Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Janmashtami Celebrations at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai: Hitting a New Low in Visual Culture

(Inside Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai)

If I could believe my eyes and invest my faith in technology aided communication like an email, then I should say that the cultural discourse in India has hit a new low with the advent of the right wing thoughts within the cultural establishments. With Members of Parliament extolling pseudo-science as the ultimate scientific innovations of India for the global countries to emulate, citing mythology as non-verifiable proof but adamantly asserted dictum which should not be disputed and also with some from the same fold wanting to rename many an establishment including the highest educational establishments in India in the name of the head of the present administrative dispensation, and also with the citizens being segregated based on their intelligence quotient (ironically, the ones who have it a lot go lower in the rungs and the ones who despise it and turn sycophants go higher up in the social ranking) one could just imagine that things are not going to be as expected in the previous years.

Mumbai’s prestigious cultural museum namely Bhau Daji Lad Museum has sent out an invitation, which apparently looks harmless but is loaded with political suggestions and directions that the country has already taken. If someone is not heeding to the hints then they should take a good notice of it and behave or simply vanish from the cultural scene. Had it been in the yester years none would have noticed it at all: the illustrious and also rebellious and cutting edge museum celebrating ‘Krishna Ashtami’ or alternatively called Janma Ashtami, the birthday celebrations of the mythological character, Lord Krishna. There had been many exhibitions titled, Yoga, Kriya, Karma, Ardhanareeswara, Laya, Siva-Shakti, Spiritual Meanderings and so on. None took offence or objection to any of those titles. Maximum response of the intelligent was a meaningful smile. In Delhi, I have had so many reasons to keep smiling all these years. But with the new exhibition coming from one of the cutting edge museums in the country, the smile on my face and on the other faces must be a bit wry and contorted; one could see how the tides are changing and the cheering of celebrations turning into a war cry which would instill fear in the minds of the intellectuals who are now the most ‘unwanted’ creatures in the new India under the new government.

(Facade of Bhau Daji Lad Museum)

Bhau Daji Lad museum is not doing anything other than showcasing the Pahari miniatures that depict Krishan story, from its good repertoire. There is nothing wrong when it falls on the same day of Krishnanshtami. But what makes it eerie and ironic is the museum going out and out and telling the world that it is celebrating Lord Krishna’s birth with an interesting exhibition. Nowhere in the world today do we see museums doing shows that really celebrate religion or religious art. Even if they do, it is always done in an academic context or in the context of a survey of religious artefacts and icons. There is always a space for problematizing and vivifying the iconography and epistemology of images. There is always a space for understanding the myth in a non-religious context. Even the Biblical art today has turn to an academic field of research and study, and of course aesthetical enjoyment, nor really about the transcendental understanding or meditation that the people are expected to have while standing before them.

What Bhau Daji Lad museum gives is a new context where the Pahari Miniatures which have been hitherto an academic as well as aesthetical field of enquiry, or an interesting interface to probe the lineage of artisanal traditions in India (as done by Dr.B.N.Goswami) could turn into an interface for an extremely different aesthetical discourse, laden with religious meanings and loaded with religio-political intentions. Interestingly Bhau Daji Lad Museum was in the eye of the storm because the land mafia had made some encroachments while alleging that it was the museum that had made the encroachments. The cultural leaders in Mumbai stood with the Bhau Daji Lad Museum administration and even the rightwing government of the state had relented and let the museum function without much problem. Today the scenario is different. With an absolute majority in both in the state assembly and in the parliament, the writing on the wall is very clear; the government just does not want any ‘rebellious art’ to be featured. Anything and everything that should take place within the Indian museums should be something related to the so called Indian tradition, preferably the Hindu tradition. The Museum authorities have toed the line.

(Historical remain in the Bhau Daji Lad museum campus)

Bhau Daji Lad museum is the latest wicket that has fallen and the bowling is in the body line nature and there are no many good batsmen left on the crease. The National Gallery of Modern Art (D, B and M) have already made alterations in programing according to the present government and its ideology. Artists who are featured in these museums, even if they are not for the present government, their art could be interpreted as something that works ‘for’ the government’s ideology in the long run. We could call such art ‘harmless’ art. And it shows that the future of Indian art is going to be replete with a lot of abstract art works and religiously or spiritually inclined works. We have to wait and see how our art fairs are going to respond to such turn of the winds. The mainstream galleries have already started putting up harmless exhibitions and many a small gallery has downed the shutters. Even if they come back, it is not so complicated to think that their shows would have something to do with either dominant religion or with abstraction that pushes the works towards the so called spirituality.

Government of India is on the way to clear the cultural atmosphere of this country of the smoke that has been created by the secular art and also by the pluralistic traditions of India. With the country’s patronage also plays the same game of the government we cannot expect that there could a different patronage coming out in support and if they do they would be clamped sooner than later as we have seen in the case of the Infosys Foundation. So folks, here we are. Fasten your seatbelts and we are about to take off to a sky path where only conformists could feel all comfort. Be ready with your paper bags; you may retch at any time out of that bad feeling of having eaten that rotten sandwich.

n  JohnyML

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