Naman Ahuja is an art historian, curator and professor of Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He met with Tank on a rainy day in London, some weeks after the Jaipur Literature Festival to discuss his work and the issues facing art history in India today.
Tank I’m interested in [the philosopher and art historian] Ananda Coomaraswamy and the intersection he proposed between Indian and Western art history.
Naman Ahuja It’s interesting because he sort of fell out of favour; he received pretty bad press in the 1950s and then up until the 1980s. I can sympathise with why.
Tank So why was that?
NA Because it is looked upon as very privileged to be in the position where you can afford to be moved by matters spiritual and believe in the beauty of the universe. To be in pursuit of that lightness of footprint on the planet. To believe in making everything you own and to have the luxury of time to spend making those things. To be able to reduce what you have and what you own, to live with less. To not necessarily live a life of excess, but to have an excess of ideas and an enrichment of thought. Indeed, to harmonise one’s needs with the environment requires a certain mindset; it either comes out of a condition where there’s too much clutter – a need to decompress. Or, it comes out of an almost celebration of poverty; a calling that is greater than itself and that validates the condition of being poor by offering one of being spiritually rich. There were countermovements, which believed in the greater availability of riches and greater equitability. These were the promises of the machine-made. Coomaraswamy was thus typecast as espousing a position that came from privilege. I think some of the absolutely soul-crushing effects of industrialisation and colonialism have been so extreme that, rather than seeking a personal and spiritual uplift as a way out of those conditions, it’s so much easier to carry on playing the blame game.
Tank So would you say there is a renewed interest in him recently?
NA There’s kind of an academic interest, which comes more out of a renewed interest in [the sculptors] Eric Gill, Constantin Brâncuși and Jacob Epstein.
An interest in re-exploring how some of the early modernists might have actually imbibed a lot of transcendental and spiritual ways of thinking from Coomaraswamy – he held an important position in shaping minds and thought in Britain between 1910 to 1925. He had a very influential position around that time. The rise of the studio pottery and handmade-textile movements in Britain allowed him to explore that history very well. I think there’s been a renewed interest to that extent, but for me the interest comes out of other reasons. I’ve been curious about the so-called crisis in art history and where the discipline is headed.
Tank How has the study of art history in India been impacted by the BJP government and the fact that a religious right party is now in power? And is the impact very visible in museums and universities? What are the implications of this situation for the study of art history?
NA There is a tremendous fear about the effect that the country’s dispensation is having, and is supposed to have on the freedom that artists require to be able to express ideas, because they are constantly in danger of offending someone’s religious sensibilities. That comes because people’s religious sensibilities are being very narrowly defined, rather than saying that every age has actually had tremendous pluralism in religious beliefs. There have been compelling grounds for a variety of belief systems to coexist, grounds that force them to coexist, with each argument coming from a deeply philosophical position. Certain kinds of ideas are getting promoted or defended at the expense of others, so the freedom of certain people to express themselves is being contained at the cost of ruffling the feathers of others. This brings us into a situation where the government of India is no longer being seen to defend everyone’s rights of freedom equally. A large group of people are rightfully aggrieved because they’re not necessarily able to paint what they feel like. Museums are afraid that if they display certain kinds of evidence that they have in their storerooms, it might not be appreciated. How did we reach this moral, puritanical point, where we say that it’s not OK for us to display something? Many cultures in the world have experienced this; this is not an unusual situation for India to find itself in. We can’t blow this matter out of proportion; this has been the kind of outcry that many countries face and the Indian intelligentsia here need to take heart in the fact that this is very similar to the problems that were faced in Britain 150 years ago. As well as being very similar to problems that have led to the rise of ISIS or the Taliban. Perhaps we can “take comfort” in the fact that it might lead to a state of national socialism and a fascist state! We either have Victorian puritanism or Islamic terrorism or a Nazi regime to look forward to...
Tank I wanted to ask you a bit about the issues surrounding the collection and smuggling of antiquities. How can we think about collecting within the context of postcolonialism? How do you think about that in relation to the present situation?
