Monday, September 26, 2016

Think Before you Paint a God: Indian Artists’ Gods and the History of their Evolution

(Krishna, in a miniature painting)

In May 2014, when Narendra Modi became the 14th Prime Minister of India with absolute majority for his party, BJP in Parliament, I had noticed how several of my artist friends changed their track of thinking. For some reason, I was staying with a friend of mine and he was euphoric about Modi’s ascension to power. He thought India would change for good and it was going to be a superpower. Without a roof above my head, I knew it was difficult to get into a political discussion with him for the simple fear of getting kicked out of his home in the middle of the night for telling what I really thought about the BJP and the Prime Minister. Slowly, as an act of survival I realized how I too was changing my track while nodding in agreement with him about India’s future development and appreciating his absolute faith in the new Modi regime. The picture of Narendra Modi sitting under a tree, wearing a pair of very expensive jogging shoes and impeccable clothes, with a book half read in his hands, sporting a benevolent smile and conveying friendliness through his undecipherable eyes covered with a pair of gold framed specs that I saw in an English weekly (I remember it was in the Outlook) kept coming back to my mind each time my friend mentioned his name and his own optimism. Things were not going to be easy for the artists under his rule, I knew, but I refused to tell this to my friend.

(Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister)

I did not stay with him for long. However, while staying here I had gone out in the evenings to catch up with some exhibitions that were on in a few Delhi galleries. To my surprise I noticed one of my friends who was an avowed secularist and humanist suddenly incorporating certain motifs selectively culled from the Mughal period in his painting in a condescending fashion. Known for his spoofs and visual satires, I thought this was the part of his pictorial scheme that used to be replete with social and situational lampooning. But the sense of timing of this new body of paintings made me a bit conscious about his other works. A quick mental review made me aware that this artist had brought in a lot of Hindu gods and goddesses in his paintings (even in sculptures) without hurting anybody’s sentiments. So I thought my friend was in a sense balancing his pictorial thinking evenly to avoid the future comments that he was only satirising Hindu gods and goddesses, definitely in an innocent fashion. With the Mughal motifs precariously placed in his works, I found somehow justified. Any other point of view which would implicate my friend of nurturing right wing perspective in his works could have been an over-reading which I sincerely wanted to avoid. However, the memory of those works was refusing to fade. Why suddenly there is an urgency felt by the artists to paint or sculpt Hindu gods and goddesses? Is it because of the changed political scenario in the country that demands more aesthetical respect for the Hindu pantheon? Or is it because the artists attempt to receive favours from the government and the affluent class that prefers to stand closer to the policies of the reigning government (of whatever ideological leaning or colour) and patronizes art?

(Lok Manya Bal Gangadhar Tilak)

There is nothing odd, if you think straight, in Indian artists painting or sculpting Hindu gods and goddesses. They have been doing so for a long time. With the disintegration of regional courts as a result of colonialism and also due to the shift in patronage for visual art, art in India, following the western model of thinking and practicing, became an avenue for expressing progressive socio-political ideas as well as humanistic concerns. Putting the ideas of ‘progressiveness’ and ‘humanism’ together would result into the general idea of secularism, which India adopted as its official policy in 1947, which was given constitutional validation by including it as a foundational clause of Indian Constitution. As a result of it, India’s art, despite the religious and political leanings of the artists, remained more or less secular with artists often pitching for universal human love and tolerance. From this constitutional advantage we could look back at the artists like Raja Ravi Varma, Abanindra Nath Tagore and Nandlal Bose, and the innumerable named and nameless artists who followed Ravi Varma as well as their own traditions of icon making for public aesthetic and religious consumption, as secular artists who did whatever they did as a part of political and social integration through a common cultural strain or understanding, that is the Hindu religion and its mythologies of both classical and folk versions. I do not think, however we try we could position the above mentioned artists as Hindu artists or artists with right wing leanings.

