Ammara Ahmad: How did you get the idea for your book “The Body in Indian Art and Thought”?
Naman Ahuja: I was invited to curate an exhibition in Brussels and I began to think that the whole world, especially Europe and America, had an understanding of India and South Asia through the idea of the human body. There is a certain cliché in the way they approach and come to think of the human body in terms of India. Like kings who have a harem with lovely women – a culture where even temples have these images. If you sit in a truck or bus in India, there are images everywhere.
I was asked to do such a big exhibition, on such a big scale, but actually on such a typically clichéd subject that I began to question if it is this really who we are as a society, or is there more to this? And then the book became an effort to break that cliché. Yes there is some truth in the cliché but you have to move beyond that.
AA: Has anyone else tried to conceive the body in art at the level of South Asia?
NA: Actually, this book is a comparative examination of Islam, with Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and many other influences that exist in India, along with tribal cultures.
I have not regarded Islam as one entity. I have looked at multiple Islams, because within Islam there is duality. There are so many different Shiite, Sunni and Sufi traditions. Every community has its own practices.
AA: How much of your research was based in Pakistan?
NA: Actually, this is my first visit to Pakistan. But I covered a lot of art from here. I studied the art present in all your museums. I have them catalogued, and studied their photos. I studied all the Pakistani art in the European, American and Middle Eastern museums. And in India, I have examined each and every corner for the art that could have gone from here.
[quote]My family was a small community in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan[/quote]
I teach an entire course on Gandharan art. My family was a small community in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. I have travelled in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I consider Afghanistan the border of our culture. It is not Iran or Central Asia. In Uzbekistan it is very different but in Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif, it is very much a part of South Asia.
AA: Do you think this connection is because of the invasions from Afghanistan or because of Islam?
NA: It has a deep connection with the language. The culture, if you go to their wedding is not very different. The wedding practices are not just religion. They are culture as well, embroidery, dowry etc. It is a part of the shared culture.
AA: How did the footprints of the Prophet reach India?
NA: There is a long tradition of certain mosques in Iran and India that have footprints. They call it the “qadam rasool”- which is supposed to be the impression of the footprint of the Prophet. The oldest one was in a mosque of Feroze Shah Tughlak in Delhi and even today people believe it to be real. Now, that’s about 700 years old. Travellers who used to go to Mecca were supposed to bring these back with them.
It cannot possibly be real. Someone’s footprints can’t stay embedded. Some of them are very large, some are very small. There is no consistency in foot size. In the Shia tradition, you can have footprint of any of the Imams or Khalifas.
AA: How do they fit in the concept of a “Body in South Asian Art”?
NA: Because if we are talking about body in South Asia, this is an impression of the body and it is there in a culture where body cannot be made. This is an impression, a memory without a photo.
AA: Has Islam influenced the human body in art in the sub-continent?
NA: When people don’t make images of the body, they can make any substitute for it. For example, the written word and calligraphy becomes important. But at the same time many local practices of the society carry on, even when images become banned, they do not turn obsolete. People make other things and treat it as an image – a calligraphic word takes the place of an image. People can wear a calligraphic word on their body and feel it will cure them – a taveez will fix them. Another person holds that taveez and thinks that taveez will do something magical. Some people go to a fakir who will do some jharpoonch and they will get some nuska written by him and then they put it into the water and drink up the ink. They think you take in the words into your own body. Then you have these bowls which are called “abparas” which has an inscription, usually ayat-ul-kursi written in it and you drink from that bowl. And basically you are taking in the power of the written word inside your body. Sometimes, when Hindus go to temples they are also trying to take the power of the image into their body.
[quote]The display of the Lahore Museum has not changed for the last 80 years[/quote]
AA: Women have had a varied history in the sub-continent. How about in art?
NA: I think in different parts of South Asia and in different periods, there have been different ways in which women have been thought about and the kinds of autonomy they have enjoyed has been different in different times. I think the danger that women could be oppressed has always been there. This is why some stories in philosophy are really exciting and important because they show how important these women have been.
The whole Mahabharat happened because Dharupati was insulted. If she had not been insulted, the Mahabharat would not have happened. She said that because she had been insulted, she wouldn’t wash her hair till she could wash it in the blood of the man who had insulted her. All these men were fighting to protect this woman’s honor. It’s not a good example for how much power a woman can have because it’s a very violent woman. I don’t think we should use her as a role model.
