Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When a Secular Sculpture Turns into a Religious Idol: ‘Mother and Child’ in Trivandrum

Materialism and spiritualism go hand in hand. What determines both is the presence of history. Through the mediation of time the public and private domains uphold as well as express a particular aspect of either materialism or spiritualism in order to make the living an experience and the living experience comfortable. The New Millennium is a particular juncture in the world history where denominations of various ideologies celebrate both materialism and spiritualism with equal verve even when they fight with each other severely on the ways in which such celebrations are to be taking place. Hence, we have the conservatives, extreme conservatives, liberals and extreme liberals, and any other streams that come in between these clearly demarcated zones adequately oscillating between materialism and spiritualism, two sets of notions and practices that stand as polar opposites and making visible and invisible bridges so that these two poles could be connected in whichever manner possible. The new age gurus, self help books, conformist theoreticians and theologians, and all those market pundits work round the clock to do this bridging or in other words to wed these strange fellows and force into sharing the nuptial bed. 
However, it is important to see how the grosser forms of materialism and spiritualism, namely consumable objects and religions respectively determine the course and dynamics of history and the psychological environments where history is formed or deformed, used or abused. While history has always taken this pride for its special place in all kinds of relationships that lead society to progress and at times to regress, sometimes, we see this ironical but very painful sight of it being displaced by the grosser forms of materialism and spiritualism, which we know as the relationship builders in any societies in the world because they are the fundamentals that balance a society as a whole and the individuals in particular. When the grosser forms over-determine the social and domestic spaces, the historical rationality or even the commonsensical historical understanding gets replaced by consumerism and religious blindness. 

Sculptor Aryanad Rajendran

I wrote this rather loaded preamble in order to set a background for what I am going to write now. Perhaps, this incident which is curious in many ways is not new at least for the readers in Kerala. In Trivandrum, around fifteen years back a huge sculpture depicting a mother breast feeding an infant was erected at the gate of the famous Medical College Hospital in Trivandrum. Aryanad Rajendran, a sculptor but not popular the way many other artists of his generation are, is/was the sculptor who created this ‘Mother and Child’.  Aryanad Rajendran is in fact an insider as he works as an artist in the modelling department of the Medical College. Hence, this sculpture though a government commission or a commission by the Hospital, which is under the state government, is/was a tribute to his work place. This sculpture has been imparting a sense of wonderment and also a sense of comfort for those people who pass by and who happened to visit the hospital premises for some reason. 

In Kerala, huge sculptures do not really thrill people just because they are big in size. The audience in Kerala has been trained in a way by looking at the huge sculptures of Kanai Kunhiraman for almost five decades now. They know what a huge sculpture means. Therefore when this ‘Mother and Child’ came up the visual sensibility of the Kerala audience was not particularly thrilled or challenged because it was a moderate sculpture with an enlarged look. (incidentally I should mention that in Chadayamangalam, Kollam, Asia’s biggest sculpture ‘The Jatayu Complex’ is being readied for public visit). If one travels through the length and the humble breadth of Kerala, one could see thousands of Christs, Shivas, Krishnas, Mother Mary’s, St.Georges and so on in huge sculpture forms in front of temples and churches, which would put Aryanad Rajendran’s ‘Mother and Child’ to shame. But I should say the presence of this sculpture has been a soothing one despite the ruggedness of modelling.

Though not clear about the intention of erecting such a sculpture at the entrance of a famous hospital I could come up with two important reasons: one, it must have been the time when the Government of Kerala or the Government of India itself was promoting breast feeding. Two, it must have come up as a morale booster for the young mothers and the soon to be delivering pregnant women who come for medical help to this famous hospital. And the sculpture has been there with all its secular credentials without hurting anybody’s sentiments even if the left breast of the woman is more or less exposed as a result of the breast feeding. I use the word secular because the ‘mother’ in the sculpture remains an emblematic mother of Kerala, especially a Kerala of yesteryears as this mother is seen wearing dhoti and blouse, not Sari or Churidar. She does not look like Mother Mary from any angle, nor does she look like any Hindu goddess who feeds a baby. Of course, in Muslim mythologies we cannot expect such a depiction. 

Today, however, the secular credentials of this sculpture are in question. Irrespective of their religious affiliations, people both men and women of different ages light candles and incense sticks to wish safe and painless delivery for the young women who have been admitted in the maternity wards of the hospital a couple of blocks away. Though this phenomenon was reported last year in December by a mainstream newspaper in Kerala and recently a radio jockey in a video clipping being sent out via whatsapp, the ‘news’ was treated as ‘something curious’ and ‘something to be approached reverently’. Only the radio jockey added a bit of cynicism in his comments though finally he joined the crowd and wished well to the people who came to light the candles there. Perhaps, he wanted to be critical but considering his vulnerability amidst a crowd that was doubly insecure because of their own vulnerability as the relatives of the girls undergoing labour pain in the hospital and the religious connotations involved in the act of lighting the candles and incense sticks. What shocked me was that none of the worshippers knew the artist who made it. What made me more curious was that none of them knew for how long this sculpture had been there. Most of them did not know why they are doing it; they had only one answer, because it helped girls deliver painlessly and Caesarean delivery became a normal delivery. 

