Playing second fiddle
Somehow, it would seem that foreign influences, especially in the field of art, only come from the developed West to the East. Our influences on the West are largely ignored, if remembered at all, says SHAKTI MAIRA.
"The Buddha in Nirvana" is an image that still stirs and inspires.
IDEAS, by their very nature, are mobile and permeate cultures. They cross national boundaries without passports, sail through airport security systems without detection, and happily ignore the lines we have marked on maps. The movement of ideas in science, art and philosophy goes beyond the reaches of history. People moved, traded and migrated, exchanging along the way their stories, insights and ideas. Fast travel, international media and the internet have accelerated this movement. What is relatively new is the concept of ownership, first of land and material property, and now, of ideas.
The movement of ideas has always been a two-way exchange and must remain so. Notions of nations and national culture and identity seem somewhat primitive to me a part of the tribal stage in the movement towards a truly human and international culture.
A universal dimension
I have long argued that art has a deep universal dimension because human beings have so much in common that lies beneath and above national cultures and identities. This has been my main quarrel with Post-Modernism, which has traded the domination of one culture and Modernism in art for different and equal cultures and their arts, and, in the process, seems to have thrown out the possibility of what was both common and universal.
The mentalities of ownership and superiority of the colonial, and now the neo-colonial, are cancerous to the free exchange of ideas amongst peoples of the planet. The nations that have appropriated ideas in the name of science, art, governance, philosophy, agriculture and so on, have been unfair. This pretension of superiority, whether based on a religion being the truest; a skin colour being whitest; a culture being more "advanced" and "developed", or on just having better weapons and meaner soldiers, has been so outrageous. These cultures have propagated histories that assert there was neither science nor good art before theirs, and even that "Science" and "Aesthetics" were their inventions!
In science, with increasing frequency, papers and books are being published that are unearthing the existence of sophisticated knowledge well before these "discoveries" were made in the West. Lost Discoveries by American writer Dick Teresi shows that gravity was examined in the Vedas 24 centuries before the apple fell on Newton's head. The age of the earth was calculated at 4.3 billion years in the Gupta period (Fifth Century A.D.) even though 19th Century Western scientists thought it was 100 million years. Only recently have modern scientists arrived at 4.6 billion years. Moreover, Indian mathematicians had the Pythagoras theorem before that Greek was born, and sophisticated explanations for Pi ( = 3.1416) before the West even heard of the concept.
In art, abstraction existed in Tantric art long before it was "discovered" in the lofts of Soho, New York. Indian art has, from the beginning, not been concerned with making life-like representations of the seen. Instead, it has been interested in the symbolic, the impressionistic and the expressionistic. Yet, we are led to believe these art movements were invented in Europe and North America during the years we were colonised, when our art was diminished and disparaged. Even the obvious influence of Japanese art on the Impressionists and of African art on Picasso and the Cubists has been lost in the fine print of art histories.
Somehow, it would seem that foreign influences only come from the developed West to the East. Our influences on the West are largely ignored, if remembered at all.
As an admirer of Buddhist art and sculpture, I feel that the Buddha images at Sarnath, Mathura, Sanchi, Ajanta, Ellora, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura epitomise the Indian aesthetic tradition of making images that still, stir and inspire. Art historians have attempted to place this work in the Western tradition by theorising that it was the Hellenistic influence that led to the anthropomorphic forms of the Buddha. Simply and bluntly put, this theory suggests that Indian artists had to make do with making symbols like the Buddha's feet, a bull, a railed tree, a wheel because we didn't know how to make an image of the Buddha as a person till Greek technology showed us how! That we may have known how to make the human form but with reason chose a symbolic or abstracted language was either ignored or not understood.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, in his detailed study and analysis, The Origin of the Buddha Image, painstakingly shows that the human Buddha form originated in Indian forms like yaksha figures that existed before the Buddha, and its stylistic development was completely within a non-Hellenistic tradition, with convincing examples of what preceded the Gandhara and Mathura Buddha figures. I have no problem accepting that Indian artists absorbed ideas from the Greeks and others then, as may be happening now; I just don't like to be mistakenly categorised as less developed than we have been or are in art ideas or skills.
In Mumbai, some years ago, where a well-heeled Indian art collector threw a party for trustees of the Whitney (New York's most powerful contemporary art museum) and some of India's best-known artists in his grand apartment, I was stunned to hear one of these pompous visitors say that they had just been on a whirlwind tour of art in India, had seen the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi and met several leading artists, and with authority assert that he had not seen any art that was particularly interesting, that it would be laughed out of New York, and that there was no contemporary art being made in India.
Even though "contemporary" is a term that defines a time: the present period, and all art being made in this period, is by definition, contemporary, only the art being made in NYC and in favour with the avant-garde tastes of the Whitney can be considered "real" contemporary art! This incidentally is the public museum that has probably done more than any other institution to legitimise "Installation Art" and "Conceptual Art", two movements that have produced some of the ugliest stuff in recent times.
In India, till Western colonisation, we had a long tradition of being open to other ideas and absorbing them without major crisis of identity and ownership. India has seen waves of migrations and its culture and art have taken in and metamorphosed foreign ideas.
A moot point
Why is it that when Western cultures take ideas from others, they can make them their own, but when we do the same, we copy and imitate? I think it has to do with self-confidence and the level and kind of transformation. In our art world, there are enough examples of art that are imitative. We imitate because we think we are not as forward in art as the West as they seem to have the action: money, media, and big museums. When we do not absorb and transform foreign ideas, we are merely copying them. We need to grow out of this second-rate world citizen hang-up. We have a rich and deep art culture that is strong enough to take in new and foreign ideas. But these ideas must be melded and transformed to flow with our art philosophy and culture.
Unlike the West, where the purpose of art seems to have narrowed and often hijacked by the negative angst, protest, pain, confusion and anger Indian art has been more interested in a wider range of emotions or rasas, which we attempt to evoke and celebrate through symbols and non-representational imagery. We must remember that our art has long been a means of communication of deep ideas and a tool for a transformation of consciousness, however temporary. We can certainly allow ourselves to feast on Western art ideas and techniques, but we must digest it well and remember to throw away the waste. The last thing we need is to give up our traditions of beauty and anandam and become producers of art that will be accepted in the next Whitney biennial!
Let's also remember that our place on the planet is not just to be foreign-influenced. We can also be the foreign influencers. We have profound ideas and art. Let's share these with pride and help make world art more beautiful and meaningful.
Shakti Maira is a contemporary artist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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