Over assessment and over reading of the meaning of a work of art could land a progressive political party in soup. That’s what exactly happened with a section of the students’ and teachers’ unions belonging to the ruling Left Front in Kerala. In Sri Sankaracharya University, a university established in the name of the Aadi Sankaracharya, a 9th century scholar who is said to have defeated the prominence of Buddhism using the scholarly interpretations of the Vedic scriptures and paved the way for establishing Hinduism as we know it today, the installation of a sculptural icon of Sri Sankaracharya at the newly inaugurated arched gate has provoked the left leaning students and teachers. The opposition which has by now snowballed into a large scale controversy involving political as well as religious factions seems to have put the left parties into a spot. While the right wing political factions have found a stick to beat the ruling left parties, even the left leaning intellectuals and artists have found the move of their political fellow travelers ill-timed, insensitive and irresponsible to certain extent.
A section of the left wing students’ and teachers’ unions opposes it because they say that the installation of a ‘Hindu idol’ would eventually turn a university into a temple by replacing the academic stake holders slowly but steadily with the religious stake holders (read right wing political and religious parties organizations). They allege that there have already been moves from the right wing forces to take over the university and convert it into a Hindu religious establishment. There had been certain moves in the yesteryears to rename the university as ‘Kaladi Sanskrit University’ but it was shot down by both the public and the members of the academic communities. While the general consensus on the nomenclatural logic of the university remains intact, those who oppose the installation of the Sankaracharya ‘Icon’ assert that the university’s name is commemorative but it is definitely not established for teaching Hindu religion or Sanskrit. The opposition also reads the whole issue from a Dalit perspective saying that the move (to establish an icon) is to underline the Hindu leaning of the university.
(Sri Sankaracharya University, Kaladi)
Most of the people from the art community who have responded to the issue see it as a non-issue made into a controversy. One could see how the opposition has brought the right wing forces as the protectors of artistic freedom. Unfortunately, the opposing sections have failed to understand the artistic side of this Sankaracharya icon. Once the university decided to have a sculpture at the new gate, the Vice Chancellor of the University decided that the sculpture could be made by the faculty members of the Sculpture Department in the university. T.G.Jyotilal, an acclaimed sculptor who heads the department took the responsibility of sculpting the image of Sankaracharya which is ‘radically different’ but ‘not provokingly away from the norms’. Jyotilal made a collective effort by holding workshops with the students of the faculty, bringing technical expertise from outside. The work of the sculpture in cement cast has been on for the last two months and is nearing completion.
“There is a major difference between an idol and an icon. An idol is made for worship and an icon is made for larger cultural consumption,” says Jyotilal. According to him the moment the agitators used the word ‘idol’ in the public memory it suddenly got attached as a religious idol. “It is so unfortunate that the agitators could not see that we are all modern sculptors and we do not make idols for worship, which is a different ball game altogether. We were attempting to create a sculptural icon of Sankaracharya, who was a religious personality but never a god in himself,” says Jyotilal. Sankaracharya was a commentator of religious texts and was an able debater who could convince the opponents about the virtues of Hinduism. He used both secular and religious logic.
(Sculptor Jyotilal TG)
As Sankaracharya lived in the late 8th and early 9th century CE (some attribute his time between 5th c and 12th c), none of us know what he looked like. There are no photographic evidences to prove the likeness of Sankaracharya. The idols we already have in parlance in different parts of India come from the common understanding about the Bhakti poets and saints of the 13th to 15th centuries. If one looks at the idols of these poets even in Kerala (like those of Melpathur Bhattathirippadu, Poonthanam, Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan and so on), one could see they do not considerably differ from the likeness of Sankaracharya’s idols. The interesting fact is that though Sankaracharya lived a few centuries before the Bhakti poets, the idols of all these personalities were made almost during the same time; the time frame could be fixed somewhere between late 19th century to the late 20th century. Hence, even for Jyotilal the point of reference is the available image of Sankaracharya to which he could take some poetic and artistic licenses, perhaps even removing a few stark religious iconographies.
The photograph of the sculptures made available to me by the sculptor himself tells me beyond doubt that the artist has not re-created the popular image of Sankaracharya, instead he has created a Sankara who is more like a saintly scholar, more like a Buddha or Jain Teerthankaras in our mind. This semblance does not mean that Jyotilal and team were trying to deliberately subvert the ‘Hindu’ version of Sankaracharya and to make a Buddhist one. Here, the Sankaracharya sculpture is more serene but not cinematic; it is more sculptural than idol like. Generally speaking if at all people remember Sankaracharya they must be doing it via book covers, CD covers, calendars and popular flex boards. Ironically, Kerala is a place which had produced the first Jagadguru Adi Sankarcharya movie in 1977. Directed by the leftist poet P.Bhaskaran, this film had closely followed the ‘myth’ of Sankaracharya. This had not created any controversy in Kerala in those days. Similarly in 1983, G.V.Iyer had directed the most famous Aadi Sankaracharya film in Sanskrit language which had reaped National Awards. This film too had not created any controversy.
(Jyotilal and students at work)
The times were different and works of art were taken for their aesthetic finesse and interpretational values. No one, including the Dalits, had got sentimentally hurt by watching these films. Today, the time has changed and we see the right wing bigotry on the rise. This has also necessitated the Dalit uprising all over the country. Hence, a Sankaracharya sculpture in front of a university can become a point of debate. But the debate should have some space for the voices of the artist. The irony is that the same left parties who opposed the right wing forces for seeing religious figures in the works of M.F.Husain are now seeing religious meanings in a creative sculpture done by a group of academically qualified sculptors with clear left wing politics. The counter actions of the right wing parties to protect the interests of the sculpture (thereby sculptors too) have hijacked the issue to their side forcing the ‘progressive left parties’ into defence. Till now they have been behaving exactly like the right wing forces baying for the blood of independent artists.
“Unfortunately, the agitators are not seeing us as artists and academics,” says a dejected Jyotilal. “For them academic practice means reading and writing. Sculpting or making a work of art is not an academic work for them. They think that we are workers who execute others’ plans. It is unfortunate,” Jyotilal continues. When the University authorities asked the sculpture department to take up the job, it came forward thinking that it was an opportunity even for the students to do a large scale sculpture whose theme would give them a lot of scope for artistic interpretations. But the left parties somehow have misread it. They projected certain internal fears saying that once the ‘idol’ is installed, the right wing parties would come to do the ‘worship’ and they would eventually turn the university into a temple. Right wingers are capable of doing it. But now, they have become the protectors of a sculpture by default. The agitators could have ‘protected’ the secular nature of the sculpture exactly the way they had done in Trissur Kerala Varma College.
(Mahatma Gandhi by Ramkinkar Baij and students of Santiniketan)
Ram Kinkar Baij made Gandhi sculpture and his students decided to make it into a monumental concrete sculpture, which they did. The sculpture is still in the Santiniketan campus. When it was installed, the Naxalites of the time did not like it. They wanted to destroy it using crude bombs. After a few failed attempts they left it there. But Baij conveyed to them that he would be happy to make a Mao the way they wanted provided they met the expenses. He said that it was just a sculpture and they should just leave it alone. May be in the case of Sankaracharya sculpture in Kaladi too, the leftists should take a Baij-ian approach; just think about it as a Sankaracharya sculpture and if they need an EMS sculpture next to it, they should commission the artists to make it and obtain permission from the university authorities. Still, if some people come and start lighting lamps and conducting pooja, don’t we have a government there? Haven’t we learned a lot from Nilakkal and Babri Masjid?