The Arts and South Asia
The Arts and South Asia
southasiainstitute.harvard.edu 1730 Cambridge Street, 4th Floor Cambridge, MA 02138 United States of America Authors featured in this publication reserve all rights to their essays.
Harvard South Asia Institute Cambridge, Massachusetts 2017
CONTENTS From the Director 2
Navigating the Past in Indiaâ€™s Museums Jinah Kim 7
The Elasticity of Tradition Shazia Sikander 11
Song, Politics, Hashtag: The Story of Contemporary Bengali Music Making Avishek Ganguly 17
South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in Britain Iftikhar Dadi 23
Art on the Line Sona Datta 27
CONTENTS Going! Going! Gone! The Disappearance of Premodern Buddhist Sculpture from Odisha Sonali Dhingra 33
Nasreen Mohamedi and South Asian Modernism Shanay Jhaveri 37
Caring for South Asian Gods, Kings, Heroes, and Legends at the Harvard Art Museums Rachel Parikh 41
At the Threshold of Paradise: Kashmir in Mughal Persian Poetry Sunil Sharma 45
Ekushey and Mother Language Day Fakrul Alam 51
Politics of Cartoons, Cartoons of Politics Shreyas Navare 55
Courtesy of Ekabhishek
FROM THE DIRECTOR
Artists, musicians, and creative writers are as important to the Harvard South Asia Institute as historians and economists, entrepreneurs and scientists, political leaders and civil servants. The arts—fine arts and music, theater and literature, and more—comprise a fundamental part of South Asian culture and society. The arts are uniquely lived in this region, giving South Asia its nuanced history and flair. South Asia is in fact defined by its artistry, its architecture and epic poetry, its textiles and crafts, by its vibrant, continuously evolving traditions and movements. The arts come to life in all facets of South Asian culture. South Asian artists have played a leading, innovative role in the arts from antiquity, and have had lasting influence on international art forms.. This publication is a further extension of our commitment to the arts in South Asia. In the pages that follow, you will encounter a collection of essays by artists and scholars on topics as diverse as the region itself. Sona Datta, curator of South Asian art at the Peabody Essex Museum, demonstrates how art reflects life in paintings and installation art following the Partition period; while Fakrul Alam, a literary critic, explores the impact of Ekushey (Mother Language Day) on Bangladeshi society and on other native tongues. Sonali Dhingra, a doctoral candidate in art history at Harvard, raises urgent questions about the disappearance of premodern Buddhist sculptures from Odisha; as Rachel Parikh, Calderwood Curatorial Fellow of South Asian Art for the Harvard Art Museums, describes the surreal and humbling feeling of what it is like to hold and care for precious centuries-old artwork. Shazia Sikander, a renowned Pakistani artist, wrestles with tradition as she seeks to preserve some elements but also ultimately break with it in her own original miniature paintings. And Sunil 2 The Arts and South Asia
Sharma delves into the deep realm of Mughal-era poetry, shedding light on the paradisal beauty of historic Kashmir. The collection ends with verses of Tamil sangam poetry, translated into English. With stunning economy of language, they offer us a glimpse into what Tamil poets call the akam (the inner world) and the puram (the outer world). These essays, all newly commissioned, are concise and fascinating explorations of the arts and South Asia. They offer us fresh ways of thinking about the region—the past and the future; the commitment to traditions and the forging of modernity; great political narratives and textures of everyday life; the language of loss and the riotous music of resistance. As always, we invite you to engage actively with the essays that follow. Please feel free to take notes in the blank pages provided, and share the digital edition with your friends and colleagues. Regards,
Tarun Khanna Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School Director, Harvard South Asia Institute
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CONTRIBUTORS Fakrul Alam is professor of English at the University of Dhaka and honorary adviser in the Department of English at East-West University. Iftikhar Dadi is associate professor in the Department of History of Art at Cornell University. Sona Datta is curator of South Asian art at the Peabody Essex Museum. Sonali Dhingra is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. Avishek Ganguly is assistant professor in the Department of Literary Arts and Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shanay Jhaveri is assistant curator of South Asian art at New Yorkâ€™s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jinah Kim is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. Shreyas Navare is an editorial cartoonist and founder of Toonanza. Rachel Parikh is the Calderwood Curatorial Fellow of South Asian Art at the Harvard Art Museums. Sunil Sharma is professor of Persian and Indian literatures at Boston University. Shazia Sikander is a Pakistani artist. Her work has been shown in both solo and group exhibitions at several museums, including the Whitney Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
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Navigating the Past in India’s Museums Jinah Kim
Courtesy of Biswarup Ganguly.
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The oldest museum in India, the Indian Museum in Kolkata, celebrated its second centennial in 2014. It was founded in 1814 by the members of the Asiatic Society, itself established in 1784 by Sir Williams Jones, a noted Orientalist and Sanskrit philologist. The beginning of British direct rule in colonial India in 1858 had ushered in a new era for imperial museums: the new government announced its mission to establish a “public museum” in Calcutta, and the Indian Museum became a government institution. In the 1860s architect Walter Granville (1819–1874) drew the initial neoclassical designs for the museum, which was to be built on Chowringhee Street. The building was completed in 1875, and the museum opened its doors to the public in 1878. Nearly 140 years later, an oversized statue of Queen Victoria portrayed as youthful Flora still welcomes visitors at the top of an impressive stairway. People bustle about, finding their way to the rustic but grand zoological gallery on the opposite side or to the painting gallery behind the queen. The small Egyptian gallery around the corner from her is a popular tourist site. The room is climate-controlled to fight against extreme humidity during Kolkata’s summer months, and the small collection of artifacts from Egypt, itself a legacy of the British colonial rule, provides a rare chance to see something wondrous and exotic. However, the queen’s statue itself rarely draws any attention, despite its prominent position on the second floor’s landing plaza. I, for one, would thoughtlessly pass by this statue countless times during my daily visits to the museum while I was a research affiliate of the museum in 2003–2004. I had always been preoccupied with examining the much older sculptures in the archaeology section. The statue of Empress Victoria, while symbolic, is
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not itself particularly imposing; it was only during a visit in January 2013 that I began to think about this statue’s muted presence. There is no placard explaining the statue, but, unlike any other stone sculpture on display, this white marble statue stands tall on a marble pedestal, and a simple but elegant metal railing keeps the statue out of easy reach. A long inscription inked in black on one side of the pedestal identifies it as “Her Majesty Victoria, Empress of India.” It further informs us that the patron of the sculpture was Mahatab Chund Bahadur, a maharaja of Burdwan who was a loyal supporter of the British Indian government. It also records that the funding for the pedestal was given by his successor, Aftab Chund Mahatab Bahadur. The occasion for the statue’s commission was not the opening of the museum to the public, the inscription tells us, but her assumption of the title “Empress of India” in 1877. The statue was commissioned from Marshall Wood, a portrait sculptor based in London, whose name is inscribed on the statue’s round base. Another inscription in Devanagari on the other side of the pedestal translates the same message in Hindi. A crowded scene in the bronze relief on the front of the pedestal right beneath her feet is often taken as depicting the event of coronation, the Delhi Durbar of 1877, but, in fact, it portrays Viceroy Lord Lytton (identifiable by his distinctive long beard, and depicted as followed by his children and his wife, Edith Villiers) granting an honor to the maharaja of Burdwan.1 Why did the maharajas of Burdwan (today, Bardhaman, about 100 km northwest of Kolkata) commission the statue and the pedestal, and why was it installed in the Indian Museum? We will find answers to these questions only by examining the local histories. Seeing this seldom-noticed relief in a new light urges us to see beyond the manifest narrative of colonial rule in India. As much as the museum was a site of imperial visions bestowing benign benefits on colonial subjects, it was also a site for realizing the ambitions of local elites. The statue caught my attention in 2013 partly because the inscription on the pedestal had just then been freshly inked. When I had first arrived in 2003, only the letters of the top line had a trace of black ink, while the rest of the inscription, long since etched on a dusty marble surface, was barely visible. Ten years later, a crack in the pedestal had also been carefully repaired. In fact, many areas of the museum underwent numerous improvements to update the museum’s overall display and enhance the visitor experience in preparation for the second centennial celebration in 2014. The archaeology gallery that showcases the museum’s world-famous collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, especially of the Pāla-Sena period (ca. 750–1200 CE), used to be a dusty, with many objects sheltered behind glass. Given the hefty weight of each stone sculpture—even a relatively small sculpture less than two feet tall requires more than two men to lift—altering the display of these objects was no simple feat. In effect, the archaeology gallery underwent a complete transformation in 2013. When it reopened, the sculptures were displayed more 8 The Arts and South Asia
accessibly and with better lighting, most of them out of glaring and smudged glass cases that had hindered viewing. In fact, recent years have witnessed a number of renovation projects at India’s premier museums such as the National Museum, New Delhi, where much more attention is given to display strategies and upkeep of physical facilities to improve visitor experience. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS, formerly, the Prince of Wales Museum) in Mumbai has underwent extensive renovations and makeovers in multiple areas since the arrival of the director general, Mr. Sabyasachi Mukherjee. A dramatic transformation in a relatively short span of time was possible partly because the CSMVS is governed by an independent board of trustees and relies on its own funding that attracts donations from private sectors to proud citizens of Mumbai and beyond. More funding, both from the government and private sectors, will help transform India’s museums from a storehouse of antiquities to a public site of learning and leisure. After all, many of India’s public museums are places with deep histories, like the Indian Museum, which moved to its current location in 1875, a year before the younger Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened at its location in Copley Square. These histories await many more serendipitous discoveries.
