Appreciation of art, Narendra Modi style

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Between mocking the Congress Party for its various acts of omission and commission – no matter if it has confused its facts – and invoking the dog patriotism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi found the time during his campaign in Karnataka to appoint a young artist to congratulate him.

Karan Acharya created the popular image of “Angry Hanuman” and Modi praised him for his “magnificent art”. The Prime Minister criticized Congress for “painting it (the image) from a community perspective”. “Unable to digest his success, Congress tried to bog him down in a controversy. There is not an iota of democracy among members of Congress. A few days later, he praised an “extremely talented artist” Kshitij Bajpai, a little-known designer whose works are full of Creepy misogyny and cheeky anti-Muslim messages.

Appreciation of art is subjective and it is possible that such pictures and cartoons appeal to Modi. But in his political career, Modi has so far shown no interest or propensity in art. This is not the case with his compatriot Sanghis, whose idea of ​​art criticism is to become violent towards the artist. Ironically, one work that really angered them was a hanuman painting rescue of Sita by MF Husain. The famous artist had to face the wrath of the Hindutva elements and eventually had to leave India, his native land, and become a citizen of another country in his 90s.

Then, in the year 2000, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art was stop abruptly because the NDA government at the time did not like the book titled ‘An actor repeating the interior monologue of Icarus’, of Surendran Nair showing the Ashoka pillar. That same year, Indian diplomats in Canada opposed an exhibition of contemporary Indian art in Toronto.

The BJP and the greater Sangh parivar are therefore not known to be art lovers. It is therefore a surprise that nothing less than the Prime Minister calls a work of “magnificent art”.

The image in question, done in dark saffron and black, shows Hanuman with a wrinkled forehead, shining eyes and a scowl. The monkey god has very different qualities in the Hindu tradition, but the work projects an ultra machismo that fits well with the self-image of the Hindutva-oriented man. Acharya says his Hanuman has “a not aggressive attitude”, is “powerful, not oppressive”. Those who display it with pride don’t necessarily mean it.

Traditional Hanuman images showed him either at Ram and Sita’s feet or tearing his chest to show their images inside. In many paintings he is shown flying, carrying a small mound with the rescue sanjeevani booti, which in mythology was considered a miracle cure. (No one has actually found this particular drug and a massive, multi-crore government of Uttarakhand project to locate it has so far failed.) Hanuman is a warrior in his own right, leading an army of his fellow simians. , but seldom has he been presented as anything but a perfect devotee of his Lord, Ram. The interpretation of Acharya gives it a whole different turn.

Modi quickly understood the power of this design and the potential to use its propaganda value – on the one hand, it will fit well into the campaign for Ayodhya temple. It’s the kind of image that can be used and amplified across multiple platforms and could convey exactly the message the BJP wants today, that this is not a party someone should be messing with. The Hindu is no longer decadent; he is angry and ready to confront anyone, violently if necessary.

As it stands, Hindutva organizations have traditionally distorted Hanuman’s image to promote their own political agenda. In a recent case, Bajrang Dal activists celebrating Hanuman Jayanti took to the streets wielding swords and shouting slogans such as “Jai Hanuman” and “Hindustan humara hai ‘, a clear amalgam of religion and nationalism. Whatever the artist might say, the image was appropriated, not in a benign but aggressive way.

But despite its obvious religio-political symbolism, Modi chose not to focus on it – he called it “art”. He does not link it to Ram or Hindutva, but to artistic and creative freedom, criticizing Congress for its lack of “democracy”, presumably involving freedom of speech. With this he gave his imprimatur on its artistic merit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: BIP

Is this a first step of the BJP towards the hallmark of art? Will the party and its ideological mentors now take it upon themselves to mark what is “good” art and what is not? And will he promote his favorite artists and try to undermine renegades who challenge established notions of Indianness?

On one level, this sounds like a moot question – contemporary Indian artists have shown no inclination to question the burning issues of the day. There has been little meaningful expression, let alone protest, about the rise in intolerance. The artist community did not participate in the award wapsi campaign, and there was also no major exhibit commenting on important issues of the day, such as communitarianism or attacks on minorities. It is as if contemporary Indian art works in a vacuum, cut off from social reality, happy to be exhibited in galleries abroad. If and when a prominent artist openly makes an artistic statement on an issue such as the rise of ugly majoritarianism, we will see how the militant elements of the parivar react.

The Prime Minister’s resounding endorsement suggests that the parivar is fully aware of the power of “art” and has a clear idea of ​​what that art should be. The angry Hanuman ticks all the key boxes from a Sanghi perspective – not only is he hyper masculine and powerful in his portrayal, he’s also modern. This is clearly graphic art, possibly done on a computer, in a stylistic way that would appeal to a younger population. They may not be drawn to the fuzzy and kitschy calendar depictions of yesteryear that can be seen in homes and shops across India. No self-respecting young Hindutva warrior will want to stick a work by Raja Ravi Verma on his SUV; it seems technologically advanced enough to be used with pride and arrogance.

The use of art for ideological reasons is not new. The Soviets were attached to socialist realism which served and glorified the Communist cause. The Nazis, and Adolf Hitler personally, celebrated the racial ideal, appropriating classical Greek and Roman forms. They romanticized not only the pastoral but also the heroic. The idea was to invoke a German golden age from the past, which fit well with Nazi ideology.

It also meant that the Modernists were seen as subversives – Hitler was personally against any form of modern art and he was banned from authorized canon. In 1937, the Nazis organized an exhibition titled “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) featuring 650 pieces of modern art that went beyond the Nazi framework. This was to show which art was unacceptable and would be purged. Likewise, the Nazis eventually shut down the Bauhaus school which was developing a new, simple and streamlined design vocabulary, moving away from the fictionalized style of the past, including in typefaces.

So far, the Hindutva elements have not devoted time to art, preferring to focus on history and mass media such as cinema; they have appointed their own privileged officials to key positions who can exercise control over what is shown and what is not. Art, perhaps, is seen as too esoteric and elitist. At the same time, Indian artists have given no one a reason to be upset.

But that may soon change. With a pat on the back from the country’s tallest to a young artist for his vision of a religious figure, we can see the beginnings of what the establishment will love and what it cannot. Disapproval can reveal itself one day. Soon we could have officially approved art and our artists, safe in their cocoons, will have to make some tough choices.


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