Manipulating Cultural Idioms

Article excerpt

Since India's independence from Great Britain in 1947, Indian artists have worked through a nexus of conflicts of identity: East versus West, tradition versus modernism, nationalism versus internationalism. Until the 1940s, artists responding to pre-Independence nationalism sought to express "Indianness." Influenced by traditional miniature painting and folk art, their paintings featured Indian subject matter, typically derived from Hindu mythology and Mughal history. These works were often painted in overlaid washes of transparent watercolor on paper, rather than in oil on canvas, a medium associated with the materialism of Western art. After Independence, many artists sought to be "international" and experimented with abstraction. By contrast, artists of the current generation, such as Manjit Bawa, T. Vaikunthan, Jaya Ganguly, Shipra Bhattacharya, and Chandrima Bhattacharyya, demonstrate the endurance of traditional Indian culture as the wellspring for artistic enterprise, as well as the newfound freedom to challenge tradition.

Manjit Bawa

In a 1996 interview at his studio in the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, Manjit Bawa (b. 1941) seemed dismayed when I asked him to explain why he portrayed Krishna playing his flute for a group of dogs (fig. i): "It is not Krishna," he said. "It is Ranja." But when I looked incredulous, he added, "Even if it is Krishna, it doesn't matter-Ranja is also a flute player, and Ranja was a divine lover, more than Krishna, because Ranja gave everything for love. Krishna never gave everything for love. Krishna was in love with Radha, and he left Mathura and went to Jorka to his kingdom. So if it were Krishna in my painting, he should have a [peacock] feather on his head."' While the blue skin associated with Vishnu and his avatars-especially the cowherding god Krishna-makes for a confident identification, Bawa's motives and consequent reasoning for calling this figure Ranja were thought-provoking.

Bawa was deeply shaken by Hindu fanatics' ruthless 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid, a mosque of the Babur period built in 1528 in the ancient city of Ayodhya. A majority of Hindus believe that the Rama Janambhoomi Temple, marking the birthspot of Rama, Seventh Incarnation of God Vishnu, was leveled and that the Babri Masjid was built on its rubble. While this mosque had been an object of contention and physical attack for centuries, the widespread riots and violence unleashed by its final destruction were unmatched since the partition of India in 1947. Bawa regarded this event as symbolic of an uncompromising fundamentalist mentality that is threatening the very fiber of Indian society, its political system, and even personal freedom. "How could they do this? How can you break a mosque? It is a disrespect to the other people living in this country who have been here for centuries. So many things that came from Iran are a part of my culture stitched clothes came from there, the way of preparing food in this region, the gardens-and you can't break my culture. The fundamentalists are breaking my culture. So I do paintings like Ranja with dogs." Manjit paused. "The dog is anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim both. Showing the dog is antireligion. When critics ask how I could make this painting insulting Krishna, I say it's not Krishna, it's Ranja."2

It is ironic that Bawa identified Ranja, the tragic victim of racial/tribal prejudices in a Punjabi version of Romeo and Juliet, as the protagonist in this painting. Nevertheless, like Krishna, Ranja was a cowherd with a flute who serenaded buffalo, as well as his beloved Heer. Heer was forced to marry her cousin when her romance with Ranja was discovered; when she rebelled, her family poisoned her, and Ranja died of heartbreak on her grave. Though Ranja is a regional folk hero, the story is well known all over northern India. It has been popularized by Punjabi Sufi poets, such as Waris Shah, Bule Shah, and Skeikh Ahmed -whose verses Bawa quoted intermittently during our interview. …