Further research is necessary to determine which one of the two maharajas is portrayed here.
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The Elasticity of Tradition Shazia Sikander
Image courtesy of Shazia Sikander.
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After graduating from the all-girls Convent, a Roman Catholic missionary-run English-medium high school in Lahore, I joined the Kinnaird College for Women and started studying literature, math, and economics. Like many others of my generation, growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s was a deeply conflicting experience. The Soviet-Afghan War was creating new sociopolitical and cultural ruptures in Pakistan. Religion was steadily becoming institutionalized. The Hudood ordinances, which limited women’s rights, loomed large. Coeducation dissipated. Religious tolerance diminished. Even attending an art school back then was thought of as immoral. It was precisely the mindless malaise injected and perpetuated by Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime that pushed me as a young woman into the direction of art. If uncertainty had been the hallmark of our time, then pursuing art as a career path was to confront that uncertainty. Art remains an instinct to imagine, or reimagine, the future. Painting on canvas has a long history in the West. When I joined Lahore’s National College of Arts in 1986, I was in an intuitive mode, seeking out what would speak to me. I had no predetermined ideas or intent. I looked into architecture, photography, ceramics, printmaking, and painting with equal interest. There was a prevalent emphasis on modernism, and various iterations of abstract expressionism were abound; but what I was not interested in was a derivative relationship to the West via painting. Then I ran into Bashir Ahmed, the master miniature painter who challenged my entire understanding of high and low art. His was a dedication and commitment rooted in tradition. Such devotion to “tradition” arrested my attention. I was seeking my own sense of connection to history during the deeply unstable 1980s. Miniature painting’s then-designated status of irrelevance in the so-called intellectual artistic pracHarvard South Asia Institute 11
tices was a perfect foil for my own work. Instinctively I knew that my calling was to dig deeper into miniature painting’s complicated canon within historical representations. During this period, miniature painting was nonexistent in the global contemporary art world, as the Euro-American canon dominated the field of painting. I have examined Indo-Persian miniature painting for three decades and see my role as primarily investigative. History and storytelling feature prominently in my work, calling into question issues around redaction, perception of authority, and independence. The whole process of locating one’s relationship to “tradition” is a paradox in and of itself. How does that ownership occur? What is originality? Creativity? Imagination? How does one create something anew? Inventive possibilities abound within the world itself, not just within the realm of the mind. The world is full of mystery, containing within it myriad distances between the real and the imagined. Within that context, the rhetoric of imagination is buoyant, full of possibilities, a soaring and empowering space that is free from constraints, that binds all of us together. Our histories are about redactions. Imagination is very much about taking ownership of the narrative; it is a fundamentally political stance. An artist often has the burden to reimagine. In reimagining lies the ability to break molds and reexamine norms. Contemporaneity is about remaining relevant by challenging the status quo, not about holding on to positions of power. Within the work of art, the elasticity of the form is its ability to remain relevant over its various iterations within geographical, historical, sociopolitical, cultural, gendered, and psychological transformations. I am interested in the dynamism of form: form as something alive and in relationship to its space, technique, and time. South Asia and its diaspora—with its diverse history and traditions, its linguistic and racial diversity, and its complex provenance—interest me deeply. Who are we? What is identity? Early in my practice I began developing a personal vocabulary, an alphabet of sorts, in which forms could serve as stock characters and no longer had to hold on to their original meanings. A recurring form, one of many I’ve developed as part of my visual language, is a silhouette of the hair culled from the head of a gopi, a female devotee of the Hindu god Krishna as represented in historical Indian miniatures. By removing the female figure and leaving the trace of her hair, I wanted to emphasize the potential within the dislocated form. At once singular and representational, when animated and reproduced in the millions, the hair silhouettes operate as a pulsating mass of movement that oscillates between several representations, such as the sun, spheres, swarms, birds, bats, or insects. What is important is the kinetic thrust, the enormous energy charge at the interface of this undulating movement of forms. The hair unit as a form is simultaneously tangible––a rigid icon—and elusive, constantly morphing and altering. Powerful and subliminal, the beauty of the gopi hair particles is that they can operate as both the unhinged and the durable, functioning as a 12 The Arts and South Asia
force, an engine for survival. To detach is to renew. Disruption as a means of exploration is a consistent element in my experimental strategy. The notion is to sever, so that the female account is freed to create its own history and empower its own narrative. The “hair” iconography, when unleashed from its servitude to the gopi aesthetic, has greater scope and autonomy. Not only do I see the motif as decentered but also as asexual or androgynous. It is a metaphor for inevitable change that occurs through time. It is also a metaphor for complexity and the probability of freedom. Digitizing captured my imagination as a stand-in for vector. Space, velocity, magnitude, direction all are essential for the movement and projection of my drawings inspired by traditional Indian and Persian miniatures. Drawings on paper, as witnessed in the folios, illumination manuscripts, and endless Indian and Persian historical paintings, contain an aspect of infinity in that the narrative doesn’t end at the edge of the painted, but hints at a world beyond. That idea has always been at the core of my dismantling traditional miniature paintings. In developing a parallel between the drawn and the digital, both of which have infinite space, I wanted to collapse the boundaries between organic and synthetic drawing. The intent is to transform motifs in order to cultivate new associations for trenchant historical symbols in the quest to service more than one vantage point.
Image courtesy of Shazia Sikander.
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Images courtesy of Shazia Sikander.
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Song, Politics, Hashtag: The Story of Contemporary Bengali Music Making Avishek Ganguly
The Hok Kolorob protest in Kolkata, 2014. Courtesy of Ronny Sen.
Moheener Ghoraguli’s debut album cover, 1977. Courtesy of Moheener Ghoraguli.
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In the autumn of 2014, an undergraduate student at Columbia University made headlines with her performance art protest against the institution’s inadequate response to her complaint of sexual assault. Her act of carrying a dorm room mattress all across campus sparked solidarity protests on several other college campuses, prompting Nato Thompson, chief curator of the well-known arts organization Creative Time to comment that he had never seen a work of art inspire a political movement like this. Around the same time students at the prestigious Jadavpur University in Kolkata (previously Calcutta), protesting a similar mishandling of a sexual assault incident on their campus, came together for an arguably much larger political movement. Like their Columbia counterparts, these students were also inspired by a work of art—a musical composition—and named their protest after a contemporary Bengali song, “Hok Kolorob!” Idiomatic expressions are the hardest to translate, but “Let there be clamor!” would come close. As with the Columbia protest, the Jadavpur actions had also generated a rapidly trending hashtag. But, unlike the former situation, #hokkolorob had quickly escaped the sanctified confines of the campus and brought vast sections of Kolkata’s general population out on the streets. Naming a political protest after a song was quite unique; naming a protest after a song composed and sung by a musician originating from a neighboring country—even as Bangladeshi singer Shayan Chowdhury Arnob enjoyed a dedicated listenership on both sides of the national border that separates the world’s two largest Bengali-speaking populations—was no less remarkable. But the politics of contemporary Bengali music has a slightly longer history.
