Monday, October 14

Indian Nationalist Art History and the Writing and Exhibiting of Mughal Art, 1910–48

Art is usually the handmaiden of campaigns and ideologies. Think about all the songs, paintings, architecture, sculpture, poems by various great artists.

I just read this poem by Tyrtaeus of Sparta who after the First Messian War, encouraged his fellow male citizens to go forth and do battle.

You should reach the limits of virtue
before you cross the border of death.

For no man ever proves himself a good man in war
unless he can endure to face the blood and the slaughter,
go close against the enemy and fight with his hands.

Here is courage, mankind's finest possession, here is
the noblest prize that a young man can endeavor to win,
and it is a good thing his city and all the people share with him
when a man plants his feet and stands in the foremost spears
relentlessly, all thought of foul flight completely forgotten,
and has well trained his heart to be steadfast and to endure,
and with words encourages the man who is stationed beside him.

Here is a man who proves himself to be valiant in war.
With a sudden rush he turns to flight the rugged battalions
of the enemy, and sustains the beating waves of assault.
And he who so falls among the champions and loses his sweet life,
so blessing with honor his city, his father, and all his people,
with wounds in his chest, where the spear that he was facing has transfixed
that massive guard of his shield, and gone through his breastplate as well,
why, such a man is lamented alike by the young and the elders,
and all his city goes into mourning and grieves for his loss.
His tomb is pointed to with pride, and so are his children,
and his children's children, and afterward all the race that is his.

His shining glory is never forgotten, his name is remembered,
and he becomes an immortal, though he lies under the ground,
when one who was a brave man has been killed by the furious War God
standing his ground and fighting hard for his children and land.

But if he escapes the doom of death, the destroyer of bodies,
and wins his battle, and bright renown for the work of his spear,
all men give place to him like, the youth and the elders,
and much joy comes his way before he goes down to the dead.

Aging, he has reputation among his citizens. No one
tries to interfere with his honors or all he deserves;
all men withdraw before his presence, and yield their seats to him,
the youth, and the men his age, and even those older than he.

Thus a man should endeavor to reach this high place of courage
with all his heart, and, so trying, never be backward in war.

To the Soldiers; after a defeat
Now, since you are the seed of Heracles the invincible,
courage! Zeus has not yet turned away from us. Do not
fear the multitude of their men, nor run away from them.
Each man should bear his shield straight at the foremost ranks
and make his heart a thing full of hate, and hold the black flying
spirits of death as dear as he holds the flash of the sun.

You know what havoc is the work of the painful War God,
you have learned well how things go in exhausting war,
for you have been with those who ran and with the pursuers,
O young men, you have had as much of both as you want.

Those who, standing their ground and closing their ranks together,
endure the onset at close quarters and fight in the front,
they lose fewer men. They also protect the army behind them.
Once they flinch, the spirit of the whole army falls apart.
And no man could count over and tell all the number of evils,
all that can come to a man, once he gives way to disgrace.
For once a man reverses and runs in the terror of battle,
he offers his back, a tempting mark to spear from behind,
and it is a shameful sight when a dead man lies in the dust there,
driven through from behind by the stroke of an enemy spear.

No, no, let him take a wide stance and stand up strongly against them,
digging both heels in the ground, biting his lip with his teeth,
covering thighs and legs beneath, his chest and his shoulders
under the hollowed-out protection of his broad shield,
while in his right hand he brandishes the powerful war-spear,
and shakes terribly the crest high above his helm.
Our man should be disciplined in the work of the heavy fighter,
and not stand out from the missiles when he carries a shield,
but go right up and fight at close quarters and, with his long spear
or short sword, thrust home and strike his enemy down.
Let him fight toe to toe and shield against shield hard driven,
crest against crest and helmet on helmet, chest against chest;
let him close hard and fight it out with his opposite foeman,
holding tight to the hilt of his sword, or to his long spear.
And you, O light-armed fighters, from shield to shield of your fellows,
dodge for protection and keep steadily throwing great stones,
and keep on pelting the enemy with your javelins, only
remember always to stand near your own heavy-armed men.

Spartan Soldier
It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks,
falls and dies, battling for his homeland,
and ghastly when a man flees planted fields and city
and wanders begging with his dear mother,
aging father, little children and true wife.
He will be scorned in every new village,
reduced to want and loathsome poverty; and shame
will brand his family line, his noble
figure. Derision and disaster will hound him.
A turncoat gets no respect or pity;
so let us battle for our country and freely give
our lives to save our darling children.

Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb
to panic or miserable flight,
but steel the heart in your chests with magnificence
and courage. Forget your own life
when you grapple with the enemy. Never run
and let an old soldier collapse
whose legs have lost their power. It is shocking when
an old man lies on the front line
before a youth: an old warrior whose head is white
and beard gray, exhaling his strong soul
into the dust, clutching his bloody genitals
into his hands: an abominable vision,
foul to see: his flesh naked. But in a young man
all is beautiful when he still
possesses the shining flower of lovely youth.
Alive he is adored by men,
desired by women, and finest to look upon
when he falls dead in the forward clash.

Let each man spread his legs, rooting them in the ground,
bite his teeth into his lips, and hold.

When you hear this in the Greek as you can feel the rhythm pounding into your feet and speeding up your blood before a battle.

When you come to India, it becomes heavily complicated. What do you do about Mughal Art when you are trying to remove colonialism? Is that Indian? Weren't the Mughals Imperial? they came from outside didn't they? but then they became Indian as the next man. Let me quote the initial paragraphs of the article to explain what happened early part of the last century when Indian Nationhood was being developed.

Writings on Indian modern art and art history have mainly concentrated on the developments that took place in Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when art and nationalist politics came together under a new conception of Indian culture and civilization, mainly steeped in a refashioning of India's Hindu past.1 From the opening years of the twentieth century, Indian nationalist art history promoted a historical understanding of Indian art in defiance of colonial distortions.2 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy and Ernest Binfield Havell, the dominant voices of the new nationalist art history, sought to elevate Indian art by emphasizing its spiritual aspect, especially that of its Hindu legacy. Confronted with the dismissal of the symbolism and historical development of Indian art when judged against Western classical benchmarks, nationalist historians of Indian art aimed at inverting this pattern. But this often happened to the detriment of Mughal art and architecture that had been deemed worthy of praise by colonial officers and scholars, precisely because they perceived it as stemming from outside India.3 In doing so, Coomaraswamy's work drew connections with South East Asia and what was then known as ‘Greater India’, while Havell's effusive prose stressed the Hindu character of all aspects of Indian art.4

By contrast, accounting for the ‘Indianness’ of foreign-born Mughal art and architecture presented a major challenge for nationalist art historians. Mughal art had been incorporated into collections and exhibitions of Islamic art, but its position within Indian art history proved problematic. As Coomaraswamy explained:

Over against the metaphysical bases of Hindu art, the Mughals brought in a cult of personality and historical interests; Mughal painting is like Renaissance in curiosity about the individual, and in its historical preoccupations. … It is just these qualities which have made an appreciation of Mughal art, painting and architecture alike, easy for the modern European. This appreciation, however well justified in itself, nevertheless cannot be regarded as taking the student deep into the heart of Indian life or thought, from which the Mughal court life, except under Akbar, remained essentially aloof.5

The widespread exclusion of the Mughal legacy from major surveys of Indian art such as Coomaraswamy's History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927) and from the work of foreign scholars such as that of Heinrich Zimmer attested to the influence of religious and philologist interpretations and ideologies. By relying on Sanskrit texts, rather than oral traditions of living Indian artisans or concerns with historical patronage, Coomaraswamy, but also Zimmer and later Stella Kramrisch, all participated in the construction of a Sanskrit canon that formed the basis of a newly conceived Hindu civilization.6 As several historians have commented, one of the achievements of Hindu cultural revivalism is that it succeeded in presenting ‘a civilisation incessantly talked about in terms of the spiritual and the metaphysical, … to be factual and realistic’.7 Crucial in this process were the ‘translations and interpretations of Western oriental scholars [that] were appropriated and fed into India's reconstructed past’.8 This imposed an interpretative framework for Indian art defined partly in exclusion of India's Islamic heritage, and often turned the latter into the very cause of the perceived decadence and corruption of Hindu civilization.9

It was fascinating to read this angle on Indian history and how the current events, like the riots in Muzzafarnagar as well as the nomination of that fellow from Gujarat plays out with reference to the struggle between secular India and the Hindutva India. The article also talks about how the nation moved away from excluding Mughal Art as the other and brought it into the syncretism loaded secular idea of India.

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