Culture vultures


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EXAMINING the cultural scene in the wake of the Tehelka revelations may at first glance seem incongruous. But a slightly deeper look reveals connections and a scheme which has wide-ranging and disturbing ramifications. The sight of a Jaya Jaitly demurely directing a payoff to a party functionary in the defence minister’s home is a tragic reminder of how far we have come since Independence. Jaya Jaitly did fine work in the crafts and handloom sector in her younger days and was one of the footsoldiers of giants like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya who evolved a new and viable interpretation of Gandhi’s vision of a future for our rural artisans in post-independence India. For such a person to get ensnared in one of the most utterly cynical political parties in the current scenario should be a wake-up call to all those who care about where our contemporary culture is headed, and in particular the political agenda now directing that trajectory.

It is precisely that contemporary culture, forged in the last century during the national movement and evolved in the 50 years after Independence, that is under assault at its very foundations. Modern Indian culture grew out of the fight against imperialism on the one hand and incorporated all the social reform movements across the country on the other. Presided over by Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Vallathol, Rukmini Devi, Mulk Raj Anand and so many others, this forging of the modern also led to the rediscovery of much of our ancient dance and dance-theatre forms from the 1930s onwards, many of which were temple based and reeling under the collapse of old patronage structures.

The national movement, by the very nature of its huge mass and social mobilisation, led to the emergence of a truly secular and progressive culture which proudly incorporated the old religious classical within its fold. This is important to remember as the groups who now hold sway over the government – viz. the RSS led Sangh Parivar – were never a part of this evolution. Yet they never cease to remind us that they are only ‘a cultural organisation’.

Government has been one of the biggest patrons of culture since Independence. Through the Akademis, scholarships, jobs, museums, educational institutions – it has had an enormous impact in 50 years. Yet there is now an argument that this government is only doing what the Congress did for decades – spreading largesse to those whom it favours.

But there is a critical difference. In the cultural arena there was no ‘Congress culture’. In fact of the major political parties, only the communists had a vision and an active commitment to culture through their cultural fronts – IPTA and the PWA. And many of the giants of the cultural scene were part of these, especially during the 1940s and ’50s. Under the so-called ‘Nehruvian era’ the culture projected by the state had been forged by a wide range of figures – not only those who had been with the Congress in the freedom struggle, but also communists, socialists and many with no political leanings of any sort.

The RSS, however, has a political cultural vision, cultural nationalism, which it has very clearly articulated. It is based on an extremely narrow ‘cow belt’ brahmanical insecurity. This cultural insecurity is actually directed against that Indian culture, one that represents the majority and in whose creation they not only did not participate but completely failed to understand. That is why the Sufi-Bhakti tradition of the lower castes, or Gandhi – with his all encompassing vision of India’s civilisation, indeed the entire national movement and the culture it evolved – remain anathema to them. It is an insecurity directed against fellow Indians and against the complex and nuanced layerings of experience and practice which epitomise our large country.



The Tehelka tapes are only the most visible manifestation of the complete subversion of the institutions of state which the BJP has presided over in collusion with their so-called ‘secular’ allies. This subversion has everything to do with the agenda of the RSS, and the silence of the allies as they watch the dismantling of the very basis of the state – the rewriting of the Constitution, restructuring of education and the complete takeover of all state institutions by RSS cadres – is deafening. The complete moral corruption into which our politics has sunk has enabled the very small but vocal minority of the Sangh Parivar to ram its agenda on the nation simply because no political party understands the importance of this agenda to counter it at a political level. What other political groupings have failed to understand is the importance of the cultural vision of the RSS and its central position in its politics. In that sense, yes, it is a cultural organisation.

As a practising artist, I can only recount my personal experience of the last ten years. Part of that practice has had a political involvement through my association with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, Sahmat. By putting some of that experience on record, though briefly, there are perhaps some lessons to be learned about the ground which has been lost and the speed of that loss. From our experience we have at least learned about the tactics used by the parivar in its subversive project.

After the murder of Safdar and the foundation of Sahmat in 1989, the creative community was increasingly alarmed by the perceptible rise in the communal temperature in the country. Sahmat initiated a series of events and exhibitions which sought to give a platform to the creative community to voice their resistance to this communalisation through their art practice. These took the form of public street events – autorickshaw drivers in Delhi and taxi drivers in Mumbai painting poems on communal harmony on their vehicles, or the huge ‘Artists Against Communalism’ gatherings at Mandi House in Delhi (1991) and Shivaji Stadium in Bombay (1992) which brought together performing artists, writers and poets in a public performance space. But it was not till our engagement with the Ayodhya issue that the assault on us began. This clearly showed how the Sangh Parivar used a multipronged approach to attack, threaten and disrupt those whose cultural vision did not fit its own. And it is not surprising that history and its interpretations formed the basis of that attack.



