apexart :: Conference Program :: Dr. Alka Pande

Of Alladin's Lamp And Tigers & Elephants
Defining Trajectories, Hybridities, Pluralities, Bi Unity, Bi Polarity, Living Cultures, Cross Cultural Transgressions, Mythic Cultures, Histories, Time, Fractures, Ruptures, Transmissions, Transmutations, Gender Bending, Androgyne, Religion Bending, Orientalism, Diaspora, Ethnicity, Partition, Cultural Dialogues, Multicultural, Transcendental Wisdom, New Ageism.
Dr. Alka Pande

"This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday bear date with the moldering antiquities of rest of nation - the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would no give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined."
Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897.

Contemporary India is a country dotted with paradoxes where tradition and modernity, urban and rural, margi and desi (1) coexist. India finds itself in the postmodern construct without having lived through the western process of modernization. Modernity is a part of the Indian tradition and thus what is traditional in India, is in may ways post modern. From the ancient to the modern, from modern to post modern and issues of post colonialism are enveloped in the inherent duality and polarity of multi-cultural, multi-traditional India. In painting and sculpture there is an underlying thread of continuity with fractures and ruptures at moments in history. Post colonial India brought with is its own neurosis and with contemporary art geographical spaces are changing, artist were moving from India to the west and now there is a return of the Diaspora.

This bi-unity, bi-polarity that exists in India's living, breathing, tangible, creative contemporary culture is enriched by the myths, hierarchies, genealogy, the fractured and ruptured, interrupted history of India. A nation is usually an amalgam of mythic cultures built in the minds of its citizens which finds expression through its artistic endeavour. The concept of hegemony is one introduced at several points in Indian history, with the Greek invasion of Punjab 325 BC, Arab invasion of Sindh 747 AD and then with the imperial domination by the Mughals in the 15th century was formalised by the British. It is only in the eve of modernism that there was a resurfacing of the multidimensional but in a quirky way, because they, the many India's were put to the service of creating the idea of India as one, diverse but one.

I will speak neither from the site of art practice nor from the production of art but more through the inherent duality, the bi-polarity of our culture – which again is inherent. Infact it was this bi-polarity, which was not really understood by our colonial masters, thus the emergence of the Idea of India. Which India do we address? North India, South India, Urban India, Metro India, Rural India, Folk India, Tribal India, there are many Indias in the Idea of India.

Cross cultural transgressions have existed from the 15th century, from time of the Mughals in India, where though within the social and cultural life norms of living were adapted and assimilated, there was a beginning and formalisation of a homogenous style in architecture and painting. But a homogenisation which could pass for cultural hegemony was introduced by the British. From the 18th century, what has been acknowledged as good taste has been defined in relation to the West, either as a point of reference or a point of departure. Acceptance of good, bad and ugly continues to be defined by the west. In contemporary visual culture artists born and brought up in England have settled in India, creating a reverse validation. Political events have marked the last two centuries with large-scale displacements leading to a surge in the exploration of ethnicity, roots, nostalgia and individual and social memories.

Economics, as in all other areas, has a large part to play in the shaping of cultures and their path forward. Sources of funding decide the production and consumption of art and since in India the big money is to be made on the international market, artists are either choosing to work in a style acceptable and attractive to the western eye or those artists are gaining international recognition whose art fits within the accepted norms of Euro-American taste. In India we can now identify a bevy of Biennale and Triennale artists who fit the niche of Asian artists without being overtly exotic and revivalist. This is the area where the cultural hegemony of the west sits heavy and for me this is depressing, non-creative – that continuous search for the validation and affirmation from the west.
In the 19th century, India was at the forefront of photographic development. The major preoccupations and achievements of 19th-century Indian photography: the early amateurs who first introduced the medium; the documentation of India's architectural and ethnic diversity. Indians were fast to learn the new technology of photography when it was brought to their country in the 1840s. When they did so, they brought with them a long tradition of image making and presentation from their own (and varied) Indian arts.

When Judith M Guttman published her pioneering work 'Through Indian Eyes; 19th and Early 20th century photography from India' in 1982, she sought to argue for the existence of a peculiarly 'Indian' style of photography, based on the tradition of miniature portrait painting. Her suggestion has been criticised for its simplistic approach - and in particular because few of the photographers had trained to be miniature painters or worked in a way that showed a deep understanding of such art. It is perhaps also difficult to see the coherent approach in the pictures of Indian photographers that her argument suggests. Many pictures, despite her contention that "Indian photographs do not have vanishing points" show a clear perspective that differs little if at all from those produced by their European counterparts. Photographing architecture for example they produced pictures that shared the same characteristics. There are pictures by Indian photographers from exactly the same viewpoints as those by earlier British photographers such as John Murray.

