How India's Slide Into Authoritarianism Is Destroying Art and Culture

Indian culture like Indian nationalism is central to the debate today, and it is the seat of a major contestation. What is culture, local culture, a nation’s culture or a multiplicity of cultures? Is it about the foods we consume, the music we prefer, the words and books we create, the forms of art, theater, cinema and craft we spawn—or all of this and something much, much more? A catholicity of disciplines surely is central to cultural practices, as are forms of experimentation and vision that break barriers of rigid exclusivity.


As one of India’s most revered poets, Rabindranath Tagore, put it, “You can't cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.” And Gandhi, ever the down-to-earth pragmatic whose favorite morning hymns reflected his vision of India and its culture, said: “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

India, or the South Asian subcontinent, has always reflected dual, even multiple realities—a unique culture or tradition of assimilation and questioning authority and structures. Renowned historian Romila Thapar argues that the discourse from early India lies between the Brahmans, accepted status quo-ists, and the Shramanas, peoples, subcultures and traditions that probed the rigid and iniquitous. Sitting with or on this is the rigid reality of caste and caste-driven inclusions and exclusions, which have carried within them narratives of dominant and subaltern cultures.

This has not always been an easy or peaceful co-existence. Many periods have seen passionate contestations and terse, offensive questioning and challenge. Eventually, a lived culture has emerged with these uneasy appropriations. It is on these multiple realities that modern India sits—around which a consensual republic, wedded to the constitutional non-negotiables of equality and non-discrimination, was born.

The result is a quaint and fascinating reality of inclusion and tolerance, exclusions and inclusions, varied across the east, south, west and north. Nothing typifies the complexity and quaint absurdity like the epic story Ramayana and the multiple narratives it tells. Woven around the figures of Rama, Sita, Ravana, Laxman and Hanuman (men, women and gods, revered and performed), the interpretations and renderings of this epic shift and change in emphasis and interpretation over the different regions of the country. So while Ram is revered in the north, Ravana is the favoured epic hero of the south.

This multiplicity, complication and variety sat well with Indian democracy while it remained inclusive and republican. Over the past three decades, however, a long and ominous shadow—monochromatic, rigid, authoritarian and aimed at significantly altering the fundamentals of Indian nationhood—has significantly targeted and altered people’s relatively free-flowing interpretations of faith, faith practices, ritual and celebrations.

Behind this assault, physical and intimidating, are those who believe that India is not just only Hindu but that this Hinduism is narrow, rigid, non-eclectic and authoritarian. I have always believed that there appears an innate desire to Semitize an inherently non-Semitic faith and practice. For instance, Hinduism in its various manifestations and forms ranges from the eclectic Bhakti and ascetic cults to Shramanism and to a very rigid caste-driven version typified in one text called the Manu Smruti. In this text, women, Muslims and ‘untouchables’ are the elements to be mistrusted and therefore caged or controlled. In the other versions, an edifying sexuality co-exists with these more rigid notions. The reasons can be found in the non-linear, non-Semitic form of the faith. So, while sexuality was depicted in its sensuality and the much-visited Konark and Khajurao temples are evidence of this culture. It is erotic temple art at its best, 10th- to 13th-century India, which point to a past not acceptable to the flag bearers of ‘Hindu Indian culture’ except, reluctantly, as tourist attractions.

The ideologues who drive this agenda—from the rabid and ribald brigands of the Shiv Sena in western Maharashtra to the more austere yet sinister hordes that are gathered to this political project in the center and north—are the culture police who decide which films are made, what the cast wears or says, and which relationships are depicted. Tragically, this is not a new development; it is at least two and a half decades old. Indian democracy has sat easily with the creeping culture police.

It began in the 1990s in avowedly cosmopolitan Mumbai, then Bombay, when leading actors and cinema producers negotiated with the big don who ran and controlled the city, Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena. To buy peace, they even showed him the first takes of the films that ran into rough weather. The Shiv Sena was direct and crude. It owned a newspaper, the Saamna, which was the first to decree that India’s iconic modern art painter and artist, M.H. Husain, “should have his fingers chopped off.”

This crude and violent swashbuckling was unleashed because of Husain’s eye for the magic that is (or was, at least) Indian culture. He had a relationship with the Indian (read Hindu) epics and deities that allowed him to draw and paint them in a spectacular way. Husain grew up as the son of the Indian soil but had to live and die in exile, because a supine government gave in to the very forces that threaten to redraw our cultural boundaries again today.

Husain incidentally loved October—the season of the Ramlila, the folk theatrical depictions of different versions of the Indian epic story—and would slip into a neighborhood shamiana and watch the majesty of Ram with the glee of a child. It took him back to his boyhood years in Indore when Ramlilas were a regular feature of his life. Years later, inspired by the suggestion of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia to paint the lore of the land, Husain spent 10 months in an Andhra village, sat with a pundit from Benaras, took lessons in the Ramayan of Valmiki and Tulsidas and recreated his own version of the epic. The result was dozens of canvases, some of them as long as 40 feet, that people were happy to refer to as ‘Husaini Ramayana.’

