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Dreaming of a Hindu Left

Worshippers at Khajuraho.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ IStock

In his poem-cycle, Jejuri, Arun Kolatkar showed how easily a trivial scrap of reality becomes transcendental in the environs of an Indian temple. Not necessarily in a spiritual sense — Kolatkar had mixed feelings about that — but in a very material and sensory way.

My Jejuri happened in the Sun Temple in Konark. We were getting the full treatment from a guide, with all the right revelations. The mood started to twitch with the appearance of sexually explicit sculptures across the temple walls. There were bodies in intricate positions in moments of sexual congress. Multiple players in a single frieze. Desire played out across sexes and genders. But nothing that would shock or surprise anyone who has seen erotic temple sculpture in India.

The guide started to make odd gestures; sometimes whispering in my ears in a voice hard to decode. Then, after a while, he asked me to step aside.

“You know…,” he whispered.

He didn’t want to talk about the sculptures before the female tourists in our group. It felt pointless debating the point with this shy, half-embarrassed but solemn figure in the misty twilight. Instead, I fell into a chat about Khajuraho.

“All those things that are there in Khajuraho, none of it is real. It’s all made up.” He said with a quiet wisdom.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“None of these things — none of those acts,” he swallowed bravely, “ever happened anywhere. They were made up by the sculptors because they were away from home for a long time and were, you know,” his voice hushed again, “were missing their wives.”

Such amateur scholarship blooms by every roadside, tea stall and train station in India. But those blossoming under the arches of temples have a wild and unique fragrance.

Sex and religion

The guide’s whisper whorled like a night bloomer with insect-chewed petals. Here was a man who was part of the cottage industry of local religion, making his living through that bizarre mix of faith, awe, and commerce that is unique to the ecosystem of Indian temples. Here was his hesitant fascination with the supple, sculpted sexuality entwined with Hinduism in a mind-blowing, gut-wrenching and morality-bending tangle that would scandalise the austerity and abstraction of any Abrahamic religion, whether Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. Here was art born of the terrifying union of sex and religion.

‘Radha and Krishna’ miniature painting by Govinda Chatera Chota

‘Radha and Krishna’ miniature painting by Govinda Chatera Chota   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

And here was a bizarre metafictional claim about the statues being fermented in the fevered sensibility of “sex-starved sculptors,” confided by a guide to a male client, at a suitably shy distance away from the women.

What is the modern, liberal, bourgeois urban subject to do in the eerie twilight of ancient temples, before the whispers of the possessed but crafty souls who sculpted these? When he has to listen to someone explaining these away as mere imaginings?

Nothing. Just listen to the stories. And if blessed enough by madness, tell a few of one’s own.

The life force

Art is an experience akin to religion. And likewise in reverse. It’s something we all know though sometimes it becomes difficult to admit. Less widespread is the understanding that the process of art, too, is much like religion. I’m not talking of the divine invocation of the Greek Muse and the impregnation of the (always) female source of inspiration by the (almost always) male poet. I’m talking about meaning, that is, the Absent Life Force of art as well as of religion.

Everything in the mortal world that carries the weight of religion stands for the Great Absent One: God. Every symbol, every artefact, every ritual is a symbol of That-Who-Cannot-Be-Present. Art, too, is like that. Meaning is only half-fleshed in the concrete: be it a painting, a work of sculpture, a tune. The rest is always hidden, always a quest for the abstract and the invisible, a story beyond the frame.

The study of literature was first the study of the Scripture. Scriptures are the imperfect recording of God’s utterances. The interpretation of scriptures is the search for the true meaning of God’s words. Such is the spirit of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. Along the inevitable march of modernity — first the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment — hermeneutics lost its religious character to morph into its secular antecedent: literary criticism.

God came to be replaced by the Symbol. Same exercise, different Object.

Perhaps it had to happen. The fatal seduction of The Word was already real to the believer. St. Augustine had warned against falling prey to the power of language and losing sight of what it is truly meant to signify: God.

That would be — as Daniel Coleman puts it beautifully — falling in love with the Valentine card instead of the person who has sent it.

Modernity created literature as that Valentine card. True reading was engagement with the card itself. Nothing beyond.

Art as itself

Modernity is disenchantment. The lifting of the darkness of the medieval church by the clear, often harsh light of Newtonian physics and the industrial revolution. Is it a loss or gain for art?

Following the Enlightenment, Art is now a self-conscious Being, aware of its elevated status in the world. There was a time when a painting or a mural existed only as a beautiful limb or fingernail of a church; a song was either a hymn or entertainment in a pub. A room full of nothing but paintings would probably not make sense to most people.

Welcome to the art gallery. Welcome to modernity. Welcome to Art as Itself.