But I think there are other stories like this in all mythologies which show a very important and powerful character in different societies. In tribal societies these stories have been painted. They still act them out. They still sing songs about these stories. If little girls hear these stories they learn how powerful Dhraupati was. And this kind of performance art is very important because it teaches us so much about ourselves and our culture. The best thing for us is to do a more educated research and look at more art, music and stories. The more we look at this art, the more doors open. The minute censorship comes in – we are killing ourselves and our knowledge.
[quote]By thinking about the body we are thinking about the entire history of a civilization and culture[/quote]
AA: You say that concepts like honor, martyrdom and heroism are also represented through the body. How exactly?
NA: In all philosophy, the first thing we think about is ourselves. We have to find a way of living our life in relation to our world and philosophy tries to find out how to live in our time with our body. So many of these big philosophical concepts are seen in the way the society wants to see or remember a person or their ancestors. In the photographs you want to see of your grandfather and great-grandfather, you want to see certain kind of things you want to remember and consider valuable; those that society wants to remember. So in the way we think about the body and by thinking about the body, we are thinking about the entire history of a civilization and culture.
AA: The book also mentions the art collections of Mughals. Did they have a lot of variety?
NA: Humayun was a great collector, Babar was a great collector, and they were collecting paintings of their ancestors. They were also in competition with the rulers of Turkey and Iran, to see who has better painters working for them. They used to not just collect paintings but also painters. The Mughals had a very important library and they were very good at calligraphy and were poets themselves. Jahangir inherited the entire library of Akbar, along with all the paintings. But he also inherited the library of Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara and Sultan Mirza – the rulers of Herat. During the time of Babar and Hamayun, even before Babar, many of the great paintings were being made in Herat and it had become the big centre and the most important court of those times. So, from around 1450 to 1550 was the heyday of culture in Herat. The Mughals collected those manuscripts. They first came to Hamayun and from Hamayun they were passed down. Remember Hamayun was in Kabul. He stayed for some years and there he collected a lot of things, along with collecting two painters from Iran who came to work for him when he came back to Delhi. His children and grandchildren continued to collect artwork in India.
His son Akbar became such a huge collector of art that many travelers started coming from Europe knowing that Akbar was fascinated by paintings. They started bringing more and more interesting paintings for him. Akbar was very interested in the history of religion. He was also interested in philosophy. So he collected many different versions of the Bible and he wanted pictures of the stories of the Bible. So European Jesuits started coming. In fact, Akbar even sponsored the building of a church in Agra.
AA: I am surprised. Is it still there?
NA: Not anymore. He sponsored the creation of this church and he knew of the kind of Christianity the Europeans were bringing and he knew that just beyond Iran there is Armenia and Armenians are Christians. He knew there are many types of Islam and many types of Christians. So like his discussions in his ibadat khana about different religious communities, he also collected a lot of art from these communities.
AA: Where is this reservoir of art that once belonged to the Mughals?
NA: Not in India. Because it was not valued at all here. And the European museums and art collectors realized the value of these things and they took it away. We thought, here is a painting on the Christian theme, how is it important for us? Europeans are Christians let them take it. But we didn’t realize we are losing a part of our history.
I have been collecting pictures of those works and where they are, and building an archive.
AA: What inspires you about Lahore’s architecture?
NA: It’s a very rich city and it has some wonderful buildings that urgently require our attention. I was very happy to see the hamam being excavated at the Delhi darwaza. Today I spent a lot of time at Jahangir’s tomb, but was very unhappy to see Noor Jahan’s roza over there in such a bad condition. And I think that the building really does need to be saved, restored and conserved. It’s very sad that there is a railway line there which cuts the land between Noor Jahan’s tomb and his. She is no longer united with the family. Just move the track or do something! That entire area must be converted into a heritage path or a heritage zone. To my mind, Jahangir’s tomb is one of our most important monuments and everything around it should be preserved.
AA: What about the Lahore Museum?
NA: I think there is no doubt that it is one of the most important museums of South Asia. Objects need to be circulated, because there are many objects that are lying in the storeroom and people need to see those objects. Every museum has a display that is shifted to storage and the stored objects are then put on display, so that the public has something new to see. The display of the Lahore museum has not changed since 80 years.
