Review of a book presenting KC Aryan’s art collection, with a contemplation on the survival of Indian culture
(Law Animated World, Hyderabad, 16 July 2016)
In Gurgaon, or should I say Gurugram, an ordinary mansion houses an extraordinary treasure: a collection of Indian tribal and folk art started in 1984 by the Panjabi painter KC Aryan (1919-2002) and expanded by his children. Now, a hefty parlour-table book shows a separate professional photograph of each artwork, with an informative caption: From the Personal Collection of KC Aryan. Unknown Masterpieces of Indian Folk & Tribal Art (KC Aryan’s Home of Folk Art, Gurgaon 2016, 301 pp., 635 illustrations). It has been edited by KC Aryan’s daughter Subhasini Aryan and son BN Aryan.
The ordinary house was the habitat of the great painter himself, as he found no state or private patronage to give his collection the space and the care it deserves. Collecting he did out of personal passion for art and out of a sense of duty. He sensed how art that was an everyday feature of Indian folk life a century ago is now getting rare and in need of preservation for posterity. Art lovers and art owners were united in despising tribal and folk art, even throwing it away to replace it with more classical pieces.
Dr. Subhasini Aryan, chairman of the Museum, writes in her foreword: “Greater preference is accorded to sculptures and paintings created by artists attached to the royal courts over the centuries. Artefacts from rural and tribal India were outrightly dismissed as everyday objects, completely unfit for display in a museum. No one, with the sole exception of K.C. Aryan, realised that the illiterate and unknown craftsmen living and working in the countryside had nurtured our artistic and cultural heritage since hoary antiquity, and preserved it from getting lost for good.”
I cannot vouch for her estimation that her father was “the sole exception”. No doubt in such a vast country, more initiatives can be found. Moreover, she herself writes that her father did “for Panjabi popular paintings what WG Archer had done for those from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa”. (p.59)
BN Aryan explains in his afterword once more the necessity for his father’s collections: “This long neglect and wanton destruction of our folk and tribal heritage has been compounded by the unsavoury process of pseudo-intellectual distinction between ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’, or ‘fine arts’ and ‘decorative arts’. This led to a profound loss of repositories of rich ethnographic material bearing centuries-old expression and symbolism.” (p.293)
He quotes Stella Kramrisch assessment of his father’s work on Folk Bronzes: “KC Aryan is singularly equipped in writing on them, having lived, seen and collected many of the images on the spot and being a practising artist.” (p.295)
Importantly, he gives the ultimate reason why this collection of artworks is being presented: it is “a most deserving tribute to the unnumbered anonymous artists and artisans of our soil through the centuries. In it are manifest the creative genius and artistic expression of countless unknown potters, weavers, embroiderers, painters, sculptors and other craftspersons of this country ‘whose names and identities have been lost in the mists of time’ and whose artistry is comparable to, if not excelling, the best of its kind found anywhere in the history of human civilization.” (p.297)
The book helpfully reminds us that “these paintings and lithographs can be seen only in the collectio of Home of Folk Art, and nowhere else. They are being reproduced for the first time.” (p.59) It is divided in one chapter each for the different types of art.
K.C. Aryan was a productive painter himself. Twice his paintings drew attention from the authorities. A few years before independence, during a communal riot in the North-West Frontier Province, Muslims paraded a group of Hindu women naked. He depicted the scene. The British authorities feared it would stoke resentment among the Hindus, so he had to abscond from their searchlight for a while. Come independence, his community of Lahore Hindus was partly massacred and partly had to flee for their lives. In Delhi, near Kashmiri gate, they had to live as refugees. Aryan’s painting of the refugee camp was titled: “Freedom comes for us.” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was not amused.
Here he has collected a number of fine paintings, beautiful and inspired but usually less perfect than what you may find in temples or rich people’s parlours. The first is about tantrik and folk paintings, devotional or magic-oriented. Often they show deities carrying cosmological schemes of 9 or 32 or 64 squares or triangles inscribed with mantras or yantras (geometrical figures or symbols). Other deities are preferably ferocious, such as Virabhadra, the martial form of Shiva, or Kali, folk-etymologically “Mrs. Black” but actually “Mrs. Hour-of-Death”. Often the deities are unorthodox local goddesses, such as Ahoi or Syahu Mata, whose images are painted by housewives “for the well-being of their offspring”. (p.35) Torture scenes from life in hell, here from a Jain manuscript, “were intended to instill the idea of a good moral character”. (p.53)
Among the gems is a very unusual depiction of Hanuman with Arabic writing: “This instance of a Muslim devotee of a Hindu deity is by no means exceptional“ (p.21), especially at the folk level. Common folk knew little about theology, in particular about the Islamic strictures against worship of Pagan deities, so that many Hindu commoners who had paid lip-service to Islam in order to improve their chances in life, still turned to their ancestral deities.
