March 13, 2012

Maharajas and me

Last week I went with a friend to the Asian Art Museum, primarily to see the exhibit “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts”. It is an exhaustively curated exhibition, showcasing art and artifacts from several different collections, and spans the rulerships of many precolonial to colonial periods and many regions across the Indian subcontinent. The last section of the exhibit focused on the colonial era: the time when more and more kingdoms were coming under the sway of the East India Company and, later, the British government. I was surprised to find how affected I was at seeing artworks that depicted the gradual transformation in the Indian rulers’ attire, courts, and roles. Many rulers of the period seemed to have a dual role: a more traditional role (often wearing traditional garb) on the one hand, and, on the other, a role depicting their Westernizing identities (often wearing immaculate Europeanized attire, in Europe). It brought to mind the dual role I often find myself playing between here and there (the "here" and "there" having changed and even collapsed over time), and the change of clothes that often marks it.

Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore. By
Bernard Boutet de Monvel. 1929.
Oil on canvas. 

Some rulers, wearing more ornate dresses and flashier and larger jewels than their predecessors, seemed to be figureheads being exoticized and put on display by the colonial rule.

I was particularly upset by the footage of King George V of England being crowned Emperor of India in Delhi. The ceremony bore close resemblance to post-independence state ceremonies such as Republic Day and Independence Day celebrations, which, in this light, and because of the many failures of the postcolonial Indian state to live up to its ideals of democracy, equality and justice, appeared to me mockeries, false celebrations.

Until now, I have been pretty secure in my postcolonial identity and did not consciously experience distress on account of India’s colonial past: the past was past. My strong emotions on this occasion contained a surprise. I found myself wondering if—it appears to me that—colonization remains a wound in the cultural unconscious of India: a wound we as a nation are no longer—or not often—willing to look at because we think we have ‘moved on’, or ‘grown up’, or that enough time has passed.

Personally, I was interested in why this particular wound/complex surfaced for me right now. Could it be because I am engaging with the complex task of formulating my personal spiritual culture, as I explore what was and what was not my heritage in the 'East' and as I encounter 'new' traditions in the 'West'? Aligning dual or multiple roles/identities versus being typecast into the 'exotic' or the 'Westernized' remain real, very present concerns for me, as for the many non-Western immigrant/diasporic peoples living in the West throughout the world.

Jung talks about the most important problems of life being fundamentally insoluble; he says we outgrow them upon reaching a new level of consciousness. And, I believe, before a new level of consciousness is arrived at, the unconscious must bring newer buried, hidden 'problems' to the surface.

I was also thinking about what would it mean for me, in this instance, to "let things happen in the psyche." The fact that I am staying with and observing my emotions and “fragments of fantasy” and writing about them seems important. For now I will let it be at that.