Brown as the mouths of rivers

HASAN ALTAF

back to issue

THE Metropolitan Museum of Art, on Fifth Avenue and Eighty-second Street in Manhattan, seems at first a strange place to discover South Asia – to figure out what that in theory precise and emotionless geographical designation might mean, so far from its referent and in a world where geography is rarely precise and emotionless, never uncontested; to learn what being by birth or blood or choice a ‘South Asian’ in the end makes you and which doors this particular key, should you choose it, can unlock – but it turned out to be in fact entirely appropriate, and in more ways than one. Although ‘South Asia’, however one chooses to interpret the term, is perhaps the exact antithesis of a museum culture, there was something about those carefully curated rooms, about New York, that put it in context – the museum offered a frame, a relief, a clarification.

Of course, I did not go to the Met with any of this in mind, but only because I had nothing to do that afternoon and the exhibition seemed interesting enough to be worth at least a few hours. Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900 was meant to explore a new aspect of South Asian art, the unique identities and biographies of the artists behind the paintings. Keeping up with the biographical information, however, proved impossible; keeping up with the paintings themselves was hard enough. Somehow I hadn’t registered the fact of the eight-hundred-year timespan, and as the show wound its way through several rooms on the second floor of the museum, I found myself exhausted.

In the end though that over-whelmingness, that too-muchness, may have been exactly the right note – or at least one right note, one thread among many – to lead you safely out of the labyrinth. Besides the eight centuries, the show covered many religions (Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Christian and Islamic mythologies all made an appearance; by the time we reached the Sikh era I was completely out of steam), many regions (Bengal, Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi), and an utterly dizzying array of kingdoms, rulers and alliances. Wonder of the Age is one of those exhibitions that you never feel you’ve fully appreciated, and I think one could in fact return several times, focusing separately on a different topic each visit – the artists themselves (I still feel guilty for the short shrift I gave them), the changing visual styles and subjects, political developments and historical occurrences, or something else entirely.

 

I spent several years, from eight until perhaps fourteen, learning North Indian classical music, so I felt a particular resonance with the ragamala paintings (personifications of various Indian classical ragas, or musical modes). The paintings were all from a single manuscript, called the Chunar Ragamala and painted in the late 1590s in the court of the Mughal governorate in Chunar by three artists (Shaykh Husayn, Shaykh Ali and Shaykh Hatim) who had trained, most likely, in the workshops of Emperor Akbar. (The details of who commissioned the manuscript, where he came from and where he went, and under whose authority he governed Chunar and Kashi make this story even more complicated.) I had seen ragamalas before – they always reminded me of devotional paintings, which is in a sense sort of what they are – but there was something that was immediately striking about this one, an obvious difference: According to the curator’s notes, the Chunar Ragamala was ‘among the first attempts to show a Hindu theme, the musical modes… through Mughal conventions and a vertical codex (Islamic) format.’

The theme was older, ‘indigenous’; the style Mughal, that is ‘Islamic’, foreign; the end result was a rich, arresting hybrid of two traditions. To one degree or another, many of the pieces in the show created this same effect, reflecting the intersections between the various diverse strands of South Asia’s history, the crossing points of languages, religions, politics, and cultures. I knew that the junctions would not be as definite as our oversimplified histories would like to suggest, but nor had I expected them to be quite so tangled: In this history there were no sharp, abrupt ends, no ex nihilo beginnings. There was instead mixture, miscegenation, periods and styles overlapping, intermixing, cross-fertilizing and hybridizing in ways that seemed both timeless and contemporary – and also particularly South Asian.

