Throughout recorded history, there has never been a singular definition of India. Even today, in some respects, there are many Indians.
In the discourse of contemporary art, there is an India of the past and another of the present. The first is a lively mix of cultural influences that marry the local with the global, the domestic with the foreign; the latter is defined by the growing homogeneity based on the perceived cultural traditions of the dominant religion, Hinduism.
That is why, 75 years after India’s independence, the art and architecture of the Mughal era are sidelined. Mughal art, influenced by Persian and other Middle Eastern styles
; and colonial art, with modern European flourishes, depicts “foreign” cultures that seem antithetical to the current mindset of those in power in India.
The trend can be seen in Bollywood films, where Urdu, once one of the prominent languages used in this popular form of filmmaking, is being sidelined in favor of Hindi despite the majority of conservative politicians wanting to make it India’s national language. the country does not speak. It can also be seen in the renaming of prominent roads in the country’s capital from Mughal emperors to contemporary political figures, and in the planned redevelopment of the building that houses India’s parliament, which was done in the style of the era. British kingdom You can also see it in the ways in which the government authorities sought to move away from the aforementioned traditional art techniques that make up India’s rich and diverse past.
However, dissenting voices in India’s contemporary art scene are also rising against this homogenization, and Mughal and colonial art has become a new source of fascination for artists from within and outside the country.
One artist who has embraced Mughal art and architecture is Ela Mukherjee, her latest installation A tribute to a shared past (2022) is a series of sculptures that recreate the architecture of past dynasties.
“India is a melting pot of different influences; everywhere in the country there are great examples of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic and colonial art and architecture,” Mukherjee said in an interview. “So how can you tell what ours is? Our culture is diverse and plural in nature. I thought it was important to highlight these different aspects of our architectural practices through our art.’
He continued: “I don’t want to make a political or religious message, I’m just an artist who wants to express the sadness I feel, without being too noticeable. Things have gotten pretty worrisome lately. Why should religion rule our cultural context? They should preserve them through culture, language and practice.”
Mukherjee’s sensitivity to his surroundings stems from his personal beliefs. But for artist Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, the preservation of these art forms is directly linked to her identity as an Indian Muslim married to an Afghan Pashtun.
“My art is influenced by my hometown of Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, which has beautiful Mughal architecture, as well as my culture and my community,” said Ahmadzai, who lives in self-imposed exile in Germany after fleeing Afghanistan. “After my marriage, living in Afghanistan further influenced my art. I think it is important to preserve India’s cultural diversity through art forms because of the current political climate, which seems keen to extinguish the legacy of that era.’
In 2021, Ahmadzai wrote and illustrated a series of 120 personal letters in Urdu to her husband, who was separated during the Covid lockdown. The title Nafs, these letters became a form of self-expression, where he spoke his mind from the personal to the political. “Fortunately, the Indian art audience is liberal and open-minded. I prefer to express my opinion with an a dabi in zubaa [being tight-lipped] and silent Most South Asian women know how to express their opinion in a subtle way,” she added.
Waswo X. Waswo’s practice also seeks to introduce the most remarkable style of the Mughal period: miniature painting. The American artist first came to India as a photographer, but ventured into miniature painting with works that he imagined as essential. Firangi (foreigner). In later similar works, he took on the identity of the “White Mughal”, faithfully capturing the transition period when the British were heavily influenced by the opulent lifestyles of the Mughals. However, the artist insists that his work, in collaboration with R. Vijay, Dalpat Jingar, Chirag Kumawat and traditional painters based in Udaipur, Rajasthan, is not strictly ‘Mughal’ due to the complex history of this art form. .
The Mughals introduced this style of Persian painting to India, with Emperors Akbar and Jehangir being its greatest patrons. The miniaturists were Hindus and Muslims, and all worked in harmony Karkhanas (workshops). Under Emperor Aurangzeb, a cleansing of the arts took place, and many miniaturists fled their traditional positions to places like Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, developing different artistic schools. The artists of Waswo are identified as Mewari miniaturists, although the origin of the art form is attributed to the Mughals.
When asked about the importance of preserving India’s cultural diversity through its traditional art forms, Waswo replied, “India is a multicultural society, and I would like to keep it that way. Our Karkhana it consists mostly of Hindu artists who are all lovely sweet people. But I also often work with my Muslim friends for photography projects.’
Ceramicist Shirley Bhatnagar strives to preserve early colonial art through her work. For the series called “Ochterlony’s Household”, he recreated a typical English souvenir known as the Toby Jug, which depicts a deformed sailor drinking beer. In his work, Toby is replaced by Lord Ochterlony, a Briton living in the Mughal Court during the East India Company’s rule of India, who was, in Bhatnagar’s words, “crazed and fascinated” by what he saw here.
He said: “I was interested in these stories, and I wanted to highlight this tender but brief period of about 70 years in our history, when the colonizers got along well with the colonized. This mixture of cultures should not be removed. I think it’s very important to keep his legacy alive.’
The biggest challenge for artists working to preserve traditional heritage is to attract the attention of a younger audience. Tanya Singhal and Ravinder Singh harness the power of social media to run their Instagram page Arteart, which has amassed a following of over 11,000 users. Its goal is to make art accessible to everyone, encouraging people to find their own meaning, regardless of their background or that of other artists. To do this, he scours the archives of international museums for images of Indian art.
Many of the works published by Kontura are done in the Mughal miniature style. They join the language of text that allows users to interact with the artwork and see it for what it is: an important part of Indian culture.
One publication features a Mughal miniature painting with the title The prince is chatting with a woman while enjoying refreshments on the terrace. It has been written several times with phrases in both English and Hindi, such as “What were marriages like in the past” and “Are you sure that painting my nails will make me more popular in court?”. Another publication features a miniature painting called Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati (around 1800). It was linked to the text reading: “There are two types of journeys: those that stay in group chats and others that come out of those chats.”
It cannot be denied that the individual experiences of the artists that are recognized through their art are placed in the context of their contemporary environment. Ahmadzai sums it up: “It is natural to be influenced by what is happening around you. Political or not, things that disturb you will come out in your work, even if unconsciously.’ These artists are therefore the perfect flag bearers to preserve the multicultural fabric of India.