By Rohini Banerjee:
Just when you thought that the moral policing in the country couldn’t get worse, things reached an all new low when the Goa government declared on 22nd January that a strict dress code will be enforced to “check obscenity” during its annual Carnival, which is slated to be held in February.
The carnival — which draws a huge crowd of tourists and revellers every year — is symbolic of Goa’s Portuguese legacy and is held during the period of Lent. It involves a public celebration in the form of long continuous parades of brightly coloured floats, with dancers in masquerade, indulging in merriment and often, drunken revelry. Those who take part in the Carnival usually wear vibrant, extravagant clothing—which is a celebration of the vitality of identities and sexualities. Scantily dressed people abound, and in fact, this festival is seen as that liberating space which allows you the freedom to be yourself, and dress the way you want to—gender no bar. The Carnival is actually an occasion where one can challenge gendered clothing, and dress the way they want to. This helps in reinforcing the fluidity of gender constructs, of sexualities, and simply, to exhibit the freest version of oneself. Goa, for the longest time, has been an emancipatory space—where one could embrace their own identities without any fear of any kind of policing or censorship. But with the current state of affairs, and the imposition of this dress code, it seems as if even Goa isn’t immune from the forces of patriarchal, sexual and moral policing.
The fundamental assumption that a celebration of one’s sexuality through the clothes one wears is “obscene” is something that is extremely problematic at a deep-rooted level. According to the state—which has taken it upon itself to dictate what is “moral” and what fits into their abstract notions of “Indian culture”—any display of sexual or personal liberation has now become a taboo, and this dress code just goes on to enforce that. The very definition of a Carnival, in the Bakhtinian sense, is a subversive sphere, where oppressive dominant ideas can be questioned and challenged. If you take that very essence away from a Carnival, then the whole point of it is lost. The Goan carnival is perhaps the only festival in India which encourages freedom of expression and a celebration of personal identities. And now, with the intervention of the government, that very concept is being jeopardized.
Not only is the attire being regulated, but also the breaking of gender barriers and the expression of sexual freedom. In their haste to check “obscenity”, what they are basically enforcing is that they view anything to do with bodily autonomy as “obscene”.
This will probably go down in history as one of the first Carnivals where such a limitation is imposed. The dress code is a severe blow to the subversive and liberating power of the Carnival, and might even lead to a reduced tourist turnout. This decision just goes on to expose the lengths to which the State can go in its censorship of fundamental freedoms, and makes me increasingly wary of what the future has in store.