 

There were artists who picked up and moved from one court to another, in the process reinventing both their work and themselves – much as people from all over South Asia now migrate to its cities, or as European artists once became American. Muslim artists painted Krishna and his gopis, or used models from western art to depict Sufi saints; Hindu artists glorified Muslim rulers with Persian couplets. Legends of various origin showed up to rub shoulders, leading, in the thirteenth century, to things like a ‘Jainesque Shahnama’, in which scenes from the Persian epic were painted in the style of Jain mythology. The pages from the manuscript were arresting: Although the text was clearly Persian, the art was not at all in the delicate, light style of Persian or Mughal painting. The figures, the flat blocks of vivid color – apparently even the clothing and the buildings – were all typically Indian. The curator’s notes explain in detail the various influences, the probable history, but the piece itself made the strongest statement.

Even more than other similar exhibitions (a selection at the Met itself of depictions of the goddess in South Asian art; Gandharan sculpture, recently on display at the Asia Society; a show of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, stretching from before any of those countries existed to the present day, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London), Wonder of the Age left me with a strange feeling. The history of ‘South Asia’ is so rich, in fact because of our differences, in fact because so many people came from so many places – and now that richness is precisely what we are told to deny, the very aspect of our heritage we wish to ignore. In Pakistan, at least, we have chosen to turn our backs on the vast majority of our history, acting as if things began with Muhammad bin Qasim and then sped forward to 1947. Severed from our roots, it should be no surprise that we grow deformed.

 

A nation cannot grow in entirely barren ground, however, and so in Pakistan we have attempted to replace ‘South Asia’ with ‘Islam’: to substitute for culture, religion, in theory a straight one-to-one transfer. There is no space for chaos here, either, though; the Islam we choose to imagine is monolithic, straight-from-the-sands, brooking-no-argument; it ignores the vast diversity even among our Islams, let alone all our religions and cultures, and says that in the interest of simplicity, order, there will only be one, there has always been only one right way to go about this business.

Once again, it was the Met that put things in context. Recently the museum reopened its collection of what is in shorthand referred to as ‘Islamic art’ because its formal name is simply so overwhelming: the new galleries for ‘the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.’ By the time one reaches the end of that phrase, it feels as if a globe has already spun halfway around – if the ‘Islamic world’ stretches from at least as far West as Morocco to as far East as Indonesia, and if the ‘Islamic world’ has in some form or another existed for nearly fifteen hundred years, expecting ‘Islam’ – the culture of Islam, the interpretations of Islam, the forms and practices and implications of Islam – to remain constant across both time and space is foolish at best and destructive at worst, like asking evolution never to happen, your seeds never to bear fruit.

 

The galleries are carefully organized, but they also form a sort of maze; it’s easy to get lost or turned around, to find yourself once again back where you started. I realized belatedly that I hadn’t been taking the rooms in order, so while I could still sense some of the progression, the chains of influence and back-influence, it felt more like looking into a kaleidoscope, spinning the lens and watching the images change and refract. I used the Qurans as a measure – they showed clearly the different styles, influences, purposes and understandings of all the people who had made them. One of the most striking was in the very first gallery, a page from a Quran written probably in Tunisia in the ninth or tenth century. The parchment was indigo, the page markers silver, the letters, stretched to make each line the same length, in gold that even after so many centuries was still lustrous.

From Tunisia in the West to Bengal in the East: On the opposite wall there was a dark stone panel that from a distance seemed blank, but up close revealed itself to be a dedicatory inscription from a mosque, in carved gabbro, from around 1500 AD. The Arabic letters were tightly clustered together at the bottom, but their verticals climbed up the length of the stone like bars around which the letters twisted like vines. By a deliberate shortcut, from here you could skip ahead directly to the ‘Mughal South Asia and Later South Asia’ gallery, and there it was a sixteenth-century painting of the goddess Bhairavi – wild-eyed, blood-red – in a field of decomposing corpses, with an ash-covered Shiva sitting before her like a devotee, that most struck me. The painting, attributed to the artist Payag, may have been presented as a gift by a Mughal emperor to a Rajput king.