 (Ganesh Festival in Mumbai)

Hindu-Muslim conflict had a longer political history though it does not reach up to those ages, as right wing ideologues claim today, when the Arabs came to the Kerala shore first by 9th century CE. The Muslims thus came as traders let themselves to be integrated with the natives through marriage and conversion, and it has been undoubtedly proved that the early conversion were not political at all. Those who got converted to Islam, then to Christianity and even to Judaism were not coerced to do so, on the contrary did it willingly to escape the third class treatment that they got from the dominant Hindu religion. The political other-ing of the Muslims in India started with the establishment of the British rule here because they knew that considering the history of Islamic invasions in the northern part of India, it was best pitch to incite the Hindus against them, diverting the possible ire against an external power towards a historically integrated community of Muslims. This worked well for the British and the history of 20th century is full of instances of Hindus and Muslims fighting against each other. Though the national movements had already started by the second half of the 19th century, the Indian mainstream life was yet to join the resistance for the movements primarily led by the Indian National Congress were predominantly elitist and to certain extent aided by British ideologues. In that context there were two major attempts to get the larger Indian population for the anti-colonial moves; one, Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s decisive move to bring the Hindus in Maharashtra through Ganesh Chaturthi Processions. In the East it was done via literature and reformation movements of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Upendra Kishore Roy, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore and so on. Two, the strategy that Mahatma Gandhi used for involving all the regions of India accepting the linguistic variations meanwhile upholding Bhagavat Gita as a book of codes of socio-political and moral conduct.

 (Changing iconography of Lord Ganesh)

Hence, it would be fallacious to think that the artists including Ravi Varma were unaware of these socio-political changes. However, they were not imagining these as primarily Hindu movements. The Hindu thread was seen as a cultural adhesive or a common cultural backdrop against which a political drama could have been unfolded. Ravi Varma was not aspiring to be a Hindu painter on the contrary he was trying to be at par with the European masters who worked in the medium of oil on canvas but without adhering to their dominant Christian thematic orientation and the pertaining moral values. Ravi Varma wanted to create something similar yet different in thematic and he found that while the Christian mythological characters had well established iconographies so that the artists since Renaissance could more or less work on those givens (Ravi Varma does not seem to have referred anything beyond the Renaissance art or even if he had, the pervading two dimensional nature must have dissuaded him to follow them thoroughly. Besides, he did not have direct access to the Greco-Roman classical art for reference except the Neo-classical art works that he might have got to refer from journals and photographs), Indian artists had nothing other than abstractions of visual values and qualities from textual sources translated into figurative modes as seen in the temple murals and temple sculptures. Ravi Varma wanted to break these visual codes which he felt as shackles and archaic and the aspiring modernist in him was trying to be at par with the western art by giving iconographic features to the Hindu gods and goddesses (We should also know that Ravi Varma almost ignored the ‘contemporary’ art movements of the west like the Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Cubism and Dadaism which were almost famous when he was alive) for establishing a modern ‘Indian’ art against the modern ‘western’ art from within the limitations of his understanding of both modern Indian and modern western. While painting Bharat Mata, Abanindranath Tagore was not giving a cultural weapon for the future right wingers. Nandalal Bose was not attempting anything ‘Hindu’ when he was painting the image of Shiva drinking poison.

(Ram breaking the bow- Ravi Varma)

The subversion of such images which were primarily used for imaging and imagining a nation which was still trying to understand its own boundaries and political courses, in the contemporary times is menacingly palpable in the Ganesh festival processions in Maharashtra. Though the Prime Minister of India, Mr.Modi once made a tall claim that India or more precisely, the Hindu India had the science and technological know-how to perform plastic surgery in ancient times and the proof of which could be seen in the image of Lord Ganesh, who has an elephant’s head and human body. The development of the iconography of Lord Ganesh is also around the 9th century CE and previously the references of Ganesh were as a minor deity along the bhoothas and Ganas. Ganesh got absorbed into the Hindu Brahminical narratives as a part of the possible integration of Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The idea of Ganesh as an elephant headed deity itself is a proof that he comes from the nature worshipping tribes. An elephant headed deity can be absorbed into the main narrative only when it has a supporting mythology; that’s how we see Ganesh becoming the son of Shiva and Parvati and how a familial misunderstanding leads to the beheading of Ganesh and later reviving him with an elephant head. A very complex Freudian reading is possible to further interpret this origin of Ganesh but I would like to deal with it in another essay.

 (Ram Subduing Sea- Ravi Varma)