Numerous paintings as well as bronzes and stone sculptures depict Hanuman, who doesn’t have his own chapter here but deserves to be the object of a separate collection housed in its own museum. I was personally present at the Gathering of the Elders, a global all-Pagan conference in Maisuru (Mysore) where BN Aryan was also attending. Seeing an empty hall on the premises of the Ashram’s Hanuman Mandir, he thought it would make for the perfect placet o house his Hanuman collection, also enhancing the status of the Ashram, but after some favourable sounds from board members, the organization’s president announced that it could not go through. Hindus always find a reason to shoot the Hindu cause in the foot.
A second and third type of artwork in KC Aryan’s collection also consist of kinds of paintings, namely book covers and playing cards. Even illiterates could express a complete cosmology through the pictures on playing cards. In Europe, it so happens that the culture of playing cards, for entertainment but also for fortune-telling, was spread by a population of low-caste Indians, the Gypsies.
The fourth section is a very large one: bronzes. Dozens of statues of Durga, some of other deities including village goddesses queue up for your attention. An elongated bronze shows Krishna with a row of cows behind him. A similar-shaped one shows the juxtaposed seven sisters with the caption: “The Saptamatrikas (seven Mother Goddesses) holding hands and standing together on a flat metal plate, Maharashtra; 18th century.” (p.113)
Often these bronzes are not very polished, but they are breathtakingly genuine and stirring. Often their design is quite complex. Thus, the bronze “icon of eight-armed Goddess Durga seated in the dhyana-asana flanked by devotees; tiny sexually conjoinedfigures of Shiva and Kali are seen in front on the pedestal. The high pedestal-cum-simhasana (lion throne) supports all the figures and an elaborate prabhavali surrouds them. Wstern India; 16th century.” (p.115)
Many bronzes are from tribal communities and depict tribal religion: “A tribal goddess seated in cross-legged posture. Chattisgarh, 19th century.” (p.122) Or: “Deified clan ancestors (bronze), Kutia Kond tribe, Orissa-Andhra border area; early 20th century.” (p.123) Or: “Metal icon of the tribal goddess Khanda Kankalini Devi flanked by attendants, Bastar, Chattisgarh.” (p.135)
They may also depict secular scenes, e.g.: “A Kutia Kond tribal woman balancing a pitcher on her head, Orissa-Andhra border area; early 20th century.” (p.123) Or: “A deified tribal warrior or clan ancestor portrayed along with his spouse holding a baby, all seated on a high pedestal, a pair of animal heads projecting on both sides; Chattisgarh, 19th century.” (p.131) Or: “A tribal bride and bridegroom, their joined hands indicative oftheir marriage rites being solemnized, Bastar, Chattisgarh, 20th century.” (p.135) The designs are often surprising, not following the patterns known from classical art.
The other chapters deal with terracottas, metal craft including masks, textiles, woodcraft including masks, and oleographs. The latter are the only category where the reader will at once recognize in both form and contents the usual scenes from classical art or its popularized form, calendar art: “Saraswati seated on a lotus throne playing on her veena, accompanied by a swan and a peacock.” (p.291) Or: “Coronation of Lord Rama.” (p.291) But sometimes, even most Hindus would have to brush up their knowledge of their own tradition, e.g.: “Vishvamitra refuses to accept his daughter Shakuntala being presented to him by Menaka.” (p.290) As we approach the present, we get activist designs like ”Bharat Mata” (p.292) and “A propagandistic print urging Hindus to protect the sacred cow.” (p.292)
Herewith we terminate our book review. We genuinely recommend that people read this book and admire the pieces of art presented therein. Unfortunately the contrast between the value of these collections and the shabby treatment they receive from the upper class and the authorities deserve a closer investigation and contemplation.
This collection is large, tasteful, and greatly appreciated by art connoisseurs the world over. At the moment, it happens to be housed just next to the capital and the international airport. Any Minister of Culture in his right mind would first of all visit it and then promote this collection to show the world that particular facet of the many-faced Indian creativity. But this is not happening.