The most interesting pieces were the everyday, the ones that people had used, lived with. There were window screens from palaces and from mosques, from Spain and Morocco and India; there were vessels for drinking and plates for eating, in one room overwhelmingly turquoise and in another gold and brown; there were weapons and armour. The jewellery was perhaps the most intimate, the most immediate glimpse into the quotidian history that lies behind ‘Islam’. In the South Asian gallery, I was drawn to a column of golden circles, each one smaller than the last, all studded with precious stones. It turned out to be a jadanagam, an ornament meant to be worn in the braid. The piece was made in the eighteenth-century, probably in Madras, but looking at it, I could see it only as if woven carefully and lovingly into someone’s hair: Through that piece of jewellery, history was as present as a haircut.

 

My favourite piece, however, was in the gallery dedicated to art from ‘Spain, North Africa and the Western Mediterranean’, including works loaned from the Hispanic Society of America. One of these, from Seville in 1472 – barely a decade before the Inquisition would drive Muslims and Jews out of Spain – was the Hebrew Bible of some-one named Abraham ben Eliezar. According to the accompanying plaque, the style of the designs on the page facing the text (geometric, abstract) clearly demonstrated the influence of Arabic and Islamic arts, and indeed from a distance I had thought that it was in fact a Quran. Sitting in the case right next to an Arabic text of Greek philosophy, ben Eliezar’s Hebrew Bible seemed a perfect symbolization of the journey of ‘Islamic history’, a journey like that of streams and tributaries that join into rivers that then branch out again, join again, separate again.

 

These are all, however, exhibitions, displayed in museums; behind glass and untouchable, these are all in a sense relics, remnants, objects from the past and, therefore, by definition no longer a part of our present. A show in a museum, then – particularly a show of ancient ‘South Asian’ art in a museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the twenty-first century – is just a show in a museum; one could argue that real life is another thing entirely, and in the real life of South Asia in 2012 (precise, emotionless geography; precise, normative time), painting a Jainesque Shahnama is not exactly anyone’s first priority.

Maybe such things belong now only in museums, and perhaps the same could be said for ‘South Asia’ itself, that as an idea its time has passed, that in any sense other than the geographic it has become as untouchable and distant as a Jainesque Shahnama mounted, framed and hung. Golden ages after all cannot last, empires and nations and even cities fall, languages develop and morph and die: Cultures change, in the end; why should South Asia – because when we use the term to mean anything other than geography in the end what we mean is culture, what we are talking about is culture, kinship – be any different?

The lines have been drawn; we have lived since then for the most part within our walls, fortifying our borders (geographical and otherwise, precise and vague, emotionless and heated) with blood and with rhetoric. SAARCs and most-favoured-nations are all well and good, but as for anything more, the general consensus (general because it is the view espoused by the governments meant, in our theoretical democracies, to represent us) seems to be that it is time to let the idea go. The rainforest has been razed; now we should make do with our endless acres of corn.

 

Eventually, I couldn’t take any more wonders of the age, so I rested for a while on the Met steps and then decided to find a cup of coffee and, instead of waiting for the crosstown bus, walk home through Central Park. It was a sudden jump: One moment I was in India 1100-1900 and the next in the middle of Manhattan, from lavish and long-gone South Asian courts to the quiet, green lung of this tiny island, so far away in both space and time. I felt as if I were in both places at once, or not really in either, a visitor in both – which is not really an especially comfortable position, but it is one that at the very least gives you the chance, or forces you, to think about context, about environment. In another sense the juxtaposition was perhaps also natural – most of my life has been about both or neither, about one-in-the-other, about being in the United States a Pakistani (and, by birth and blood and some sort of vague but nonetheless conscious choice, also a ‘South Asian’) and in Pakistan an American.

Walking home across Manhattan and thinking about those ragamala paintings, I remembered all those years I spent, growing up in the DC suburbs, studying Indian music. Several times a year, my teacher (since we are talking about South Asia: he was for the record a Bengali, born in Calcutta, his ‘homes’ now Baltimore and Dhaka) would gather his students from up and down the East Coast at someone’s house, for performances, or, in November, at the UMBC campus for a competition. At the time, the experience of learning music was painful, unenjoyable (forcing a pathologically shy child into the performing arts still seems to me both cruel and essentially unhelpful), but the paintings set those years into a different context.

