A Reflection

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A Summary of my Creative Project: a Reflection on Communalism and Identity in South Asia

 

More than anything, I have looked at the readings and knowledge that I’ve gained in this course through the lens of communalism and how religious communalism has both grown and dissipated through South Asian history.  I am very much interested on how religion has been used to both divide and unite the people of South Asia, and why religious divisions are sometimes overcome and celebrated, while at other times they are used to drive people apart. Inevitably, when addressing communalism, there are many complex factors such as politics, regional structure, location and outside influence that come into play. To me, the historical trend seems to be pointed towards increasing communalism, as religious nationalism has only grown stronger, while much of the commonalities that South Asians share have been increasingly downplayed over the past century.

To engage with the idea of communalism, I have made sure that each one of my creative reflections interacts with religious, regional and other forms of identity, and attempted to use each one to investigate which factors of identity are being emphasized in the particular readings I’m reflecting on.

In my first response, I have addressed the idea of a Sufi dargah. To me, the dargah represents a strong rejection of communalism in South Asia, as the spiritual space has become important not only to Muslims, but also Hindus and others. We learned in class how the sargah was and is often an important spiritual place for women, as men tended to dominate areas such as the mosque in religious life. Thus, because the dargah is important to women, it represents the primary importance of gendered identity, rather than religious identity. In thinking about the dargah, I thought back to the interview we watched with two Hindu women who were going to a dargah, and treated it as a normal extension of their religious ritual. Thus the dargah represents the extent to which religious traditions can not only coexist, but also coevolve in South Asia.

The figure of Akbar elicits similar ideas of rejecting communalism and emphasizing religious unity and respect for India’s diverse religious and traditional fabric. We have read extensively about how Akbar not only respected but also took part in many different religious traditions, and thus we can envision Akbar as an important figure for representing Pan-Indian unity and mutual respect.

The ideas represented in the readings of languages and literature also represent this theme within Indian history of accepting religious difference and celebrating the diversity of India’s traditions. Language has shown me how regional identities often rank much higher in terms of importance for South Asians that religious identity. Thus, just as the dargah represents the elevation of gender identity above religious identity, language represents the elevation of regional identity. We have seen how linguistic traditions allow different faiths to interact, and how both Muslims and Hindus use the same linguistic devices and literary techniques to express their faith. I found that the unity that linguistic tradition provides is a prime example of how faith-based identity is not always the primary uniting factor for people in South Asia.

Despite the many examples of religious identity’s secondary importance in South Asia, it is undeniable that religious identity has not had a profound dividing effect on the people of South Asia, especially during the modern period of its history. Thus, in some of my reflections, I have interacted with the ways in which religious identity is emphasized and over-emphasized in creating an identity. I thought the readings on Architecture were especially important within this discourse, as we saw how architectural styles are now addressed using religious terminology, to the extent to which building with no religious function are defined by their allegiance to a religious group. This form of labeling often completely disregards the historical nature of the building in question, ignoring the fact that it might have been inspired by, built by or used by people of many religious faiths, and distilling the entire identity of the building into a religious marker. Notably, the way in which architecture takes on a religiously communalist tone reflects the impact that colonialism and imperialism has had on the growth of religious-based identity in South Asia, as we read about how British architectural historians deliberately injected religious terms into architectural historiography in order to emphasize communalist differences in India and thus make it easier for British rule to be established.

In my final response, I attempted to present a small snapshot of the dilemma existing in South Asia between the different forms of identity. On the one hand, we have elements of Indian unity and common practice, represented by the idea of a whole India, and on the other, we have a subcontinent divided based on religion, represented by the split India. Unfortunately, these two approaches to identity in South Asia cannot be reconciled, and thus I placed one upside down from the other—it seems to me that there has been a historical debate within India as to what should be the basis of identity, and while one camp emphasized the inter-religious commonalities all Indians share, the more prominent side of the debate, at least at this point in history, is the camp that emphasized religious communalism. This communalism has been present in almost every topic of the South Asian landscape that we have covered, which is why I chose it as the focus of my creative project.

This course has shown time and time again that the Indian subcontinent is an incredibly complex environment, containing an enormous amount of people, cultures, faiths and identities. What this course has taught me most of all is, while individuals can have many different elements of their identity, it is which identity is emphasized that defines the nature of a group. This question can be answered in so many different ways, and the same people can answer it differently within separate historical and political environments. More than anything, I wanted to use my final project to investigate the different types of identity that are made primary, and ask why it is that one element of identity becomes elevated over others given a particular context.