The presentation and labels need to change. There is a curation problem. Since I am a curator, I know how to present history to people. We could have done the entire history in this book chronologically but I deliberately picked up the body and took up subjects like birth and death, and then thinking what is it on that subject in our history which can help us illuminate it. That way a museum can have a very important role in a society and the Lahore Museum needs to do that.
AA: Was the display of the museum problematic?
NA: Yes but everyone has his/her hands tied in the society. Preservation is one thing and presentation is another. Museums have both jobs. They have to do both the things. They also have to do community outreach. The museum must become a more dynamic place for reaching out. But maybe they have their own limitations and we should ask them how we can help them. I don’t want to criticize the museum people without asking them what problems they have.
NA: Can you please explain the fascinating concept behind the paintings categorized as karni bharni?
AA: Many religious systems which believe in the theory of karma say that whatever karam you have accumulated, you will pay the cost for that. So according to many religions like Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism there is a belief in the concept of rebirth. If you have performed bad actions, then you will come back as a lower being like bacteria, mosquito or dog rather than a man. But in between the time of your leaving the Earth and coming back, you can go to Heaven or Hell. Some people must have said I don’t mind coming back as a dog. So people said no, you will get punished. You will go to hell. The Jains developed a very complex system of heaven and hell – “ Jaisi kurni, waisi bharni.” They made these wonderful paintings showing you different kinds of hell and what can happen in hell, monsters attacking you, you getting roasted, being eaten up by vultures will eat you alive and make all these graphic paintings.
AA: How long ago?
NA: The paintings became very popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The ones before that are not available. Most of the discovered ones are 300 to 400 years old. However, the concept is much older. Most of them show depictions of hell based on the artist’s imagination, relying on how much violence he can pack in one painting to create fear. I find them very exciting and fun. Because you know a lot of art was made for young people and children. So a lot of paintings were made to teach children a lesson.
AA:Do you have a few favorite artworks in the book?
NA: I can’t. Just too many.
AA: Just give us a flavor of your taste?
NA: One of the most exciting things are those idols which are so abstract that ultimatelty a mirror replaces the idol. I like the idea a lot. You know there are some temples in Kerala where you have hundreds of sculptures outside the temple but when you go deep inside the temple to pray, at the end there is nothing except a mirror. The mirror is a symbol that tells you not to look at all these bodies outside, look at yourself and look within yourself. It is a great leap.
AA: What would you consider your greatest achievement?
NA: I want to do my work and do it as quickly and peacefully as I can. I am an art curator and I think about visual culture. I am a creative human being and I like to express my creativity. I like to think about it and write about it. I enjoy teaching, I like to not just keep it to myself but I believe in sharing my enthusiasm and knowledge.
AA: Is there a spirit of activism in it as well?
NA: It doesn’t start out like that but activism comes in. Sometimes you see the truth in front of you. You see that all around you there are people who are ignorant. It’s not that I don’t respect those people but I keep feeling that if I don’t explain to them, they will never understand and remain blind. My activism lies in the need to explain.
AA: You say at one place in the book that “aestheticism has punishing standards.” That is a very intriguing statement. Can you explain it?
NA: A lot of things can look very pretty but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have lasting quality. A picture can say a thousand words and it can change your life. Some scholars believe that Akbar, such a great emperor, might have been a dyslexic. That’s why he couldn’t personally read and write. But he was visually trained, philosophically trained, he could recognize and hear beautiful poetry, he knew what to appreciate even if he didn’t write himself.
Akbar was a great aesthete and aestheticism requires great courage and strength to be absolutely honest. It requires a really widespread education and exposure, to be able to be someone who can make an informed and educated decision to say this is good art.
We need more and more people to be visually educated in our society at the moment. What happened is that our cultures and governments have not given enough significance to visual education, rather just to kitaabi keeras and knowledge. The more we teach our children to start looking, the more our societies and cities will change.
AA: But why call it punishing?
NA: Because it requires tremendous courage and honesty to maintain those standards of aesthetic knowledge and strength, rather than becoming those who play to the gallery, serve the needs of the media or the needs of the wider public. To remain true to your aesthetic standards is a very punishing and tall order. I think we are being punished now for not having those standards. And because we have lost those standards today, we are being punished for not having them.