PostColonial Skins

in homistan

In the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, also known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, lives an unattributed 17th century Mughal painting of Madonna with Infant Jesus.

The Royal Mail decided that the painting was cool enough [and it sure is] to put it on their 2005 Christmas Stamp collection – along with a Haitian, Aboriginal, Native American and Italian madonnas.

The Hindu Forum of Britain, on the other hand, thinks this is really uncool:

Royal Mail sources claim that the original painting printed on the face of the stamp is dated 1620. While many people doubt the authenticity of the age of the painting, we believe that even if this were true, it would be insensitive to use it at a time when the issue of conversions in India has been a subject of heated debate. Even if we accept that an artist in 1620 AD took the artistic license to portray practising Hindus worshipping the Baby Christ, we should be asking if this is politically and sensitively correct in the 21st century,” added Ramesh Kallidai. “We therefore urge the Post Office to withdraw the 68 p stamp immediately or issue a redesigned version that does not have the Hindu markings on the foreheads of the two characters in the stamp.

Come on, folks. Is Valmiki’s Ramayana written in Qur’anic calligraphical style also insensitive? And “redesigned”? It is not a “design” to begin with! I know that the Hindu-kitsch is over-the-top and offensive. I don’t like seeing Ganesh on underwear or on Madonna’s forehead either. But, there is a difference between a marketing exec’s decision to stamp “Indic designs” to sell the allure of the East and the Royal Mail’s quite well-intentioned celebration of the universality of human faith. I am not a Christian. But, I dig.

With Yom Kippur, Diwali and Eid overlapping this year, perhaps, we can all celebrate the ways in which our histories intersect rather than collide.

I beg of my UK readers to drop me a postcard. With an appropriate stamp:)

update: From Gauvin Bailey’s The Indian Conquest of Catholic Art: The Mughals, the Jesuits, and Imperial Mural Painting*:

After inviting the first Jesuit missions to court in 1580, Akbar ordered his artists to paint hundreds of iconic portraits of Jesus, Mary, and a panoply of Christian saints in the styles of the late Renaissance to adorn books, albums, jewelry and even treaties. These images were used in court rituals and major royal festivities such as coronations. The dramatic culmination came when imperial throne rooms, harems, tombs and gardens were prominently adorned with mural paintings of Christian figures. Astounded and delighted, European travelers wrote home declaring that the Muslim regime was on the verge of conversion. They could not have been more wrong. Far from capitulating to Western cultural superiority, the Mughals took European material culture and put it to work for themselves.

Bailey goes on to describe the various uses Akbar had for the Jesuits and pointedly notes that such indiginized paintings and murals were “intended only for a the select group of elites who gained entrance to the Hall of Public Audiences” and not to “offend the religious sensibilities of the general public”.

So, there you have it folks. All is Akbar‘s fault.

* Art Journal, Vol 57, No. 1, The Reception of Christian Devotional Art (Spring 1998), 24-30.

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