The present Government is supposedly Hindu and wedded to native culture. One would have expected it to preserve and highlight native handicrafts and art forms. It ought to know that there is an audience for non-classical art. For ideological or purely for propaganda reasons, it has an interest in showing the low-caste and tribal face of India once in a while.
Yet, it turns out that these things were cared for much better under Leftist administrations. Collections of museum pieces or living handicraft traditions that were once preserved as national heritage, as a proud raised fist against colonialism and americanization, have been neglected by the BJP, or worse, thrown to the wolves of the market forces. If it doesn’t make money, it is not worth existing!
The non-interest from the official side for this collection of folk and tribal art follows a pattern. In days past, these art forms would not go under the name “Hindu”; instead they would be called “folkish”, “native”, “popular”, “subaltern” or “tribal”. Yet they were better looked after than now that they have become potential jewels in the Hindutva crown.
Folk and tribal parts of Indian civilization
The self-taught but by now very prominent historian Shrikant Talageri, best known from his work on the Vedic evidence for the Indo-European homeland, has explained what exactly is at stake here. As a starting-point, he takes 2005:is observation by the late Sita Ram Goel. The venerable thinker said at the very outset of his Hindu Society Under Siege (Voice of India, Delhi 1981, p.1): “There are many Hindus who are legitimately proud of Hindu art, architecture, sculpture, music, painting, dance, drama, literature, linguistics, lexicography and so on. But they seldom take into account the fact that this great wealth of artistic, literary and scientific heritage will die if Hindu society which created it is no more there to preserve, protect and perpetuate it.” . (“Sita Ram Goel, memories and ideas”, in Koenraad Elst, ed.: India’s Only Communalist: In Commemoration of Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, Delhi 2005, p.239-346, spec. p.251)
Talageri agrees with this assessment: “conversion to Islam and Christianity creates a process of cultural de-Indianization. De-Hinduization of Indian society, therefore, will inevitably lead to the demise of Indian culture: Hindu society must survive if Indian culture is to survive.” (2005:273) This much may sound like music to the ears of the Hindutva organizations. But he also asserts the reverse: “But the reverse is also true: Indian culture must survive if Hindu society is to survive. Hindu society would no more be Hindu society if it lost all vestiges of Indian culture or if it allowed Indian culture to die out. And Hindutva without Indian culture as its very basis is a meaningless exercise.” (2005:251-252)
This native culture is broader than usually assumed: “Vedic and Classical Sanskrit culture, is, of course, the pan-Indian representative face of India’s ancient civilization, and that fact is not negated by the equally valid fact that all other native Indian cultures must be given their due.” (Talageri 2005: 293)
Hence the need for a more open-minded evaluation of folk and tribal cultures even by representatives of the Vedic Great Tradition. As Talageri (interview to the Free Press Journal, 5 May 2002) explains: “Indian culture being the greatest and richest is not a narrow or chauvinistic idea; it is a demonstrable fact. It would be chauvinistic if it acquired an imperialist tinge: that other cultures are inferior and Indian culture must dominate over or replace them. In fact, I am opposed to even internal cultural imperialism. The idea that Vedic or Sanskrit culture represents Indian culture and that other cultures within India are its subcultures and must be incorporated into it, is wrong. (…) All other cultures native to this land: the culture of the Andaman islanders, the Nagas, the Mundas, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, etc. are all Indian in their own right. They don’t have to be ¾ and should not be ¾ Sanskritized to make them Indian.”
Really existing culture
So, a governing party that has garnered Hindu votes on the promise of defending Hindu interests, should care for Hindu culture, not only in its Sanskritic but also in its folk and tribal forms. Now that the BJP, historically known as a “Hindu Nationalist” party, is in power, we should expect Hindu culture in all its forms to receive extra attention. After all, nationalists the world over have highlighted their country’s own cultural masterpieces from the past and encouraged the deployment of cultural creativity in the present. And indeed, during election time, the BJP pays lots of lip-service to the Hindu “values”, “ethos” and “way of life”.
