Sunday, February 25, 2007


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Emory University surely must be feeling proud of itself, as it has convinced Salman Rushdie to be a professor here for the next five years. Rushdie has accepted, and as of now, he is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the English Department. More importantly, he has kept his entire record of writings at the library for scholars to peruse.

Today, he delivered the first of the several talks that he will deliver in the next five years, and everyone can look forward to some notable presentations indeed (not that I would like to be here for five more years because of this). As expected, we were there one hour before the talk was about to start, and yet had to stand in a mile-long line.

The talk was Rushdie the storyteller at his most effective. If Salman Rushdie can do anything exceedingly well, it is to tell a story. Today, he told the story of the multicultural and eclectic king Akbar, and his commissioning of a remarkable set of 1400 paintings called the Hamzanama based on the exploits of the legendary king Hamza, uncle of the prophet Mohammed. Today, less than 200 of the paintings survive, and some of them are part of the Domains of Wonder exhibit on Indian art in the Michael Carlos Museum here.

Like Rushdie himself does, the paintings mix reality and myth and deliver a good dose of magic realism. Rushdie presented a slide show of the paintings, narrating as he flashed the elegant prints on the screen. He is casual, soft-spoken, and witty. The most important ingredient he brought to the talk was his eclecticism. Speaking about 16th century art and Mughal culture, he alluded among other things, to dentistry, Monty Python, and the invention of the graphite pencil.

While he spoke about the exploits of Hamza and Akbar, Rushdie simultaneously contrasted them with what was happening in the rest of the world at the same time, especially the Renaissance in Europe. He said that Indian art stands apart from European art in one important respect; while European art was distinguished by the hand of the individual wherever it was showcased, Indian art was the supreme achievement of a collective effort. Michelangelo, Da Vinci and others are names that have been immortalised. In contrast, nobody except experts now knows the names of those artists who contributed to the Hamzanama, in Rushdie's opinion, as valuable an art legacy as David and the Mona Lisa. I can also think of the Taj Mahal, whose nameless artisans will forever remain anonymous.

The paintings showcase the stuff out of which bedtime stories are made; stories of spies, love, kingly conquests and celebrations. They portray much of the architecture that later went into real structures, such as Fatehpur Sikri. Most importantly, the paintings were produced by a truly multicultural brand of painters; Hindus, Muslims, even one or two Europeans. Names of the painters sound oddly modern; Mahesh, Keshav Das, Jamundas, Imran. Each specialized in a particular aspect of the paintings; figurines, architecture, attire, or natural scenery.

The styles of these multireligious artists seamlessly blended together, completely erasing borders erected by their religions.
And that was Rushdie's point which he elaborated on at the end. I remember Amartya Sen saying the same thing in his 'The Argumentative Indian'. To call India a 'Hindu nation' is to ignore this multicultural heritage which was assimilated and encouraged by Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike. History presents to all us all the facts, and while we should keep in mind all of them, we can decide which facts serve as beacons for visions for the future. Should we learn from the resplendent Akbar's tolerance and celebration of all religions, or the ruthless Auranzeb's temple-smashing bigotry? Rushdie also talked about the recent efforts of fundamentalist Hindu revisionists to marginalise and even deny these contributions of Moghul artistic inspirations, and even try to rewrite school textbooks based on these interpretations. This is completely unacceptable, and we must do well to become more aware about integral parts of our history to thwart the attempts of these fundamentalists.

But probably the most important message of Rushdie's and Akbar's Hamzanama, was that these artistic achievements go beyond religions. They really depict what the human spirit and collective human endeavor is capable of. I have always believed that there are two avenues of the human intellect and the human heart which break borders between nationalities, races, religions, and genders; science and the arts. Akbar's Hamzanama is a message for future generations to increasingly flock together in the creation and advancement of these two fundamental enterprises of human existence. To taxonomize and communalise these ventures would be to undermine human creativity itself.

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Blogger Sunil said...

The styles of these multireligious artists seamlessly blended together, completely erasing borders erected by their religions.

That is a superb point he makes. And to me, the seamless assimilation that India manages is one of the most marvellous things about India.

1:43 PM  

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