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A watershed moment came in 1977 when a band called Moheener Ghoraghuli released their first EP album, Songhbighno Pakhikul o Kolkata Bishoyok (Of ruffled feathers and Kolkata). The striking folk-rock compositions and crisp songwriting of that album, not to mention its eye-catching, surrealist cover art, were much closer to the experimental spirit of Bengali modernist poetry and everyday city life in bustling Calcutta than to that of the maudlin lyrics of romantic love and longing that were the staple of Bengali modern songs at that time. In fact, the band borrowed its name from a poem by the iconic Bengali modernist poet Jibanananda Das. A major inspiration behind their compositions was the songs of the itinerant bauls of Bengal, but perhaps equally the work of early Bob Dylan, who still enjoys a particularly dedicated following among music enthusiasts in some of India’s eastern states. While there had been a few earlier moments in the history of modern Bengali music when collective singing and ensemble arrangements had flourished—for instance, some of the rousing folk-inspired anthems of the left-wing IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) in the 1940s, a celebrated high point—Moheener Ghoraghuli must be credited for instituting the first deliberate break in the dominant tradition of Bengali modern songs: a super-genre that had largely consisted of film soundtracks, compilations of Rabindrasangeet (the compositions of Rabindranath Tagore), semiclassical albums, and festival releases around the annual Durga Puja celebrations, all of which had shared the same conditions of cultural production and circulation as well as live performance. Moheener Ghoraguli’s experiment in indie music making, however, ended up being quite short-lived. As I discovered during my research some years ago, the circulation of their records became somewhat samizdat, their live concerts that had disrupted the decorous rendition of Bengali modern songs became rare, and the band gradually acquired a cult following as the mainstream Bengali musical genres resumed their domination of the airwaves and album sales. That was how things were till Suman Chattopadhyay—now Kabir Suman—an ex–Voice of America correspondent, friend, and admirer of Pete Seeger, who burst onto the sleepy musical scene with his first album titled simply Sumaner Gaan (Songs of Suman) with the now-iconic track Tomaake chaii (I want you) in 1992. Suman seemed to pick up from where Moheener Ghoraguli had left off and ushered in the second flowering of this “music of everyday life,” my preferred translation of Jibon mukhi gaan, a familiar Bengali moniker for this new genre. Suman’s lyrics were poetic but unmistakably conversational; his allusions often leaped off the front pages of newspapers and television news channels; his performance style—a one-man band accompanied by a guitar, keyboards, and the occasional harmonica—was unusually pared down. And his live concerts, held everywhere from college campuses to strike pickets in front of locked-out factories, attempted to change the way people listened to
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this new music. It is, therefore, not a stretch to say that in the hands of Suman Chattopadhyay/Kabir Suman Bengali music making in the last decade of the last century decisively transformed into a political art form. A thriving Bengali music scene, more attuned to the traditions of British and American pop and rock, had also taken off in neighboring Bangladesh with the formation of prominent bands like Miles in the late 1970s and LRB in the early 1990s. The 1990s, in fact, turned out to be the most productive decade of this new Bengali music on both sides of the border. Arnob, the singer of “Hok Kolorob!,” the song with which we began, had formed his own experimental band called Bangla with fellow musician friends in the late 1990s. Suman’s debut was followed by the appearance of a number of Kolkata-based musical ensembles—Bangla Band, as another popular catchall description has it—like Chandrabindoo, Cactus, and Paras Pathar (Philosopher’s stone), as well as solo performers including Nachiketa Chakraborty and Anjan Dutt. Gautam Chattopadhyay (no relation of Suman), virtuoso musician and moving spirit behind the now-defunct Moheener Ghoraguli, became reenergized by this emerging independent music scene and brought together a group of contemporary performers to record a new commemorative compilation of songs aptly titled Abaar Bochhor Kuri Porey (Again, after twenty-odd years) in 1995, while veteran protest singers like Pratul Mukhopadhyay were rediscovered by younger listeners. With the exception of Suman, perhaps the only other band that has thrived through the now nearly twenty-five years of this new musical movement is Chandrabindoo, which recently released its ninth album titled Chandrabindoo Noy, a pun on the Bengali word noy, which means “not” but also stands for the number nine. This is typical of the band whose debut album had carried an audacious prefatory note that claimed that they aspired to create songs with a “deconstructionist temper,” and which has come to be associated with clever writing, an eclectic musical style, and a sardonic even if occasionally laddish sensibility. Not much seems to have changed, as I discovered during my interview with the band before one of their recent concerts outside Boston. In response to my question, “Is there a Chandrabindoo sound?,” prominent band members Anindya Chatterjee, Upal Sengupta, and Chandril Bhattacharya insisted that they are still uncomfortable being slotted into any easy either/or binary of musical style or genre, claiming that “the Chandrabindoo sound is polyphonic even as there remains a magical, musical quality that makes something unique stand out.” If the transformation of Bengali urban music had begun haltingly with Moheener Ghoraghuli, it has come a long way since then. Perhaps it was Kabir Suman who had enabled its definitive transition from being “modern” to becoming “contemporary”? The likes of Chandrabindoo might have inherited that legacy, but, as is evident from their comments above, they have
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consciously worked toward maintaining a position of hard-to-pin-down musical ingenuity. And Arnob, when asked about the impact of #hokkolorob, expressed his frank surprise if not qualified distance from any obvious political use of his compositions. What was once a marginalized, resistant musical movement now increasingly looks like the â€œnew mainstreamâ€? of contemporary Bengali music. But if these contradictory artistic positions are anything to go by, a lot of music still remains to be made from the everyday life of this community.
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South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in Britain Iftikhar Dadi
Anwar Jalal Shemza, Chessmen, 1969. Oil and silkscreen on cotton cloth. 60 x 46 cm. Copyright of the Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza. Courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.
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Developments in modern and contemporary art of South Asia have a long history of engagement with Britain. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, numerous art schools were established in India under British colonial supervision; these focused on the revival of craft practices and the teaching of academic styles of painting. Since, from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, Paris was the center of artistic modernism, with London being a relative backwater, the training imparted in colonial-era art schools in South Asia was correspondingly conservative, rather than focused on modern and experimental approaches. This has meant that from the mid-twentieth century onward, artists who sought to embrace modernism in their practice had to venture beyond their artistic training in South Asia. In the postwar and postcolonial era, many South Asian artists traveled to France and continental Europe to study art and visit museums and galleries. Many others voyaged to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art or the Royal College of Art, or to participate in the artistic life of an advanced metropolis. Some artists spent extended periods of their careers in the UK. The South Asians were joined by artists from other territories of the former British Empire and would often exhibit their work together during the 1950s and 1960s under the “commonwealth” rubric. These artists are sometimes referred to as being “Black British,” a label that is specific to the UK and signifies anyone who is not white. The noted cultural theorist Stuart Hall has identified Black British artists as arriving in distinct phases. The first consisted of those born in the 1920s and early 1930s, and includes Avinash Chandra, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, and Francis Newton Souza from South Asia. Their overriding concern was to Harvard South Asia Institute 23
