Throughout recorded history, there has never been a singular definition of India. Even today, in some respects, there are many Indias.
In the contemporary art discourse, there is an India of the past and another of the present. The former is a vibrant mixture of cultural influences which marry the local with the global, the homegrown with the foreign; the latter is defined by an increasing homogeneity based on perceived cultural traditions of the dominant religion, Hinduism.
This is why, 75 years after India’s independence, the art and architecture of the Mughal era is being sidelined. Mughal art, influenced by the styles of Persia and other Middle Eastern countries
; and Colonial art, with its modern European flourishes, represent “foreign” cultures that seem opposed to the current way of thinking by those in power in India.
The trend can be seen in Bollywood movies, where Urdu, once one of the most prominent languages used in this popular mode of filmmaking, is being sidelined for Hindi, which conservative politicians want to make the national language of India, even though most of the country does not speak it. It can also be seen in the renaming of prominent roads in the country’s capital city from those of Mughal emperors to contemporary political figures, and in the planned redevelopment of the building that houses the Indian parliament, which had been done in the style dominant during the British reign. You can even see it in the ways governmental authorities have sought to disassociate themselves from the aforementioned traditional art techniques that form India’s rich and diverse past.
Yet voices of dissent in India’s contemporary art scene are also being raised against this homogenization, and Mughal and Colonial art have become a new source of fascination for artists in and beyond the country.
One artist to take up Mughal art and architecture is Ela Mukherjee, whose recent installation Tribute to a Shared Past (2022) is a series of sculptures that recreate the architecture of past dynasties.
“India is a melting pot of different influences—there are great examples of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic, and Colonial art and architecture in every part of the country,” Mukherjee said in an interview. “So, how can one say what is ours? Our culture has a varied, multifaceted plural character. I felt it was important to highlight these different facets of our architectural practices through my art.”
She continued, “I don’t want to make a political or religious message, I’m just an artist who wants to express the displeasure I feel without making it too obvious. Things have become quite disturbing recently. Why should religion govern our cultural context? They should spare the culture, the language, the practice.”
Mukherjee’s sensitivity to her surroundings stems from her personal beliefs. But for artist Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, the preservation of these art forms directly correlates to her identity as an Indian Muslim married to an Afghani Pashtun.
“My art is influenced by my place of birth in Najibabad, Uttar Pradesh, which has beautiful Mughal architecture, as well as my culture and my community,” Ahmadzai, who lives in self-imposed exile in Germany after escaping from Afghanistan, said. “Living in Afghanistan after my marriage further influenced my art. I feel it is important to preserve India’s cultural diversity through art forms because of the current political atmosphere, which seems keen to overshadow the legacy of that time.”
In 2021, Ahmadzai wrote and illustrated a series of 120 personal letters in the Urdu language addressed to her husband, from whom she was separated during the Covid lockdown. Titled Nafas, these letters became a form of self-expression where she spoke her mind on subjects ranging from personal to political. “Fortunately, the Indian audience for art is liberal and open-minded. I prefer to make my point with a dabi zubaan [being tight-lipped] and silently. Most South Asian women know how to make their point in a subtle way,” she adds.
Waswo X. Waswo’s practice also aims to popularise the most noteworthy style of the Mughal era: miniature painting. The American artist first came to India as a photographer but ventured into the art of miniature painting with works in which he depicted himself as the quintessential Firangi (foreigner). In later similar works, he took on the identity of the “White Mughal,” cheekily capturing the transitional period when the British were heavily influenced by the opulent lifestyles of the Mughals. However, the artist asserts that his work, which he creates in collaboration with traditional painters R. Vijay, Dalpat Jingar, Chirag Kumawat, and others based in Udaipur, Rajasthan, is not strictly “Mughal,” owing to the complex history of this artform.
The Mughals introduced this style of Persian painting to India, with Emperors Akbar and Jehangir being its greatest patrons. The miniaturists were Hindu and Muslim, with everyone working in harmony in the Karkhanas (workshops). Under Emperor Aurangzeb, there was a purge of the arts, and a lot of the miniaturists fled from their traditional posts to places like Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, leading to the development of different artistic schools. Waswo’s artists identify as Mewari miniaturists, even though the origin of the art form can be credited to the Mughals.
When asked about the importance of preserving India’s cultural diversity through its traditional art forms, Waswo responded, “India is a multicultural society, and I’d like to see it stay that way. Our Karkhana mostly consists of Hindu artists, who are all loving sweet people. But I also often work with my Muslim friends for my photography projects.”
Ceramicist Shirley Bhatnagar strives to preserve early Colonial art through her work. For her series titled “Ochterlony’s Household,” she recreated a typical English memento known as the Toby Jug, which depicts a misshapen sailor drinking beer. In her work, Toby is replaced with Lord Ochterlony, the British Resident to the Mughal Court during the East India Company’s rule in India, who in Bhatnagar’s words was “charmed and besotted” with what he saw here.
She said, “I was interested in these stories, and I wanted to highlight this tender but short-lived period of about 70 years in our history, when the colonizers were getting along with the colonized. This intermingling of cultures should not be suppressed. I think it’s very important to keep its legacy alive.”
The greatest challenge for artists working to preserve traditional legacies is attracting the attention of a younger audience. Tanya Singhal and Ravinder Singh leverage the power of social media to run their Instagram page Arteart, which has amassed a following of more than 11,000 users. Its goal is to make art accessible to everyone by encouraging people to find their own meaning in it, regardless of their own background or another artist’s. To this end, the account scours the archives of international museums for images of Indian art.
Many of the works posted to the account are made in the Mughal miniature style. They are paired with tongue-in-cheek text that allows users to interact with the artwork and see it for what it is: an important part of India’s culture.
One post features a Mughal miniature painting titled Prince conversing with a woman while taking refreshments on the terrace. It’s been captioned multiple times with phrases in English and Hindi, such as “What arranged marriages from the past looked like” and “Are you sure painting my nails will make me more popular in Court?”. Another post features a miniature painting called Baz Bahadur and Rani Roopmati (ca. 1800). It was paired with text reading: “There are 2 types of trips: Ones that remain in the group chats and others that make it out of those chats.”
There is no denying that the individual experiences of artists placed in the context of their contemporary surroundings play out through their art. Ahmadzai summarizes, “It is natural to get affected by what is happening around you. Political or not, things that disturb you will come out in your work, even if unconsciously.” These artists, therefore, make the perfect flagbearers for the preservation of India’s multicultural fabric.