Aaran Patel is currently pursuing a Master in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. His varied interests, including sustainable development, conservation, architecture and history, inform his practice in education, photography and policy design. The exhibition ‘Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb’ is influenced by the idea that cultural curiosity and confluence are not only integral to the progress of a country as complex and diverse as India, but also have a distinct precedence. We discussed the importance of engaging politically and socially through photography, in a space that cannot be reduced to mere documentation or aesthetic. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s start by talking about the series’ title. India is a land of so much social, cultural and ecological diversity. How do you see confluence coming through in your work?
Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb — a small series of only 6 artworks — is trying to show everyday syncretism especially through shared architecture. People from different faiths and backgrounds enjoy spending time at monuments that can’t be distinctly claimed by any one religious group. Symbols in different places of worship reflect elements of sharing, exchange and borrowing across different cultures, religions and even regions.
It’s often considered that Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb — physically embodied through the confluence of two rivers that flow through the northern plains and pour out through the Brahmaputra delta — is distinctive to northern India. But I think this idea applies across the subcontinent. For example, in Hampi there are Vijayanagar monuments configured like a lotus with arches more commonly seen in Islamic architecture.
Hampi’s iconic Lotus Mahal, part of the Zenana enclosure used by royal women of the Vijayanagar dynasty. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Hampi, 2016.
As a keen observer of changing conceptions of space in several cities, I view photography as a chance to preserve and conserve but also to explore the country. In an increasingly imperiled society, I am drawn to photographing monuments, places of worship and spaces inhabited by everyday citizens, that reflect the best of our syncretic culture.
Your exhibition is part of the digital showcase ‘Pause’ which implies a sense of incompleteness. How does this tie into the idea of India as something that’s never truly finished or fully achieved?
On a larger level, the work of building a country is an ongoing project. For me the most visionary and optimistic nationalists are those who view their own states as works in progress. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his stirring speech when India attained independence, spoke about the work that must go into ensuring that we forge our tryst with destiny. It is incumbent upon each of us, as citizens of India and an increasingly globalised world, to ensure that there’s continual effort that goes into upholding values that define the places to which we belong.
Khanqah-e-Moula: A carved wooden mosque decorated with papier-mache, which sits along the Jhelum River. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Srinagar, 2016.
The political theorist Benedict Anderson talks about the fact that any country or nation state is a community imagined into existence by its people. Museums, textbooks, festivals, sports teams — those are all essentially ideas or vehicles that we use to infuse our nation state with larger meaning. That’s why the building of a nation is an ongoing process of which we’re all a part. The 6 artworks chosen for this series are meaningful to me in terms of the spaces and moments I wanted to capture, but I’d like to continue thinking about this theme for the rest of my life.
Today there are contestations around the very idea of India. What in your life has shaped your way of seeing this expansive concept of a nation?
What’s important in your question is that we’re zooming in on a particular idea of India rather than claiming there is one idea of India. There’s a lot of scholarship and great books I admire — for instance, The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani — that pay homage to the founding leaders who have defined our country. Looking back, I think it would be hubris for even the greatest intellects to claim monopoly over any one idea of India.
For me, my exploration is very much rooted in our independence movement and the modern day framework of the constitution. Equality, justice, secularism – we can get into debates about manifestations of each, but these are constitutional promises that are enshrined for every one of us as Indian citizens. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a departure from those values in society today and a creeping sense of majoritarianism.
Subah kee Sair: Four gentlemen sit on the steps of the sixteenth-century Humayun’s Tomb after their morning walk around the charbagh. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Delhi, 2014.
Photographing each of the works in this series, while being an act of preservation or conservation, has also been a moment of surrender. I view the experiences that I had when I pressed down the shutter button as sublime moments only possible in a place as special as India. There are so many places around the world that have been touched by different influences. But the way these diverse elements manifest themselves in India is breathtaking and awe-inspiring, but also fragile. I think it’s the fragility that triggers action in terms of wanting to record it with my camera.
The word preservation makes me think of a tendency to want to document an era or time period. You also mentioned the sublime which forces us into artistic surrender. Can you speak about the tension between engaging politically and socially and also aesthetically?
At its root, the word aesthetic means to cause wonder about beauty. Scholars often call India a sacred geography. So much about our relationship with space – tying strings around a tree, infusing great meaning in a particular stone or shrine, or happenstance stumbling upon something that all of a sudden becomes sacred – causes wonder at a subliminal level. At the same time, there’s been a range of erasure and renewal in our four thousand plus years of history. To purely experience something as a special moment that causes wonder for oneself may hold us back from actually recording this continual project – that is the development of our ideas of space, and how we think about our relationships with each other.
