BHARAT RATNA! – JEWELS OF MODERN INDIAN ART

Text of speech by Rajiv J. Chaudhri on the occasion of the opening of the aforementioned exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, on October 10, 2009.

WE ARE DELIGHTED THAT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS HAS CHOSEN TO blaze the trail by hosting its first exhibition of modern Indian art.  In doing so, the MFA honors its own pioneering spirit.  Nearly 100 years ago in 1917, Ananda Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan Tamil Brahmin, joined the MFA as the keeper of Indian Art – the first such position at any museum in the US.  He helped build the Museum’s fine collection of Indian antiquities, delighting and educating the people of Boston, as well as visitors from all over the world, with the beauty, spirituality, profundity, and sensuality of ancient and medieval Indian art.

For my wife Payal and me, our relationship with the MFA is personal.  The MFA was instrumental in our education about world art when we came to Boston as students many years ago.  We were lovers of art long before we became collectors of art, and were passionate about art from all civilizations long before we became collectors of and advocates for Indian art.  We firmly believe in the idea that the art of all ages and regions is the common heritage of mankind.  We also believe that Indian art is, or should be, part of the heritage of America, Europe, and other regions of the world.

We are therefore, humbled and honored that the MFA has chosen to showcase selected works from our collection.  Bharat Ratna! translates literally to “Jewel of India.” (Bharat is the official name of India).  The art and artists represented here are indeed some of the jewels of modern Indian art, although many others have not been included due to limitations of space.

What makes Indian art Indian?  In my personal view, Indian art has three characteristics that make it unique: multiculturalism, sensuality, and spirituality. Modern Indian artists are intensely aware of the artistic work from other cultures within, as well as outside, India.  At the same time, they are deeply imbued with the sensual celebration of life and inward–focused spirituality that are hallmarks of traditional Indian art.  Finally, combining all these different sources of influence and inspiration, these artists are intensely individualistic and not afraid to strike out on their own.

The story of modern Indian art parallels the story of modern India: artistic awakenings parallel political awakenings, both dating back to the mid–19th century.  It was then that Indian elites in the major urban centers of Bombay and Calcutta started the painful struggle for meaning, identity, and self-expression in both politics and art.  It was then that the artistic journey with oil and canvas – nontraditional media in Indian painting – also began.  As would be expected, this journey had its share of trial and error, debate, false starts, creative effervescence, innovation, and competing impulses to follow or reject the dominant European culture, as well as the desire to rediscover or reject Indian traditions.

Spiritual multiculturalism has always been an essential part of the Indian spirit.  I was once told a charming story by the rabbi of the synagogue in Kochi, Kerala, in southern India, about the earliest Jewish settlements in India, some 2,500 years ago.  It seems there was much consternation and debate in the court of the local Hindu king when several boats arrived carrying Jews from afar looking for asylum and shelter.  The king’s advisers protested, “How can these aliens live among us without disturbing the peace?”  They said it would be like pouring water into a full glass of milk.  Both the water and milk would spill.  The king turned to the Jews and pointed out his dilemma.  “No,” the weary travelers said, “It will be like mixing sugar into milk. The milk will not spill; it will taste sweeter and therefore better.”  Impressed, the king took them in.

In 1947, when the country became independent, political India invented 20th century political multiculturalism; artistic India had shown the way decades earlier.  For political India, multiculturalism was about the viability and survival of a newly created multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic nation.  For artistic India, multiculturalism was about freedom, creativity, self–expression, and the universal human spirit.

Even so, India’s political embrace of multiculturalism was vitally important for the artistic community: It validated the political and artistic awakenings of the previous half–century and encouraged creative freedom.  Embracing another culture is an act that involves both the mind and the heart.  There is an intellectual and cognitive component, but equally and perhaps more importantly, there is the emotional.  Put simply, you must feel the culture you embrace, or your art will lack authenticity and vitality.  Long before Indian artists looked to Western art for inspiration, they embraced the cultures within their own subcontinent.  Hindu artists embraced Muslim culture and Muslim artists embraced Hindu culture, Christian artists embraced both, and many ethnic cultures (India has 22 different officially recognized languages and hundreds of dialects) embraced each other.  This challenging but voluntary act is rare in the annals of history and its importance significantly underrated in Europe and the US.