 

Week 9: The Growth of Muslim Nationalism and Religious Communalism

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In response to the readings on the emergence of a Muslim communal identity in India, I have made a drawing comprising of two posters, each depicting pre-partition India, that show polar interpretations of Indian identity. The first poster shows a map of pre-partition India, and asks “Who Are We?” Around the image of the subcontinent I have included a range of adjectives that I would consider “cultural markers,” or elements that might make up an Indian’s identity. Thus, there are regional descriptors like Punjabi, religious descriptors like Jain or Muslim, or gendered descriptors. All of these stand around the term, “Indian,” placed within the map, to designate that Indians can claim any combination of these identities and still be India. Thus, this side of the drawing represents what I see as one interpretation of Indian identity, that of diversity and coexistence.

The second half of the drawing represent what I see as the opposite interpretation of Indian identity, the religious communalist attitude that we see emerging in this week’s readings. To emphasize its polar opposite approach from the first half, I have placed this part of the drawing upside-down. This second poster, rather than asking who the “we”, or India as a whole, is, demands, “Who Are You,” and asks the observer to pick a side. The Indian subcontinent is shown as divided in two based solely upon religion, and there is no descriptor of “Indian” to unite them, rather each side is filled with communalist markers, and terms that have been used by one side to degrade the other. Thus, the Muslims are foreigners who invaded the land, destroyed temples and forced Hindus to convert while the Hindus are native idolaters. The main point of this part of the drawing is that Indian’s are either one or the other, and their identity is completely based upon their religion, that religion defines “who you are.”

I thought that juxtaposing these two polar ways of addressing Indian identity would both shed light on many of the cultural elements we have learned about so far, and the level to which religion, often artificially, has become in many ways the most important marker of identity, even when Indians share so much that transcends religions.

Week 7: Language

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In response to the reading on language, I have made clay sculptures of the words Islam and Hindu in two regional Indic languages, Tamil and Bengali. Both of these languages appear in readings as examples of the ways in which linguistic and regional culture often transcends religious division. I was struck by the power of the Bengali language to symbolize the importance of regional identity and downplay religious communalism, as demonstrated by Rafiqul Islam in his reading on the Bengali language movement. I thought that the fact that Bengali Muslims felt more connected to the culture and traditions of their own region, rather than the trans-national Islamic culture propagated in West Pakistan at the time, was a prime example of the importance of regional identity in India. The linguistic movement itself shows how important regional culture was, as Bengalis in sited on retaining the Bengali script, rather than islamizing their alphabet and adopting a form of the Nastaliq script. To demonstrate the connection between language and regional identity, and how that identity can transcend religious identity, I have used the Tamil and Bengali languages to write the words of both major religious groups. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate how despite the fact that several religious traditions can occupy the cultural space of a language, faith does not represent the ultimate division between them. Since most Westerners cannot make out either script or language, what is most obvious to us i the religions’ shared linguistic culture, thus emphasizing unity and deemphasizing religious communalism.

Week 6: Literature

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I took my idea for this week’s response from the reading by Edward Dimock on “The Bauls and Islamic Tradition.” Inspired by this reading, I have tried my hand at making some Arabic calligraphy, based on one of the Baul’s poems. In my calligraphy I have written the Arabic words ahad and ahmad, which mean the one, and the prophet. Dimock explains how these two words were part of a common word lay in Indian Muslim culture, as the relation of the two words by a single letter, mim, indicates the close relationship between God, the one (as in there is no other), and Muhammad, the prophet. As Dimock interprets the word play, this relationship shows how, with mim as the element of incarnation, that god is constantly within man, as Muhammad is the ultimate man. I found this idea so compelling, because it indicates how language can be used, even within its very core etymological elements, to express human faith and the power of God. I interpret this message of word play as an indication of the intense spirituality not only of the Bauls, but of Indian life in general, where even the words one speaks are constantly being referenced back to God, and Gods relation to man. I thought calligraphy would be the best way to express this because the act of calligraphy forces one to intensely study and focus on the nature on a singular word, and thus mirrors the elements of language that I am trying to represent in my response.

Week 5: Architecture

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An Archeological Tour of New York City: circa 3000 A.D.

 

 

“Please follow me to our next site!” boomed the guide enthusiastically. “This particular building is a fantastic example of Protestant Christian architecture during the 20th century. Likely used for offices and business space, the building which once stood on these foundations is estimated by experts to have stood over 100 stories above ground, making it one of the tallest examples of late-Protestant architecture. Indeed, this particular building is estimated to be one of the first examples of the “skyscraper” form of architecture. The “skyscraper” form is common throughout Protestant architecture, and can be identified so by its capitalist function, which is congruent with orthodox Protestant culture. Notably, this Protestant style varies significantly from the Puritan style found in earlier American architecture. Puritan style and culture was largely overrun by the more Germanic Protestants about a century before these buildings were built, as Protestant civilization almost entirely wiped out the Puritans, who had been settled in this area for several centuries. It was not until several centuries later, with the coming of the 2nd Republic, that the original Puritan culture and style would be restored in America.