Hindu idols placed at the iconic Parsi Gate on Marine Drive. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Mumbai, 2019.
Turning to the question about politics and art — we are incredibly lucky that there are so many precedents for every single one of these questions in our country. For example, the 16th century marked a moment of encounter between people who had been living here for centuries and the Mughals who were new to India. Those encounters produced so much incredible art.
The emperor Jahangir celebrating the festival of Holi with the women of the zenana. Source: National Gallery of Australia.
There are beautiful Mughal folios of the emperor Jehangir celebrating holi. Shah Jahan’s son and crown prince Dara Shikoh had a keen interest in Hindu philosophy and spirituality. The fact that he had the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita translated into Persian resulted in gorgeous illuminated manuscripts. There are wonderful Mughal primary sources that tell us about this time and period of exchange. This problematises notions of religious tyranny and cultural erasure.
M.F. Husain, Traditional Indian Festivals, 2008-2011. Courtesy of Usha Mittal, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
If we look at India from the 60s onwards, I particularly think of M. F. Hussain as someone who paid so much attention to syncretic India. He created many artworks celebrating India’s varied richness. I view that as an act of artistic exploration with political connotations.
More recently, we can look at the art of India’s political mobilisation in late 2019 and early 2020. The movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) embodied Nehru’s words, “when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance”. When I think about what I saw on the hallowed grounds of August Kranti Maidan and Azad Maidan, I think about Indians who want more than reductive binaries and falsehoods. Some of these banners were imaginative, beautiful, uplifting, complex and nuanced.
Protests against the CAA and NRC at Azad Maidan. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Mumbai, 2019.
One particular poster that comes to mind read, “Chai mei kesar ho toh sahi hai. Puri chai kesari nahi honi chaahiye.” Of course we want an India that reflects Hindu traditions, values and beliefs, but we don’t want the country to solely be defined by any one group. We have rich precedence for how art has been a powerful avenue for political engagement.
In school we were taught constitutional values but had nowhere to practice them. What are some life experiences that have made those ideals concrete for you?
Growing up, I went to Campion School, which was a Jesuit institution that placed a strong emphasis on secular values. In middle school, I started reading the works of freedom fighters and became familiar with how some of my family members had been part of the independence movement. That gave me a real sense of inspiration, belief and idealism. I connected with some of the great speeches written by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose; the beautiful poetry and verses of Sarojini Naidu; the eloquent and uplifting humanistic values of Rabindranath Tagore; the power of organising and mobilising from Gandhi. That got me thinking a lot about their legacy.
The second life experience that comes to mind is a trope that we find across our country – in elite private schools, affordable private schools and government schools. I was a teacher for 2 years – I worked in a municipal school in Bombay through the Teach For India fellowship. I remember, almost every day, my students mindlessly reciting the words from the preamble as just a string of sounds. In one stroke, that shattered the lofty idealism I had about each citizen being promised equality, freedom, justice and fraternity — in terms of experiencing those values for themselves and upholding those values for others.
Flag hoisting at Love Grove Pumping Mumbai Public School on Independence Day. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Mumbai, 2015
It was stunning for me that in the second grade there were students who wouldn’t share tiffin boxes or sit next to each other during recess on the basis of religion. I found that to be jarring — this duality between the poles of innocence, freedom, acceptance on the one hand and then conscious and unconscious biases on the other hand. I didn’t want to hold 7 and 8 year olds responsible for that but it got me thinking about baggage from our home environments, communities and popular culture in terms of how we think about our differences rather than what we share in common as Indian citizens.
I spent some time working with a few Teach For India alumni, staff and students on a curriculum about the constitution and democracy. One of the students on this team asked a profound question that has stayed with me. When we look at the first line of the constitution – We the people of India – who is it that ‘we’ refers to? Does it include migrant workers who have struggled so much in the last few months and been neglected by the state, does it include Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis? Why is there such a large divide between the lofty rhetoric of the constitution and people’s lived experiences?
Sabha: Morning assembly at an 8th century temple at Naranag. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Kashmir, 2016.
What is also key to our education system is the institutional autonomy of bodies that create our textbooks and formulate policies, like the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Unfortunately, throughout Indian history there have been periods of writing and rewriting history. Each ruling party has sought a narrative that’s more in line or keeping with their beliefs and values. You always expect there to be what I think of as politics of the paintbrush – one party coming in with the colour that represents their ideology and painting a little bit of the canvas with that. And then after a certain time another party with a democratic mandate comes in with their colour and chooses to paint the canvas with their colour.
