Some say multiculturalism has always been an essential part of the Indian spirit. There’s a charming story about the earliest Jewish settlements in India I was told by the rabbi of the synagogue in Kochi, Kerala. There was consternation and debate in the court of the local Hindu king when several boats carrying Jews from afar arrived looking for asylum and shelter. How could these aliens live among us without disturbing the peace? The king’s advisors said it’d be like pouring water into a glass full of milk: both the water and milk would spill. ‘No’ said the weary travellers. Rather, it would be like mixing sugar into milk. The milk wouldn’t spill; rather, it’d taste sweeter and, therefore, better. Impressed, the king took them in.
The story of Modern Indian Art parallels that of Modern India — artistic awakenings paralleling the political awakenings, both dating back to the mid-19th century. While political India was inventing political multiculturalism, artistic India was inventing artistic multiculturalism. Political India institutionalised 20th century political multiculturalism in 1950 when the country gave itself a new Constitution. For political India, multiculturalism was about the viability and survival of a newly-created multi-religious, multi-racial and multi-linguistic nation. For artistic India, it was about freedom, creativity, self-expression and the universal human spirit.
Even so, India's political embrace of multiculturalism was important for the artistic community since it confirmed, legitimised and validated the political and artistic awakenings that had been going on for the previous half century and enlarged the space for creative freedom. Embracing another culture is an act that involves both mind and heart. There’s an intellectual and cognitive component, but equally importantly, there’s also the emotional component.
Put simply, you have to feel the culture you are embracing or your art will lack authenticity and vitality. Long before Indian artists looked to western art for inspiration, they embraced the many cultures other than their own in the Indian sub-continent itself. Hindu artists embraced Muslim culture and Muslim artists embraced Hindu culture, Christian artists embraced both, and the many ethnic cultures embraced each other. This challenging, but voluntary, act is rare in the annals of history and its importance and difficulty continue to be underrated in Europe and the US.
The embrace of other cultures has taken Indian artists down seemingly unexpected paths. Thus one finds subjects like the Crucifixion of Christ and the Last Supper treated extensively by Indian artists, both Hindus and Muslims. They paint these subjects not because they are in awe of their former colonial masters, but because they understand the passion, pathos and symbolism of those stories. And yet there is a difference in their treatment of these subjects, which springs from their individuality and from their Indian background.
The question that needs to be asked is: why does one not see paintings of Krishna and Radha — a popular and enduring Hindu subject — by western artists? This is a universal story of divine love that’s been extensively treated by Indian Muslim and Christian artists to the delight of all. Perhaps there is ignorance and indifference. But another explanation is that they don't feel themselves equal to the task. The truth is multiculturalism in art, done well, is emotionally and artistically hard work.
Multiculturalism is perhaps the most potent political idea for the world today, and modern India invented it. We invented it. It is the powerful idea that’s propelled India's success in the modern world. It’s broadened and deepened our democracy, empowered our women and shaped our embrace of modernity, diversity and pluralism. It’s the reason why so many of us have achieved great success in the western world and the globalised economy.
Since most Indians — and certainly most non-Indians — are oblivious of these origins, this essay is written with the hope that awareness of this important idea will spark reflection and recognition. That, in turn, will deepen the strength of our multiculturalism at home and hasten its spread abroad. And that, in turn, will be good for India and great for the world.
Rajiv J. Chaudhri is President, Digital Century Capital. His art collection, ‘Bharat Ratna! Jewels of Modern Indian Art’, is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The views expressed by the author are personal