Aurangzeb and his censors

8 03 2008

Aurangzeb and his censors
Saturday March 8 2008 07:55 IST


FARIKH Mirza was my closest friend when I was pursuing a master’s degree in London, even though we made an odd combination in most eyes, for he was the British son of Pakistani immigrants, and I the American son of Indian immigrants. Farikh’s sister was married during the summer of dissertation writing, and one of the young men at the nikaah ceremonies in High Wycombe was named Aurangzeb.

It was the first time that I encountered anyone named Aurangzeb, and Farikh’s explanation was simple. No Muslim in India would dare name their boy after a king the Hindus thought was a real bastard, Farikh said; in Pakistan, on the other hand, Aurangzeb is a hero, so he makes for a common name. We had a good laugh (those were innocent days), and for me it provided another philosophical lesson on the importance of point of view.

Laughter and philosophy were in short supply when Aurangzeb made an appearance in Chennai this week. The last of the expansionist Mughal emperors was the subject of an exhibition of documents and paintings at the Lalit Kala Akademi, put together by Delhibased journalist Francois Gautier, whose conservatism resonates with that of India’s right-wing. (In this he’s not the only European with such views; author Michel Houellebecq — one of today’s greatest living writers — has said he had the greatest contempt for Islam; English enfant terrible Martin Amis is now called a ‘Blitcon’ for his views on Muslims, which have deeply angered people like my old friend Farikh).

In the West, however, even the countless European liberals who lambast Houellebecq or Amis for their political views would become angrier at any suggestion to ban these authors’ books. That is not so in our country. If you recall, India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988; the fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini came afterwards, and who knows, the Iranians might not have bothered had India not made such a hullabaloo.

Last year, India banned Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography — four years after it was published — and some suspect the violence that erupted in Kolkata on November 21, 2007, was engineered by the Left Front government in order to divert attention from the continuing violence in Nandigram. In 2003, the Maharashtra government banned James Laine’s book on Shivaji, but not before highly erudite mobs of the Shiv Sena went on a rampage attacking even those academics who were given credit in the manuscript.

In 1996 and in 2002, mobs tried to destroy MF Hussain’s paintings, which depicted Hindu deities in a, well, earthy manner. Hussain has had to flee the country. And Deepa Mehta had to film Water, a story dealing with widows in Varanasi, not in the holy city but in Sri Lanka, because mobs burnt down the set during her first attempts to film on location.

This culture of censorship in our country goes against our Constitution, which advises only reasonable restrictions on the Right of Expression. Outright banning is not a reasonable restriction. In any case, censorship is less a constitutional matter than a political one, and in a highly polarised society like ours, everyone always seems to keep an eye out for banning some form of artistic expression.

Take the Aurangzeb exhibition. The political overtone of such an exhibition is a secret to no one. After all, if Aurangzeb were alive today, he’d be called an Islamist; he spent most of his 49 years of reign at war (25 of them in the South), so you could even say he was al Qaeda before its time. Unlike Osama bin Laden, though, Aurangzeb did not have a business to finance his wars, and so he resorted to looting the traditional storehouses of wealth in medieval rural India — the temples.

An exhibition about Aurangzeb would thus obviously be a conservative project (it’s unlikely an exhibition celebrating Aurangzeb has ever been held, even in Pakistan). Obviously, no one with even the remotest pride in the Mughal heritage would have visited the exhibition. Come to think of it, how many people visit galleries or museums these days to look at genuinely good paintings, and how many of them are serious students of art, art history, or aesthetics? Even art buyers do their commerce on the internet these days; they may visit a gallery for a look at an actual canvas only after a work is shortlisted for purchase. In normal course, the Aurangzeb exhibition would have concluded this weekend without registering on too many people’s consciousness.

Yet it just took a visit by an angry citizen to the ruling party, and the police were promptly at the Lalit Kala Akademi to shut down the show. The result: those ideologically against the exhibition got their publicity; those supporting the exhibition became martyrs and got their publicity; and even the Lalit Kala Akademi, the worst form of bureaucratisation of art, got some publicity as well. You can’t help but be cynical about the protestors’ motives — if you disagree with a painting, then why not counter it with a painting yourself? Why throw it out?

What’s more disturbing is the refusal to see another point of view. We are rapidly assimilating a fractured epistemology because we refuse to see things in the way that others might; it goes against our own tradition of an ontology that is composite rather than reductionist. Is it any wonder that people keep predicting a hung parliament well into the future? Is it any wonder that people feel that so far as inter-religious harmony goes, things are going to get far worse before they ever get better?

One of the consequences of all the time I spent with Farikh Mirza was that I learnt a lot from him, in a way that one cannot learn from reading or traveling. It helped me in my career: I spent a lot of time in Kashmir and in Northwestern Pakistan, and I made many friends that a lot of other journalists might not have. I credit it all to my getting to see Farikh’s point of view, such as the one on boys named Aurangzeb. What is worrying about these bans on art is that when my son grows up, he may not be able to laugh at the world the way I did with my friend Farikh.

Chennai turns back on Aurangzeb
8 Mar, 2008, 0323 hrs IST, IANS


CHENNAI: An art show at the prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) here curated by journalist Francois Gautier was at the receiving end of moral policing when an exhibition on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was shut down.

Stating that it had received three complaints that the show would disturb communal harmony, police on Thursday night burst into the exhibition, shut it down forcibly, took into custody three women associated with the hosting of the exhibition and seized some of the works on display.

The exhibition of 40 paintings, including exceptional miniatures by noted Indian artists, gathered together by Gautier’s Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism (FACT) were on show at the LKA from March 3. The show included farmans (edicts issued by Aurangzeb) from the Bikaner museum and other material on Aurangzeb. It also contained two pictures depicting Aurangzeb’s army destroying the Somnath temple in Gujarat and the Kesava Rai temple in Mathura.

The organisers said they had the right to freedom of expression and the right to exhibit a show that had travelled all over India.

LKA regional secretary R M Palaniappan told the media he “should have screened the exhibits more carefully”. Joint Commissioner of Police P Balasubramanian later told the media: “We feared it might create a law and order problem.” The three women from FACT, Saraswathi (65), Vijayalakshmi (62) and Malathi (47), were picked up from the show at about 7.30 p.m. and taken to the police station, where they were allegedly held for nearly an hour without being allowed to contact their families or any lawyer.



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