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Beyond the exotic

Print edition : Nov 10, 2001 T+T-

An exhibition in New Delhi, 'The living religions and cultural traditions of Bhutan', unfolds the past of the Bhutanese people and shows what the future holds for them.

THE exhibition that opened at the National Museum in New Delhi on October 17 and will continue in until November 13, to be followed up by a display at the Indian Museum in Kolkata from December 1 to December 28, revolves around the concept of "The Living Religions and Cultural Traditions of Bhutan".

To an extent this theme highlights an important truth, that in most of the Third World countries folk culture and even its archaic and conventionalised form, feudal culture, are alive and have a hold on the people. The former has powerful democratic and irreverent content while the latter excels in skilled production, so both can together help build a sound basis for a new contemporary art. They can become an alternative source of inspiration to a people inevitably moving towards globalisation, instead of the consumerist culture of mass-produced conventionalities of some 13 to 14 per cent of the world's population that we have become used to as Indi-pop, blue jeans, break-dancing and junk food.

In India, we have taken on these influences with a degree of self-confidence. We still have the momentum of the national movement behind us, with practical cultural giants like Rabindranath Tagore who could reject both aping the West or sinking down to reviving feudal art forms suffering from rigor mortis becoming more and more ossified as they have to serve a class interest that is more and more outdated every day. They are irrelevant at best and barbarically oppressive in their contemporary revivalist form, as we can see from the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the attack last month on one of the world's most beautiful mausoleums, the Taj Mahal, by the cohorts of the Sangh Parivar in India or the equally savage destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban. If we are to prevent the Talibanisation of culture, it is not enough to celebrate the conventional, as the National Museum exhibition does. It could even be inimical to the survival of these cultures in future, for conventionalisation is no match for globalisation that is only Westernisation in disguise, and has perforce to be met with an ineffective and backward sectarian response that could turn people away from seeking an alternative path of development from that being purveyed by the multinationals spawning elements of global consumerism wherever it goes. Culture must be brought out of the control of temples, mosques and monasteries if it is to survive beyond the present as an ongoing force.

In India, we are not unaware of how cultural forms can be freed from religion and secularised to meet modern standards of aesthetics. There was the crusade of Rukmini Devi Arundale to free the Bharatanatyam dance form from its temple fetters, though of late events like the Khajuraho festival have tried to push these newly emerging art forms back into the feudal womb they had been pulled out of with considerable difficulty by people like Arundale. What one would like to see is what fledgling efforts, if any, are being made to free Bhutanese art forms from their feudal and monastic past and tailor them for a broader secular presence in the global art of the future. To retain them as narrow, monastic or courtly art forms is to open the door to both Talibanisation of consumerist Westernisation, which is not the best thing for the future of the culture of Bhutan.

It is from this angle that Bhutan's rich monastic and feudal tradition should interest us. Its painting, portraiture and conceptual art, bronze casting, wood and stone carving, as well as various forms of installation and performance art, have enormous possibilities. But these can never materialise unless they are liberated from their feudal and religious past and made to address civil, secular and democratic concerns.

The exhibition does make a start, though, by not merely restricting itself to live performances of monkish production and ritual. While I saw ritual objects like butter and dough images being made, thangkas being painted and sand dkhil khor mandalas being made, a live performance of slate carving is promised. There are very few practitioners of this art left, so it should be an interesting experience, as will be the demonstrations by wood-carvers and weavers. Similarly, the folk dances provide the link between the real living peasant culture of the Bhutanese people and its appropriation by both court and monastery.

Indeed, the primary role of feeding oneself is evident from the oldest artefact in the show, a stone pot dating back to the ninth century. Then there are other artefacts and textiles, but one can see how the women's scarves for wear are much more interesting than the symbolic scarves of the ruling hierarchy. The hierarchical symbolism takes the force out of the process of abstraction leading, hopefully, to the creation of what has never been created before, the ultimate aim of contemporary artistic expression hoping to extend existing aesthetic boundaries.

Once again, I was interested in finding the threat of violence hiding behind the ostensibly peaceful Mahayana Buddhism. This was evident from the Gingtsholing performance set in the paradise of Ugyen Rinpoche (pictured in a late 17th century thangka, figuring the construction of the Samye monastery), where spectators are hit with drum-sticks to purify them, or in the Jooging, in which we are introduced to concepts like evil spirits being subdued by 'hooks of compassion', 'sticks of wisdom' and even 'nooses of compassion', reminding us that vested interests always claim to do things for 'the public good', just as the U.S. President is today conducting a curious war against the very terrorists previous administrations, including his father's, had actually fostered. The U.S. stage-managed the killing of thousands of civilians in trying to impose the Taliban on the people of Afghanistan and are now killing thousands more to remove them, all in the name of public interest. One does not need to be reminded that states ruled by religious diktat, irrespective of the religion concerned, cannot do without violence. And Buddhism is no exception to the rule, as is evident from Anna Louise Strong's account of the Dalai Lama's Tibet before liberation.

Art, however, tries to transcend the conventions and ossified expression of ritual and blind faith. So when we see shrines and altars, we look beyond them to the free expression of installations and assemblings. When we see drums made of human skulls and trumpets, we look beyond to art where the artist extends his or her living being beyond the limits of spirit possession to tactile expression; and ritualised dances become mass performances and happenings. So, while we see a rich raw material for a future tradition of art, culture and expression, in Bhutan, it will have to break out of the straitjacket of religion and the court, and of course face the ultimate threat of violence that looms behind all attempts to go beyond accepted conventions. I would look then at this exhibition in terms of the promise the past and the present hold for the future of the Bhutanese people, and not merely gape at the exotic.