Yet, what the BJP does wrong here is not so much its wobbly loyalty to its election promises, but its rather abstruse understanding of what “Hindu culture” is. Talageri explains: “Culture does not refer only to ‘values’, ‘ethos’ and ‘way of life’, which are really vague words and which can be made to mean anything. It refers to actual concrete culture.” (2005:252)
Indeed, it refers to “every single aspect of India’s matchlessly priceless heritage: climate and topography; flora and fauna; races and languages; music, dance and drama; arts and handicrafts; culinary arts; games and physical systems; architecture; costumes and apparels; literature and sciences…” And it takes its value not just from the “cultural practices springing from Vedic or Sanskritic sources, but from all other Indian sources independently of these: the practices of the Andaman islanders and the (pre-Christian) Nagas are as Hindu in the territorial sense, and Sanatana in the spiritual sense, as classical Sanskritic Hinduism.” (Shrikant Talageri: Time for Stock-Taking, Voice of India, Delhi 1997, p.227)
Leftist care for culture
But far from finding Hindu Nationalists, especially the political ones, as the champions of native culture, Talageri sees their adversaries in a more prominent role: “A survey of eminent people active in different fields of culture ¾ whether actual participants like dancers, musicians, etc.; or scholars engaged in studying, recording and filming different aspects of culture; or activists fighting to preserve our environment, wildlife, forests, cuisine, dances, musical styles and musical instruments, art forms, handicrafts, architectural styles and monuments, old manuscripts, etc.; or even lay people who appreciate or support all such activities ¾ will show a very fair representation, perhaps even a preponderance, of secularist people. It is, perhaps, just such people that Sita Ram Goel, quoted at the very beginning of this section, had in mind when he talked about Hindus who are legitimately proud of different aspects of Indian culture, but who fail to realize that all this culture ‘will die if Hindu society which created it is no more there to preserve, protect and perpetuate it’.” (2005:269)
Even stronger, those who fight for native culture often have a political loyalty opposed to Hindu Nationalism: “In some fields, indeed, it is not just vaguely secularist people, but even outright leftists, who are active in the task of preserving aspects of Indian culture, particularly when it comes to aspects of tribal, folk or regional culture. This may be simply because much of their support base comes from the more marginalized, or less westernized, strata of society. Or it may be because they see it as an ideological strategy to promote the ‘Lesser Traditions’ of Indian culture, perceived to be in opposition, or at least intended to be propped up as such, to the ‘Greater Tradition’ of Vedic or Classical Hindu civilization, which is perceived to be promoted by the elite classes, or upper castes, or by Hindutva organizations. Similarly, we find outright leftists engaged in fighting issues of environment, wildlife conservation and deforestation. This, again, may be merely because of the issues of socio-economic ideology involved. But, whatever the reasons, the fact is that they are doing their bit for Indian culture.” (2005:270)
For example, “even in the notorious TV serial Tamas, which exemplifies these traits so well (in numerous ways, every scene in the serial exudes ugly anti-Hinduism and false leftist propaganda), we find soul-stirring music and songs steeped in authentic traditions of Indian music. This is to be contrasted, for example, with the pedestrian pop varieties of Indian music we find in serials like Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana, so dear to the hearts of Hindutva organizations.” (2005:270) Therefore: “If the greatest and richest culture in the world is in real and active danger of being set on the downward path towards extinction, it would be futile to be satisfied with merely laying the blame at the doors of secularism.” (2005:271)
If today we witness a steep decline in native culture, this cannot be blamed on foreign interventions, nor even on fellow Indians seen as agents of foreign influence: “British rule in India did introduce many negative factors (…) Yet it also consciously did a great deal in preserving arts and crafts, monuments, old manuscripts, etc., and encouraging scholars engaged in the detailed study and meticulous recording of different aspects of Indian culture. (…) The dawning of independence from British rule in 1947, and the accession to power of ‘secular’ rulers eager to demonstrate their distance from anything ‘communal’ (i.e. Hindu) did not change the picture very greatly. Many of these rulers did have some pride in Indian culture (….) Consequently, they did quite a bit for those aspects of Indian culture, e.g. they established institutions and academies for the study, recording, preservation and popularization of those aspects, they instituted awards to honour eminent people and scholars in different fields, they organized festivals to encourage and popularize those aspects, etc. (…) institutions such as Akashwani, Doordarshan and Films Division did a truly wonderful, Herculean job in recording and popularizing India’s immeasurable wealth of music, dance, etc.” (2005:279)
Destruction of culture by Capitalism