There is an unfortunate tendency among some western art critics – borne, regrettably, out of double standards and intellectually laziness – to reject multiculturalism.  It is seen as imitative, lacking in originality, and therefore derivative.  Tellingly, this false standard is not applied when examining, for example, Greece’s influence on Roman art, or Japan’s and Africa’s influence on the Impressionists and modern European art.  However, this spurious argument is often invoked in examining the art of post–colonial societies.  My view has always been to ignore this bogey, to be moved solely by artistic merit and emotion and to judge the intrinsic aesthetic value of a work of art on its own terms.  Why would one allow knowledge of Japanese screens or African masks to diminish one’s appreciation of van Gogh or Picasso?  Why would one allow the appreciation of Picasso to diminish one’s appreciation of those who came after him, simply because the works are all derivative?  The truth is, artistic multiculturalism, done well, is extremely hard work.

Embracing other cultures has taken Indian artists down unexpected paths in terms of subject matter, technique, visual language, and expression.  One finds such subjects as the Crucifixion and the Last Supper treated extensively by Indian artists, both Hindu and Muslim.  They paint these subjects not because they are in awe of their former colonial masters, but because, having embraced multiculturalism, they understand the passion, pathos, and symbolism of these stories.  And yet there is a difference in their treatment of these subjects, a difference that springs from their individuality and Indian heritage.

The question needs to be asked, why does one not see paintings of Krishna and Radha – a popular and enduring Hindu subject – by western artists?  Both Muslim and Christian artists from India have treated this universal story of divine love extensively.

The second area where Indian art distinguishes itself is in its unabashed sensuality.  The paintings possess the confident use of vivid, exuberant colors and uninhibited depiction of overtly sexual subject matter.  This harks back to Hindu traditions, some of which – like the festival of Holi – are very much alive today.  As anyone who has seen the medieval temple sculpture of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh in Central India (and many other temples) can attest, celebrating the joy of the senses, of nature and nature’s gifts, was an integral part of religious faith, of tantric philosophy, and indeed a way of life.  The significance of this sensibility stands in sharp contrast to the austere and punitive tone of Semitic religions.  Sadly, much of this ethos is being lost in today’s India; a victim of the modern era’s globalized Puritanism – but we can still find it in the art!

Finally we come to spirituality. For me, the aesthetic is the spiritual, and therefore all great art is spiritual by definition.  When Indian art is not celebrating sensuality, it is celebrating spirituality, although truth be told, ancient Indian sculpture manages to do both.  There are many ways to depict spirituality without being overtly religious, and Indian artists seem to have deployed all of them.  For example, the philosophical idea that “the higher truth is subjective, personal, and to be found within your own soul, only by you” is often depicted in ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sculpture by showing the eyes of the subject closed, to represent the inwardly focused mind.  In modern painting, the spiritual element is depicted in dream–like abstraction – images that the meditative mind may visualize when the eyes are closed – or in the straight lines and circles of geometric mandala and tantric art.

All the artists represented here were born before 1947 and came of age around or after India’s independence.  As such, they were imbued not only with the idealism and excitement that accompanied that momentous event, but also personally witnessed the murderous horror of Partition, in which more than 500,000 Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were killed in just over six months.  More than 20 million people became refugees and displaced persons overnight. It was an experience these artists never forgot.  Perhaps their embrace of multiculturalism was reinforced by a keen desire to overcome narrow prejudice, hatred, and violence lurking under the thin veneer of civilization.

As you look at these paintings, you will not be able to distinguish who painted which: a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Parsee, or a Sikh.  Nor will you know who is the Bengali, the Punjabi, the Kashmiri, the Marathi, the Tamil, or the Kannada – or who was born to a high caste and who was not.  They are all represented here.  These artists are all Indian.

Thank you!

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Art and Aesthetics, Art and Politics, Ethics and Morality, Politics and Strategy, Ruminations and Speculations, Uncategorized

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