Two things are important here; one, none of the worshippers wants to check out whether this sculpture is a religious one or a secular one. Two, none of them knows the time in which this sculpture has come up there. Their idea of worship plays around an ambiguity, a hearsay and a wishful thinking. None cross checks the success rate of the prayers at this ‘Mother and Child’. All the rational and historical lines that separate a secular sculpture from an idol of worship are blurred here. The ancientness that the people attribute to the sculpture is almost accepted by one and all around there and they all tend to believe that it has been there forever. If tomorrow someone says that this was erected in late 19th century or early 20th century by one of the Travancore Rajas, even if the reality is that it is hardly two decades old (or lesser than that) nobody would dare to question the veracity of it.
The worship modes are clearly religious and predominantly two different religions have shown their willingness to accept this sculpture as the part of their pantheon; namely Christian and Hindu. Christians, by following their church customs light candle sticks. Hindus going by their tradition light bunches of incense sticks. What is missing here are the chaddars that the Muslims could and would bring to spread before the sculpture (which could be a reality soon if no administrative intervention happens here). But in Kerala, like elsewhere in India, when it comes to religion (with more emphasis to spiritual satisfaction and wish fulfilment) people once again blur their scriptural and traditional differences and visit temples, churches and mosques. So the people who light candle at the mother and child sculpture need not necessarily be Christians and the people who light incense sticks need not necessarily be Hindus. They could be even Muslims. Though there were some kind of rational exhortations from some social organisation telling people that it was a secular sculpture it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The practice continues non-stop. 
Why does such frenzy happen in our social domain? Why do we sort of absolutely circumvent the visible contradiction of praying to supernatural powers asking for divine interventions right under the nose of a medical establishment which is supposedly the embodiment of the scientific progress that the human beings have achieved so far? Is it because of the maxim that we do our part and half is done by the God? Or is it because in our popular imagination, mainly of the popular movies where divine intervention is a reasonable thing to happen than scientific intervention? In the popular movies we see the intercutting of scenes between an operation theatre and the woman or man of the person who is operated upon, challenging and pleading with the god at the same time, often through a song. India’s psyche has enough space for supernatural despite its firm conviction is science. That is not a bad thing but a beautiful thing to happen because it connects people with what they do not know but know as a reality.

However, there is a problem when such sur-realities are brought into the social domain, kicking away the lessons of history. While blurring the demarcating lines between mythology and history one could as the historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, make ‘history into mythology and mythology into history’. It is an irony that all the socio-political and cultural calamities of the present and the last centuries are created by this conscious interchanging of history and mythology. When the grosser form of spiritualism which is religion, becomes the socio-cultural and political determinant factor, a simultaneous religion-ization of the public and private domains happens automatically. This is because of mythology getting dominance over history without cross checking the facts. When it happens, the majority of the people in the society turn into sort of believers simply because they do not want to be left behind in the mainstream socio-political and cultural debate. It is not really because they believe in that given religion in a certain way but they just become aware that they too belong and to belong they need to go by the tide. How far their belongingness goes is never probed into. It actually works within the domestic realm without their knowing as the religious festivals and temple or church festivals become suddenly important and a greater attention is given to the religious discourses. People caught in this web become negotiators of their own doubts and in the final analysis they start believing that what the mainstream discourse says has got ‘truth’ in it (this truth was contested till yesterday by themselves, a fact is conveniently forgotten). 

This change in the domestic space gets reflected in the social/public domain. The markers that determine a particular religion or religions become all the more important and based on those social relationships are re-modified and re-modelled. While the secular skin is kept intact the fissures start appearing in the flesh, muscles and sinews, taking the fluids of these ruptures directly into the stream of blood and brain altering the ways of feeling and thinking about the other/s. When religion determines the social relationships, it in another way over-determines the social spaces. That’s how we a community that refuses to give an ambulance its space to speed up, gives space meekly to temple or church processions. While an ambulance is not escorted by the Police force, a festival procession always has a contingent of police force along its route. The spaces in television, newspaper and all other media are determined by the religious considerations and no editorial dares to critique the congestions created by the religious processions. That conclusively says that we have become a society determined by religion/s which is definitely not a symptom of modernity. While core spiritualism helps people anchor to the depths and beauty of the life in general, religions destroy this core and occupies the social and mental spaces vitiating it to ultimate destruction.

In Trivandrum what is left is the simple taking over of the ‘Mother and Child’ sculpture by a religion or a joint committee of religions provided the still intact social fabric of Kerala. Once a committee comes around to put an end to this practice, there would be another committee forming to protect the practice of lighting lamps before the sculpture. The secular intention of the sculpture would transgress to the level of making it a rallying point of differences between the rationality and religious bigotry in the social space of Kerala. Once a defence committee is formed to protect the practice, there would be a fight for dominance within the committee, of castes, tribes, families and so on. The neutrals like the doctors and artists could also be drawn into the friction sooner or later. Hence, here is something that should be done by the Government of Kerala in order to avoid a huge future crisis and a religious fight that would disrupt Kerala’s secular life. The Government of Kerala should put an end to this practice and tell the people that it is a secular sculpture and no worship is allowed there. Though the practice of people lighting lamps before a secular sculpture could be seen as an innocent act of faith, the danger that it engenders could create another Babri Masjid or Ram Temple issue. A simple act of faith could scale up into a gigantic religious war resulting into genocides and pogroms. When a dam is built thousands of temples go under water leaving no trace of it. None complains, for the act shows the political will of the respective governments. So is the case of city development including the establishment of rapid transport systems. So the political will could change the situation in Trivandrum; only the political will could change and reclaim the sculpture as a secular one. 

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