“Moving on, here we are entering what was the Catholic district of the city. Catholic culture was a latecomer to the Americas, and although we can see prime examples of Catholic architecture in excavation in the city, it is widely believed by scholars that Catholics remained a minority culture throughout this entire period. This is pretty evident when you look at the distinctions between Catholic architecture, and that of the Protestants. While often mixed within the dominant Protestant environment, these Catholic buildings tend to be much shorter in stature, and do not display the same grand features of the taller Protestant buildings. These buildings usually can be identified by their lack of elevators, red brick facades and smaller windows. What is truly interesting, is that when looking at Catholic architecture in the Americas, where it represents a minority culture, and comparing it to Catholic architecture in Europe, where its culture was dominant in many regions, we can see how Catholic culture took on elements of the existing Protestant environment, especially with regards to domestic appliances, such as dish washers or clothe dryers, which are standard elements of the capitalist Protestant culture of the Americas, but much more rare in the European Catholic world.

“As we conclude our tour, I invite you to reflect on the way we can see culture change and integration in the 20th century American world through the investigation of its different types of architecture. Architectural studies of this period can not only help us to identify the different ways in which Protestant, Catholic or other minority cultures found their own separate spaces, and additionally, how they sometimes borrowed cultural elements from one another, creating what could be described as a syncretic architectural style.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for being a great audience. Tips are certainly appreciated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the week on Architecture in South Asia, I decided to create a satirical short story to demonstrate how misguided the way we look at religion and architecture in South Asia. To do so, I imagined a future study of architecture in America, and emphasized the religious identity of the 20th century buildings being studied. In this way, I hope that the ridiculous way in which religion is over-emphasized in my fictional tour makes is obvious the ridiculous level to which 16th century Indian architecture in classified on religious grounds. For, it would strike anyone living in New York City today for the Empire State Building to be described as Protestant, or even a representation of Protestant culture, or likewise for Little Italy to be described as Catholic. Given the benefit of experience of living in America today, we recognize that religion is an important part of people’s identity, but it cannot be used as a cultural term to explain differences in architecture, food or dress. This should be more the way in which we address historical culture in India, whereby religion is taken as an element of society, but cannot be used as a blanket term for describing cultural differences or similarities.

One element about the study of architecture that I wanted to demonstrate was the ways in which it can be politicized as a historical field. In India, we saw how the British would use the study of architecture to create artificial division between Muslims and Hindus, and thereby make it easier for them to gain power. I represented this political elements within the dynamic between Protestant and Puritan architecture, with the Puritans being the “original” culture that had been overrun by the “foreign” Protestant culture, and by the fact that the “original” Puritan culture would not be restore until the coming of a new political power that re-emphasized the Puritan culture.

Thus, my aim with this satire was to expose some of the over reaching and ridiculousness that is displayed in much of the study of Indian architecture, and point out that culture and cultural diversity cannot simply be explained by religion on blanket terms.

Week 4: Emperor Akbar

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Akbar in Ecstasy

To reflect on the reading about Emperor Akbar, I have drawn a picture entitled “Akbar in Ecstasy.” I was inspired for this piece by Akbar’s very spiritual nature, and the levels to which he regarded, cultivated and participated in the rich religious fabric of his Empire. I borrowed upon themes that appeared in two other depictions of Akbar that we’ve seen during the course in order to make my drawing. The first is the music video “Khwaja mere Khwaja” from the film about Akbar, Jodhaa Akbar. I found the image of Akbar dancing amongst the whirling sufis to be very compelling in showing Akbar’s spiritual nature. I also took elements from the second film about Akbar that we saw, Mughal e Azam,in particular the scene where Akbar takes part in a Hindu religious ceremony with his Hindu wife. I found the image of Akbar being not only incredibly spiritual, but also respectful and participatory in many religious traditions to be very compelling, and I tried to represent that within my own drawing. Thus, behind Akbar’s dancing figure, you can see both the Shahadah, the Islamic declaration of faith that means “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” and the image of Ganesh, a Hindu God. My aim in juxtaposing these two seemingly incompatible religious symbols is to demonstrate the ease with which different religious traditions were able to thrive not only side by side within Indian society in general, but also side by side within a single individual’s religious belief. Thus, Akbar’s historical persona provides a role model for the Indian tradition of cultural respect and sharing between religions.