engage with modernism as a formal practice at major artistic centers where they sought to participate as equals, but this aspiration was largely denied to them by predominant British art institutions unwilling to acknowledge that non-Western artists could make modern art. The next group that arrived became far more aware of this systematic institutional neglect and widespread racism, and began an extensive critique through their activism and by working with contemporary forms of art practice.1 Anwar Jalal Shemza’s and Rasheed Araeen’s careers aptly exemplify the two phases. Shemza remains affiliated with modernism, while Araeen’s practice begins with modernism and moves toward contemporary practice and activism. Modernism is largely a studio-based practice in which the work of art does not directly refer to external events but instead seeks a kind of transcendence through sublimated artistic form. By contrast, contemporary art is more “worldly,” as it draws more directly on historical evidence and on the force of current events. And it is often created in diverse mediums such as performance, video, and photography, rather than primarily in painting or sculpture. The modernist Anwar Jalal Shemza was born in Simla in 1928, and studied at the Mayo School of Arts, Lahore. The year of his graduation, 1947, also witnessed the traumatic Partition of colonial India into the postcolonial states of India and Pakistan, during which many of Shemza’s family members were killed. Throughout the late 1940s until the mid-1950s, Shemza associated with Lahore’s literary intelligentsia, and was also a founding member of the Lahore Art Circle, a group of young artists experimenting with modernism and abstraction. In 1956, he moved to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. He was a frequent visitor to British museums where he studied objects from various regions and periods from across the world—an opportunity that was unavailable to him in Pakistan, where even Mughal-era paintings produced in Lahore are not well represented in the city’s museums. Upon his arrival, Shemza had expected his artwork to be lauded by his Slade tutors and the public, but, instead, he faced indifferent rejection, and his predicament resulted in an existential crisis during his early years in London. This sense of dislocation impelled Shemza to begin working intensively on a new body of work, forging a studio-based modernist artistic style comprised of geometric abstraction and calligraphy, which he continued to focus on throughout his later career.2 Born in Karachi in 1935, Rasheed Araeen studied civil engineering, but was deeply interested in modern art. Relocating to London in 1964, Araeen initially focused his art on constructivism and geometry, but he did not find reception for his innovative minimalist sculpture, as critics expected him to make “Oriental” art. The global political upheaval of the late 1960s and exposure to the writings of Frantz Fanon and other anticolonial thinkers led Araeen and other artists to become aware of the underlying structures of racism and inequality. In 1987 Araeen founded and began editing the journal Third Text, which emerged as one of the most important critical platforms for writings on modern and con24 The Arts and South Asia
temporary art. And in 1989 he curated The Other Story, an important exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London that showcased the work of Black British artists (and whose catalog cover reproduces a work by Shemza who had passed away in 1985). In Araeen’s art, process and equality have a formalist value as well as social significance. He has produced work that directly addresses racism, such as his 1977 performance Paki Bastard (Portrait of the Artist as a Black Person). And he has continued to create more formalist minimalist sculpture, many of these works drawing in their audience with more immediacy than older forms of modernist art. In this sense, Araeen’s modernist rigor cannot be extricated from his political and social concerns, and his trajectory traverses a studio-based modernism toward a contemporary practice that constantly seeks engagement with society.3 Over the last two decades, artists from South Asia have gained greater prominence in major British institutions. Museums and galleries in Gateshead, Manchester, Oxford, and other cities of England have showcased the work of numerous South Asian artists living and working in various parts of the world. More recently, the Tate Gallery in London has been developing specialized curatorial expertise in modern and contemporary South Asian art, and has mounted major exhibitions of Shemza, and Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) in 2016. Despite Brexit, one hopes that these positive initiatives in artistic exchange between South Asia and the UK will continue to flourish. Anwar Jalal Shemza, Untitled (Roots), 1984. Oil on canvas mounted on silk and hardboard. 40 x 30 cm. Copyright of the Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza. Courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.
Stuart Hall, “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three ‘Moments’ in Post-War History,” History Workshop Journal 61, no. 1 (2006): 1–24.
Iftikhar Dadi, ed., Anwar Jalal Shemza (London: Ridinghouse, 2015).
Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
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Art on the Line Sona Datta
Ganesh Pyne, The Assassin, tempera on canvas, 1979. From the Collection of Jane Gowers & Kito de Boer.
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Calcutta, 1946: While playing in the metropolis’s back alleys, a young Ganesh Pyne (1937–2012) stumbled upon a barrow piled high with dead bodies during the city’s brutal sectarianism that saw the slaughter of some eight thousand Hindus and Muslims over the space of a couple of weeks. Pyne’s startling early encounter with death would provide the creative force behind the melancholy and magical realism of his mature work. The Assassin powerfully captures the savagery of those times. Hunched over in the shadowy half-light, the assassin wields a large machete and stalks across the canvas, intent, with a haunted look on his face. A headless woman floats in the upper-right quadrant; at the bottom are scattered human remains. Agony hovers over them in the air. This year, 2017, marks the seventieth anniversary of the Independence and subsequent Partition of British India in 1947, an event with seismic consequences for the peoples of South Asia and, arguably, the world. The nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were formed through India’s violent rupture with itself. India’s plurality had always been its strength, but for the first time in its five thousand years of recorded history, India found itself divided along religious lines. In the summer of 1947, more than ten million people were displaced and a million lost their lives fleeing to their ascribed side of a new border in the name of religion. Most Partition narratives begin and end with India and few address the importance of visual culture in the imagination of new nations and selves. Tyeb Mehta was one of the very few artists whose work directly addressed his trauma as an Indian Muslim who chose not to leave India during Partition. However, many artists have used conduits to negotiate the personal and collective experiences of dislocation and relocation. Some are only beginning to Harvard South Asia Institute 27
grapple with Partition’s residue, from grand nationalist storytelling to the most intimate aspects of the self as explored in the haunting work of Ganesh Pyne. In the early twentieth century the Indian freedom movement had delivered a united image of Indian tradition enshrined in the works of artists such as Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose and at the culture castle of the Tagores in Calcutta. But it also marginalized India’s Muslims.
M. F. Husain, Man, acrylic on board, 1952. From the Peabody Essex Museum.
Chittraprosad Bhattacharya, Quit India, woodcut, 1940s. From the Collection of Jane Gowers & Kito de Boer. Chittraprosad Bhattacharya’s (1915–1978) visual reportage used a new kind of social realism seen in his iconic print Quit India, which shows a group of Indian children hurling stones at an oncoming British military tank. Bhattacharya saw both children and peasants as the common victims of colonial and capitalist exploitation, and equally Tagore’s pedagogic ideal at Santiniketan, to be fundamentally disconnected from what was then happening to masses of people in the country at large. By midcentury that hard-won unity had become fatally compromised and was exploited by imperial Britain during the hasty division of India in 1947. The story of India’s Independence is thus not complete without the story of its division, the implications of which were both catastrophic and creative. The largest migration of people in human history changed the face of cultural production in South Asia in surprising ways. But what was India’s loss was also Pakistan’s, and later Bangladesh’s, gain. The disruptive and creative responses to Cyril Radcliffe’s controversial line show that while Partition was clearly destructive, it was also fashioned new borders, identities, and regimes. A revolutionary art movement flourished in India following Independence, which was simultaneously local and global, Indian and international.
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M. F. Husain’s (1913–2011) Man sits like Rodin’s Thinker in the center of this work as both the artist and the citizen of newly independent India cast amid a bricolage of India’s history. This enigmatic and chaotic assemblage is an expression of postcolonial life. His large green eye observes the bewildering swirl of opposing forces—ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, hopeful and anxious, powerful and vulnerable, chaotic and creative—that surrounded the artist-intellectual in post-Independence India. The contemporary engagement with cultural geography across South Asia has continued to interrogate identity, conflict, and belonging. Amar Kanwar’s elegiac visual essay from A Season Outside (1997) is a sonorous work that plays off the deep anxiety surrounding the world’s longest extant militarized border between India and Pakistan. West Pakistan would take on the role of the new colonial power over its smaller, poorer, and distant cousin, East Pakistan—a relationship that became so degenerative it would eventually lead to East Pakistan’s secession and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.
Naeem Mohaiemen, Kazi in Noman’s Land, 2008, British Museum. Image courtesy of the artist. Harvard South Asia Institute 29
Naeem Mohaiemen’s (b. 1969) tiny sculpture made of postage stamps is a creative response to grandstanding official agendas. It deconstructs the grandiose narratives of Partition through a work that explores the commemoration of the same cultural and political hero of three nations. The Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976) was first celebrated by India for his secular humanism. Pakistan then hailed him as a “Muslim” poet in a bid to displace the “Hindu” poet Tagore from the East Pakistani mindset and, after 1971, Bangladesh honored him as its national poet. Despite a constitution that paid tribute to religious diversity, Pakistan quickly came to define itself as an Islamic republic and its state-sponsored Islamic agenda had far-reaching implications for both national and international politics. Pakistan’s official denial of a shared heritage with India plays out in Arabian Delight by Huma Mulji (b. 1970). A taxidermy camel is forced into a battered old suitcase—a pointed reference to the wholesale import of an alien Arab culture into Pakistani society.
Huma Mulji, Arabian Delight, taxidermy camel in suitcase, 2008. From the Saatchi Gallery, London (image courtesy of the artist).