The iconography of Ganesh, as we have been seeing him for a long time, is very clear. Like the Indian gods and goddesses Ganesh too has four arms. He holds a broken tusk, a sweet, an axe and a piece of rope in each hand. In some of the depictions we do not see an axe, instead we see an ankush (an mahout’s crooked knife with a long handle). As he is an elephant the Ankush is justified. In some other depictions he is seen with a stylus and a set of palm leaves suggesting that he was the one who wrote down Mahabharata as Ved Vyasa was reciting it to him. So we have a benevolent Ganesh with most of the mythological retellings underlining his ability to remove obstacles (Vighneshwara). That however does not mean that Ganesh is a warrior God and the title of the Commander in Chief of the God’s army goes to his brother, Lord Karthikeya (Murukan). Of late, if you have noticed (just go through the Ganesh images posted in the facebook during this Ganesh Chathurthi), you could see Ganesh idols, pictures, statues and all other forms of visual depictions with Ganesh holding a huge axe in his hand almost minimising rest of the attributes. It is a clear example of a deliberate subversion of a benevolent mythology. Ganesh no longer is the Ganesh of the yester years; even Tilak himself would find it difficult to recognize him if he comes across him somewhere in the heavenly path). This transformation is not accidental but a conscious conversion that the right wingers facilitated in the consciousness of the public. During the Ayodhya Movement in the late 1980s and in the terrible culmination of it on the 6th December 1991 with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, we had seen how the image of Ram changed ‘radically’ and strategically. In Anand Patwardhan’s pivotal documentary on the Ayodhya March and its culmination, ‘In the Name of Ram’ he repeatedly shows the shots of the hoardings erected all over India depicting an angry and belligerent Ram, muscular like Rambo, armed to kill towering over the architectural model of the future Ram Temple. In these hoardings Ram’s gaze goes towards the horizon and there is no enemy in the vicinity. But the suggestion of the gaze was clearer than many words about it. The gaze had finally landed on the enemy, Indian Muslims; incidents of riots and pogroms since 1991 December are watched over by that single angry gaze.

 (Coronation of Ram- after Ravi Varma)

It is interesting not only art historically but also politically that Ravi Varma who had given a clear iconography to Lord Ram never anywhere presents him as a belligerent warrior. In Sita Swayamvara, where a young Ram is seen breaking Trayambaka (the bow of Lord Shiva) to win the hands of Sita, we do not see a muscle man who is capable of lifting that mighty bow. Instead, Ravi Varma depicts him as a teenager about to be twenty, all enthusiastic at the prospects of a marriage but reverential to the elders and the king, his would be father in law, Janak, earnestly breaking the bow in the presence of his appreciating brother Lakshman. Of course we see an angry Ram in another painting where Ram is about to send an arrow at the sea (Lord Varun) for not parting to show the path towards Lanka where his wife has been abducted by Ravan. But here too we do not see him as a Rambo. His body is slightly effeminate with no muscles clearly defined (all the Rams with cylindrical limbs in all the films and even in the legendary Ramayan Serial were based on Ravi Varma’s Ram) but his determination to subdue the mighty god of the sea is seen in his anger filled eyes and raised eye brows. Again we see Ram in the Pattabhisheka picture (the Coronation Ceremony after Sita’s retrieval from Lanka) where we see him as a head of the family too benevolent to be rash or authoritative. His smiling face and kind eyes dominate the picture; what missing are the muscles. Only muscled being in the frame is Hanuman, the devoted servant. Ravi Varma was not a ‘Hindu’ painter and we do not need more examples to prove it. However, Ravi Varma is an artist who could imagine a nation with all its linguistic and cultural varieties, which becomes evident in his Galaxy of Musicians. If Gandhiji had asked the Indian National Congress, which was a ‘Lawyers’ Club’ to include the regional members in order to bring ‘India’ as a geographically imaginable nation, Ravi Varma did the same by incorporating different cultural traits in a single pictorial frame.

 (Ayodhya poster as used as a cover for Anant Patwardhan's documentary)

As I mentioned before, after placing the constitution of India as the guiding principle for all the Indians, the apparent religious freedom allowed the artists to be truly secular. This secularism in my view was not just a clear case of artistic decision or pure optimism and trust in the government of that time. I would say, it was also a sort of wishful thinking of the artists to deliberately avoid mentioning religion and religious iconographies from their works. Let me explain it how. When Hitler was forced to commit suicide and once the Allied Forces freed Europe from the clutches of the Nazis, there was a total silence in Germany because the Germans were a defeated people then; their leader failed to lead them to a pure Aryan country. The liberal ones who opposed Hitler too were silent because the amount of injustice and death revealed before their eyes had literally rendered them speechless for a long time. They had to conjure up a new parlance to face the world and talk to it while looking at its eyes, without feeling any sense of shame. Due to this, for a long time (even today) Germans wouldn’t like to talk about the period of Nazism (while the rest of the world speaks about it). Similarly, India had seen gory sights of Hindu-Muslim fights and pogroms. India had just witnessed partition and its gruesome aftermath. There was nothing to rejoice in fact; sooner than later Gandhiji was assassinated. The artists somehow tried to wish away all goriness therefore all the mentioning of religion from their works (while the men and women of letters kept on writing about partition woes). There were only a few, very few artists who depicted the partition (read religious) strife of that time. For a long time, Indian artists did not touch on the issue of religion. It was rather a dangerous area to venture in because it would create unpleasant discourses. Investing the energies in the socialist, secular and progressive was more conducive for the artists. In that sense we could say our art for a long time has been the art of silence, and by now most of the art works have become the art works of compromise.

