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A new show looks at the ‘othering’ of Muslims

A narrative centred on ‘chaar baghs’ highlights the contribution of the Mughals to our art, culture and way of life

'Making Space' (2023), mixed media, by WOLF
'Making Space' (2023), mixed media, by WOLF

For the Mughals, the idea of jannat, or paradise, was a garden. Beautifully designed, mostly square or rectangular spaces, divided into four sections, also called chaar bagh, these dot several cities. The chaar bagh of the Taj Mahal in Agra, at Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi or the stand-alone gardens in Srinagar, such as Nishat Bagh, and the Shalimar Garden in Lahore, Pakistan, represent an earthly utopian experience where humans are in perfect harmony with nature.

The Surya and Ritu Singh-led co-creative Wolf Jaipur draws from these rich, harmonious gardens to question the “othering” of the Mughals and the Muslims in our country today, in their ongoing exhibition, Meet Me In The Garden, at Mumbai’s Sakshi art gallery. It’s co-presented by Srila Chatterjee of Baro Market, an online art and crafts bazaar, and the gallery.

Wolf Jaipur’s 20 installations, put together from scrap, the only material they work with in their artistic practice, tell stories of the Mughals, of how their art, textile, craft, music tradition and gardens are so intrinsic to what we recognise as the culture of India. The bagh is also referred to in India as being one big garden where people from all religions have always lived together. The artists pose a pertinent question: Despite all this, why “other” the Muslims?—a reference to the growing religious intolerance in the country.

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The Jaipur-based co-creative received scrap from a jaali-making factory in January 2020 and started making metal flowers, following their practice of shaping narratives through forests and gardens. It was during one of their frequent visits to the chaar bagh of Jaipur’s Amber Fort that the theme of the exhibition was conceptualised.

“It was, perhaps, the first time we were seeing the garden at Amber in the background of the growing intolerance towards Muslims in the country,” says Ritu. “All our karigars (craftsmen) are Muslims and we are worried for their safety. This growing divide between Hindus and Muslims was bothering us. It was time to speak up, and what better way than with flowers,” she adds.

The 16th century Amber Fort built by Raja Man Singh is a perfect mix of the Hindu and Muslim coming together. It was under the aegis of Mughal emperor Akbar that the raja made enough money to build an impressive structure like Amber, a mix of Mughal and Rajputana architecture.

In Mumbai, Meet Me In The Garden starts with Babur, the first Mughal ruler to come to India, and ends with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the 21st and last king of the dynasty.

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The shiny glass and metal suitcase of Babur overflows with intricate metal popeye, carnations, tulips and a variety of roses, which the ruler introduced in India. “He brought the idea of chaar bagh, his paradise, to this land,” says Ritu. “Then why have we forgotten their immense contribution to architecture, textiles, art and craft and all other beautiful things that the Mughals brought here and how it has all become an integral part of our country?” Not many know that the marigold, or genda phool, that is used in pujas and wedding decorations in our country was brought here by the Portuguese but propagated by the Mughals.

So passionate were they about their gardens that the 17th century book, Mirzanama, describes how a king must treat his gardens, when he must pluck a flower for himself and when for his lover. “We think of flowers and gardens as a woman’s domain but the Mughals showed us that men can love fine and tender things too,” says Ritu. “I wished we remember all of the good things that the Mughals taught us,” she adds.

Zafar’s suitcase is a contrast to Babur’s. Turned upside down, with just a few flowers, it depicts how the last Mughal emperor, lying in an unmarked grave in Rangoon, Myanmar, was left with nothing but flowers.

The many rulers of the empire made India their home. They never left. “Yet they are perceived as the others,” says Ritu. “We call the Englishman the coloniser. We accept them, we all speak in English, so why so much hatred towards the Mughals?” she asks.

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At the exhibition’s preview in Jaipur, a young girl from one of the Scheduled Castes approached Ritu, thanking her for putting this show together. She told her that after they are done with othering the Muslims, they will intensify the discrimination against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. “I had never thought about that but I got goosebumps when she said that,” says Ritu.

It’s probably true. “The politics of divide and rule, a gift of the colonisers, is like this wound that we keep scratching,” says Ritu. “But we all need to speak up against it. I hope more people do.”

At Sakshi Art Gallery, Colaba, Mumbai, till 7 October, 11am-6pm (Monday-Saturday).

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist and a Kathak student.


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