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Anila Quayyum Agha, Intersections, laser-cut steel, 2013. From the Peabody Essex Museum. Agha (b. 1965) uses beauty to transcend the parameters of race, religion, gender, and culture to create a totalizing space that embraces all. A single bulb activates a laser-cut box, casting patterned shadows that reference Islamic filigree across all corners of the gallery. Growing up in Pakistan, Agha described her childhood wonder at the beauty of Islamic sacred spaces but also how, as a girl, she was confined to worship at home. Many years later after arriving in America, she had felt welcomed as a woman but excluded as a Muslim. It was the desire to overcome the barriers and classifications that crisscross all of our lives that provided the emotional motivation for this work. This is not a work about Islam, but a meditation on the alienation created by boundaries and their arbitrary categorizations. South Asia’s shared cultural heritage has continuously resisted erasure despite the incredible burden placed upon it by its new borders. The experiences of political rupture, of belonging and suddenly not belonging, and of the enduring human need to create in spite of political revision and truncation are universal.
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Going! Going! Gone! The Disappearance of Premodern Buddhist Sculpture from Odisha Sonali Dhingra
© Sonali Dhingra, August 2016
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One balmy afternoon this past August, I found myself trudging through the lush and quiet pathways of Solampur, a village in eastern Odisha. I was in search of a rare tenth-century sculpture of Avalokiteśvara which, a published source informed me, was sitting amid a cluster of images in the compound of a local Hindu shrine. The temple I was looking for was right there. It was small with a simple four-pillared patio and thatched roof. A series of vermilionsmeared medieval sculptures, some broken and headless, were arranged in the semi-open compound. I looked around for my image of Avalokiteśvara, and then asked a curious passerby about its whereabouts. The sculpture along with a couple others, he lamented, was stolen just a few weeks ago.1 I stared crestfallen at the empty spot he pointed at. A crowd of watchful, quizzical eyes soon gathered, protective of the images they so revered, and inquisitive about my visit to their village. Twenty-one-year-old Bishwambar, a volunteer with a local heritage conservation organization, accompanied by a group of children, followed me around and peppered me with questions. On learning about my doctoral project on the “lives” of Buddhist sculpture in Odisha, he excitedly related tales of Solampur’s hoary past, and took me to the site of a medieval Buddhist monastery, still buried underground. Proud and keenly aware of the local history, he and the villagers were caretakers of the ancient Buddhist images. For them, these idols were valuable as gods of the village as well as precious vestiges of the Buddhist past. The images, too, were inhabitants of the village, a part of daily life and cared for like family and community. The villagers were determined to recover their gods and had already lodged a complaint with the police to bring the idols back to their little shrine. Harvard South Asia Institute 33
This theft was not out of the ordinary. Thousands of cultural objects from houses of worship and museums in South Asia are pillaged, illegally exported, given fabricated ownership histories, and sold to collectors abroad each year. These activities are supported by networks of criminals from petty thieves to seasoned international art dealers and auction houses who make enormous profits off them. Yet, on the ride back to my guesthouse, I wondered if I would ever see that image. Where was it now? Was it still with a middleman, who would probably sell it for no more than a few thousand rupees? Or perhaps it was locked up in a smuggler’s warehouse? Who would buy it? Would the image have been safer in a museum or at a protected archaeological site? I got the answer to my last question soon enough. Multiple instances of theft have been reported in the last ten years at museums and archaeological sites in different parts of Odisha. Institutions lack both money and manpower to safeguard their collections. To recount just one instance, a sizable cache of over a hundred bronze statuettes—Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain—was rediscovered fortuitously when construction workers were leveling the ground in order to build a college in the town of Banpur, in 1963. These images, beautifully chiseled, and inlaid with silver and precious gems, were special for the Buddhist monastery. They were buried underground in large terracotta urns, likely to avoid some threat to the establishment, possibly in the thirteenth century. All the 130 or so objects were taken over by the Archaeological Survey of India and prominently displayed at the State Museum in Bhubaneshwar, until in 2005 one eleventh-century Buddha image went missing (though it was later recovered). At some point after that, in a measure often resorted to by state authorities, the entire collection of bronzes was confined deep inside a vault and now requires special permission for viewing. Ironically, this returned the hoard to their earlier life at the site, and I wonder if and when they will see the light of day again. I am glad that the members of the village of Solampur did not decide to take similar action—their images are still in the open, and they still have stories to tell.2 Following the recent uncovering of a spate of illegal sales of South Asian art to major museums across the world, and the repatriation of objects and arrests of American art dealers, I have become increasingly aware of the alarming rate of South Asian art theft and the enormity of the art market.3 Admittedly, though, I was surprised by the rampant and steady looting and smuggling of key and rare sculptures from unprotected archaeological sites and temples in Odisha. After all, sculptures from this region are usually never the star of any South Asian gallery at reputed art museums in the West; and Buddhist material from Odisha is virtually nonexistent in surveys of Indian art. Even so, there appears to be an increasing knowledge of the economic value of antiquities from Odisha that has fueled the underground art market and the illicit trade of its artifacts. The unchecked and steady loss of art-historical remains
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will leave gaps in what has promised to be a rich body of material shedding light on the latest stages of Buddhist practice in South Asia. While the above may appear to be the lament of a specialized art historian, it brings to prominence the broader question: Why is premodern Indian art disappearing from India?4 The answer, as academics have argued elsewhere, lies not in the lack of buying power or capacity in today’s India, but partly in the cumbersome nature of laws governing antiquities that have disincentivized the collecting and owning of antiquities and ancient art objects. In addition, cultural objects can only be retained within Indian borders if the citizens are at least aware of their cultural patrimony. Sadly, the sense of collective ownership of heritage the locals at Solampur have displayed is atypical in India; the last few decades have resulted in the severe decay of cultural institutions in India that has gone hand in hand with a waning interest in art and cultural heritage. Along with the disappearance of vestiges of India’s ancient artistic traditions, a major part of its cultural history is eroding and in danger of being lost forever.
“Rare Buddha Idols Stolen from Bhadrak,” Telegraph, July 19, 2016. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160720/jsp/odisha/story_97592.jsp#. WFracVMrL3h.
Richard Davis, in Lives of Indian Images, argues that idols in India are considered to be “living” and, in fact, they go on to live long and colorful biographies. See H. Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Several thefts, arrests, and returns have been reported by “Chasing Aphrodite,” a blog that follows the global illicit looting of cultural objects. See http://chasingaphrodite.com. Within India, there are a few scholars who have been working toward creating awareness on stolen art objects. For more information on their work, see, for instance, http:// plunderedpast.in/about.html and http://ipp.org.in/.
Naman P. Ahuja, “Why Is Liberalised India Smuggling Its Heritage Abroad?,” The Hindu, July 22, 2012.
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Nasreen Mohamedi and South Asian Modernism Shanay Jhaveri
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Gift of Jose M. Soriano. © President and Fellows of Harvard College.