Even in the pictures of people, whether individual portraits or groups, there appears to be little difference in terms of composition. Many pictures of the time were taken with the subjects looking to camera, with significant objects on the ground between them and the camera, and with a suitable backdrop. The Indian photographer, Raja Deen Dayal, who began his career as an architectural photographer, took some of the best group pictures of nineteenth century India, both of native Indians and of the British rulers. Being the `Court Photographer' of Nizam of Hyderabad. Raja Deen Dayal's clientele consisted of the Royals, the British and the Brown Sahibs. He prepared albums, then and now, the most sought after because they contain the perfect balance between the exotic and the romantic, the beautiful and the bizarre that makes India gorgeously Indian.

The contemporary photographer using the iconography of everyday Indian life works within the "decisive moment" (coined by Bresson) of street photography, frames the seemingly banal, the lucky finds, the neglected, and the accidental occurrence photographs and the textual fragments he pulls together which are then recontextualized so as to stress the fact that though of the same cultural, political, social context we are infact seeing the Other. Photography is very much the handmaiden of cultural hegemony where the genre of photographers like Nan Goldin documentary photography, multiple imagery have become the new bench marks for Indian photographers.

Popular culture borrows freely and en masse from the street. Cinema is the ideal signifier of current social trends. The film industry in India is the largest in the world, in terms of the massive numbers of film that are produced annually. And they are now gaining international recognition with Lagaan being nominated for an Oscar. The multiple genres: Partition in 1942 Love Story and Train to Pakistan; Saffronisation, politics of crime and right wind politics in Dev; Homosexuality in Fire, Bombay Boys and Girlfriend; Diaspora and identity, belonging and ethnicity in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kal Ho Na Ho. Indian Cinema I think is finding its own unique voice and may perhaps be the reverse of the flow cultural hegemony.

Though the international Indian community is globally wide flung and diverse, they all maintain some sort of tenuous link with the ‘motherland'. The most likely candidate for a force of bonding would be, of all things, the Hindi feature film, a phenomenon unique to the Indian Diaspora: what Hollywood is to Western Europe, the Bombay Hollywood ("Bollywood") is to the Middle East and East Africa. The Diaspora is never far from Bollywood's horizon.

To explain the presence and yet the celebration of the Derridian difference with what is contemporary India – I would take the concept of the Androgyne in Indian art, thought and literature but today the foregrounding is being done through visual culture. For my doctoral thesis I researched on the Ardhanarisvara, the god who is half woman. The accepted norms of understanding masculinity and femininity and their subsequent stereotyping were the fructification of centuries of genotyping that have dictated the socio-cultural rubric of human existence. The complexities of gender cannot be ignored, particularly in today's society where the Masculine and the Feminine are no longer fixed, unchallenged categories.

In this paper I shall address the concept of androgyny which has been an acknowledged category in India from the ancient times, stemming from the Vedas, the very basis of Indian thought. Androgynity is being transferred, transmuted into contemporary culture. With people now being termed, for instance metrosexual, it is the ‘becoming', man to woman and woman to man that force us to question and re-question what is so often taken for granted. I shall explore the development and the dynamics of this concept from the sacred to the profane, from the philosophical to the physiological, from the constructed to the living. It deals with gender and identity.

An androgyne is not defined within the strict limitations of his or her sexual preferences but rather through the deconstruction and destruction of socially accepted assigned roles and modes of behavior. D.H. Lawrence identified the trend towards gender blurring in his essay Cocksure Women and Hensure Men. The societal acceptance of cross-dressing, transvestites, gender bending, androgynous existences and the representation of the ‘other' are reflections of our ‘now'. The fountainhead of androgyne philosophical construct, the Ardhanarishvara imagery has anthromorphological manifestations in the iconography of Indian, Mesopotamian, Chinese and other ancient cultures. The mythographic dimensions of this deity are related to magical androgyny, particularly within the context of Indian magic and myth, especially in relation to appropriate forms of sadhana, the means for realisation, for magical manifestation. Alain Danielou, in Gods of Love and Ecstasy, notes that homosexuals, hermaphrodites and transvestites can be considered sacred beings in the image of the Ardhanarishvara.

In Wendy O Flaherty's opinion, within the purview of Indian myths and legends there is no difficulty about 'men becoming women', but there are problems when women become men, save in the iconography of the Goddess Kali/Durga. In this context, for me there is a huge difference between assuming a mythical posture of androgyny, and the playful transgression and blurring of sex-roles which occur in contemporary sub-cultures.

