Skepticism towards Hindu religious subjects has passed; Bali’s art leads the way
Modern artists in India adopt an “opposing” position vis-à-vis religion; in Bali, public monuments and modern art draw heavily on Hindu motifs, with no obvious subversion
This piece is particularly relevant because of the controversy surrounding the Kaali posters and Mahua Moitra’s subsequent defense of documentary filmmaker Leena Manimekalai. I don’t have much to say about the controversy itself, but a recent trip to Bali prompted some thoughts on how the Hindu religion is portrayed differently by artists in Bali and India.
The question is why modern artists in India take a more ‘oppositional’ stance towards religion than their contemporaries on the Indonesian island. Kaali’s poster – despite Moitra’s unqualified defense – is not seen as ‘neutral’ towards religion and the same goes for the work of progressive artists like MF Hussain, which has drawn the ire of the Hindu right with their provocative treatment of mythological subjects.
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In Indian literature, the modern tendency too has been to be skeptical of Hindu practices as in UR Ananthamurthy samskara – as the only legitimate “modernist” approach. Also in India, where high art has taken a subversive or skeptical approach, popular art – as in a mythological film or the lithographs of Raja Ravi Varma – has been more sensitive to public attitudes towards belief.
Hinduism in Bali
In Bali, on the other hand, not only do public monuments show Rama with his bow and Ghatothgacha battling Karna, but modern art on display in museums also draws heavily on Hindu motifs, with no obvious subversion. Since high art and literature are by nature products of elite culture, we can assume that the skeptical/oppositional attitude towards Hindu religious practices belongs to this class in India. The term “elite” is not a denigration of class since high art is largely in its custody, in any culture.
To speculate on the creation of the artistic/literary elite in independent India, one must consider the Hindu-Muslim conflict which led to the horrific violence of 1947. It will be controversial whether the Muslim invaders/monarchs in India treated the Hindus. fairly, but the treatment could not have been even-handed, given such animosity in 1947.
As India and Pakistan went their own way and India opted for secularism, there was a concerted attempt in the Nehruvian era to neutralize Hindu majoritarianism; part of the design was to inculcate rational attitudes toward religious belief through education. The protection of minorities and the tolerance of their beliefs were also part of this “secularist” credo.
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The liberal class in India is a product of this educational system, but we can assume that rational attitudes towards religious beliefs/practices have hardly penetrated as far as the system hoped. This is borne out by the fact that many more Indians cherish mythological films or hang pictures of gods by Raja Ravi Varma in their homes than visit museums or read modernist literature.
The Capture of Nehru
Nehru tended to view all traditional attitudes among Hindus as essentially backward or “communitarian”, although the Congress party had traditionalists (as well as socialists) in its ranks who had the support of Sardar Patel. With Patel’s death, Nehru dominated but without being able to capture the majority of the “modern” and liberal/rational attitudes of Hindus, found residence in a relatively smaller – albeit vocal – proportion of the public.
Calling Nehru ‘anti-Hindu’ is unfair, but he was westernized while the majority – including those of other faiths – clung to their religious beliefs. Nehru focused on Hinduism in his rationalist/modernizing efforts, but he may have only followed the expectation that if one reforms first, others will naturally follow.
So there has been a huge divide between liberal attitudes towards religious belief and those of the more tradition-conscious majority, and this is now manifesting in the public space as political discord. Hinduism does not proselytize but cultural policy after 1947 obviously underestimated its strength among its adherents; and this is what the Hindu right, long rejected as a political pariah by liberal minds, has gradually taken advantage of.
This brings us to the question of what is the relationship between the ‘top’ and the ‘popular’ in the arts and whether there can be such a gaping political gap between the two as in India. I have attempted to speculate on the use of Hindu motifs and trace the ‘oppositional’ perspective taken by high art in India in relation to cultural politics.
Art and religion around the world
The arts all over the world are full of religious subjects and this is true not only of popular but also of high art and literature – from Picasso to Dostoyevsky – and there is no reason why India should be so different. Even in India, artists of Christian origin like Souza treat Jesus with more reverence than is accorded to Hindu subjects – since Christian motifs have a value that modernity has not denied.
Obviously, there can be no guidelines on how artists or writers should approach Hindu motifs, but I believe the skeptical/oppositional attitude towards Hindu religious subjects in India has lost its usefulness.
There is another danger that lies in wait for us, and that is that great art and literature, by not engaging with the Hindu religion in all its complexity but simply adopting an irreligious attitude towards it, tacitly allow a horribly simplified version of taking over the public consciousness.
One could argue that high art is not qualitatively different from popular, but only attempts to bring sophistication and depth to public attitudes. If allowed, the best kind of art in India could help a “truer” version of Hinduism than the oversimplified one to gradually gain traction, and it would also serve a noble political cause. Certainly, artists using Hindu motifs can offer works that will not be immediately qualified as an “insult to religion”!
Hinduism is extremely complicated and this should inspire artists and writers to also produce complex works that draw positively from the religion and its mythology. This way, they could re-establish contact with the general public that they might have lost.
(MK Raghavendra is a writer on culture, politics and film)
(Federal seeks to present views and opinions on all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are by the author and do not necessarily reflect views Federal)