Art + History = Police Action in Tamil Nadu
Here's a bit of shocking information: remember Aurangzeb? That jolly old Mughal who imprisoned various family members including his dad and his son, killed his brothers and generally went about making himself pleasant to his populace through the means of banning things like music and killing Sikh gurus? Yeah, that one. Turns out, according to his own records, he wasn’t a nice person to know.
You know what’s even more shocking? If you mention his dastardly nature (oh, come on! Even Stalin laid off his own family!) in Tamil Nadu, the police will come and shut you down.
That's right, Tamilians, this is how your tax money is being spent - on closing art exhibits.
To rewind a bit, if you're like me and have never heard of Francois Gautier before today (for some reason - like a lack of French - I don’t read Le Figaro or pretty much any of the publications he’s written for apparently), he’s an Indophile French journalist who founded this organization called the Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism. According to its website, “FACT seeks to bring attention to forgotten or neglected crises and to pressure governments and international organizations to help and protect refugees, displaced people and other victims of terror based conflicts.” Currently, it seems to be concentrating its efforts on Kashmiri Pandits and the minority Hindus, Christians and Buddhists in Bangladesh.
To highlight its work and the plight of the people it champions, FACT periodically holds exhibitions and other events around the world. For its latest exhibition, FACT came to the conclusion that the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who died in 1707, was pretty much the poster boy of Islamic terror as we know it today because he was a Sunni fundamentalist whose favorite hobby was temple demolition.
Personally, I think that’s a simplistic and rather contrived view of a fascinating character whose psychosis has never been adequately explored to my satisfaction… but that’s not the point here. FACT claims they dug through official Government archives, most notably in Rajasthan, and came up with original court documents including imperial edicts that beautifully illustrated just what it was like to live under the crazed eyes of a fanatically religious, all-powerful Emperor. They then commissioned Rajasthani artists who specialized in miniatures to translate those events into watercolor works and drawings in the Mughal style. The result of all this was an exhibit titled “Aurangzeb, as he was, according to Moghul records” which premiered in Delhi in February of this year.
Whatever my opinion of the tenor of some of Gautier’s writings, not to mention his naivete in imagining that Indo-Muslim relations on the subcontinent is comparable to Franco-German relations after the Second World War, I think this is a fascinating concept. I’m all for the marriage of art, history and politics. An intellectual menage a trois! But not everybody would agree with me - take the Nawab of Arcot, for instance. In Gautier’s words:
[He] visited the exhibition and lashed out at FACT volunteers accusing them of “misrepresenting facts.” He was particularly enraged by two miniatures — the first depicted Aurangzeb’s army destroying the Somnath temple and the second showed the destruction of the Kesava Rai temple in Mathura. We are told that he has direct access to the CM’s office and that orders to the police to clamp down on exhibition came down from there. Otherwise, Mr Murali [ed note: Asst. Commissioner of Police] would not have dared to go so far, so brazenly.
Soon, the nawab sent a group of goons, allegedly from TMMK (Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam) and MNP (Manitha Neethi Paasarai) to pick up arguments with the volunteers, most of them elderly women from decent family backgrounds.
They came back again on 7th afternoon when I was there, screaming on, top of their voices in Tamil and in English that this exhibition was absolutely false and that unless it was closed immediately they would come back in force the next day (Friday) to break it down.
I didn’t even know Arcot had a Nawab or that he was such an authority on history and a vociferous art critic to boot. As it turns out, there’s not only a Nawab of Arcot but his feelings for Aurangzeb might well be personal:
More than 300 years ago, his ancestor Zulfikar Ali Khan was summoned from Mecca by Emperor Aurangazeb in order to fight against the Marathas. In the 17th Century when the Marathas were holding sway in the Southern Carnatic from their stronghold at Gingee, Zulfikar Ali Khan came down and inflicted a crushing defeat on the ruler Rajaram.
The delighted Mughal emperor made him the Nawab of the Carnatic under the suzerainty of the Nizam of Hyderabad and thus were sown the beginnings of the House of Arcot. Later holders of the title identified closely with their area of domicile. The cordial interaction between the Nawabs of Arcot and the Hindu inhabitants of the Tamil country generated a climate of mutual tolerance and secularism that is proudly being carried on to this day.
Hmmm, I guess that does present a problem. But what, precisely, has the Nawab achieved through his actions? He’s pulled his strings and played his cards to such remarkable effect that an art exhibition that apparently only appealed Chennai grandmas suddenly turned controversial. And in the process he has managed to gain a reputation far removed from all that “tolerance and secularism” discussed in that article. Well done, sir!
It might be a cliche but it bears repeating: tolerance is an easy virtue to preach when it’s somebody else’s problem. It becomes a lot harder when you’re the one that has to do the tolerating.
From time to time I come across people who think Aurangzeb’s misdeeds are some sort of deep dark secret that secular India refuses to acknowledge. As I attended school in India (not that long ago either) and distinctly remember a litany of crimes set down next to Aurangzeb’s name in my government-approved history textbook, I honestly have no clue what these people are talking about. Maybe they went to school and slept through seventh grade history (or was it eighth?) but I was wide awake and taking it all in, thanks. Now I wonder if they were perhaps talking about people like the Nawab who apparently live in their own state of denial.
Pssst… Nawab sahib! Guess what? The secret’s out! We know all about ol’ Grandpappy Aurangzeb.
But the Nawab is not alone. Of late, it has become the fashion all over India to criticize art for having a political or historical viewpoint. And with increasing frequency, it isn't enough to merely protest a piece of art - it becomes "necessary" to vandalize and destroy that which one does not appreciate. Ironic, isn't it, that an exhibit on a long dead emperor commonly reviled for his illiberality has now been suspended by illiberal forces under the guise of liberalism?
On another note, when on earth do we stop obsessing about things that happened centuries ago and start obsessing even half as much about present day India? I love history but I can make a distinction between past and present - why is it that so many people refuse to do the same? Talking to some folks, it’s as if Mahmud of Ghazni marched through their homes just yesterday or else he was their BFF. What’s the deal here? Do you have something against reality in general or do you feel your life lacks drama? Because, you know, there is no dearth of things to get upset/upbeat about in the present.
Gautier talks about sparking “a healthy debate among the right thinking people” - it seems to me the right thinking people in India never get a chance to debate anything because all the wrong thinking people jump in feet first with fists flying.
More: The Aurangzeb Exhibition
Art + History = Police Action in Tamil Nadu
- » Published on March 11, 2008
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Author: Amrita Rajan
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