(a Buddha painting from India)

At this juncture, against the backdrop of whatever I have said so far, it would be interesting to see how and why in India we have a lot of artists who somehow instead of depicting Hindu gods or goddesses straightaway went on depicting the images of Buddha and Jesus Christ. Today, we know that both Buddha and Jesus Christ are not only religious figures but also philosophical and political figures. People from various strata of the society have used these icons the ways suitable to their purposes. The Indian artists who have painted Buddha and Jesus Christ somehow have felt that both these images are ideologically neutral. It is ironic at the same time painful to understand this surrogate representation of religious fervour of the artists. Most of the artists who paint or sculpt Buddha and Christ believe (yes,  I say Believe) that they are the icons of peace. Even though I cannot and I do not dispute the fact that Buddha and Jesus are icons of peace, I want to say that there are socio-political and religio-cultural reasons for the artists to choose these two icons for their purpose. First of all, by the time India became independent Buddhism was almost a long lost religion (we forget the history of it being brutally decimated in the subcontinent since 9th century AE with the arrival of Sri Sankara) but was chosen by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar for his political purpose of converting the Mahars (the Dalit community to which he belonged) into Buddhism. As it was a non-Brahminical movement and still had to prove a political force of some reckoning, Buddhism remained ideology free in the public imagination. Artists too took to this line; they thought Buddha is ideology free and simply a universal symbol of peace. The Christian community of India was rather powerful educationally and economically because of their allegiance to the colonial power, which later turned out to be a relevant and reverent ally for the future course of India, and it was more integrated than Muslims with less and less affiliations with the various Christian denominations in the world and their respective heads. So it was easy for the Indian artists to choose Jesus Christ as a symbol of sacrifice, suffering and endurance. Jesus was an icon which indirectly reflected the tortured artistic selves too. And interestingly, the ideological connotations of this icon got submerged in its universalistic stature.

 (Christ by Suman Roy)

Seen against this historical backdrop, one would think that there is no problem if Indian artists start painting and sculpting Hindu gods and goddesses. Why they should be deprived of cultural representation? But we would at the same time understand the danger of it. Let us see a scenario in which the gods and goddesses of India are seen in a certain confirms mode, that means, any god and goddess should look like what the Hindu men and women in the street imagine them to be. Their imagination comes from popular depictions which are wrongly attributed to Ravi Varma. He was just a trigger and the contemporary iconography of the gods and goddesses has completely changed according to the whims and fancies of the artists who are hell bent on pleasing the prevalent Hindutva mood (sometimes, artists who work in such image making factories work quite innoncently too. They do not understand the political and socio-cultural ramifications of it. An artist who makes a Ganesh idol with fiery attributes perhaps is trying make it as severe and imposing as possible as demanded by the society and also to vibe with the mood of the society). The Hindutva ideologues are changing history and in its place they are trying to bring in a quasi-mythological history which does not have any logical standing. But anything that is not scientifically proved could stand in our country provided that is believed by many numbers of people. This brutal majoritarinism would force the contemporary modern artists to ‘follow the mood’ of the times. And those who move against it would be punished by over reading the meanings (as happened in the case of M.F.Husain). Of late I see there are some artists and gallerists suddenly getting interested in having shows with ‘god’ as a theme. And I am sure these gods are not really non-muscular gods; they are going to be belligerent according the mood of our time. Such artists will be celebrated for the time being but they do not know that they are inaugurating a trend where the lumpens start accepting this aesthetics and demanding the change of any other aesthetics which is not palatable to them. It is high time that we think about depicting gods and how.

 (a Transformer)

In the Muslim countries, artists are killed for writing or painting Gods because the fundamentalists do not like the god to be depicted in any form because it is said so in the Holy book, Quran. In India, on the contrary, artists would be celebrated for depicting gods. But watch out; depicting gods in India also could cost the lives of the artists because the gods have already been transformed. They look like the Tranformers and the super heroes from the American imaginations. They are war mongering gods. Hence, if you depict a god as a subtle, submissive, caring, loving, genderless and benevolent being, remember, the street side art impresarios may not like it.

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