Friday, February 10, 2017

"Visions of Ourselves" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (11 February 2017)

Exhibitions in the cities of Panjim and Paris prove the need for art curation that heeds history and Goans themselves.

In The Rape of Europa (2006), a documentary about World War II-era efforts to protect European art from the looting Nazis, there is a striking segment about St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, Poland. Its storied altarpiece had been dismantled and taken to Nuremberg by the Germans. This loss was not only that of an artistic legacy, but that of the community’s heritage. When sculptor Veit Stoss’ Gothic masterpiece was unveiled in the fifteenth century, the Polish were awestruck. But it was not religious wonderment they experienced as much as a sense of familiarity. The icons that constituted the altar looked like them, ordinary Poles. Stoss had used his neighbours as the models for his creation.

In December 2016, for the first time in my life, I entered the Palácio Idalcão, recently thrown open to Goans after years of having been off-limits due to renovations. Beautifully restored, the nearly half-millennium old building overlooking the Mandovi river in Panjim, was the site of an exhibition that constituted the Serendipity Arts Festival 2016. As in Kraków, ordinary folk in Goa would have been able to see people who looked like themselves in an artistic setting. On exhibit was a set of vintage photographs titled “The Way we Were”. Curated from the archive of Souza & Paul, a studio still in existence in Panjim and whose origins date back to the late nineteenth century, many of the images were on view publicly for the first time.

While art and exhibitions of it delimit viewership by class and social status, the situation of these historic photographs in the iconic building in the capital city of Goa denotes the importance of creating public spaces in which Goans can appreciate their own artistic heritage. There has been talk for some time now of the Palácio serving as a permanent museum of specifically Goan art, but one wonders why it took an effort from outside Goa to create the exhibition being discussed here. A museum at the Palácio would go a long way in bolstering art appreciation and education in Goa, but it would also re-enliven engagement with Goa’s history. When I asked the person that gave me a ride to the exhibition to drop me off at the Adil Shah Palace, he looked at me quizzically. “Old Secretariat”, I clarified. 

Certainly, the Palácio’s function as the former site of the Goa Assembly is one that is far more recent than its having been the viceregal residence during the Portuguese era, or Adil Shah’s summer palace until his ouster by the Portuguese in 1510. Yet, the erasure of the edifice’s erstwhile name from public memory, and the absence of any prominent signage to mark the building’s originary title, evidences the ongoing amnesia around and deliberate eclipsing of Goa’s Islamicate heritage. The ability of museums to serve as public spaces through which to propagate such learning was made apparent at an exhibition I visited at Paris’ L’Institut du Monde Arabe, or the Arab World Institute (AWI).

The AWI exhibition “Ocean Explorers from Sinbad to Marco Polo” (15 November, 2016 to 26 February, 2017) puts on display objects associated with the history of medieval and early modern seafaring. Prominent among these are elements specific to Goa and Iberian history as they relate to the Islamicate world. As one of the exhibition notes explains, the European search for oceanic routes to the Indies was largely predicated upon undermining the centuries-old “sea trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean [which] was controlled by the Muslims … Right at the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese began to sail in the Indian Ocean…” Consequently, there was a rise of exports from such places as “Goa and Iznik [Turkey], [where craftspeople] began to work in a semi-industrial way to produce the goods destined exclusively for external markets. This … established new dynamics, laying the foundations for the first phenomenon of globalisation”.

Items such as an ornate late-seventeenth century chest with inlay work, exported from Goa, serve as proof of the region’s involvement in this global circuit. Simultaneously, the influence of Goa’s contact with other parts of the world is to be seen in various artefacts. Chief among these is a sixteenth century marble tombstone from Goa (on loan to the AWI from Lisbon’s Society of Geography Museum), which bears inscriptions in Roman and Arabic scripts in addition to calligraphic design. It struck me that one had to come to Paris to see such instructive examples of Goa’s past.

Part of the educational experience was the level of detail in the curation, something which was sorely lacking at Serendipity. For instance, many of the Souza & Paul images were presented sans dates and with dubious information about the subjects. “Christian Man” a note would say, as if the subject’s ‘Western’ garb would be enough to derive such information. As Goan art historian Savia Viegas demonstrated in “Moments, Memory, Memorabilia: An Exhibition of old Goan Photographs”, which she curated at the Xavier Centre of Historical Research in December 2015, even Catholic subjects would sometimes affect ‘Hindu’ style in order to demarcate their caste standing. The curators at Serendipity, it would seem, needed to have done a little more homework.

When Stoss’ altarpiece was rescued from Nuremberg, it was returned to its rightful owners, the people of Kraków whose likeness the sculptor had captured. Likewise, the Idalcão belongs to the people of Goa. That it could serve as the site of preservation and propagation of Goan art can only be a vision fulfilled if it also involves those whom that art represents.  

From The Goan.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Toxic Nationalism and the Diaspora" in THE GOAN EVERYDAY (30 October 2016)

As the date of the U.S. General Election draws nearer, Trump and Hindu Nationalists find favour in one another.

