Impose to Reclaim

To always be opposed to distorting the original is to stay authentic.

In our Art History class today, we discovered the world of European artists who travelled to India during the Colonial era. The paintings are beautiful. The ethereal quality of European portraiture and landscapes is often flamboyantly on display, and sometimes, even when it is shrink-wrapped in satire, there are tiny tears on the strained veneer out of which oozes the European aesthetic. The spotlight on the face, the velveteen drapes, the richness of fabric, the countenance itself so filled with a certain disdain and a certain attitude of “lording over” – Europe decided to fling out a wide cast net of aesthetic sensibilities to trap all of India under it. The class went through painting after painting where we watched how the artists were commissioned to conjure the cliched sense of India that the Western world embraces today – this was the beginning of India being known as the land of the elephants,  the arcane rituals, the colourful and the exotic.

Where were the thinking, rational Indians who could have prevented the simplification of India? I know they exist today, but did we lose ourselves in the British propoganda of thought leadership? Did we perhaps participate and influence the objectification of our country? Did we secretly admire the audacity of British attitude? Or, was it the easiest reason of them all: did we just not care enough about who we are and what we are surrounded by to sit up and take notice?

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The Interior of a Chaityagriha At Ajanta, India by William Simpson

Here is The Interior Of A Chaityagriha At Ajanta, India by William Simpson. What he has captured bothers me. The magnificence of the wall engravings are almost scented with the pungent flavour of curry leaves and asafoetida as we watch the steam rise from the vessel in which the woman in the foreground is cooking a meal. This is how we have always lived. We are peace-loving (or perhaps, merely placid – lazy), we spring to vehemently defend with words our culture and our rituals from any attack from within or from outside what we understand are boundaries of our nationality, we protect fiercely the idea of our history, and yet, we cook, we sleep, we dry our clothes, we pee, we defecate, we litter inside the corridors of all that we hold sacred. This behaviour is almost an heirloom that has been passed down the generations, if this painting is to be believed.

What is the value placed on Indian aesthetic by Indians? What do we deem authentic? What is ours and what is not? Is there a separation of all that is ours and purely Indian and what we have accepted from the outside? What must we learn is ours as it is today and what must we recognize to protect, first from ourselves and what we do to our heritage before we create a fence for those on the “outside”?

While we were returning from the visit to the galleries, we were confronted with the imposing structure of the Victoria Terminus or what we today call the Chhatrapati Shivaji  Terminus. I have often ridiculed the notion that we need to Indianize the names of our landmarks. While those who know me well today will stand up in strong protest to the following claim, as a child, I have always agreed with Aristotle’s wisdom when he had said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

My classmate who is truly a person of the world in every way shared a perspective on the renaming of the Indian landmarks and the Indian cities. We cannot change the fact that we were subjected to 4 centuries of colonialism. As the world inched into the sixteenth century and the Age of Exploration unfolded itself on the backdrop of enterprising seafaring individuals and nations, we became the destination, the end-point, the game. Did we like it? Perhaps it was as simple as loving the attention. Perhaps it was the wonder of the foreign – of the discovered mirroring the eureka of discovery on the discoverers. Who were the real discoverers? Did we encounter a fascinating civilization so distinct, so enticing and yet so foreign that we did not want to let go? Did we flounder at the realization that there was a lighter skin tone that we assumed was a sign of superiority? Did an indistinguishable twang cause consternation and despair as we fought to protect our own, but sometimes confused propoganda as support and strategy as friendship? And most of all, have you and I become heirs to this confusion?

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Chhatrapati Shivaji International Terminus / Victoria Terminus

Bestowing an Indian name on a landmark that has been recognized by its British title is perhaps the first step in clearing the confusion and reclaiming our sense of identity. While we must accept being colonized as a fact, we can confidently forge a young modern identity shaped entirely by who we are today and what we stand for in the future that is forever folding into the present. Today’s five-year-old knows only of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and not of Victoria Terminus. She will grow up walking and driving past CST, not VT. Her hashtags will echo the current and she will usher in the wave of acceptance of what is uniquely ours, without the niggling doubt that perhaps in the love she expressed for the terminus architecture, she was disrespecting her roots, her identity. Like the sneaky engravings of Indian flora and fauna Indian artisans have woven into the architecture of CST, she will proudly inject her individuality rooted in the India that exists today into her interpretation of the work of art that is CST.

Authenticity sometimes requires the withdrawal of the original. It is sometimes the spark of the new that reclaims what was lost and lights up the path that lies ahead.

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