Political parties in India are trading blame today after “religious riots” in that country left 31 people dead, Reuters reports. “Violence between Muslims and Hindus has been a defining feature of Indian politics since the separation of Pakistan in 1947, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions displaced,” writes Frank Jack Daniel in the article.
Two major traveling exhibits—one about an Indian collective of performers and artists, and the other a retrospective of an Indian-born artist—are offering sobering reflections on religious violence in India. Anthony Hirschel, the Dana Feitler director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, which curated one of the shows, believes that American viewers have a lot to learn about Islam and Hinduism in India.
“Both are religions that remain largely unfamiliar in their practices and beliefs to a significant portion of the American public,” he says. “I think the interest stems largely from the much greater interest in Islam and its manifestations because, sadly, of the geopolitical concerns about Islam in general.”
But, according to Hirschel, there is now a “greater awareness of and emphasis on the arts of India in general than there was in the past, certainly in the U.S.,” which, he says, is due to two phenomena.
“The first is the much greater importance India now occupies in our consciousness as a world economic power, which naturally leads us to take a greater interest,” he says. “And the second is the far greater role the South Asian population in the U.S. seems to be playing, and their significantly increased visibility.”
On June 9, the Smart Museum’s exhibit, The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India since 1989, finished its four-month run, and the exhibit recently opened at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where it will be on view until Jan. 5, 2014.
The show takes a close look at the collective of artists and performers that rallied around the murder of Safdar Hashmi (1954-89). Sahmat means “in agreement” in Hindi, and it doubles as an acronym for “Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust.”
One focus of the exhibit is the Sahmat Collective’s response to Hindu extremists’ destruction of the 16th century Babri Masjid (Babur’s Mosque) in Ayodhya, India, on December 6, 1992. The members of the Hindu Right, it seems, ruined the mosque “to redress an alleged historical injustice—namely, the demolition of a Hindu temple to build the mosque—and to reclaim the site of Ayodhya, which these fundamentalist groups regarded as the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama,” according to the exhibit catalog.
Sahmat responded with a yearlong series of events, and began putting political pressure on India’s president the day after the sacking of the mosque to punish the criminals and to halt any subsequent construction of a Hindu temple on the ruins. A painting featured in the Smart Museum exhibit, “Kaun Mara?” (Who Died?), by Manjit Bawa, was created shortly after destruction of the mosque.
In the painting, Bawa (1941-2008) drew upon the Hindu myth of the vain King Hiranyakashipu, who decides to test the literal implications of his son, Prahlad’s claim that Vishnu resides in everything and everywhere. Hiranyakashipu smashed one of his palace columns to see if it harms the blue-skinned god, only to see Vishnu emerge in the half-man-and-half-lion form of Narasimha and disembowel him. “In referring to this terrifying myth, the artist offers an interpretation of the destruction of the Babri mosque that is at once deeply personal and universal,” according to the exhibit catalog.
The catalog doesn’t elaborate, but one can assume that the work—which features a tiger, several dogs, a cat, a bird, quite a few figures, and some very troubling violence—was designed, at least in part, to remind would-be, ad hoc sacred space demolition crews that powerful gods might reside in those condemned buildings.
About six-and-a-half miles north of the Smart Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago is showing Zarina: Paper Like Skin through Sept. 22. The exhibit, which was organized by the University of California, Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum and which visited the Guggenheim in New York before arriving in Chicago, is the “the first retrospective of Indian-born American artist Zarina,” according to the Art Institute’s Web site.
Evoking some of the works of American sculptor Claes Oldenburg, who presented everyday objects—a cherry on a spoon in Minneapolis, a badminton shuttlecock in Kansas City, a typewriter eraser in Washington, D.C.—in a much larger-than-life fashion, Zarina’s Islamic prayer beads are giant-sized. (If the gargantuan characters in the 2013 film Jack the Giant Slayer are any indication, rosary beads might benefit some goliaths.)
Both “Tasbih” (2001), made of sandalwood strung with leather cord (total length: 21.5 feet), and “Tasbih” (2008), composed of maple wood stained with sumi ink, dusted with aluminum powder, and strung with black leather cord (20.75 feet in length), are part of the retrospective.
Zarina’s works also sheds light on some of the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims. “For Zarina the question of identity—Indian-born, Muslim, American—is in itself an intricate one. She is a citizen of the United States, but she continues to be associated with India,” writes Ann Philbin, the director of UCLA’s Hammer Museum, in the catalog.
Zarina Hashmi, who goes only by her first name, was born in India in 1937, and has lived and worked in New York for three decades. Some of the most compelling works in the Art Institute show map out the places she has lived: simple, yet powerful parallel vertical lines suggesting the Twin Towers, and works like “Dividing Line” (2001), which traces the boundary between India and Pakistan, over which so much blood has been spilled.
The artist’s most recent works are informed by Sufi concepts of divine light (noor) and the “intangible realm of spirituality,” adds Allegra Pesenti, the curator of the Hammer Museum’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, in the catalog.
In an interview with Sandhini Poddar, the associate curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, Zarina elaborates on the role religion plays in India. “The Indian constitution is democratic, socialist, and secular. However, India isn’t a secular country; India is a religious country, with spiritual traditions that are centuries old,” she says. “When you go to a shrine in India, you see people of all faiths come to pay their respects.”
When Zarina first showed her work in New York in the 1970s, “Muslim identity hadn’t come into the West’s consciousness. That has only begun to happen now,” she tells Poddar. The partition of India and Pakistan, and the ensuing ethnic violence and dislocation affected her deeply.
“My faith in India wavered after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the resulting riots,” she says, “as well as the events in Gujarat in 2002. Those were very low points in our history and our idea of a unified India. These events pushed me into a new consciousness of my Muslim heritage.”
Image courtesy of Ravinder M A.