My teacher’s students included the children of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (and also what our parents insisted on referring to as ‘Americans’). On stage, though, singing those songs (for most of those six years I studied singing, so that is what I remember best), we were all the same. We were Muslims singing bhajans and Hindus singing shabds, all of us mangling equally badly the Urdu of ghazals and the Bengali of Rabindra sangeet.

I’ve lost touch with all those other kids, and I have no idea if any of them look back on the experience the same way, but in retrospect what we were learning was not just music (music that to me was arcane, foreign, a Jainesque Shahnama) but culture; what we were learning was in the end ‘South Asia’. In suburban houses in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Virginia, in that auditorium outside Baltimore, we created something like a microcosm, a simulacrum, an accessible version of South Asia. More than Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi (or Punjabi or Bengali, Marathi- or Gujarati-speaking), we were South Asian.

 

The notion that the arts transcend national boundaries is both obvious and familiar, especially on that subcontinent. It is impossible to imagine the visual art, the literature, the architecture, the cinema or the music of any of the countries of South Asia without imagining at the same time South Asia as a greater whole. More than impossible, it would be foolish, brutal (you would have to tear down the Taj Mahal, burn the poetry of Iqbal and Tagore), and it is also by now a moot point. Jainesque Shahnamas may be passé, but Indian soap operas and game shows are, inexplicably, hugely popular in Pakistan; Coke Studio (the Pakistani one, although the whole concept was started by the Coca-Cola Company in Brazil) has a large audience in India; Urdu ghazals are read in Bangladesh. Somewhere I read that one way to define ‘South Asia’ might be by Bollywood; as long as those movies remain the lingua franca, you are still in some sense in South Asia, you are still in some sense at home. By this calculus, ‘South Asia’ is immense, diverse, impure, jumbled, confused, chaotic, and richer for it.

 

Art does not convince everyone, however, but the fact of music, ‘South Asian’ music, may have been secondary. Those concerts and competitions, I remember them as completely distinct from the rest of my childhood: We grew up in jeans and T-shirts; only on those weekends would we don shalwar kurtas or lehngas or saris and sit on stage awkward in those unfamiliar clothes (except the dancers, the dancers were never awkward); when we climbed back down the language we spoke was English. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, South Asian, we were most of all the kids in America. Between us and the Indian subcontinent there lay the gulf of language, culture, environment; between us and the Indian subcontinent there lay ten thousand miles.

Ten thousand miles were, in the end, the shortest route home: I grew up on the East Coast, but if I looked for it, South Asia was right there. When I was in middle school, the Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis gravitated towards each other, drawn by the opportunity to make fun of other people and complain about our parents to peers who would understand. (The same thing happened even with our parents, people born and raised in South Asia, people for whom the conflicts of South Asian history were not history but lived reality. They met for tea and samosas; they went to listen to Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy read; they went to hear Abida Parveen or Vilayat Khan perform.) Later, when I was in college in New York, Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis went to the same restaurants for a taste of home; we wound up at the same grocery stores, the same parties, the same movies; now, on Facebook, we laugh at the same memes. One could of course have looked for Pakistan, instead of South Asia, but the former was harder to find, and the differences so minimal.

 

The important factor was the distance, those ten thousand miles. From so far away, the internal differences began to fade, some of the boundaries blur; as the American child of Pakistanis, the American children of Indians and Bangladeshis were by and large just like me, growing up with similar languages, similar cultures, similar expectations, the exact same schizophrenia of one way of life outside their homes and another inside. This seems though fairly common: In the US and Canada and the UK, in the Middle East and in Singapore and in Hong Kong – surrounded that is by ‘others’, by people whose languages and backgrounds and cultures and experiences and expectations are more starkly different – Indians and Pakistanis begin to seem and to feel more alike – to feel, as it were, more ‘South Asian’. (You can see the same phenomenon, on a different scale, working within South Asia too: People from Bikaner and Calcutta can both be ‘Indian’, Burushaski- and Punjabi-speakers can both be ‘Pakistani.’)