In January 1993, Sahmat mounted ‘Anhad Garje’, a seventeen hour celebration of the Sufi-Bhakti tradition of the subcontinent at Mandi House in Delhi. With musicians from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and across India, the emotional charge of that day, following soon after the Ayodhya mosque destruction, still resonates today. The six city tour which followed over the next few months, in particular the last concert in Lucknow, generated an appeal to make a cultural statement in Ayodhya itself – to reclaim Ayodhya for all Indians.



We evolved a process of discussion and interaction with artists, academics and activists across the country and the final forms the action took were multilayered. They began with mushairas and kavi sammelans in Faizabad/Ayodhya in August. Quit India day, 9th August, saw the launch of the image and text exhibition ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya’ in 17 cities, including Faizabad. Created by over 40 artists, historians, social scientists and economists, the exhibit sought to place the complex multi-layered history, culture, mythology and economy of Ayodhya before the public as a model for understanding our nation.

‘Mukt Nad’, the performative part of the event was a night-long programme on August 15th. There was a concerted attempt by the VHP in Ayodhya to prevent this gathering from taking place, including bomb threats and threats of assaults on the artists. Atal Behari Vajpayee spent two days in Lucknow attacking Sahmat, stating ‘Mai Sahmat se asahmat hun.

Meanwhile ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya’ was attacked in Faizabad by 15 Bajrang Dal activists looking for something to make an issue over. What they found was a text reference to the Dashrath Jataka, from the Buddhist tradition, the earliest known version of the Ram Katha, where the narrative and genealogy of Rama are at variance with the Valmiki Ramayan. A rumour was floated that we had made a ‘poster’ blaspheming Rama and Sita as brother and sister. Not having succeeded in scuttling ‘Mukt Nad’, the day after the programme, both in Parliament in Delhi and more effectively through the RSS machine, this rumour was spread across the country.

For the first time we realised the effectiveness of these tactics. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government colluded with the parivar (as indeed it seemed to have done during the demolition) and quickly seized the text panel from Teen Murti House where the exhibition was still on public display. Cases were lodged against Sahmat, including a charge of criminal conspiracy against the state! The success of the propaganda hit home when I invited Inder Kumar Gujral to see the exhibition along with other Members of Parliament, and he retorted sharply that he would do no such thing and that no one would defend us in the House. This from an MP who had vociferously defended our right to hold ‘Mukt Nad’ in Ayodhya only one week earlier.



The debate in the media asked us to ‘be sensitive’ to the charge of ‘hurting sentiment’, to practise a form of self-censorship. We were exhorted to not go on and on about communalism, that it was an issue which was no longer important. We experienced a wave of negative reaction, surprisingly from the liberal intelligentsia and the non-parivar political spectrum. This taught us how tough it was to counter the kind of rumour machine perfected by the parivar without a political machinery equally adept at a counter charge. There was no way a small, voluntary group of the arts and academic community could hope to do so.

This pattern of attack, rumour and blatant lies has been evident in every single incident against the creative community in the years since then – the assaults on M.F. Husain, Deepa Mehta, Ajeet Caur’s Academy and Jatin Das in Delhi to name only a few. The added dimension in the last three years has been the use of state power and institutions, both at the centre and the states, to buttress the assault by the stormtroopers. The trajectory of ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya’ since then has been illuminating. In December 1993 it began a tour of US universities. At its premier at Columbia University in New York, the accompanying seminar was disrupted by RSS activists in the audience, and the exhibition itself was plunged into a debate within the university about fund-raising for a new India studies chair and possible parivar control of the funding as well as the chair.

This only highlighted what was happening within the newly wealthy NRI community in the US which, while seeking to reclaim ‘Indian’ roots, was becoming increasingly conservative and a happy hunting ground for parivar fund-raisers with their ‘Ram shila’ pujans. It was also in the US that the teaching and study of the classical music and dance traditions was now being given a ‘saffron’ framework, the same classicism which had formed a part of our national movement pride! It was a shock to be faced by young undergraduates in first rank universities questioning my name, saying they had thought that no inter-religious marriages were allowed in India.



We were subsequently assaulted by the RSS in Pune in 1994, where ironically, the objection was to cartoons of L.K. Advani by R.K. Laxman in the accompanying ‘Cartoons Against Communalism’ exhibition. Fortunately, the citizens and school children of Pune showed their solidarity by attending both exhibitions en masse at the Mahatma Phule High School the following day. In Toronto, Canada, last summer, our High Commissioner to Canada attacked the ‘Dust on the Road’, an exhibit on 11 years of Sahmat’s cultural activism curated by an independent Canadian team, Hoopoe Curatorial. For the first time an official of our foreign service not only abused the exhibit (which included a large group of well-known Canadian artists) in the press as a ‘product of a diseased mind’, but ‘officially’ asked the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute to withdraw funding to The University of Western Ontario which was to host the show. The ensuing uproar about Indian government interference in internal Canadian institutions was matched by the unprecedented letter signed by 52 Indian parliamentarians calling for the recall of the envoy. The image of India as just another Banana republic with a paranoid government seeking to squash independent voices will be hard to live down.