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In 2016, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York inaugurated its new space, the Met Breuer, with a retrospective on the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Prior to traveling to the US, this show was hosted by Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, originating at the Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi. Mohamedi, who died in 1990, is celebrated for her minimal black-and-white drawings. Her renown has grown steadily over the last fifteen years—she was included in documenta 12 and was the subject of a solo show at Tate Liverpool in 2014—and these presentations have further raised her profile. Mohamedi justly deserves the attention: in the 1970s and 1980s, when figurative and narrative tendencies held sway within the Indian art community, Mohamedi intuitively evolved an abstract, graphic manner of expression. It was through myriad explorations of the grid that her aesthetic reached its apogee. The increased visibility and interest in Mohamedi’s work has concurrently, on the one hand, bolstered her market prices, but also catalyzed a spate of new scholarship. This fresh academic and scholarly writing has ensured the art-historical canonization of Mohamedi, locating her practice within both a regional as well as transnational context, while indicating the changes taking place within the fields of art history and curatorial practice themselves. None of Mohamedi’s contemporaries achieved the extreme formalism of her work. A delicate suite of untitled drawings by Arpita Singh from the late 1970s can be cited as indulging in Mohamedi’s reduced palette, but Singh’s approach is looser: her tiny black strokes mesh together like a textile weave. Formally closer are the drawings of Dashrath Patel (founding secretary of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad), which, while not as complex as Mohamedi’s, Patel had created to cultivate his daily mindfulness practice. The Harvard South Asia Institute 37
commonly held assumption that the aesthetic employed by these Indian artists was derivative of American minimalism is incorrect. The specific socioeconomic conditions that guided the work of the American artists would not have had the same resonance for their South Asian counterparts, whose innovations evolved out of their own context. These discussions that more precisely pivot around minimalist work can and have been couched within a greater deliberation on the place of abstraction within South Asian modern and contemporary art, which has inevitably brought attention to little-known, marginalized, and overlooked artistic practices. Such acts of critical interlocution and reflection that cut across generations, geography, and location are staged by Marg magazine’s recent special issue “in focus: Abstraction,” guest edited by Geeta Kapur who, in her introductory note, writes that “in the case of abstraction, artists from outside the West have tilted the ground and made tendentious contributions to what is regarded as a universal and utopian language of the 20th century.” It brings together a group of eleven female South Asian artists, and no doubt Mohamedi looms large. A host of aesthetic approaches come into view, many that complement one another, many that have drawn and elaborated from one another, and a few others that staked out their own paths, confirming Kapur’s claim of their subjective contributions to the unbinding of a fixed notion about abstraction. One such example is the work of the little-known Pakistani artist Lala Rukh, for whom, within a reduced means of expression, a committed feminist politics can exist and elaborate itself. Abstract, minimal, and spare work can very well take on and embody a partisan inflection. Rukh trained at Punjab University and later went to study at the University of Chicago. After graduating in 1976, she returned to Pakistan, at a time of severe Islamization under the military dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq. Throughout the 1980s, and unaware of Mohamedi’s work until the end of that decade, Rukh completed a series of dynamic life drawings that became increasingly minimal. Made rapidly using Conté crayon, Rukh’s strokes are barely discernible. Although ostensibly abstract, when seen as a group, the works evoke the human body in motion. Since Orthodox Islam forbids the visual representation of the human form, this is abstraction with a political charge. Rukh’s spare work was not well received in Pakistan; reactions bordered on hostile. She recalls feeling quite alone, but this only bolstered her resolve. In 1981, Rukh began her lifelong commitment to political activism, cofounding the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a nonpartisan Pakistani organization that fights violence and discrimination against women. She was also dedicated to teaching at the National College of Arts in Lahore, from which she only recently retired. While drawing is at the core of Rukh’s practice, she also works with photography (Sand Paintings, 2000) and audio recordings. For her series of drawings, River in an Ocean (1992–93), she used photographic paper, which lent her subtle, silver renderings of the ocean a haunting, lumi38 The Arts and South Asia
nescent quality. Lately, she has been working with fragile black carbon paper. Rukh takes particular notice of the wrinkles and creases on the paper’s surface and includes them in her mark-making. The ripples of the paper become one with her elicitation of moonlight reflected off a nocturnal sea. Rukh has also developed a personalized form of calligraphy in her series Hieroglyphics (1995–ongoing). In these modest drawings, language is abstracted and the notations intimate musical patterns (perhaps influenced by her father, Hayat Ahmad Khan, who, for many years, ran the All Pakistan Music Conference). She also mentions that being exposed to John Cage’s work while studying in Chicago had a significant impact on her imagination. Rukh’s forthcoming inclusion in documenta 14, and her participation in the twelfth Sharjah Biennial and “In Order to Join: The Political in a Historical Moment” at the Goethe Institut and CSMVS in Mumbai (which traveled from Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach), all go some ways to situate her within wider regional and international frameworks of affiliation. So while the negotiations around abstraction from South Asia continue to evolve and refine themselves, and artists like Rukh are further recognized, there are other moments and figures in the region’s art history that merit contemplation, that dismantle the authority and dominance of a particular kind and mode of expression, and, without wholly discarding it, propose a plurality of aesthetic stations and loci, however distinct—so that when appreciated in relation to one another, the richness and heterogeneity of South Asian artistry may provide a sense of what constitutes a modernism of and from the region. It would seem that with K. G. Subramanyan’s passing in 2016, his legacy might be ripe for the picking. His belief in a vernacular modernism, and the impact it had through his own pedagogy on artists like Mrinalini Mukherjee, Nilima Sheikh, and Sheela Gowda, while straddling the two art schools of Shantiniketan and the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts, could lead to an equally significant shift in not only how the received narrative of the region’s art history is understood, but also perhaps how the shape of a more nuanced and complex global art history, where acts of artistic singularity occur from outside the West, impacts and can fundamentally shift the axis of our collective perception.
Geeta Kapur, “Preface,” Marg 68, no 1. Harvard South Asia Institute 39
Caring for South Asian Gods, Kings, Heroes, and Legends at the Harvard Art Museums Rachel Parikh
Image of courtyard: The Harvard Art Museums. Credit: Peter Vanderwarker.
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As I stand over a large desk in the Art Study Center at the Harvard Art Museums, the sunlight filters through the shaded wall of windows as I examine a folio from a Mughal illustrated manuscript, the Divan of Anvari, created in 1588 under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). It is small, no longer than the length of a pencil, and I admire its delicate properties. On the right, gold edging frames the elegantly written Persian prose; on the left, flowers and animals embellish the gilded borders surrounding a small painting of a mounted fox hunter, his right hand lifting up a sword and the left clutching the reigns of his galloping horse. He is set against a colorful outcrop and accompanied by his attendant and dog. I gently raise the folio to examine the Persian calligraphy on the back; and that is when it strikes me how elaborate and stunning this four-hundred-year-old work of art is. It is a surreal and humbling feeling to have the honor to hold in one’s hands something that was created for a great and powerful emperor. This folio, like all objects in a museum, has transcended time and space—it has beautifully survived generations, indeed dynasties. First housed in an imperial library where it was cherished and admired under great care, it is now, hundreds of years later, kept at the Harvard Art Museums. I am the Calderwood Curatorial Fellow of South Asian Art for the Harvard Art Museums, and as such I have the invaluable responsibility to research and catalogue the museums’ collection of over one thousand works on paper. I carefully study each object, recording its dates and cultural and geographic attributions; further, I note the medium and material of artworks, and also transcribe and translate their inscriptions from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, or Sanskrit into English, composing concise descriptions. I then input all of this information into our database, which becomes available on our website Harvard South Asia Institute 41
to the public. As a first-generation American of South Asian descent, I feel a great sense of pride and responsibility in my capacity to help curate the museums’ remarkable acquisitions; my work here has truly been rewarding in that it has helped me develop a deeper connection to my heritage. The Harvard Art Museums hold one of the most significant collections in the country, and among its particular strengths is material that hails from eighteenth-century Kota and Rajasthan, and from the Pahari School of the seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Himalayan hill kingdoms, such as Bashohli, Guler, and Kangra. We also have an extraordinary collection of preparatory drawings and sketches that provide distinct insight into understanding the artistic process and the evolution of works on paper. My work at the museums follows in the footsteps of eminent art historians. Stuart Cary Welch—notable scholar, curator, and collector of Indian and Islamic works on paper—served as the Fogg’s honorary assistant keeper of Islamic art in 1956, and as curator of Islamic and later Indian art at the Harvard Art Museums from 1979 to 1987; he also taught art history at Harvard until his retirement in 1995. In 1999, Welch gifted the museums with 306 works from India, Iran, and Turkey, one of the most important acquisitions in the history of the museums. As a collector, he pursued major private collections of Indian and Islamic material, as well as donors that shared his great passion for and interest in the subject. Working with such notable figures as Edwin Binney the Third, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Goelet, Philip Hofer, and many others, Welch amassed more than two thousand objects during his time at the museums, vastly enriching Harvard’s holdings of Indian and Islamic art. Welch’s contributions as both curator and scholar also strengthened Harvard’s commitment to South Asian art, which was further bolstered by other notable figures like Pramod Chandra, the George P. Bickford Professor of Indian and South Asian Art. As I record my observations of the Divan of Anvari folio, my sense of humility extends from beyond my part in preserving a great work of art to how my research will continue Harvard’s already rich legacy of expertise on and expansion of its South Asian art holdings. My next two years will be filled with challenges, discoveries, and mysteries, and, hopefully, insights, all of which will contribute to education about the collection and the utter delight that it brings. Ariel external image of the Harvard Art Museums. Calderwood Courtyard & Arcades, The Harvard Art Museums. Credit: Peter Vanderwarker.
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At the Threshold of Paradise: Kashmir in Mughal Persian Poetry Sunil Sharma
Map of Kashmir from Voyages de François Bernier (Amsterdam: P. Marret, 1724).
