THE SACRED EVERYDAY: Embracing the Risk of Difference

Curated by Ranjit Hoskote for the Serendipity Arts Festival 2018

India’s greatest strength, for millennia, has been its dynamic ability to engage with a diversity of sources and impulses, to absorb and transmute them into a syncretic and kaleidoscopic culture. This has also been the greatest strength of the religious  imagination in India. Every religion in the subcontinent has been nourished by the confluence of abundantly plural traditions, conversations across the lines of particular idioms of belief, and contributions from every stratum of society.

At a time when religion has been weaponized into a top-down, authoritarian means of stifling dissent, it is salutary to remember that the religious imagination in India has always been sustained by festive, playful, bottom-up impulses of improvisation. It was never embalmed in the singularity of a canon, but relayed in versions by agents who had a considerable measure of freedom in imagining iconography, creating narratives, improvising new stories and performing new interpretations. This is not high culture. This is not academic theorizing. This is the extraordinary character of the ordinary experience of a multi-layered, multi-dimensional, constantly self-transfiguring culture. This is the reality to which The Sacred Everyday bears witness.

The Sacred Everyday shows how various belief systems have intersected and incorporated one another’s imagery and practices. Religions dissimilar or seemingly opposed at the level of doctrine have come to share, with confidence, elements of iconography, ritual, and mythic narrative. The Sacred Everyday upholds this history, not as a fossil heritage but as an integral element of the Subcontinent’s lived experience, even in the face of a tendency towards religious polarisation and the creation of hard-edged, mutually exclusionary cultural identities. This explains our subtitle here:  Embracing the Risk of Difference.

This exhibition explores the interrelationship between the sacred – the domain of the divine, iconic, cosmic and sublime – on one hand, and the everyday – the realm of the human, intimate, individual and domestic – on the other. This interrelationship is articulated through ritual and festivity, the robustly vernacular remaking of classical material, and the interplay of the sacred and the everyday – which, in Indian culture, are not stark opposites, but twinned and interactive poles on a sliding spectrum of  possibilities. This remains true across the plurality of India’s religions, including the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Sikh, and other traditions.

The Sacred Everyday demonstrates this interrelationship across a variety of expressions, including calendar art, popular prints, shadow-puppet theatre, evocations of Mughal architecture, para-colonial painterly experiments at the cusp of Europe and Asia, masks, guardian figures and folk deities sculpted in stone, liturgical and ceremonial furniture, the recurrence of sacred geography and sacred geometry both in religious art and modernist architecture, as well as the work of modernist and contemporary artists. This exhibition includes more than 200 objects from 13 individual, family, foundation and public collections, and has commissioned works by a number of artists.

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One of the key commitments of The Sacred Everyday is to erase the constraining and unproductive distinctions that segregate the ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’, ‘modern’, ‘contemporary’, ‘urban’, and ‘folk’ into separate compartments. These academic conveniences and connoisseurial prejudices have come to dictate our way of looking at cultural production, and cultural producers, in ways that are profoundly damaging both to aesthetic experience and political engagement.

Dispensing with these categories, we can open our eyes and all our senses to the articulation of numerous local cultural realities. We encounter the unique practices that they have generated and nurtured – whether the transgressive popular iconographies of Kalighat and the chromolithographic ‘art studios’ of 19th-century Calcutta, with their cheeky reinterpretations of Hindu mythology; or the luminous sanctity of the Indo-Lusitanian Catholic sacred art of Goa, which is not reducible to any European or Indian ‘originals’ but marks a particular and distinctive form of religious imagination; or the household or cottage-industry embellishment of Raja Ravi Varma’s mythological chromolithographs with lace and other decorative details. Translation, transmutation, and transfiguration are all vibrantly at work in these historical situations.

