If those cave paintings where human beings drew representations of life marked the beginning of human culture, this mob and police intimidation of art is surely the death of it
“Art is enchantment and artists have the right of spells.”
– Jeanette Winterson
Art is our integral and spontaneous response to the contradictions of life. This is what brings heterogeneity into our world.
On Saturday, two artists at the Jaipur Art Summit at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Anish Ahluwalia and Chitan Upadhyay, faced police questioning, for a work of installation art, ‘The Bovine Divine’ by Siddhartha Kararwal. The installation was of a cow made of styrofoam, suspended by a balloon, to raise awareness about “how cows consume plastic and die due to its consumption”. But the police acted at the behest of people complaining about cows being displayed “inappropriately”. The artists, their protests coming to no avail, were forced to bring down the cow, which was then forcibly taken away by the police, duly garlanded and worshipped by the protestors.
The flying cow, used as an artistic symbol for spreading awareness of an environmental problem concerning the health of the cow itself, belies the angry sentiments of the protestors. The religious minded cow protectors had got it wrong. To see the whole event, however, as a proof of the difference between rational versus irrational mindsets would be missing the deeper issue. It won’t be enough to read the flying cow as a symbol of ‘secular art’, trying to draw attention to a problem that is ‘scientific’, pertaining to the cow’s health.
Even if the artists have stated their “message” was raising awareness, art is not simply its message, or to put it another way, art cannot be reduced to the singularity of what it signifies. An object of art is many things at once, and any good art will revel in the multiplicity of interpretations. The title of the installation does not appear to be necessarily ridiculing of the idea of the bovine as divine, though one can read a satirical provocation intended in the phrase. In the context of the installation’s attempt to point people’s attention to a material problem the cow is ailing from, the title plays at irony.
The relationship (and difference) between art and religion lies at this interface where the former can satirise the latter. If art cannot take place, if artists cannot play with symbols and meanings that some may consider ‘religious’, and if such gestures and events are open to public harassment and intimidation by law, then the government should declare that we are living under the diktats of a religious state.
But even this situation, where ‘secular’ art is being hounded by religious sensibilities, aided by the paranoia and hypersensitivity of the state, cannot be only read as a religious versus irreligious, or rational versus irrational problem.
For there is another crucial aspect behind the whole story that connects (secular) art and religion to what we understand as “culture” in a much more intricate, open and redeeming sense. The most interesting and ‘carnivalesque’ aspect of the art installation, ‘The Bovine Divine’, is the flying cow. Why is the cow flying? Why make the cow fly?
I remember as a child, growing up in a small, northeastern town of India during the 1970s, how any flying object would immediately draw rapturous attention. The whole purpose and delight of visiting a circus would be to see flying objects.
From balloons to kites, objects that fly are the stuff of wonder and dreams. They are metaphors, symbols of the mind’s desires, conscious and unconscious. There is even a ‘science’ about them, about the laws of gravity and how things fly against gravity. But it is not all that alone. The ‘Pushpaka Vimana’, or flying chariot, in the story of the Ramayana, or the image of the king, Trishanku, hanging in the sky as the sage Vishwamitra’s efforts to send him to heaven in his physical body is thwarted by the gods, are all moments of wonder.
These imaginative techniques and moments which turn a tale into an object of wonder do not offer us any scientific lessons, but surely hold out lessons of “culture”. These are magical instances replete with meanings that are not always rationally explained, but can be interpreted in various social, psychological and aesthetic aspects. These are also signifiers that are understood critically, even within the religious context, as within every religious understanding of the world, there are methods of argument and critique of human behaviour. To say that such methods of argument and critique only favour the idea of faith is also not always correct. There can be radically differing modes of belief within a heterogeneous faith. Today, under the pathological compulsions of modernity, the fact that ‘secular’ art itself has come to carry a singular, unidimensional meaning is deplorable. The religious fundamentalist in today’s world is also the product of the same pathology that he opposes with such violent vehemence. The Kannada writer HS Shivaprakash puts his finger in the right place when he calls today’s religious fundamentalism in India a problem of imposing “uni-culture” or monoculture, into the social and cultural fabric of the nation. It is against this singularity of culture that we should aim our protests and battles.
The fact that a flying cow did not evoke wonder or surprise but rather alarm and anger, shows the state and health of ‘Hindu’ culture.
If artistic work is judged by the police and artists end up in the police station, we can well imagine the state of art in the country. If culture no longer exists as wonder, as provocation, as dream, what is this culture that is being preserved? Culture is, without the need for any sophisticated definition, simply curiosity. If there is no curiosity in culture, if the culture of curiosity doesn’t exist, we are surely worse off than those imaginative human beings who drew wonderful representations of life on the walls of caves. If those cave paintings were the beginning of human culture, this mob and police intimidation of art is surely the death of it. This has nothing to do with even religion. This is a legal, modern farce, playing cards with rationality. It is only when a culture is excessively repressed by modern rationality that superstition gains the status of mass hypnotism, where a Ganesha drinks milk.
Gabriel Garcia Márquez had once famously said in an interview, “If you don’t believe in god, at least be superstitious.” Marquez, a diehard communist, however knew the contradictions that allow the culture of human imagination, to exist. When we read of the sage Vashistha’s magical cow, Kamadhenu, which fed Vishwamitra’s army, we don’t necessarily believe in the cow having such powers, but we still believe in the story. The believer who looks at all cows as progeny of Kamadhenu has destroyed the wonder of the story in the service of belief. To give social and legal sanction to such a belief over others, and prevent beef eating for instance, is precisely the violence of mono-culturalism.
Márquez also pointed out that an unbelievable event is most likely to be believed when it is expressed in numbers. So if you say you saw many elephants flying in the sky, everybody would laugh at you. But if you said you saw twelve of them, even the most skeptical might pause for a second and wonder. That is the secret, the secret trick if you will, at once divine and secular, that lies behind all stories and all art. We have to recover and grant the story – and art – its place in our culture. Or else there will be no culture to talk about very soon except the ‘culture’ of hooliganism and the ‘culture’ of rubbish.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.