Life | Maharajas, Gurus And Slumdogs

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Maharajas, Gurus And Slumdogs
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustration by Divya Mahindra
Published: Volume 17, Issue 8, August, 2009

Madhu Jain dines at the home of a desi-American couple in midtown Manhattan and discovers new clichés for the new India and visits two exhibitions that highlight the globalisation of India’s ancient civilisation

It was a rather small gathering in a swanky high rise in midtown Manhattan. A vertiginous 60 floors up, we were almost rubbing noses with the spike-topped Chrysler Building – and other icons of the great American dream like the Empire State Building. Manifest destiny gone vertical I suppose. Wispy clouds drifted by, often below-eye level. It was an unusually rainy week in the city and the clouds happened to be slumming it amongst the mortals.

The nibbles going round in the glass-fronted tony apartment were as minimalist as the low-lying furniture – pristine steel, leather as soft as a baby’s bottom and eloquent indigo cushions from Japan. It was the home of a desi-American couple who had long shaken off their FOB (fresh-off-the-boat) personalities. Italian and generic American cuisines had more or less booted out desi khana. The ‘smells’ of masalas roasting, they complained, lingered nastily in the corridors, much to the consternation of some of their sniffy WASP neighbours in the building.

The décor had faint traces of the old country – a little miniature painting here and a contemporary Indian one there, nothing too loud or ethnic mind you. But objets d’ art or vases and knick-knacks picked up from the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) shop or designer boutiques set the tone. Indian heritage had conspicuously gone missing here. But then one of the guests, a European art historian whose daughter was engaged to an Indian-American investment banker, switched the conversation from the shrinking art market and polite questions about Indian culture and tradition to the film Slumdog Millionaire: Had I seen it? Did it make me mad? Was this the real India?

Was this the only India, was this all there was to India, the subtext of her volley of questions seemed to imply. Her prospective daughter-in-law apart, this film was her only encounter with India and Indians.

The mood in the room suddenly shifted, became charged. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Danny Boyle’s film. For me it was just another film – and that too a British one. But all the Oscars it harvested catapulted India to the limelight – to be seen, in fact, in quite a different light all together.

Indians abroad have long suffered the onslaught of questions about maharajas, gurus, the Kamasutra, snakes and elephants. But post Slumdog Millionaire, the grittily gutsy children from the slums as well as the much-celebrated entrepreneurial spirit of the new India have pushed the idea of an exotic, orientalist version of India out into the wings. The old cliché is dead, long live the new cliché.

Alas, as is often the case with the progeny of ancient civilisations, the past and its cultural vestiges become increasingly abstract, if not irrelevant. It was certainly so for my thirty-something Indian-American hosts and some of their similarly hyphenated friends that evening. In their wired, globalised, ‘flat’ and fluid world, driven by BlackBerrys, everything was in the now. India for them was compartmentalised: the static past on one side, the current bubbling cauldron on the other. And yesterday was just so, well, day-before.

Well, they could not have been more wrong. Our ancient civilisation was equally globalised, and on the move. Today technology allows us to transfer images across oceans in less than a blink of an eye. But back then images and imagery also travelled, just more slowly. Indian iconography really got round, and in all directions.

This was brought home to me with a bang in two exhibitions I just visited in the States. Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul, on at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, focuses on the amazing rediscovery of Silk Road treasures from Central Asia. Concealed for a quarter of a century in the vaults of the presidential palace in Kabul the archeological treasures from four sites surfaced in 2004, miraculously surviving the invasions of both the Soviets and the Taliban.

The Begram site, about 50 miles north of Kabul, includes fascinating ivory sculptures and plaques dating from the 1st–2nd century BC. Evidently these were either made in India or influenced by Indian artistic traditions. Many of the Begram ivories depict large-breasted, voluptuous women playing musical instruments or just having fun: some of them are hugging children. They remind me of Yakshis with their S-curves: the drapery and jewellery, as well as their poses, are clearly Indian.

The most intriguing ivory is a bracket with a female figure riding a dramatically rearing mythical creature which appears to be a composite of a lion and an eagle. The curvy rider and the small crocodile figure that supports the front paws of the lion-bird is clearly derived from artistic traditions in India.

We all know about Buddhism being exported eastwards from India all the way to Japan – and, with it Buddhist and Hindu iconography. It has been dinned into us in school. However, not much has been made of the other passages from India. Our gods and goddesses landed up in Africa, from where they (or some of their iconography) joined the African diaspora odyssey.

A critically acclaimed exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art shows us just how. Titled Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas, the mammoth show traces the origins and journey of Mami Wata (Mother Water), an aquatic spirit celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic worlds.

Seductive and potentially deadly as well as protective, Mami Wata is an evolving amalgam of many influences: European mermaids, the indigenous African water spirits, snake charmers, the Hindu pantheon and Christian and Muslims saints. The India connection begins with a chromolithograph of a female snake charmer first printed in Hamburg during the late 19th century. Carried to Africa by sailors, the snake charmer image soon acquires the avatar of an African water spirit.

The Hindu gods and goddesses come a few decades later, along with Indian traders. By the middle of the last century, Indian visual culture – images in books, pamphlets, films and popular calendar art – Hindu deities and ritual practices have already become a part of Mami Wata’s iconography. Hanuman, many-armed goddesses, Dattatreya found a prominent place in the worship of Mami Wata – especially along the Ghana-Nigeria coast. The gods and goddesses were globalised. Now if only those desi-Americans, up on the 60th floor, had a multi-armed sculpture of Mami Wata, with a bindi on her forehead sitting on their Italian sideboard!


Madhu Jain is an author and a journalist. She writes for several publications and is currently working on her second book. She also curates art shows.

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