Attack on MSU exhibition is part of long, troubling history

The recent assault on the Art Faculty graduation exhibition at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) Baroda feels like a dejà vu. In 2007, Srilamanthula Chandramohan’s work was attacked for “hurting Hindu sentiments” and the ensuing controversy enmeshed the senior faculty and galvanised the arts community to come out publicly in both his and the department’s defence. Not so now. What has changed ?

To understand, we need to step back and look at the history of the last few decades. I write this as someone who has personally faced attacks. My involvement in arts activism began as a founder member of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat) in 1989. After all, the public murder of a cultural activist was the most violent form of an attack on the freedom of expression. I was a part of the team which conceived, researched and designed the exhibition ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya’ in August 1993, after the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. The exhibition, designed in multiple copies which traveled across India, sought to show the complex and rich cultural, religious, architectural and political history of Ayodhya. It was attacked in Faizabad on the grounds that a text quoting the Dasaratha Jataka which had a different genealogy to the Valmiki Ramayan was blasphemous. A debate erupted in Parliament where an accusation was made that there was an obscene poster. There was no such thing. Cases were filed against Sahmat, which were thrown out by the Delhi High Court eight years later.

I faced physical attacks in Pune and Columbia University in New York over the same exhibition. We also witness the attacks on Bhisham Sahni’s TV show Tamas and Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit. Both were successive chairmen of Sahmat.

But it is in the last decade that the larger picture of the assault on culture and history has become visible. Of course, the most shocking case for the artist community was what happened to MF Husain. His enforced exile and death in England were a shock the art world has never forgiven. The accusation of hurting religious sentiments became a convenient call amongst Hindu right wing groups. The Husain case was a warning. And while Sahmat organised robust public events over the years in defense of Husain, those are no longer effective.

These attacks on writers, artists, theater directors are only a small part of the rewriting of not just history but the entire cultural space. The destruction of a large part of Delhi’s incredible modern architecture in Pragati Maidan is a part of this rewriting or reconstructing. Most shocking was the destruction of Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations and the Nehru Pavilion, now being celebrated and lamented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both were engineered by Mahendra Raj who died last week, but lived to see his major works demolished. The buildings coming up in their place are what this government calls “world class” – huge, characterless structures with no relevance to our building traditions. This is exactly what is happening to the Central Vista. It is a clear assault on anything connected with the “Nehruvian era”. The removal of major cultural institutions like the IGNCA and the National Museum from this central focus exposes the importance of cultural institutions to the new regime.

The demolition of an entire section of the historic center of Varanasi to create a coldly characterless stage set for the Prime Minister is a part of this obsession of creating grandiose projects like the Sardar Patel statue and the ecological disaster of the Sabarmati project in Ahmedabad. What happens to the Gandhi’s ashram in its new “world class” avatar remains to be seen.

The attacks on any public debate or dissent by the use of draconian against students and local and the laws on JNU, Jamia and AMU are all a part of this wider project of “cultural nationalism”. Arrests of cartoonists, comedians and attacks on Dalits are celebrated by some in the media. The removal of Gandhi’s beloved Christian hymn Abide with Me from the Beating the Retreat ceremony and the garish laser displays and projections on the secretariat buildings and the ghats of Varanasi and Ayodhya signal the new disco aesthetic of this Hindutva culture. Add to this the rising unchecked hate speech against Muslims and the cyber attacks on Muslim women. “Hijab” and “halal” are the new battle cries. The cases related to the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, Mathura’s Shahi Idgah mosque and the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the calls for renaming all city, village and road names that are Muslim add to the broad agenda. Rama and Hanuman have also been weaponised.

Returning to the art scene, is it a surprise that very few people will now come out to protest or even sign a petition against the recent attack? In 2019, when Article 370 was withdrawn from Kashmir in what many considered an unconstitutional manner, Sahmat proposed a postcard art project on the issue. As we sent out proposals, it became clear that many artists were terrified of touching the subject out of fear of being targeted. This was the week when an FIR was filed in Muzaffarnagar against Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and a host of others for being “anti-national” and signing an open letter to the PM expressing anguish at the rising hate crimes and his ensuing silence. This was a case of self-censorship on a wide scale. Realizing that the 70th year of the Constitution was coming up, we proposed an art project to celebrate it (before the CAA was announced). Here we had an enthusiastic response, as no government could object to celebrating the Constitution.

Just last week at the India Art Fair, photographer Prarthna Singh’s book Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh on the anti-CA protests, was removed from display at the photo book booth. The rustication of a student by MSU for making a “controversial” artwork comes as no surprise. Our mythology has been the source of our great art traditions. But no one now will dare to venture into that rich vein. Forget political dissent – ​​the amazingly vibrant murals which came up along the walls of Jamia during the anti-CAA protests were all whitewashed overnight after the Covid hit.

In this larger context of the cultural onslaught, the future of any creative endeavor in India is bleak. Let us not have any illusions.

“Where is the clear stream of reason/ has not lost its way into the/dreary desert sand of dead habit;/ Where the mind is led forward/ by thee into ever widening/ thought and action-/ into that heaven of freedom,/ my father,/ let my country awake.”

Dear Gurudev, the country has entered a deep, dark sleep.

The writer is a photographer, curator and artist-activist


Leave a Comment