Ardhnarishvara as a physical representation appears to be an unacceptable form. It is an unbelievable human proposition. Can two sexes be conjoined in one and still be 'normal'? No! Because practically, the viable existence of one emphatically negates the other. The image of Ardhnarishvara in the traditional discourse goes beyond gender, beyond identity. It is the emergence of the idea of bisexuality which is present in every human being - the complimentalities of the male and the female, which are inevitable. The image itself evokes wonder, awe and the adbhuta rasa. It is also a psychological, philosophical, physiological and social construct. The making of the mythical Ardhnarishvara by traditional sthapatis and chitrakars reflects the individual artist's own understanding, talent and personal psyche.

The static image encapsulates the dynamism of the man-woman continuum, where there is both emergence and fusion. The visualisation of Ardhnarishvara transcends from the metaphysical to the physical. Such revolutionary ideas were so deified in the image that it continues to fascinate and tantalise writers and artists alike. An enigma that alternately haunted and lured practitioners and the practised through the ages, Ardhnarishvara is not simply a muse but a tangible reality. It flows into the 'real' world in the guise of transvestites, cross-dressers, transsexuals and gays.

Cross-dressing is also highly erotic. In a way, the illusion of cross-dressing is magic. The cross-dresser, when dressed in 'drag', becomes more than he or she was before, and often feels more attractive in the guise of the opposite sex. The very sensation of silk and nylon stockings for the male, or slacks and tie for the female, creates an erotic high that never diminishes.

There is a long-standing connection between theatrical dance and cross-dressing. Cross-dressing and dance were used in the worship of Dionysos in ancient Greece, and a popular interpretation of the Salome myth holds that Salome was male. (In the Bible Salome is the 'daughter of Herodias', who dances for Herod. Herodias is able to convince him to have John the Baptist executed.) In modern culture this translates into, among other manifestations, the drag show. This is also indicative of another current long connected with cross-dressing - that of the trickster. Tricksters from all ages and times, from Loki to Bugs Bunny, are often shown using cross-dressing as a way of getting what they want.

Judith Butler argues that gender itself is performative: There is no original 'male' or 'masculine', and there is no original 'female' or 'feminine'. If there is no original 'male' or 'female', can there be an original 'heterosexuality' or 'homosexuality'?

Historically dance has been a male preserve in India. Women from 'good' upper class/caste families did not dance in the public arena. A certain validation was brought in by Rukmani Devi Arundale herself a caste Brahmin, who dared to transgress the social taboos with the setting up of Kalakshetra in 1936. There has been a break in tradition though, with the power-packed performances of Maya Krishna Rao who specialises in the male role. Says she: 'The male role in Kathakali is not about taking on maleness, but about creating a certain kind of energy in the body and letting it course through your veins. On that carriage of energy sits abhinaya, the gesture, the rasa that makes it male rather than female . . . the moment the knees bend and the toes grip the ground, an energy rushes feet upwards, through the legs, torso and arms and finally, but most critically, through the eyes. In fact, so much energy is built in the body but only that much flows out of the tips of the fingers, the soles of the feet, the pupils of the eyes. In fact for me, it is at that moment when the eyes widen. It is the special quality of what the actor lets flow out and how she lets it flow that makes the role male or female.' This is the moment of the Becoming.

The crossing of boundaries therefore comes naturally to a performer who then, in the ultimate sense, has no gender. Can there be a final model of masculinity or femininity or are these just notional? The unbroken tradition of gender bending is part and parcel of contemporary theatre practice. Also significant is the application of contemporary theories of gender and sexuality to canonical texts that has produced radical performances which challenge traditional interpretations of texts.

The concept of androgyne is manifested in theatre along with the strategies of 'camp' and 'drag'. Susan Sontag's groundbreaking work Notes on 'Camp' in 1964 initiated a debate among theorists for the appropriate classification of camp as an aesthetic style. Judith Butler in Gender Trouble states that 'in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself'.

Fire (1998) directed by Deepa Mehta was a bold cinematic effort at opening the discourse on same-sex love between women in India. Despite the problematic sub-text of two heterosexual women falling in love, the film nonetheless engendered great debate within the lesbian community and the heterosexual supremacists. Shabana Azmi, India's thinking 'actor' and young activist, Nandita Das gave credence to their respective roles as two sisters-in-law. Living in an extended family and ignored by their husbands, Deepa Mehta maintains ' . . . the film explores choices, desires and the psyche of people who are victims of people who are victims of tradition . . . . '

Other contemporary films like Bangalore based gay writer, Mahesh Dattani's Mango Souffle, and his recent play, ‘Seven Steps Around the Fire', have touched upon issues of bisexuality and homosexuality, where a man and a woman ending up at different points of time having relationships with the same third person.

And in this area again if Indian culture is reread sensitively there can be a break down in the notion of cultural hegemony – whether hegemony is power or co-operation, in this case we see co-operation.

1. The terms desi margi have been chosen from the musical vocabulary. Desi means folk traditions transgressing onto the nuances of tribal iconography. Margi is a more formal, structured trajectory.