In the same spirit, to offer other examples, we dwell here on the wooden Gomira ancestor masks of Kushmundi in northern West Bengal, the Christological portraiture of A P da Cruz, the Expressionist handling of the Christ narrative by Vishwanath Nageshkar, and the emphatically Indianized Christian iconography of Angelo da Fonseca; the neo-Tantric meditative paintings of the modernist Ghulam Rasool Santosh, the Jain mandala cosmology, and the invocation of various paradigms of sacred architecture in the stellar oeuvre of Charles Correa; the persistence of the Kumari ceremonial in the work of Vidya Kamat, the celestial absorptions of Youdhishtir Maharjan, the evocation of existential residues and percussive fecundity by Smriti Dixit, and the preoccupation of Priya Pereira with gestures of prayer and remembrance. We address the work of South Indian artists active at the cusp of late-Mughal, Tanjore and European art and Eastern Indian artists at the cusp of Dutch art and Hindu mythology in what I have elsewhere described as the ‘Indo-Euro-Persianate ecumene’ that was South Asia between the 17th and 19th centuries. Germane to our visual investigation and delight, also, are the  extraordinary cultural and political dynamics played out in 20th- and 21st-century South Asian calendar art. Observe as the Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow of Hindu lore, appears in the accoutrements of a Buraq from Islamic folklore, with wings and a  peacock-feather tail. Observe as Ravi Varma’s opulently costumed Lakshmi finds  adjacency with a Kalighat-styled Lakshmi surrounded by the technological imagery of the Green Revolution.

We will delight in the Issa-nama – a series of paintings rendered by Manish Soni in the manner of the Mughal imperial ateliers, the Rajput, Pahari and Safavid schools, and illustrating episodes from the Life of Jesus. Looking at these paintings, I am reminded that the first-ever biography of Jesus to be published anywhere in the world was not written in a traditional Biblical language or for European readers – it was the Mir’at al-Quds or ‘Mirror of Holiness’, written in Persian by Jerome Xavier SJ, the grand-nephew of St Francis Xavier, for the Mughal emperor Akbar, and published in Agra, in 1602 AD.

The Sacred Everyday is installed at two venues, the Adilshah Palace in Panjim and the Church of Santa Monica in Old Goa. At the second venue, the exhibition registers a first-ever collaboration between the Serendipity Arts Festival and a major Goa-based cultural institution, the Museum of Christian Art (MoCA).

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The interrelationship between sacred and everyday that I map in this exhibition is partially based on the model of the margi and the desi as developed by the questor Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Margi refers to the classical, elite, relatively abstract, pan-Indian cultural and religious apparatus, sometimes described as the Great Tradition (from marga, the pathway or route taken by the mriga, the black antelope). Desi refers to the robust, often though not necessarily subaltern, local and vernacular traditions of worship, storytelling, craft and poeisis, sometimes described as the Little Traditions
(from desa, the region, the organic locality).

Typically, the Great Tradition conducts its business in Sanskrit; the Little Traditions prefer the local languages. The model can be extended, by parallel and analogy, beyond the Hindu-Buddhist universe with which it is associated. In a Christian setting, for instance, Jesuit theological speculation, with its accent on intellectual culture, coexists with the emotionally polychromatic Mariolatry of Vailankanni. In an Islamic context, likewise, the austere doctrinaire approach of the Tablighi or Wahhabi coexists with the sensuous and affective forms of worship associated with the Sufi dargah and ziarat.

This active interplay between margi and desi – a dialogue between the One and the Many – has been characterised, in various measures, by synchrony, opposition, and the  dramatic reshaping of icon and narrative. The One does not always prevail. It is more often absorbed within the elaborations of the Many. In my view, this interplay is often incarnated in the sthala-purana, the place legend – which, even as it absorbs the abstractions of the margi, is resolutely and even intransigently committed to the specificities of the desi. This exhibition invites its viewers to savour a variety of such sthala-puranas, place legends that inform – and form – our polyglot, unpredictable, paradoxical, porous and mercurial South Asian modernity.

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