Toronto is also home to filmmaker Deepa Mehta who bears the dubious distinction of being the only director whose film (Water) was physically prevented from being made despite all permissions and sanctions. With its masterful double-speak, the central and state BJP governments pleaded inability to control a situation of ‘mass sentiment’ which opposed her film. (It is not surprising that both the films of Mehta which were attacked, including Fire, starred Shabana Azmi. Had there been a Hindu actress, Deepa Mehta may have been ignored! Similarly, Husain presents an obvious target. The communal construction of history and culture has only just begun).

Let us be very clear about this notion of ‘mass sentiment’ as is being defined by all communal forces. It is those 5 or 15 people who attacked our exhibit in Faizabad or Pune, those 15 who burned Husain’s paintings in his gallery in Ahmedabad or his Gaja Gamini hoardings in the same city. It is those 15 who walked past him in his apartment building in Bombay to attack his home, not even knowing who he was. It is those 15 brought by so called artist Raghu Vyas to attack Arpana and Ajeet Caur’s Academy of Fine Art and Literature in Delhi. These are paid political hooligans who know nothing about what they attack. This is ‘mass sentiment’ to the communal forces on either side.



This strategy is supported by the press who immediately report any such action as a widespread public protest without critical reflection. Any work or issue once classified by them as ‘controversial’, subsequently carries that mark forever. Thus Husain becomes permanently branded a ‘controversial’ artist, Deepa Mehta a ‘controversial’ director. ‘Controversial’ to whom and since when? Since Atal Behari Vajpayee makes conversions an issue to be discussed after Christians are terrorised and killed across the country? The parivar’s success in redefining and legitimising the terms of discourse has not been fully understood. It is also worth remembering that while the police continue to pursue cases registered against Husain and many others across the country, there have been few cases registered against the perpetrators of these attacks.

The example of Raghu Vyas and the legitimising of fringe figures like him is a pointer to what the parivar is up to. Never successful in the mainstream art scene, Raghu Vyas gained notoriety by threatening and attacking his fellow artists. Claiming ‘his sentiments were hurt’ by an untitled lithograph of Hanuman by Husain, Vyas proceeded to bring the police to his friend artist Arpana Caur’s gallery to threaten her and her mother, writer Ajeet Caur. Police cases were lodged against them, the curator and Husain (which continue to be in court today).

After threatening to burn down the gallery, he imported a bunch of goons to the gallery shouting filthy and highly communal abuse against Husain and indeed, the Prophet. A mildly protesting Jatin Das, mistaken by these goons for a Muslim because of his beard, was assaulted and chased. This same Raghu Vyas recently tried to gain entry into a group exhibition at the Art Today gallery (his name was not on the official list or card) featuring, yes, Jatin Das. He now runs a gallery in a hotel with support from the Hyatt Hotel chain and buys expensive advertising in Art India magazine. When avowedly secular artists like Bulbul Sharma and Madhoor Kapoor appear in these ads and participate in his shows, inadvertently or otherwise, his place in the art world is slowly legitimised.

Similarly a young Oriya artist and member of the RSS cultural outfit ‘Sanskar Bharati’ organised an exhibit for Orissa cyclone relief at Rabindra Bhavan. The same Jatin Das gathered a large number of works from an unsuspecting senior artists fraternity, only to be assaulted again at the opening when he tried to retrieve these works on realising the game plan! This artist is subsequently rewarded by being invited by the Lalit Kala Akademi to the recently held International Triennale at Rabindra Bhavan in Delhi, to exhibit a large work filled with Hindutva slogans!



When this government first assumed power it was V.P. Singh who remarked that a government cannot be run on an agenda of hatred. This is most true of culture and cultural practice. We are now living in a situation where artists and writers routinely receive threatening calls. Where a hotel chain anxiously worries that a new wooden pillar installed in its lobby with classical erotic sculpture might be vandalised. Where an artist thinks twice about the work he or she can exhibit depending on their name and religious origin and where a petty bureaucrat can withdraw an innocuous painting from a show at the National Gallery of Modern Art, fearful that the political bosses may object or that the mobs owing allegiance to those bosses might appear again with the press in tow to record their ‘mass sentiment’.