Welcome to the understanding of literary genius that would not make sense to Shakespeare — the highest retroactive example of that very genius. The genius who fabricates original stories from inside the magical space in one’s mind now describes the playwright who refashioned tales taken from popular myths and history books. The halo of the great artist now illumines the storyteller who was essentially the Renaissance equivalent of a popular movie director.

Privatised art

But the modern age is the era of the individual and of private property. How can it be otherwise with Art? The great collective soul of the community — the keeper of myths and legends and fairy tales — fades away before the private artist and her ownership of the original idea. Plot. Story. Emotion.

This is the story of the West, which has had an eruptive encounter with Indian culture. It has fermented complex movements of colonial modernity such as the Bengal Renaissance, and its iconic literary protagonist, Rabindranath Tagore. But just as often, it has ignited indigestion and hiccups.

V.S. Naipaul, forever in our mind, now more than ever, wrote a maddening story. A young Trinidadian man of Indian origin wishes to become a poet. The wish makes absolutely no sense to his parents. It is not because they want him to be a doctor or an engineer. But because to them poetry is synonymous with the great religious epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. All poetry, hence, has already been composed. The idea of someone wishing to compose new poetry in the 20th century to them is absurd. He might as well have told them that his goal in life was to invent fire.

There is only one kind of poetry. The poetry of the gods. And it’s already there.

Modernity unveiled literature as secular. But today in 2018, one cannot help but rephrase Walter Benjamin: is this document of progress also a document of loss?

Today’s crisis in liberal modernity and its clearest cultural logic — print literature — coincides with the reappearance of god as demonic. We are living through the triumph of the province over the globe, Brexit over Europe, Trump over Clinton. The Yogi as Minister.

Have we lost too much by inventing literature as a secular enterprise? As we ask this question, it is impossible not to hear its political echo. Literature, literary criticism, literary intellectuals, the academy that studies it — what a triumphant distance we’ve come from the understanding of hermeneutics as the quest of the lost Word of God!

This is the most powerful reason why Jejuri moves me so deeply — its engagement with religion, admittedly a half-serious one (and more moving for that). There have been many Indian writers who have entered the domain of the religious, in some instances, the spiritual, with powerful intensity. Tagore is a rich example. And there are others from the realm of the modern. One does not necessarily have to hark back to the lyrics of Meera or the cadence of Sufi poetry to experience the soul-blowing aesthetic power of religion. But still the idea of literature, and its practice on the whole, remains rooted in secular modernity. Inevitably so.

Between brawn and shame

Way back in 2002, Ruth Vanita mourned the lack of a Hindu Left. It’s missing in India, she’d argued, unlike the continuing presence of the Christian Left and the Islamic Left, which often collaborate with the secular Left in different parts of the world. Apart from a very few like Ramchandra Gandhi and Ashish Nandy, she insisted, it is the rare Indian thinker who has tried to integrate religious and leftist thinking.

Vanita’s post-mortem of the Hindu Left is painfully perceptive. The 19th century experienced debates between right and left-wing Hinduism, but the latter eventually died under the corrosive force of what Ashish Nandy has called “Christianising Hinduism.” This was the shame British colonialism successfully conferred on the polytheistic experience of Hinduism, branding idol-worship backward and barbaric. Over time, progressive, English-educated Indians internalised this shame of Hindu identity, and not long after the assassination of Gandhi, whom Vanita calls the last left-wing Hindu, the Hindu Left got lost between the militancy of the Hindu Right and the shame of the secular Left.

In recent times, Madhavi Menon has foregrounded the dialectical relation between Kama and Yoga; the latter is meant to still and negate the former, and yet in a curious way they recreate each other through this opposition. The relation between religious and literary sensibilities in modern India offers a bizarre parallel. Modern literary-intellectual consciousness, primarily secular, has thrown religion under the rug and dimmed its fire. Whatever else they have achieved, by disowning religion, the majority of writers and intellectuals have given it away to forces that have fanned its passion to unholy flames.

Is it possible today for literature and the arts to engage with religious aesthetic without celebrating the repressive dimensions of religion? Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd has invoked the pitfalls of the Shashi Tharoor way, where a version of liberal Hinduism becomes possible only at the cost of suppression of the netherworld of the caste system that, as Ambedkar said, is a synonym of Hinduism itself.

It would be madness to deny the tremendous aesthetic and emotive power of religion. Literature, and all art, have lived ancient lives enabling — and being enabled by — the beauty, emotion, mystery and terror of religion till secular modernity pried them apart. But even our longing for a moving literary embodiment of religious force cannot rest free of the question: can this force ever appear as enabling to the worst victims of the religion itself?

The writer is the author, most recently, of The Firebird and College: Pathways of Possibility.@_saikatmajumdar.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 3:13:34 PM |

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