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Who has not heard of the vale of Cashmere, With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave, Its temples, and grottos, and fountains as clear As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave? These verses from Lalla Rookh, a romance composed in 1817 by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, made “Kashmir” a household word in Anglophone societies. The idea of Kashmir as paradise has a long history, going back to Hindu and Buddhist Sanskrit texts on cosmology. It was reconstituted later by Muslim rulers of the valley in Persian texts, both for imperial propaganda and because of personal attachment to the place. Especially in the early modern period, Kashmir came to be celebrated as an arcadia, a microcosm of the empire. The province was central to seventeenth-century Mughal court life, largely through the patronage of Persian poetry, gardens, and architecture by members of the imperial family and some of its administrators. Today, the Kashmir Valley is known to us more as a site of violence and political turmoil, a result of its being a pawn in the postcolonial politics of modern nation-states. Despite this, the representation of Kashmir as a Himalayan paradise or Shangri-la, once a favorite theme in Bollywood films, endures in one form or another in the South Asian imagination. Under the reign of Emperor Akbar, in 1586 the Mughals annexed Kashmir to their empire after seizing it from the Chak rulers. Despite being one of the smallest provinces, Kashmir played a symbolic role in the representation of the Mughal empire as a well-ordered garden and the realization of the pax Mughalica. Akbar’s favorite historian and courtier, Abu’l Fazl, describes its geography in a poetic vein in H. S. Jarrett’s translation of his encyclopedic work, Harvard South Asia Institute 45
the A’in-i Akbari: “The country is enchanting, and might be fittingly called a garden of perpetual spring surrounding a citadel terraced to the skies, and deservedly appropriate to be either the delight of the worldling or the abode of the dervish.”1 The Mughal fascination with Kashmir reveals in part a desire to recreate Iran in India, a felicitous space that approximated the metaphoric garden inhabited by the proverbial rose and nightingale of Persian poetry. The fourth Mughal, Akbar’s son Jahangir, visited Kashmir frequently with his Persian wife Nur Jahan: he sojourned in the valley on seven occasions as ruler. The Mughal or imperial road, one of three common routes from the Indian plains through two main passes in the formidable Pir Panjal mountain range leading into the Kashmir Valley, became a well-trodden thoroughfare, with caravanserais and other buildings erected at each halting place. In the spring of 1621, Jahangir affectionately lauds the land in his memoirs: “Kashmir is a perennial garden and an ironclad bastion. For monarchs it is a garden that delights the eye, and for poor people it is an enjoyable place of retreat. Its lovely meadows and beautiful waterfalls are beyond description. Its flowing waters and springs are beyond number.”2 Mughal writings on Kashmir were written in a fashion that combined poetry and ethnography, similar to the way India was described in Persian texts. The metaphoric garden imagery in classical Persian literature was combined with that of the bucolic aspects of the landscape, resulting in the literary genre of Mughal pastoral. It flourished among seventeenth-century Mughal poets. As a consequence of this phenomenon, a Sanskrit poet named Jagannatha also wrote a mixed prose-verse piece on the valley. The poet laureate Talib Amuli, an émigré poet from Safavid Iran, accompanied Emperor Jahangir to Kashmir on several of his trips, composing verse travelogues of the arduous but rewarding journey to the valley. One of his poems opens with the line: “Traversing the difficult way to Kashmir has become easy by the fortune of the emperor Jahangir” (shud asan tay-i rah-i dushvar-i Kashmīr / bi-iqbal-i shahanshah-i Jahangir). At the end of the long road lies the garden of Kashmir with its many streams and myriad flowers and fruit trees, inhabited by nightingales and ring doves singing melodiously. Jahangir was also accompanied by his favorite artists during his visits to Kashmir. The talents of the master painter Ustad Mansur, who was bestowed the title nadir al-‘asr (Rarity of the age), was specially called in to record the distinctive flora and fauna of the valley. Jahangir notes various instances of having Mansur capture the likeness of a particular bird or flower, and he commissioned Mansur to produce nearly one hundred paintings of Kashmiri flowers. In the spring of his last year, Jahangir had gone to Kashmir to recuperate from an illness and a few months later, at age fifty-eight, he breathed his last in Rajauri. Jahangir’s son and successor Shah Jahan was not as attached to Kashmir as his father. Nevertheless, he continued the ritual of visiting Kashmir. His first trip as ruler took place in the summer of 1634, three years after the death 46 The Arts and South Asia
of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Kashmir was an ideal change of scenery for the grieving emperor. While Shah Jahan retained Kashmir’s status as an imperial resort, the region also became both a spiritual center and a colony for court poets. The emperor’s two eldest children, Princess Jahanara and Prince Dara Shikoh, in fact were followers of the Sufi master Mulla Shah, who had arrived from Badakhshan in Central Asia and made Srinagar his home. Since Kashmir had always been celebrated in classical Persian poetry for its elegant cypresses and lovely inhabitants, literati at court—especially the large faction of Iranian émigrés—found it to be an ideal place to sojourn and even retire. The salubrious climate there was more agreeable to Iranians than that of the hot Indian plains, and the valley came to be called “Little Iran” (Iran-i saghir). All the major poets of Shah Jahan’s court, such as Kalim, Qudsi, and Salim, spent long periods there. In fact, one poet, Salim, declared in a verse: “Find a corner of Kashmir to live in, enough of the going back and forth from Agra and Lahore” (gusha’i gir bi-Kashmir Salim u binishin / raftan u amadan-i Agra u Lahur basast). The heyday of Mughal culture in Kashmir in the 1630s and 1640s was also facilitated to a great degree by the patronage of one of the less-acknowledged Maecenas of this age, a governor of the province—a man called Zafar Khan, who was also a poet and wrote lovingly about the province. Again, in 1644, Shah Jahan visited the province of Kashmir, where he was graciously received by Zafar Khan in his garden residence, Zafarabad. An illustrated autographed manuscript of Zafar Khan’s poems provides us with a rare example of Kashmiri painting from that period, as well as a record of the activities of the courtiers there. In one of his poems, Zafar Khan declares, “Our Zafarabad is no less than paradise—there is no such bounteous garden in the world” (Zafarabad-i ma kam az jinan nist / chunin pur faiz baghi dar jahan nist). He goes on to say, “Kashmir is a paradise and I am its gatekeeper; like the nightingale, I am the poet to its every rose” (bihisht ast Kashmir u rizvan manam / bi-har gul chu bulbul ghazal-khvan manam). Zafar Khan was said to have been fond of sessions with poets who recited their verses along with musicians and other courtiers, as depicted in a painting by Bishandas. Completed in 1663 in Lahore, Zafar Khan’s Kashmir book is a unique work that is a testament to an individual’s attachment to both a place and an empire. The emperor ‘Alamgir was the last Mughal ruler to visit Kashmir, and François Bernier, the French physician in the service of the nobleman Danishmand Khan, accompanied the court to Kashmir in 1665. His description of the whole trip in letters to a friend he addresses as Monsieur de Merveilles is a marvelous narrative that combines wonder, history, and ethnography. His work, translated into English early on as Travels in the Mogul Empire, became all the rage in the salons of Paris and London; according to the author Brigid Keenan, this work “really fired European imaginations and gave Kashmir the aura of glamour that it had retained to this day.”3 Once Mughal rulers stopped Harvard South Asia Institute 47
visiting Kashmir and imperial patronage was withdrawn, the history of the valley was a tragic tale peopled by a succession of cruel governors and incompetent rulers and administrators, though it was not completely devoid of cultural activity. Although the Mughals inherited certain idealized views about Kashmir and adapted them to their own purposes, above all it was a real place of beauty and solace for them in the seventeenth century. Since, in the modern world, many Kashmir poems by seventeenth-century court poets have largely been forgotten, as have men such as Zafar Khan, my hope is that current and future scholarship will begin to revive interest in this idyllic poetry.
Abuâ€™l Fazl, The Aâ€™in-i Akbari, trans. H. S. Jarrett (Delhi: Taj, 1989), vol. 2, p. 348.
2 Jahangir, The Jahangirnama, trans. Wheeler M. Thackston (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 332. 3
Brigid Keenan, Travels in Kashmir (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989).