The BJP today supports and encourages the interiorization of American Capitalism and Consumerism. As Karl Marx observed, Capitalism has (in his evaluation) the merit of destroying “feudal”, pre-modern culture: religion as a guarantor and legitimizer of existing power relations, premodern forms of social inequality, clan loyalty, quaint and unproductive respect for certain objects and spaces, etc. He fought Capitalism because of its exploitative aspect, but otherwise saw it as fully part of history’s march to modern Communist society. But from the viewpoint of a distinctive Indian culture, Talageri sees it as a destroyer far surpassing anything that the various past imperialisms have wrought: “Capitalism, or the ideology of the unbridled pursuit of wealth, is destroying culture on an unbridled scale.” (2005:276)
So, in practice, “countless cultural activities, seen to be non-lucrative or less lucrative, are being abandoned all over the country. Others are being severely compromised in order to keep or make them lucrative: compromise in materials or techniques used, shoddiness in workmanship or performance, short-cut methods, etc. These are resulting in loss of natural spontaneity, cultural authenticity, technological expertise and performance satisfaction, which, in turn, gradually leads to the degeneration and further abandonment of cultural activities. All this is affecting various fields of culture: musical forms and styles, musical instruments, dance forms, architectural styles, art forms, handicrafts, traditional crops, culinary items, etc.” (2005:280)
While the progressives avoided describing any valuable segment of Indian culture as Hindu, they nonetheless preserved or cultivated it. But then, globalizing Capitalism conquered India, largely helped by the BJP: “However, the concept of Money as God has now changed all this. For perhaps the first time in India’s long history, there is now no real official support for Indian culture. In the last decade or so, apparently coinciding with the advocacy and adoption of new policies of economic ‘reforms’, it is now passé for governments to do anything concrete to protect, preserve, record or perpetuate India’s traditional culture, or even to aid and encourage individuals or organizations doing so. Institutions established in the post-Independence era are being literally starved for funds, or funds are being used for any purpose but to achieve the original aims and objectives, or, simply, the very aims and objectives of these institutions are being changed. In any case no new activities, except occasional pedestrian ‘cultural’ projects of a political nature, are being undertaken: the institutions are being slowly transformed from cultural to commercial institutions, in line with the ‘changing times’.” (2005:280)
“Infinitely worse is what is happening to the detailed records of the research, documentation and collection undertaken by these institutions, in the not so distant past, to preserve, popularize and perpetuate different aspects of Indian culture. These archival records ¾ print, tape, film or actual physical objects ¾ are suddenly becoming an eyesore or an embarrassment, or simply a financial burden, to a cash-conscious leadership with a ‘reformist’ eye on the ‘globe’. A standard sequence now is as follows: state-funded museums, libraries and archives ¾ or at least the records in them ¾ slowly become rare or inaccessible, in different ways, to the (lay or scholarly) public eye. Often ‘constraints of space’ force the authorities to remove these records from their protected environments and dump them in ill-maintained godowns, to rot and decay, unseen and forgotten. And, occasionally, mysterious fires break out in the places which house these archives, destroying invaluable and irreplaceable records (including those pertaining to the golden age of Indian movies), then to be forgotten forever. All these events, coincidentally, make available valuable land and funds for more lucrative commercial purposes. The persons in authority are too busy saving or making money ¾ for themselves, or, if they are to be believed, for the public coffers ¾ to care.” (2005:280)
After describing how Andamanese tribal culture is being destroyed in front of our eyes by a careless Government (as well as by wily missionaries – I have seen them canvassing for the conversion of the Andaman islanders right here in Antwerp), Talageri makes this development relevant to the whole of India: “The tragedy in the Andaman islands is a pointer to what is happening to India’s tribal and folk cultures, and even to the tributaries of the mainstream classical cultures of India. (…) millions of Indians [are] abandoning their glorious culture, and striving to become pathetic clones of the west”. (2005:291) It is up to Indians to become conscious of the situation and decide if this is what they want.
All this has happened largely on the BJP’s watch in state-controlled sectors. It sacrifices culture to “Development”. In society at large, where the RSS as a cadre-based mass organization wedded to Hindutva wields tangible clout, it forms a standing refutation to the RSS’s boast of being “the vanguard of Hindu society”. In the past, it was a Hindu king’s duty to patronize arts, crafts and sciences; but today, Hindus who really care about their civilization are on their own. The supposed Hindu organizations are not going to do in their stead. And that is why people like KC Aryan and his children have taken it upon themselves to do their bit for preserving India’s heritage.