Right now on the other hand, I think rather than politics of the paintbrush what we’re seeing is politics of the blowtorch – where the very canvas itself is imperiled. That’s why it’s all the more important to be, in every possible sphere, thoughtfully re-centering ourselves around our constitutional values. I don’t think India is culturally and spiritually rich because people have merely tolerated each other’s differences. We’ve celebrated, cherished and uplifted our pluralism and that’s led to so much beauty in terms of the languages we speak, the food we eat, what we wear and our incredible architecture through the centuries — from ancient Indian history through to the present.
How do you see the role of dialogue moving forward? What’s missing from the way we have been engaging with each other?
Once again, what comes to mind are longstanding examples in Indian intellectual history. Even before we were thinking about things in gender terms, Buddhist priests wrote the first anthology of women’s literature. Hindu women like Mirabai led part of the Bhakti movement. In syncretic terms, bringing these kinds of issues into everyday conversation is absolutely essential. If we separate our everyday actions from issues like pluralism and secularism, I think that’s when problems start to occur because there comes to be a hegemony of thought. There are a lot of wonderful precedents within Hinduism — so much philosophical debate and spiritual exchange — that we need to be recovering to make sure that dialogue and samvaad is part of our public spheres too.
Bhakti: A devotee swirling on the surface of the Narmada while reading the Ramcharitmanas. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Maheshwar, 2019.
I think of the first photo in my Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb series of a devotee creating circles on the surface of the narmada reading the Ramcharitmanas – what an incredibly liberating gesture by Tulsidas to take the mythology of Ram and make it accessible to people in Awadhi. Rather than it being purely in Sanskrit and discussed and shared exclusively by Brahmin scholars who had access to that language. Such gestures actually spark dialogue. If there’s a space to be curious and critical while also being appreciative of tradition, I think that’s essential to ensure that conversations continue rather than becoming static.
I found a lot of hope in the movement that opposed the CAA as unconstitutional. That mobilisation of Indians was initially led by students and Muslims, but then Indians from a range of backgrounds joined in. Listening to the speeches that different individuals gave – I think there was an invitation to participate in the project of shaping the values we want to see, in our private and public lives. I have also found it important to constantly challenge some of my own assumptions and understandings. Unfortunately there are just not enough spheres in which we can disagree, either privately or publicly right now, and that’s a sad reflection of the state of dialogue, for which everybody is partly responsible.
Currently there are intense, and often violent, arguments around who is a citizen and who is not, who is a nationalist and who is anti-national, who belongs to this country and who this country belongs to. In this cacophony of competing ideas, where do you find clarity?
Turning to history and primary sources in particular helps you sift through opinions and get to an understanding of individuals in their times. Reading the debates about some of these questions between the founders of our country – individuals like Ambedkar and Gandhi — who had huge ideological, intellectual, philosophical divides has been illuminating.
As time has elapsed we’ve come to think of India in 3 phases of history, which unfortunately borrows from John Stuart Mill’s father – James Mill’s The History of British India — which he wrote without even having come to India. In the work, he talks about there being an ancient Hindu phase, a Muslim phase and finally a British phase of Indian history. If we think about Indian history in those terms and perpetuate that narrative then what gets missed out is the elements of exchange across religions.
Najrana: Ahmedabad’s Jama Masjid. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Ahmedabad, 2016.
‘Najrana’ means to pay homage to something that existed before. From my understanding of the Gujarat Sultanate period between the 13th and 15th centuries, there were several architectural elements that paid tribute to different Hindu symbols. When you go to the Jama Masjid in Ahmedabad which is in the heart of the old city, what you first see is the very distinctive Arabic calligraphy with different verses from the Quran paying respects to the prophet. But then if you look at some of the structural elements – there are domes which are shaped like lotuses, some of the pillars have carvings of bells with chains which resemble what you find in lots of Hindu temples and Jain derasars.
Baandhana/Bandhuta: Siddi Sayed ni Jali with a palm tree representing Islam and Banyan Tree representing Hinduism. Photographed by Aaran Patel. Ahmedabad, 2016.
I cherish these acknowledgements of traditions, and how people adapted and changed while there were new rulers, customs, and traditions. I think India today, by virtue of having so many of those ranging influences, is the beautiful and complex place that is.
Limited edition prints from the show can be purchased on the Method store.