will the spirit of the Ganesh Beedi judgment inform the deliberations that might ensue if the FIRs against Manimekalai and Moitra mature into charge sheets and actual trials? Given the record of the courts (across the board) in recent years, one cannot be certain that the outcome will not represent a surrender to the madness of Hindutva. The courts do have a precedent, because, as Justice Tiwari has correctly observed, the Dharmashastras are silent on the question of beedis.

But still, I’m wondering, as I write this, whether or not teams of the Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh Police are being despatched to the British Museum, in London, to the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, and to the Ministry of Culture, Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi (in charge of the Victoria Memorial, Kolkata) to investigate those who have kept the possibly deep anti-Hindu conspiracy as embodied in this image from the late-19th-century which still haunts the poster and a few concluding moments of Manimekalai’s film ?

For how long, o Hindu brothers (if one were to borrow momentarily the terms of address of the ad for Kali Cigarettes), and how low, can your idiocy of Hindutva drag this country into the morass of inane non-issues, especially since there is so much, such as a tanking economy, disappearing jobs, a ruined education and health infrastructure, a tattered social fabric, and the soaring prices of food, for you, and the rest of us, to actually talk and think about, and agitate against?

But the staging of this conversation can only happen when the ruling party is persuaded to stop trying to turn every conversation into a site for the performance of injured Hindu sentiment, so that the overwhelming  and dominant majority of the population of the country can be prevented from constantly being made to feel as if it were some vulnerable, victimised minority instead. Where, at each turn and every corner, the perennial and fraudulent blackmail of ‘Hindus and Hinduism in Danger’ were not being used to silence any and all questions.

This is why Moitra, MP from Krishna-Nagars, West Bengal, feels compelled to say:

“I do not want to live in an India where BJPs monolithic patriarchal brahminical view of Hinduism will prevail & rest of us will tiptoe around religion. I will defend this till I die. File your FIRs – will see you in every court in the land.”

Perhaps someone needs to make a discreet offering of cigarettes on behalf of Manimekalai and Moitra to Dhumavati, the guardian of the funeral pyres, the smoky deity of last resort, in her small temple, tucked away somewhere in the by-lanes of the prime minister’s constituency. I hope someone in Varanasi is reading this, and that once they finish reading, are off to buy a packet of cigarettes to offer to the dark lady who looks on with compassion and equanimity across vast continents of despair, in Dhupchandi, Benares, Kensington Market, Toronto, Kalighat, Kolkata, Nigambodh or Noida, NCR, and wherever else a short smoking break from this time may be necessary.

Let’s share the light, and pass it on.

Shuddhabhrata Sengupta is with the Raqs Collective in New Delhi.

Note: This article was originally published on July 8 and updated on July 11 with references to the Mahabharata and Swami Vivekananda.