Art is subjective, but some interpretations are dangerous

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The Taj mahal evokes different responses and narratives depending on the worldview of the interpreter. It could be a epitome of love, a symbol of economic inequality, or a weapon of social division.

The Taj Mahal, among the most enduring artifacts of Indian cultural history, has everyone make a point about it. Which is perfectly fine, so long as the opinion is not communally charged and divisive. | PTI

When Uttar Pradesh MLA Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a ‘blot on Indian culture’ and a monument built by ‘traitors’, the responses swung between two extremes. Some began name-calling Som (‘ignorant’ was the kindest word used) and others scrambled to agree with him, inventing fantastic explanations along the way.

Was Sangeet Som the first to express a view of the Taj Mahal that was contrary to the popular one? Not by a long shot. Others have expressed ‘different’ views too. Albeit of a non-incendiary sort.

Sample these extracts from an Urdu nazm written about seventy-odd years ago:

Anginat logon ne duniyaa mein muhabbat ki hain

 

Kaun kehtaa hai ki saadiq na thay jazbe unke

 

Lekin unke liye tasheer ka saamaan nahin

 

Kyonki woh log bhi apni hi tarah muflis thay

 

Beyond count are those, in this world

 

who have lived and loved.

 

Could anyone deny the truth

 

of their passions?

 

But they, like us, stay destitute,

 

without the means

 

to erect monuments to their love.

 

..

 

Yeh chamanzaar, yeh Jamna ka kinara yeh mahal

 

Manaqqash, dar-o-diwar, mehraab yeh taaq

 

Ek shahanshah ne apni daulat ka sahara le kar

 

Ham gharibon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazaaq

 

Mere mehboob kahin aur milaa kar mujhse

 

The lush gardens and palaces,

 

the Yamuna’s edge;

 

the exquisitely carved portals,

 

the arches and niches,

 

the handiwork of the one

 

emperor who, buttress’d

 

by infinite wealth

 

has mocked our very love,

 

our impoverish’d, destitute love.

 

Even so, my love,

 

let us meet

 

someplace else.

 

 

~ Sahir Ludhianvi

(Translation by Mustansir Dalvi)

 

Source: Wikipedia

Abdul Hayee, a.k.a Sahir Ludhianvi, (1921-1980) was a Punjabi Muslim poet and Bollywood lyricist who worked with several great music composers such as Khayyam, Laxmikant Pyarelal, S.D. Burman, and was involved in popular films such as Pyaasa, Kabhie Kabhie, and Phir Subah Hogi.

Sahir Ludhianvi, an artistically wilful individual, is known to have insisted that film scores be composed around his lyrics rather than the other way round.

The writer of this contrarian nazm, Abdul Hayee, was born on March 8, 1921, in Ludhiana, Punjab. And under the nom de plume Sahir Ludhianvi, he illuminated many Hindi films with his lyrics. As a poet associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Sahir has also left behind many, many nazms, among which ‘Taj Mahal’ stands out for how it speaks truth to power.

Rather than viewing the edifice as others do — a monument to love and an embodiment of beauty — Sahir chooses to interpret and depict it differently. He chooses to focus on the many workers who toiled to create the structure. He foregrounds their poverty against the opulence of the emperor.

There are back-handed compliments to the structure itself (“the exquisitely carved portals, the arches and niches…”) But that apart, the nazm chooses to focus on the emotion that seems to have inspired such a structure. It talks of the universality of the human emotion of love juxtaposed against the lopsided structure of wealth distribution which allows some to put their feelings on display even as others go about their daily lives trapped by their livelihoods. That the powerful and wealthy make their loud statements at the expense of the meek and the humble who labour to make the earth a more liveable place is at the heart of the nazm.

Throughout the verse, while the refrain ‘Mere mehboob kahin aur milaa kar mujhse [Even so, my love, let us meet someplace else]’ crops up again and again, the primary emotion is not disgust with the structure itself, but rather a deep anguish at society’s contradictions, which end up burying the many and highlighting but a few.

Now consider what reportedly happened almost two hundred years ago when the British writ ran over many parts of the country including Agra. In 1830, the area around the Taj Mahal was witness to an unusual activity of sorts: the arrival of demolition and wrecking equipment. The intended target: the Taj.

While the arrival of the equipment and men must have caused consternation, it was perhaps lesser than what we might have imagined. As Prof R. Nath says in his work, History of Decorative Art in Mughal Architecture, “Lord William Bentinck, (Governor-General of Bengal 1828-33, and later, the first Governor-General of all India), went so far as to announce plans to demolish the best Mogul monuments in Agra and Delhi and remove their marble façades. These were to be shipped to London, where they would be broken up and sold to members of the British aristocracy. Several of Shahjahan’s pavilions in the Red Fort at Delhi were indeed stripped to the brick, and the marble was shipped off to England (part of this shipment included pieces for King George IV himself).” So the process of organised loot was underway even before the Taj had been identified for demolition. The Taj was but one more victim.

 

In the event, the auction of the marble stolen from the Agra Fort was not a success. The minions of the Company are likely to have done their Math rather quickly and decided that the demolition of the Taj wasn’t quite worth the effort and expense. Therefore, the Taj Mahal survived.

William Bentinck is regarded as something of a progressive among Company Governor-Generals. He forbade sati, instituted the Sharada Act that attempted to curb child marriage and also played a role in bringing to an end the esoteric practice of thuggee. But for all his progressive moves, he was ultimately a representative of the East India Company, an early version of the profit-seeking corporation. Then too, as is now, corporations let nothing come in their way as they ground their way to becoming more and more profitable.

The Taj was for him therefore merely an expensive building whose value he chose to calculate solely on the basis of the value of the marble that went into its construction. He was innocent of architectural appreciation and other subtleties. Plus, the Taj was ‘Oriental’ after all. As a hard-boiled Englishman, it’s a matter of doubt whether he would have been able to transcend the prejudices of his race and upbringing, and probably used ‘tropical sentimentality’ or some such phrase to describe the love story that infuses the Taj’s raison d’être.

 

Sahir’s view, on the other hand, was a nuanced one. His own background of personal tragedy and political involvement were no doubt deeply influential in giving him a certain worldview. Equally, one views Sahir’s take on the Taj against the background of his life’s work. The writer’s oeuvre is a considerable one and provides context to the nazm. Which makes it key to interpret a statement in the context of the speaker’s worldview.

If a remark comes from a mindset that does not permit history to nuance one’s views, or allows for zero engagement with the ‘other’ for such engagement might humanise the ‘other’, we have cause to worry. The Taj would appear therefore to be merely a ‘Muslim’ monument to someone like Som. Not the love story that inspired it, not the fact of Shah Jahan’s partly Hindu parentage, no other fact is likely to be permitted entry into his narrativisation of the Taj.

Be that as it may, he is likely to stop short of calling for the Taj to be destroyed and instead choose to milk the monument for its full divisive potential. Should this agenda succeed, the response may well alternate between a wringing of the hands in despair in a liberal setting and flaunting the ‘we did what we said’ credentials in others.

Clearly, before Sangeet Som, some did ‘see’ the Taj Mahal very differently. But of those who chose to do so, is Sangeet Som’s the worst? Certainly.

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