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It was an extraordinary winter of protest in India, as the year 2019 rolled to its end. The background was set by a series of undemocratic bills that became acts in parliament without debate and consensus, culminating in the most explosive and divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December that year, leading to a surge of civil demonstrations, rallies, and protests across the country on a scale that had not been seen before. Directly triggered by the state crackdown on a student protest within the Jamia Millia Islamia University in the heart of New Delhi, made worse by arrests and vandalization of the campus, a group of Muslim women of all ages—grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and grand-daughters—came out to occupy the streets of Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood flanking the university. With that began a historic day and night, peaceful, immovable sit-in by the Muslim women of this locality against a conglomeration of laws that they feared threatened their citizenship, and the guarantees of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution (Image 1.1).
During the ensuing weeks of the defiant sit-in, artists, along with activists and students, transformed the by-lanes of the neighbourhood with murals, pavement paintings, and installations that guided visitors to the scene of protest. A month into the event, scaffoldings, ephemera, and improvisations became part of ‘the art of resistance’, transforming Shaheen Bagh into ‘an open-air art gallery’. As one student visiting the venue wrote, ‘Even before reaching Shaheen Bagh, where the women sat with their daughters and grand-daughters in silent, powerful defiance … one is introduced to Shaheen Bagh through the numerous murals. The street art guides you….’ Opening up a space for daily congregations of activists and citizens, for singing and poetry reading, for speeches and book discussions, for the setting up of a library, as well as for a profusion of murals, drawings, posters, and installations, Shaheen Bagh was both a site of contestation and experiments in democratic practice (Images 1.2 and 1.3). Particularly significant was the way art and artists became constitutive of the site of protest, alongside community elders and student activists, to together conjure visions that had to be created to be fought for.
What defines the secular in a cultural festival in Bengal that centres on the annual homecoming of Goddess Durga? How may we read the rhetoric of secularization of this event that has a long historical background and has become crucial to its contemporary identity? In keeping with the title of this volume, a question mark necessarily hovers around the nomenclature of the ‘secular’ and the extent to which it may lend itself to the profile of a festival that has well outstripped its religiosity and willed its transformation into Kolkata’s biggest public art event. Defying any easy placement within an institutionally secure realm of either religion or art, and never fully measuring up to the criterion of the secular, the Durga Pujas provide a powerful site for the interrogation of each of these conceptual categories. I will be arguing that the contemporary festival of Durga in Kolkata (and the ideas and forms it exports to Durga Puja celebrations across Bengal and other big cities of India) offers itself not just as a case study but as a constitutive ground in the dismantling of boundaries between artistic, religious, and secular practices, allowing each of these to freely trespass into each other’s domains. This sense of trespass is not one that comes from within the field of festival art and its creative protagonists. It erupts more within the fields of scholarship and disciplines such as art history and religious studies. It is in the spaces of these disciplines that the need to redefine the normative domains of art, religion, and secularity has gone hand-in-hand with the urgency of maintaining their separate jurisdictions and their different rights and prerogatives. It is important, in this context, to mark the coming of age of the field of South Asian visual studies and its tendentious criss-crossing of the disciplines of art history, visual anthropology, and the study of ritual, religion, and material cultures; and to situate my turn to the changed artistic contemporary proclivities of Kolkata’s Durga Pujas within this shifting disciplinary confluence in the initial decades of the twenty-first century.
As a mega urban spectacle that has been engaging with a spectacular array of art and craft productions, new visual technologies, and social media, the city festival holds out an invitation to the field of visual studies that is hard to resist.
As an invitation to interrogate the secular modality of art, the book unsettles both the categories of 'art' and 'secular' in their theoretical and historical implications It questions the temporal, spatial, and cultural binaries between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' that have shaped art historical scholarship as well as artistic practice. Thinking from the south, all the essays here are anchored in a conception of a region – one fissured by histories of partition, state formations, and religious nationalisms but still offering a collective site from which to speak to the disciplines of art and the knowledge worlds in which they are embedded. The book asks: How do we complicate the religious designations of pre-modern art and architecture and the new forms of their resurgence in contemporary iconographies and monuments? How do we re-conceptualize the public and the political, as fiery contestations and new curatorial practices reconfigure the meaning of art in the proliferating spaces of museums, galleries, biennales and festivals? How do we understand South Asian art's deep entanglements with the politics of the present?
Le site de Sanchi, dans l’État de Bhopal, a connu bien des vicissitudes depuis la première description qu’en fit un officier de l’armée des Indes en 1819. Cet ensemble de stupas bouddhistes du IIIe siècle avant notre ère est passé de l’état de ruine et de relique à celui de monument en un peu plus de deux siècles. L’histoire de cette transformation est aussi celle de l’Inde coloniale et celle de l’archéologie indienne, qui toutes deux se structurent durant le XIXe siècle. Le site se trouve ainsi au centre de plusieurs évolutions: celle des techniques archéologiques et de reproduction de l’image; celle de l’emprise institutionnelle de l’État colonial et la place grandissante du patrimoine dans l’élaboration de l’Inde indépendante; celle, enfin, de la montée des nationalismes et des religions dans l’Inde contemporaine. L’auteur donne ainsi à voir les différentes strates de sens qui sont en concurrence pour la reconstruction des passés « véritables » de Sanchi.
The essay narrates the biography of a single art object—acclaimed in recent history as a “masterpiece” of ancient Indian sculpture—to invoke the larger spectrum of practices and discourses that came to constitute the field of art history in modern India. It explores the shifting locations and aesthetic trajectories that marked the transformation of this artifact from a curious archaeological “antiquity” into a national “art-treasure” and icon of Indian femininity, and later even into “a travelling emissary of ancient Indian art and culture.” On the one hand, the spectrum of travels of this object provides an ideal instance for mapping over the twentieth century the changing colonial, national and international stature of Indian art. On the other hand, its career also pointedly reveals the clash of contending claims and the politics of “return” and “restitution” that have attended the nationalization and artistic consecration of many such objects.