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Ekushey and Mother Language Day Fakrul Alam
Courtesy of Wikipedia
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At around 3:00 p.m. on Ekushey, February 21, 1952, Pakistani policemen opened fire on Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis who had gathered at the University of Dhakaâ€™s campus to march to the nearby Legislative Assembly building to protest against the imposition of Urdu as the state language of Pakistan. Four men were shot dead then while nearly twenty more were hurt in the firing. The news of the deaths and injuries soon spread not only all over Dhaka, the capital city of East Pakistan, but all over the province. There would be more firings and deaths the next day and still later, but the first few killings were enough to spark the desire in almost all East Pakistanis to establish their mother tongue as one of the two state languages of Pakistan, and to help realize their dream of a land where they could be truly independent in mind and spirit. Nearly two decades later, such overwhelming drive would lead them to found the independent country of Bangladesh. Ekushey is thus the bedrock on which subsequent Bangladeshi nationalism, politics, and cultural and aesthetic movements were based. Like all such iconic days, Ekushey has a prehistory well worth tracing. Its roots are in 1905, when Bengal was first partitioned by the British, ostensibly to favor the Bengali-speaking Muslims who constituted a majority in East Bengal. This partition was annulled in 1911 because of continued agitation by most Bengalis against it. But between 1905 and 1947 more Bengali Muslims than not felt compelled to separate from India until they eventually made the British leave them behind in what became the province of East Pakistan in the second and decisive partition of the province. But mere religious identity proved to be problematic for Bengali Muslims in the nascent state of Pakistan. Almost as soon as it was created, they heard the most important of Pakistanâ€™s Harvard South Asia Institute 51
leaders declare that Urdu should be the only state language of the country. On December 8, 1947, East Pakistan’s students met on the University of Dhaka’s campus in protest against such declarations and in favor of Bengali. But Pakistan’s leaders were undeterred on this and subsequent occasions. The consequence was continued agitation on and off campus and throughout the province. The reaction of the Pakistani administration was a hardening of their resolve to make Urdu foremost in their country’s affairs, regardless of its demographic spread. Agitating student leaders such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, destined to lead his people to independence in 1971, were soon put behind bars along with some other young leaders of East Pakistan. Another climactic moment in the ongoing movement for them came on January 27, 1952, when the Governor-General of Pakistan, Khwaja Nazimuddin, officially made Urdu preeminent in the country. This led the resistance to form an All-Party Central Language Action Committee and choose February 21 as the day to strike and rally all East Pakistanis against their government’s high-handed action. The decision to march to the legislative assembly building was supposed to climax the movement. But the Pakistani administration counteracted quickly, issuing orders that would result in deaths and injuries on that traumatizing day. The consequences of these fatalities were manifold. Politically, linguistic nationalism now became the mobilizing focus of a new generation of East Bengali leaders who united, initially to demand autonomy, but ultimately to strive for the complete emancipation of their people. The Pakistani administration conceded soon after February 21 to the demand that Bengali be made a state language. A newly elected East Pakistani provincial government decided to establish the Bangla Academy, where the language could be nurtured carefully. Soon a Shaheed Minar, or martyrs’ column, was built on the spot of the February killings. It became a national landmark and the rallying point for further demonstrations on behalf of the political rights as well as the language of Bengalis of the province. But, most importantly, the day itself was declared “Shaheed Dibosh,” or Martyrs’ Day—that is to say, a national day of mourning for the fallen, as well as a day to renew Bengali commitment to true cultural independence and to release the East Bengali mind from whatever shackled it. The 21st of February and the martyrs’ column built to commemorate the day eventually achieved mythic significance. One could compare the symbolic import of the day for East Pakistan’s Bengalis to landmark days in the national history of other countries such as the Easter Uprising of Ireland in April 1916 that led to much bloodshed but that galvanized the Irish to opt determinedly for independence. Just as the uprising became inspirational for Irish cultural and political activists, Ekushey became a powerful stimulus for a generation of East Bengali intellectuals, writers, and artists. Ekushey gave rise to stirring poems, songs, fiction, and prose. Research on the origins and evolution of Bengali and the history of Bengali folklore and literature took off from this point as never before. 52 The Arts and South Asia
Ekushey February soon became the climactic day of a whole month of remembrance and celebration of the Bangla (Bengali) language. The Bangla Academy began hosting a month-long book fair that is now so popular that all publishing activity in Bangladesh revolves around it. People of all ages then queue to enter the fairground, browse, and buy books. Throughout the month the media highlight fair activities and broadcast special events commemorating the day and celebrating the Bengali language. This too is the month when the Bangla Academy announces awards for outstanding writers and the Bangladesh government recognizes men and women who have made exceptional contributions to the country’s arts and culture by conferring on them the Ekushey Padak (award). Ekushey is a public holiday all over Bangladesh. In Dhaka the rituals of the day begin just after midnight, when people begin to lay wreaths on the martyrs’ monument in processions. From early in the day, citizens take part in a Probhat Phere, or morning procession that begins in the graveyard where the martyrs are buried. Chanting the dirgelike song “Amar Bhaier Roktey Rangano Ekushey February” (“How can I forget the 21st of February, so crimsoned with the blood of my brothers”), those participating in the procession proceed toward the monument reverentially to place wreathes on it. The Ekushey rituals that take place in Dhaka are performed all over Bangladesh as well where replicas of the martyrs’ monument have also been built. Ekushey events are held now in Bengali-speaking parts of India such as West Bengal and Tripura. And diasporic Bengalis, too, commemorate Ekushey wherever they can congregate in numbers large enough to pay homage to the martyrs and to reaffirm their commitment to the nurturing of their mother language. It was upon the initiative of a diasporic Bengali in Canada that UNESCO in 1999 established International Mother Language Day. In 2008 the United Nations General Assembly resolved to proclaim 2008 the International Year of Languages to spread awareness of the importance of all languages. Another resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 16, 2009, urged all member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by the world.” Ekushey is thus an international phenomenon; people everywhere are becoming increasingly conscious of preserving their mother tongue, protecting the languages of minorities, and resurrecting languages that are on the verge of extinction. In Bangladesh itself, an International Modern Language Institute was set up in Dhaka on March 2001 dedicated to the mother tongue of all Bangladeshis—Bengalis or otherwise. Truly, the tragic deaths of Ekushey—February 21, 1952—have been inspirational. The spirit of the day—to go to any length to protect the mother tongue and cultivate it so that the genius of a people can be articulated through it—has led to the birth not only of Bangladesh and the efflorescence of Bengali literature, but also to heightened awareness of the importance of multilingualism and multiculturalism in a fast-globalizing world. Harvard South Asia Institute 53
Politics of Cartoons, Cartoons of Politics Shreyas Navare
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Coda Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry
Rainwater and red soil Your mother and my mother do not know each other. Your father and my father are not related either. As for you and me, how do we know each other? And yet, like the mingling of rainwater with red soil, our hearts have mingled. (what the lover told his beloved after their first meeting) Kurinji â€” Chempulapeyanirar KURUNTHOKAI 40
Courtesy of Manoj K, Wikipedia
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Love stands alone
A jackfruit falls
In the desolate, rain-forsaken land the twisted kalli’s pods open with a crackle frightening the mating pigeons with their close-knit downy feathers.
Look at your young lover planning to fly to his native land leaving you to melt away in tears. He is from the mountains where sometimes a jackfruit falls into a narrow rift in the rock destroying the tender honeycomb on a tree.
He has left me languishing. ‘In search of wealth,’ he said. He did not mind the risks on the way. If it comes to that, then in this world wealth has all support and love must stand alone. (what the girl said to her friend) Palai —Venputhi
(what the friend told the girl, her lover overhearing) Kurinji —Kapilar AINKURUNURU 214
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A heron’s witness When my lover wedded me secretly, there was no witness but the cheat himself. If he goes back on his pledge what can I do? But there stood a heron on slender, greenish legs shaped like a millet’s stem looking for fish in the shallow stream. (what the girl told her friend, fearing the lover’s dalliance) Kurinji —Kapilar KURUNTHOKAI 25 Translated by M. L. Thangappa. Excerpted from Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry (New Delhi: Penguin, 2010).
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Published on May 12, 2017
Artists, musicians, and creative writers are as important to the Harvard South Asia Institute as historians and economists, entrepreneurs an...