Goans can breathe a sigh of relief that the once most famous South Asian American Republican, the arch-conservative Dinesh D’souza, has all but slunk away from the public eye, owing to the fact that he was found guilty of campaign finance violations. Instead, while that son-of-Goan-soil attempts to shill yet another book about what he believes to be wrong with American politics, from the comfort of the Internet, other South Asians have taken up the mantle of embarrassing subcontinental people in the homeland and abroad.  

Enter the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC). In an event they hosted for U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump in New Jersey a fortnight ago, the RHC put on a clownish display that melded Bollywood, Islamophobia, and patriotism. Though several Indian American attendees were surprised to see Trump at the spectacle, which was billed “Humanity Against Terrorism”, perhaps their first clue that something wasn’t right should have been that the programme was presented by an organization that calls itself the Republican Hindu Coalition. Describing the affair in The Concourse as one where “Hindus and Trump Rallied together in a Xenophobic Fever Dream” (21 October), Giri Nathan marvels at how the “fundraiser for ‘victims of terror in America and around the world’” managed to “somehow set a new standard for surreality in the present election cycle, with a Donald Trump keynote speech bookended by hours of Bollywood song and dance”.

But not to be outdone by his hosts, Donald Trump upped the oddness ante by proclaiming, “I am a big fan of Hindu [sic], and I am a big fan of India!” As Eesha Pandit remarks in an article for Salon (22 October), Trump would be given to such effusiveness, since “[t]here are more than 4 million South Asian Americans currently living in the United States, and approximately 67 percent of them, or 2.7 million, are U.S. citizens. Additionally, South Asian-Americans are one of the most politically active ethnic blocs”. Trump went on to announce that if he was elected, “the Indian and Hindu community will have a big friend in the White House”.

Undoubtedly, the lynchpin in this unholy alliance between overseas Hindu nationalism and Trump’s pro-Hindu/Indian American stance is the Islamophobia both sides share. In The Guardian (17 October), Rashmee Kumar quotes Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan as saying of the RHC-Trump event that its “celebration of Diwali suggested that attendees were mostly upper caste…” In addition to a lamp-lighting ceremony, the audience was also treated to some sort of performance where make-believe terrorists and U.S. soldiers duked it out. The show was very much in keeping with Trump’s virulent anti-Muslim campaign, but it also speaks to Hindu Indian nationalism which posits Muslims as the other to the Indian nation.

That this then also appeals to the Trump-supporting Indian American, even if a miniscule demographic at just seven percent, bears witness to the perpetuation of toxic Hindu nationalism within the Indian nation-state and its diaspora. Further, in seeing India and Indian Americans only as Hindus, Trump additionally borrows from the community’s own self-presentation as manifestly upper caste and the authentic arbiters of Indianness.

Multiple incidents of post-9/11 xenophobia in American have shown that time and again racists cannot (and do not want to) tell the difference between Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, Latinos, Sikhs, Hindus, or anyone ‘foreign-appearing’ for that matter. Despite this, that the RHC would court a man whose supporters wish to “Make America Great Again”, which is euphemistic for making it White Again, is proof of a dysfunctional relationship. Equally enamoured, Trump has just released a campaign video in which he attempts to woo Indian American voters by speaking in Hindi. Maxwell Tani reports in Business Insider (27 October), that “[t]he ad prominently features an image of [Indian Prime Minister] Modi as well as Trump's take on Modi's popular campaign slogan, ‘Ab Ki Baar Trump Sarkaar,’ or, ‘This Time, We're With Trump's Government’”. Given Modi’s own history of drumming up Hindutva, this is not just the stuff of coincidence.

As can be seen by the commentators I have cited above, many South Asian Americans have actively voiced their disdain of the RHC ‘fundraiser’ and Trump’s odious pandering to the religiously nationalist sentiments of Indian American voters. In a similar vein, a video crusade titled #VoteAgainstHate has begun making the social media rounds in an effort to educate “long-time Republicans and unaffiliated voters, particularly of immigrant heritage, to vote against hate by not voting for Donald Trump”. In the version of the video aimed at South Asian American voters, several younger generation Americans of subcontinental heritage address their elders and remind them of their immigrant hardships and desires for a better life. “You guys are the American dream”, one of the speakers states emphatically in a plea to those who fail to see that Trump’s America is a dangerous one. 

But while the video does well to point out to South Asian Americans that casting their lot with Trump would be a disservice to immigrants, it does so by relying on the unquestioned belief in the homogeneity of the South Asian American community, particularly along the lines of class privilege as epitomised by the constant references to the American success stories of this demographic. Not only is this an overstatement which essentially reads Indian Americanness and, likely, caste privilege, onto the diversity of South Asian America, but it also doesn’t delve into the very elitism and Islamophobia in the community that has drawn Trump to it. It is not until this community begins to ask difficult questions of itself about its investment in caste privilege and nationalism that change can occur.

From The Goan.