Note: This is the second article in a two-part series.
In the first part of this article, I dealt with the art of the savage and barbaric humans. In this part, I will deal with what Morgan calls ‘civilisation’.
Civilisation, according to Engels, solidified and consolidated all existing divisions of labour and ‘added the third division of labour, peculiar to itself and of decisive importance: it created a class which no longer concerns itself with production, but only with the exchange of products–the merchants’. This epoch is what we lexically call ‘history’. But due to its huge and distinctly recorded span, I shall deal with this period thematically instead of chronologically.
The Erotic: Indian art’s fixation on the erotic may stem from the sexual liberalism of the ancient Indian working class. Brahmanism frowns upon promiscuity but many proletarian offshoots of Hindu philosophy have actually sanctioned orgies, group sex and other so-called acts of sexual deviancy. The most notable example of art depicting these activities can be found at Khajuraho, where the carvings are mostly on columns joining two adjacent temples in an audacious innuendo. This theme of eroticism also finds resonance in the works of Raja Ravi Varma, who picturised goddesses as voluptuous women. The Pahari paintings of the court artists of the post-Mughal mountain kings introduced the trend of using the romance of Radha-Krishna. But there are instances of non-heteronormative eroticism too, especially in the depictions of lesbian sexual intercourse in Khajuraho and gay sex in the engravings at Ajanta and Ellora. By comparison, Islamic art is more refined in its affirmation of the erotic. There are sensual and erotic undertones in various Mughal paintings, but in accordance with Safavid tradition, it is very subtle.
In short, it is fair to say that sex and its expression has been very important to Indian art. It began with the savages and continues to this day.
The Communal: The communal nature of art-making in India is not consistent. In the age of civilisation, there were periods when labour was divided in the creation of a single piece of art. Over 100 artists worked on a single painting in Akbar’s karkhanas with creative direction from the likes of Basawan and Daswantha. So, to whom did these works belong? Certainly not the Emperor, for he only supplied the capital. Did it belong to the ‘composer’ of the art, the likes of Abu’l Fazl or Manohar, who provided ‘intellectual’ capital? Or did it belong to the artisans who were only following orders but provided labour crucial to production? This is a question that can be asked in various contexts. Bengali pats and Maithili Madhubani paintings have always been made by a single artist, but there is a great sense of community in the appreciation of this art, something which is absent in royal art. In cases like these, who does the art belong to?
Many thinkers have provided answers, but most have been idealistic and bourgeois. French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon sums it up very succinctly when he says, “If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?”
The Illustration: It is impossible to examine Indian art without referring to the brilliant interplay between the quill, the vocal cords, and the paintbrush. From the illustrations of religious texts like the Kalpasutra and the Hadith to those of epics like the Shah Nama and the Chaurapanchasika, a lot of artwork has been produced to highlight the vitality of the written word. The paintbrush has even captured the essence of the most intangible form of art, music. The various Ragamala series of paintings show the characteristics of each raga, creating a beautiful palette of emotions, from the introspection of Darbari to the mellifluousness of Hansadhwani.
However, due to the classicism of illustrated literature and music, the art of illustration remains alien to the masses, unlike paintings of sceneries or portraits, which are relatively comprehensible. The feudal lords patronised this art and the middle-class intellectualised it, thus keeping it out of the mainstream, which according to renowned thespian Utpal Dutt, always seems to flow in channels of imbecility.
The Quotidian: When one thinks of the quotidian in the era of civilisation, one usually thinks of the decadent idiosyncrasies of the feudal overlords. There are many depictions of such luxury, the most notable being the illustration of the Ni’mat Nama, a record of the extravagant lifestyle of the Sultan of Malwa, Ghiyasud-din Khalji. But there are instances of reality and the quotidian in art too. Abu’l Hasan’s portrait of squirrels and Govardhan’s depiction of a rustic concert are examples of this.
With the arrival of Enlightenment ideas in India, this realist perspective became more entrenched. Through painters like the Tagores (Gaganendranath, Abanindranath and Rabindranath), Jamini Roy and Nandalal Bose, the quotidian found utterance in various ways including through Cubism and Expressionism. This tradition was continued by the likes of M.F. Husain and Gulam Mohammad Sheikh. With the intensification of class struggle in India, the poignancy of the quotidian has been a key element of this kind of art.
The Revolutionary: The modern human experience is incomplete without stories of resistance and class struggle. Indian art, for all its bourgeois tendencies, has contributed greatly to recording these stories. Indian history, like all histories, is a history of the oppression of one class by another. In medieval times, feudalism in India had its own indigenous characteristics but it adopted a global dimension with British colonialism and subsequent oppression by the Indian state. But as Arundhati Roy puts it, “one cannot help but marvel at the fantastic range and depth and wisdom of the hundreds of people’s resistance movements all over the country.”
Somnath Hore’s depictions of the Bengal Famine of 1943 and of the subsequent Tebhaga Movement are heartbreaking, and at the same time, hopeful and idealistic. During the late 60s in Calcutta, when the Naxalbari Movement was inspiring young, creative minds to join the people’s war for liberation, artists came out in support of the Movement by designing pamphlets, making graffiti, etc. These artists were usually killed in fake encounters, and their works destroyed. This tendency of the Congress was seen in their suppression of tribal art too, as they manoeuvred to keep it out of the mainstream as they murdered tribals in Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Of course, what has been happening for the last few years under the fascist rule is but a more brutal form of that oppression.
To conclude, I would like to make a few comments on the art scene in India today. With the arrival of Western bourgeois ideals in independent India, artists have strayed from their objective. The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) movement has steadily declined and been replaced by art that is exclusively made for the petty bourgeoisie. The mainstream is dominated by artists who remove art from the realm of the public imagination and take pride in that fact. One can even go one step further and claim that mainstream art is but a front for the dehumanisation of the working class. Utpal Dutt writes, “When all social activity is alien to man, the subversion of this society is the only way to conquering alienation, everything else will deaden the mind and make the artist’s alienation deeper and stronger.”
We must push back against this alienation, and seek the artist’s help in that endeavour. We must take up this cause because art and culture are, as Lenin says, “cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.”