I dare say these depictions are worth thousands and perhaps millions of dollars, even as the ‘owners’ of these works supported an idea that drove Husain out of the country of his birth. He probably had no clue, in an India comfortable with this unique blend of culture and criticism, that the Hinduism he celebrated will also acquire its own brand of fanatics who will so soon lose the catholicity of a way of being. He was once asked by a friend, “Why don’t you paint the story of Islam in a similar fashion?” He replied: “Do you have the tolerance to accept what I paint? If I raise my brush to depict Islam will you stop the fanatics from descending on me?”

The old story of the frog put into a pot of water that is gradually brought to a boil, depicts how societies, cultures and public spaces surrender to diktats and threats and adjust to a new normal. And we in India have been adjusting to this normal for over 25 years now. The city centers of Bombay, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Benares were singled out and targeted. And now this carefully invented virus is spreading, and the inventors of the new disease even have sanction from those who rule.

Young and not-so-young Muslims would be forever enthralled at the relationship between the Hindus and their gods and their faith. 

"When I saw a 'Modern-day Ramayana,’ a drama performed at a school camp, I was shocked," an anonymous Muslim student explained. "My school-going Hindu friends were making fun of Lord Ram, Sita and Laxman in the drama. Even Lord Hanuman was not spared. To my disbelief, the next day the same students worshipped the same gods they had lampooned the previous night. Another shocker for me was Jaane Bhi do Yaaron. I remember the concluding scenes in which filmmaker Kundan Shah gave a comic twist to a sequence in the Mahabharat where the Pandavas lose Draupadi to the Kauravas in a gamble.”

Today, a play by the famed Indian playwright Mahasweta Devi, Draupadi, that depicts brute violence against women (including by men in uniform), is attacked and targeted for being “anti-national.” Eight years ago, with a different government in power, AK Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” part of the recommended readings for students in the Delhi University, was removed from the syllabus despite stiff opposition from the history department and faculty as a supine university administration caved into rabid and irrational demands. Not to mention Wendy Donniger’s acclaimed work on Hinduism was pulped by ever-ready publishers simply because an outfit spawned by the RSS took strong objection to it.

Arguably, Husain was targeted specifically because he was born a Muslim. And last week, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, feted for his talent, was prevented from playing a coveted role in the Ramlila in his home village of western Uttar Pradesh in Buldanha district. The context was the war drums being beaten within the capital of Delhi and within the studios of television channels. The incursions from the Pakistani side at Uri, in Kashmir that led to an escalation of hostilities in India by the establishment took its cultural toll too.

Overnight, Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, adored by Indian female fans, was asked to pack up and leave, and other Pakistani artists were held to account for what the army and extremists spawns did. Indian artists, directors and producers who dared to be true to Indian and South Asian culture became the sole or collective targets in television debates that have become shamefully gladiatorial. Suddenly we have all been asked to decide which side we are on. If you reason and speak a language of the people, of questioning of peace, living up to the early Indian tradition of the shramana, you are today anti-national.

This form of militarized and confined culture not only targets a Muslim actor for performing in the Ramlila but also allows a paranoid, authoritarian, proto-fascist state to compell writers in the Urdu language to sign declarations that they will not (God promise!) write anything ‘anti-national.’

No wonder that Carnatic musician, T.M. Krishna, recently declared at a literary festival in north India, “We are living in times where everybody is scared. People in the cinema are told who can act in their cinema. People are told who should not act and why not. There cannot be anything more ridiculous than that.” He referred to freedom of expression as an act of “sharing” and said that the constitutional right was a “natural” way of life for any individual. “We are told not to share. We are being told what we should share. We are being told how we should share. We are being told why we should not share,” he said.

Feminist Dalit writer Pradnya Pawar, a special guest at a literary festival in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, was compelled to leave the venue after organizers quietly bowed to the pressures from the culture police—a mob hurling threats and shouting slogans. This was just three days ago. The list is long and it continues.

The shooting deaths of three rationalists—Narayan Dabhokkar (2013), Govind Pansare (2015) and MM Kalburgi (2015)—was the turning point. Protests, cultural and political grew and spread, and the resistance mounts even today.

With the assaults by the culture police has also come the resistance. Since September 2015, when a Muslim man not far from Delhi was lynched to death after neighborhood hysteria was whipped up over the family stocking beef in the fridge of their home, a storm of cultural protests had resulted. Writers, artists and filmmakers returned government awards in their show of revulsion against what India has become.

Years back, one of India’s leading art writers, then editing the Art Pages of the Economic Times put it rather well:

Sadanand Menon had said, ‘Meanwhile, little man you have unleashed something. It is a debilitating emotional plague… In this state you seem to have erased the line between the sacred and the profane; if you want to “worship” every representation of Saraswati you see-whether in a school text book, or on a shop name board or behind an auto rickshaw or on a packet of crackers, or a calendar advertising cement—then you can only deemed to be in serious trouble. Little man, if you can’t decide to keep your worship inside the temple and the pooja room and want to carry it inside art galleries and theatres, you may be victim of your own highly neurotic attitude towards religion…

As Jean Paul Sartre said in another context, “remember little man, India is the name of a country; let it not become the name of a nervous disease.” Twenty years later, I say, Amen.

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