One of the charges made against Sahmat after the attack on it by the Sangh Parivar was that it should never have sought government money for its projects. Not so coincidentally, this was constantly repeated by the liberal intelligentsia, the same intelligentsia who now sit in shocked silence as they are told what they can or cannot watch on television, what their daughters can wear to school, what history they can read or not read. There is also a deafening silence about the vast sums of money being shunted through many government agencies to scores of Sangh Parivar outfits, which will keep them in gravy for a long time. Long after our politicians with their fractured politics finally wake up to these dangers and understand that this assault on culture will consume them too.

Having been witness to and participant in many of the events cited above, I have become ever more convinced that our ‘secular’ culture – a terminology which has acquired a cynical aura of falsehood of a colonial-derived creation – is a real thing. This is affirmed in every experience I have had, every trajectory I have witnessed of individuals in the creative community and their creative endeavour, whether urban, cosmopolitan, sophisticate or folk, rural practitioners. While the parivar and its ilk may seek to redefine the parameters of the debate or the framework of understanding, and indeed have succeeded in doing so to a certain extent, they have not been able to do so in the realm of actual creative practice. And it is precisely that living creativity which stands as a resistance to the attack.



Financial corruption in politics has undermined our democratic process. But in many ways, the corrupt use of muscle power and the state machinery to forcibly change our complex culture into a unidimensional one seeking the exclusion of much of our populace, is a far more dangerous trend. From the burning of books to the burning of Graham Staines and his two little boys is a small bridge to cross for these groups. And the connivance and silence of the government only makes that trajectory easier. I have only related a few instances that I have witnessed and have affected only one organisation. There have been scores more (see accompanying box). The scale of the assault and its rapidity has not quite registered on the larger polity. As artists we have now to start thinking about the retrieval of that lost ground and when it will be possible to start that process. What the Nazis did in Germany in less than a decade is still being undone 50 years later. How many more years before we can begin undoing what is being done? While the resistance amongst us exists, it cannot succeed without backing from mass organisations.

Back to Jaya Jaitly and her fund raising. The figure who championed the art of weavers and craftsmen is now part of the party and government presiding over their suicides in the new economic order, also part of the system which is denying relief in Gujarat to a huge community of craftspersons on the basis of religion or caste. This is real cultural nationalism. We can only hope that when these cynical leaders are defeated or even brought to justice, enough of our weavers will survive to continue weaving the glorious fabric which has been our real national culture.



Institutions which have been reconstituted, all of which have generated controversy over the last two years:

* The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).

* Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR).

*Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla (IIAS).

* University Grants Commission (UGC).

* Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

* National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

* Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPR).

* The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).

A Calendar of Cultural Actions in 2000:

* The New Harappan Civilisation Gallery at the National Museum in Delhi is installed to project the Hindutva reinterpretation of this culture as Vedic/Sanskritic against all accepted archaeological evidence and scholarship.

* The Lalit Kala Akademi funded and assembled an exhibition on Vajpayee’s visit to the US, which by no stretch of the imagination can be justified as relevant to the mandate of the Akademi.

* The Sangeet Natak Akademi hosted a show to laud the government’s Kargil policy, and more recently, to celebrate 50 years of the foundation of the republic. Both Akademis have been made PR arms of the government.

* January: Attack on Deepa Mehta’s cast and crew of her film, Water.

* February: ABVP threatens young people to prevent them celebrating St. Valentine’ s day. Shops and restaurants are attacked in Kanpur.

* March: ABVP culture cops try to forcibly enforce a dress code for girls in Kanpur.

* April: Communal campaign against the students of Jamia Millia in Delhi and AMU in Aligarh, continuing the campaign by the VHP and Bajrang Dal which branded these varsities as breeding grounds for ISI agents.

* June: The RSS journal Panchjanya launches a communal campaign against ‘Muslim heroes’ in the film industry. Editor Tarun Vijay is subsequently appointed to the jury for the national film awards in 2001 which erupts with resignations of jury members against ‘fixed’ and partisan awards.

* June: Courses on Vedic rituals and Astronomy sanctioned in universities.

* July: National Commission for Women brings out a document on the status of women with strong communal overtones. It presents the ancient period as a ‘golden age’ for women with subsequent ‘Muslim’ rule responsible for the degardation of women.

* August: Attack on the Sahmat exhibition in Toronto. MEA forces withdrawal of grants from the Shastri Indo-Candian Institute to the University of Western Ontario.

* August: Disruption of paper presentations by secular Indian historians at the Conference of African and Asian Historians in Montreal.

* August: Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute pressurised to withdraw funding to Waterloo University in Canada for the conference ‘Accomodating Diversity’, leading to its cancellation.

* September: Surendran Nair’s painting forcibly withdrawn from an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.

* September: ASI and ICHR officials with Sangh Parivar affiliations try to distort information about an excavation near Fatehpur Sikri.