 

A few years ago now, the New York Times published an article by Neela Banerjee describing the growing trend among Hindu parents in the United States of sending their American-born children to institutions like summer camps and after-school programmes – the equivalent of Hebrew school or Sunday school – to learn about their religion and culture. (According to the article, lessons in Indian music and dance were already popular.) Some of the parents, however, worried that their faith was being homogenized, that their children would no longer know the difference between Bengali Hinduism and Punjabi, between the many different conceptions of divinity in the diverse body of the religion. Banerjee quotes Vasudha Narayanan, the director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida: ‘This is an essentializing of Hinduism... and the diversity of Hinduism in India is lost here.’

This is at one level obviously true – everything that comes to America eventually becomes in some way Americanized; it’s the chai-latte phenomenon, the unspicy samosa – but there will still be Hindus in Bengal and Punjab who interpret their religion differently, there will still be all the diversity that there is now, and, if you choose to look at it another way, there will be even more. Alongside all the varieties of Hinduism in South Asia, from FATA to Chittagong, from Srinagar to Jaffna, we will eventually be able to add American Hinduism, American Hinduisms. Far away these divisions may seem vast, uncrossable; here, by forging something new, by allowing for more diversity, we can make them smaller.

 

Internet memes are one thing, but it would be foolish to deny all the problems of South Asia’s history, all the different desires and pressures and goals, all the conflicting needs, all the blood that has been shed. Leaving the region itself aside, even the individual countries have essentially since their independences been divided along lines of language, class, caste, ethnicity, religion, power, wealth; the violence of even individual cities – Karachi, Bombay – shows that while we may all like our food spicy and all our parents may want us to be doctors, old wounds can still bleed. The history of our part of the world is troubled and violent and impossible to escape, even for those of us who left South Asia or who were born or raised in other countries: You bring your scars with you when you travel, too.

In the end, like most things, it boils down to a choice: One can choose to focus on the bloodshed, one can choose to see only the differences, and in response try to eliminate and expel all that is in any way other (although this is a fool’s errand; there will always be someone else to ostracize, another other whose influence to purge), or choose another interpretation, one of which might be that our history has both tragedy and its opposite almost beyond measure, and it is precisely those tragedies and their opposites that are our background. History was handed to us; what we do with it is our own choice. Similarly, identity, too, is a choice: We are born with the geography of our birth and our origin, but everything beyond that geography is up to us. ‘South Asia’, like any other such grandiose idea (‘Islam’, ‘America’, ‘Europe’, take your pick), is not static, an object to be passed from parent to child, like a jadanagam – it’s something that we make, something that we create and modify and reshape.

As always happens to me, somewhere in the middle of Central Park I got lost, and I wound up at the Bethesda Terrace, where the Angel of the Waters hovers over her fountain. The terrace always makes me think of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and I remembered a scene in which one of the characters, Belize, tells another about heaven. I’ve remembered his description almost word for word since I first read the play, in the eighth grade:

‘Big city, overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty-corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, fierce gusts of gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens... Prophet birds... Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths... And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion... And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers... Race, taste and history finally overcome.’

Ever since I was thirteen this has seemed to me the best possible vision for any kind of heaven – a place of energy, being torn down and simultaneously rebuilt, improved upon, changed; a place where even the trash can be lapidary, precious; a place where the lines of colour and faith, ethnicity and language, gender and identity can all be, finally, breached. And while this is a vision of a heaven, a similar destiny is, I think, possible for us, too, in South Asia and on this earth. That future may be distant, but it’s there, around the corner. The journey begins simply with the choice to believe that the destination is possible.

top