The recent assault on the art faculty graduation exhibition at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU), Baroda feels like deja vu. In 2007 Srilamanthula Chandramohan’s work was attacked for “hurting Hindu sentiments” and the ensuing controversy entangled the senior faculty and galvanized the arts community to speak out publicly in his defense and that of the department. Not so now. What changed ?
To understand, you have to take a step back and look at the history of the last decades. I write this as someone who has personally faced attacks. My involvement in arts activism began as a founding member of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) in 1989. After all, the public killing of a cultural activist was the most violent form of assault on the freedom of expression. I was part of the team that conceived, researched and designed the “Hum Sab Ayodhya” exhibition in August 1993, after the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992. The exhibition, designed in several copies which traveled through India, sought to show the complex and rich cultural, religious, architectural and political history of Ayodhya. He was attacked in Faizabad on the grounds that a text quoting the Dasaratha Jataka who had a different genealogy from the Valmiki Ramayan was blasphemous. A debate broke out in Parliament where an accusation was made that there was an obscene poster. There was no such thing. Lawsuits were filed against Sahmat, which were dismissed by the Delhi High Court eight years later.
I faced physical attacks in Pune and Columbia University in New York for the same exhibit. We have also witnessed the attacks on Bhisham Sahni’s TV show Tamas and Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit. Both served as successive presidents of Sahmat.
But it is in the past decade that the larger picture of the assault on culture and history has become visible. Of course, the most shocking case for the artist community is what happened to MF Husain. His forced exile and death in England was a shock that the art world has never forgiven. The accusation of hurting religious feelings has become a convenient call among Hindu right-wing groups. The Husain case was a warning. And while Sahmat has held strong public events over the years to defend Husain, these are no longer effective.
These attacks on writers, artists, directors are only a small part of the rewriting not only of history but of the whole cultural space. The destruction of much of Delhi’s incredible modern architecture at Pragati Maidan is part of this rewrite or rebuild. Most shocking was the destruction of Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion, now celebrated and lamented in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Both were designed by Mahendra Raj, who died last week but lived long enough to see his major works demolished. The buildings that rise in their place are what this government calls “world class” – huge characterless structures, unrelated to our building traditions. This is exactly what happens at Central Vista. It is a clear assault on anything related to the “Nehruvian era”. The withdrawal of major cultural institutions such as IGNCA and the National Museum from this center of interest shows the importance of cultural institutions for the new regime.
The demolition of an entire section of the historic center of Varanasi to create a coldly characterless backdrop for the Prime Minister is part of this obsession with creating grandiose projects like the statue of Sardar Patel and the ecological disaster of the Sabarmati project in Ahmedabad. It remains to be seen what will become of Gandhi’s ashram in its new “world-class” avatar.
The attacks on any public debate or dissent through the use of draconian laws against students and activists and the attacks on JNU, Jamia and AMU are all part of this larger project of “cultural nationalism”. Arrests of cartoonists, comedians and journalists and attacks on Dalits are celebrated by some in the media. The removal of Gandhi’s beloved Christian anthem Abide with Me from the Beating the Retreat ceremony and the garish displays and laser projections on secretariat buildings and ghats in Varanasi and Ayodhya signal the new disco aesthetic of this culture. hindutva. Add to that the rise of unchecked hate speech against Muslims and cyberattacks against Muslim women. “Hijab” and “halal” are the new war cries. Cases related to the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura and Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and calls to rename all towns, villages and road names that are Muslim add to the general schedule. Rama and Hanuman were also armed.
Going back to the art scene, is it any wonder that very few people are now coming out to protest or even sign a petition against the recent attack? In 2019, when Article 370 was removed from Kashmir in a way many considered unconstitutional, Sahmat came up with a postcard art project on the issue. As we sent out submissions, it became clear that many artists were terrified to broach the subject for fear of being targeted. This was the week an FIR was filed in Muzaffarnagar against Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and a host of others for being ‘anti-national’ and signing an open letter to the Prime Minister expressing his anguish over the rising hate crimes and its consequences. silence. This was a case of large-scale self-censorship. Realizing that the 70th anniversary of the Constitution was approaching, we came up with an art project to celebrate it (before the CAA announcement). Here we had an enthusiastic response, because no government could oppose the celebration of the Constitution.
Just last week at the India Art Fair, photographer Prarthna Singh’s book Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh on the anti-CAA protests was removed from display at the photobook stand. MSU’s rustication of a student for making a “controversial” piece of art comes as no surprise. Our mythology has been the source of our great artistic traditions. But no one will dare to venture into this rich vein. Forget political dissent – the incredibly vibrant murals that popped up along the walls of Jamia during the anti-CAA protests were all whitewashed overnight after the Covid hit.
Against this broader backdrop of cultural onslaught, the future for any creative enterprise in India is bleak. Let’s have no illusions.
“Where the clear stream of reason/ Has not wandered into the dull sand desert of dead habit;/ Where the mind is led forward/ By you to a constant broadening/ of thought and action -/ in this sky of freedom,/ my father,/ may my country wake up.
Dear Gurudev, the country has entered a deep and dark sleep.
The writer is a photographer, curator and artist-activist