NA I think the damage done by colonialism and the havoc wreaked by it was abysmal; it’s going to take many steps, many generations to try and normalise the psychological damage, more so than the economic and social aspects of the cultural damage. I think that equally, one of the things that people need to realise, is that as a postcolonial nation, it is contingent upon India to do right by its material cultural history. At the moment it can’t; it hasn’t done enough and there is much that needs to be done. Until it starts doing right by itself it can’t start making a claim. I also think that colonialism has been unfortunate, but it has happened. To really make it into something that’s over, in your own mind, and to be able to grow as a postcolonial, it is relevant and necessary to accept that you cannot undo colonialism or fix it. The only thing you can do is make your future better. So don’t cry about it, it’s gone, but at least rescue what is left. What I think former colonised nations can do, to help redress the situation, is to strengthen their institutions, the museums, the collecting, so that they are on par with the best industry standards all over the world. It’s not just a matter of improving the museums, but about actually improving education in art history, so that there are more people who are invested in this field in India, so it doesn’t continue to remain a field whose only market is in Europe or America.
That’s the way the situation is headed at the moment; there are not enough people in India who are invested in collecting Indian art and the museums are not buying all the wonderful art that is being discovered in this rapidly urbanising society. Objects are still coming up for sale here and even though Indians have the money, they are not buying them. Why are they not? They don’t care for them, and why? It’s looked upon as the kind of thing that rich, white people do and fill their museums with it. There is the belief that they go to interesting museums when they’re abroad, while our museums in India are so boring. That’s got to change, why is it not changing? Because everyone in India, as a poor culture, is so interested in making money that they keep investing in scientific education and technical knowledge and in raising better lawyers, doctors, engineers and IT specialists. There isn’t enough investment in creating better people in the arts. That can’t just happen by training half a dozen museum personnel to run efficient museums in India. It means thousands of people have got to start wanting art, looking at art, reading about it and investing in it, giving it to museums and collecting it on their behalf. On one hand, art history has made connoisseurship into a bad word; on the other, how is a museum supposed to function if it can’t decide which painting it would rather hang? Somebody has got to make these choices and say which artworks deserve to be in the public, deserve to be seen by people.
I think that the issues around looting cannot be solved with a quick-fix solution; by passing laws that make it illegal to own stolen works. It’s not good enough, it doesn’t stop the colonial flow. If you really want to start fixing things, then you’ve got to start investing in art history, in museums and in fostering connoisseurs. You’ve got to leverage that and push that agenda with the governments of the once colonising countries. The ex-colonial powers have to be able to give back. I’m not talking about physical reparations of giving back objects, but strengthening the institutions within the countries that would be able to take care of that material. These powers shouldn’t be using the argument that India cannot be given back artworks and antiquities because it doesn’t have the museums to look after them.
We are still talking about the object here. The material object is just one element of knowledge production, but what actually happens to the ideas and the knowledge systems that the object signifies? Who is actually producing that? Where is that happening? When the metro was constructed in Delhi, where were the objects that were uncovered? Is it even possible that a metro, constructed through one of the oldest cities in the world, did not unearth one reported object? They’ve dug tunnels right through the heart of the city and not one thing was reported?! Great museums around the world have used the opportunity of the metro and tube constructions; they have been great ways for the public to understand the history of their cities. Massive new development projects are afoot in South and Southeast Asia, in smart cities and “special economic zones”. But where are the museums that are being put in those smart cities? Development has to happen, but is it going to be at the cost of obliterating history and heritage? Is it going to create a situation where more looting takes place and millions of objects end up on the international market? Then are they going to imprison dealers to try and salvage that material to sell it again? Why isn’t there a market for it in India already?
Tank Is it fair to say that the objects being looted are all leaving the country?
NA Pretty much, because the museums in India are not buying; there aren’t acquisition committees at the museums. I would love to know who is going to constitute those, who is going to decide. There is just so much bickering and fighting all the time that one is hard-pressed to find a situation where people are genuinely invested in the greater good. So if the museums aren’t spending and if the museum movement is not going to keep growing, then there’s nothing you can do; you can’t prevent the looting. Where will the objects go? The travesty is that you’ll have supply paired with a reducing demand, which means that the objects are going to keep getting devalued.
Meanwhile, I also think that we live in an age where ISIS is going around breaking antiquities. We live in a globalised world; a nation state cannot do right by its very migratory population. Indians live all over the world and they have a right to Indian culture wherever they live. It’s not my case that only an Indian should be able to enjoy and love Indian art and culture. If we live in a globalised and international world, then surely everyone has equal rights to everything. I think some of that has been enabled by history and there are fantastic museums filled with wonderful Indian art all over the world. It’s time museums in India were developed as well. §