Week 3: Sufism

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For the week on Sufi influence in India, I decided to create a clay model of the front entrance to the Dargah of Sheikh Salim Chisti at Fatepur Sikri. I believe that the dargah, both as a very spiritual place, and also due to its role in culture and shared society in India, is a perfect symbol for Sufism in India. We have learned how the Sufi sects influenced both Hindu and Muslim culture, and how Indians of all religious faiths go to Dargahs to worship. In this way, the Dargah is not only a symbol of Indian Sufism, but also of the unique ways in which people of different faiths have interacted in India, and how traditions are shared between religions. Because I was given the chance to visit the Dargah at Fatepur Sikri, and had experieinced ritual life their first hand, I thought it would be the best subject for my model. I was also intrigued by the mixing of religious and political life that this particular Dargah represents, as it was built inside one of Akbar’s palaces, in honor of Sheikh Salim’s blessing of a son upon Akbar. Thus, within this particular dargah we see how Sufism deeply affected not only religious and traditional life, but also played a large role in influencing the politics of India, especially under the Mughals. By creating this model of a Dargah, I thus seek to portray the spiritual, political and interfaith significance of Sufism in India.

Creative Response

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Iqbal’s Spiritual Geography

For my creative response, I used geography as a lens to investigate Iqbal’s vision of Islam. I found that Iqbal often uses space to refer to different elements of the Muslim world, and to highlight both Islam’s weaknesses and the revival necessary for its strengthening. In my response, I have delineated three separate geographical spaces that Iqbal uses. The first is India, his native land. For Iqbal, everything wrong with contemporary Islamic belief and practice can be found within India. In effect, India is the poster child of Islamic power in despair. It is in India where we see all the transgressions and infidelity against a true Islam that Iqbal idealizes. Within the framework of India, we see how Iqbal isolates two major faults within the Muslim community: the import of indigenous religious customs and the rise of western secular culture. Iqbal sums this up as he writes in reference to India, “Christian is your mode of living, and your culture is Hindu.” I included this verse on my response because I thought it perfectly captured Iqbal’s attitude towards India, as a place where Muslim practice is tainted with indigenous customs that are contrary to proper Islam, and where many seek to model their culture off of the West. I tried to reinforce this idea with several symbols representing Iqbal’s view of India. There is the British flag, to represent western political dominance, a tea-cup and top hat symbolizing western culture’s influence on Indian society, and a statue of Ganesha to represent Iqbal’s view of Islamic practice being tainted by Hindu idolatry.

Far in the left-hand corner I placed the continent of Europe. I wanted it to stay out of the center of the image, as its cultural role in Iqbal’s poem is more tangential. Politically, Europe is both the enemy, but also a model of sorts. It is clear that, while Iqbal views Europe adversarialy, he recognized a level of cultural and religious consciousness there that he would like to see return to India. I was somewhat influenced by the quote from Muhammad Abduh, in which he laments that “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” I believe that Iqbal maintains this idea that the central idea of islam, of submission to God, is more present in Europe, and indeed is the reason why the West was able to rise to such political power. This is what he means when he writes of the “infidels who live like Muslims.” Thus I placed mostly religious symbols in Europe, including a cross and a crucifix, as well as the phrase “God is Great,” which I specifically took from Islam. Conversely, while India and elsewhere was Muslim, submission to God was lacking in the Islamic world, accounting for the loss of Muslim political power. This faith based approach to political power is central to Iqbal’s entire premise, which is why I placed the verse “nations come to birth by faith; let faith expire, and nations die” right above Iqbal himself. For me, this is the guiding premise with which Iqbal approaches his subject. Additionally, this idea contributes to my chosen them of geography. In my response, I use this central idea to tether different part of the world with different levels of both religious and political development.

Arabia presents the most complex region in Iqbal’s work. While Iqbal certainly laments the waning of Ottoman power, whose control over Arabia is represented by their flag, Iqbal mostly glosses over contemporary history when approaching the “birthplace of Islam.” Arabia is much more present in Iqbal as a romanticized Islamic ideal. For Iqbal, the oath to Muslim revival is through an adoption of Arab ways of life. For Muslims to truly follow Islam, they must “return” to the customs and religious practice of the Arabian peninsula. For Iqbal, Islam cannot be taken out of an Arab context. Even though his main object is India, Iqbal sees Arab culture as the model; he writes that “though Indian the song be, from Hejaz derives the mode.” Iqbal’s poetry is filled with references to Arabia, to Hejaz and Nejd. It is for this reason that I outlined much of Arabia in green, the color associated with Islam. I furthermore included the figure of Qais. As an Arab figure, Qais’s search for Layla, and thus for God, within himself further pushes Iqbal’s conception of Arabia as the epitome of Islam. To drive home this idea, I included the Kaaba and a man praying as two more symbols for the Islamic purity that Iqbal advocates.

In the middle of these three regions I have included the portrait of Iqbal himself. I placed him just above India, to plant him firmly in his native land, however his positioning and gaze clearly show a viewpoint towards the other regions I’ve depicted. Rather than looking inwards within India for answers, Iqbal looks elsewhere—to Europe and the Arab world. Iqbal’s position within the drawing solidifies my interpretation of Iqbal as a thinker looking outward and using geography as a framework for philosophy.

 

 

 

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