Art and blasphemy: In the name of God
Because it does not aim to cater to the masses and strives for an alternate view, art is fated to be always under attack.
Eloquent absence: Where the Buddha statue once stood in Bamiyan. Photo: Reuters
ART has always been under attack from those on the outside.
It is in the nature of art to provoke strong passions, whether in the name of God, or religion, or the ruling ideology of the moment. It does not matter much if the work of art is called a mural, a painting, a marble or bronze sculpture, a piece of architecture, a poster, a novel, a distinctive style of dress, or even as it happens today, a cartoon. These are only different categories of display. In a stable society they may be available to all its members, to signify acceptance. In a technology driven era, when it has become cheap and easy to multiply and send images, the power of the image to both bond people together in groups and to disrupt them by suggesting that they can never belong, has become critical.
By attacking the image, those who have been excluded, or feel that they cannot partake in the seductive power of the icon, can take revenge, even if it's of a deeply unsatisfying nature that will only propel them further into the dark. Take the example of a rock star at a mega concert for instance, or the charismatic actor who embodies in his or her person, all the wealth, beauty and sexual energy that the ordinary individual in the crowd can only dream about, when these people perform at a concert, or even in a cinema theatre, the contrast between the intensely illuminated arena in which they perform and the tawdry reality of the environment outside is disturbing.
This is equally true of the way in which politicians and spiritual leaders organize their rallies. The best artists, film set decorators today, the most influential musicians and sound and light technologists are invited to decorate these pandals, as the conference venue is described. In different ways, each of these individuals convey to their supporters, or believers, that they are blessed. They have been lifted out of their ordinary circumstances. Whether it's the music, the message, or the mantra, they are part of a larger circle of experience. They belong.
The Romans called it the bread and circus syndrome. Give people enough to eat, organise regular feats of entertainment and they will be happy.
An alternate view
Art, however, cannot fit into the circus. It aspires to an alternate view. When an M.F. Husain paints an image that appears objectionable to certain segments of the Indian society, it is immediately assumed that he is doing so to be provocative. Being a completely independent minded person, who once filled an art gallery with bits of torn paper, perhaps as a way of commenting on the emptiness of modern artistic endeavour, he regularly challenges the viewer's expectation on what is proper. He must be equally an embarrassment to his fellow Muslims as he is to the Hindus who feel regularly threatened by his paintings. If his work is considered blasphemous, it must be blasphemous to both sides. However, it must equally be true that when he starts to paint, it is with none of these categories in mind. He paints as an artist. He paints what he must do as a creative person, even if it means that both he and his work might be attacked and destroyed. The artist, the true creative person cannot and will not perform only to satisfy the masses.
The corollary is that art, serious art, will always be under attack. It does not depend on any one group, or religious sect, or ideology. All though history, leaders, particularly religious leaders, have instigated their followers to burn, destroy and desecrate the art works of those they imagine will be a threat to them. It can be as crude as an attack on the painting by Chris Offili, a British artist of Haitian Catholic heritage in New York in 1999. His portrait, "Holy Virgin Mary", in elephant dung and images of genitalia cut from magazines was attacked by a viewer with the subsequent approval of the act from the then Mayor of New York, Rudolf Guiliani, who happened to be a staunch Catholic. Or it can be as violent as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It's vital to ask those who protest the insult and hurt caused to their religion today: who speaks for the Bamiyan Buddhas? Or, do we take the long view that the Buddhist images along the old Silk Road have been under attack for so many centuries that the current attack just follows a pattern? It has nothing to do with blasphemy and everything to do with the ethnic cleansing of Buddhist images down the ages. In short it is a power struggle.
In the countryside around Madurai, there are a number of rocky outcrops that have been named Anamalai, Pashumalai, Nagamalai and so forth. What makes them interesting is that at the top of each one of them there are caves of Jain origin. Not only are there images of Jain saints, the caves suggest that these were used by Jain monks in the past. The legends connected with the caves are even more poignant. The Jainas, who had been in power till then at the court of the Madurai King were challenged by the Brahmin priests who were trying to oust them. The Jainas used their magical powers. They sent a Naga. The Naga was reduced to ashes and became a mountain. They created a wild elephant. He too was reduced to stone. Finally, they created a cow thinking that this image would be acceptable to the other side, but the Brahmins sent a Bull. The Jaina Cow was so overwhelmed by the sight, she lay down in complete confusion and died.
The Jain priests retreated to the mountains and never came down again. Whether true or not, the stories underline an ancient power struggle. The Jains have all but disappeared, but in their stories and in their art, some of their legend remains. Art has a way of triumphing, despite all.
Send this article to Friends by