A month ago I travelled from Agra to deepest Gurgaon to interview, for a French magazine, one of India’s best-known artists, Subodh Gupta. A retrospective of Gupta’s work is scheduled to open in mid-April at the Monnaie de Paris, the world’s oldest continuously operational mint. Housed since the second half of the 18th century in a neo-classical building on the banks of the Seine, the mint produces euro coins in a section of its premises, while the rest is given over to a museum displaying historical coins and shows of contemporary art.
Last Sunday, the French President Emmanuel Macron also made the journey from Agra to Gupta’s studio, for a reception to which Delhi’s art crowd was invited. Photographs of the event suggest the 40-year-old Macron was among the youngest people at the party. Like his viewing of the Taj Mahal, the evening trip to Gurgaon was a private visit, no surprise considering India’s present government has little love for the Taj or for contemporary art. If our ministers had their way, foreign dignitaries would visit only Hindu shrines and eat at vegetarian restaurants, standard routine when Narendra Modi spends a day out in town with visiting heads of government. More generally, the French government takes art and culture seriously, while the Culture Ministry has always been considered one of the most junior positions in India, one that ambitious politicians shun. No French politician would dream of referring to a distinguished actress in the manner the Bharatiya Janata Party’s new inductee Naresh Agrawal spoke of Jaya Bachchan. France and India have identically sized economies at the moment, but the budget allocated to the French Culture Ministry is 10 times that made available to its Indian counterpart.
To return to Gupta, he is not a politically engaged artist in the sense that he has never made direct political statements through his work. The lone exception is a sculpture he conceived in 2007 titled 1 KG War. It is cast in the shape and size of a standard measuring weight, but is composed of pure gold rather than steel or iron, and reads 1 K.G. WAR instead of, simply, 1 KG. The sculpture was a natural selection for his Monnaie de Paris retrospective, given the show’s venue. He conceived it as the conflict in Iraq dragged out for years after George W Bush announced an end to major combat operations standing in front of a Mission Accomplished banner on an aircraft carrier. France and Germany had stayed out of the hostilities in Iraq from the start. Led in the United Nations by their respective foreign ministers Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, the bulwarks of continental Europe stood against the unjust aggression propagated by George Bush and Tony Blair on the basis of fake news about weapons of mass destruction. The antipathy of continental European nations to rushing into war is among the qualities that make me a Europhile, a second being the aforementioned consideration for art and culture. However, there is another side of the equation that merits mention.
War as a commodity
Subodh Gupta’s 1 Kg War treats war as a commodity to be bought and sold. It is one way of looking at conflict, though by no means the only one. It is also one way, not the only one, of looking at art. From the perspective of war as a commodity, Emmanuel Macron came to India as a rich trader. He wanted to sell us fighter jets, and plenty of them. Given the literal meaning of “monger” as a trader in a specified commodity, we can justifiably say he came to India as a warmonger.
The saga of the French Rafale combat aircraft has run for so long, it might as well be named for its predecessor, the Mirage. President Francois Hollande came to Delhi in January 2016, and an agreement appeared to have been settled between India and France at that time. Then, Narendra Modi went to Paris and changed the deal’s terms, unilaterally and controversially. Now, a different French president has ended an India visit, but there is no clarity, four years into the Modi administration, about when the first fighter will arrive in India, and how much it will cost.
What we do know is that India retains its status as the world’s largest importer of weaponry. This was confirmed in the latest report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, released on Monday. In a summary of the report, an analyst with the institute stated, “The tensions between India, on the one side, and Pakistan and China, on the other, are fuelling India’s growing demand for major weapons, which it remains unable to produce itself.” Rather pathetic for a wannabe superpower to be so bereft of technological prowess that it is forced to depend upon warmongers for its war requirements. India’s weapons imports increased by 24% in the period under review while Pakistan’s decreased by 36%. France has been moving up the warmonger rankings, and is now third on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s list behind the United States and Russia, and just ahead of Germany.
The French connection
France has also played a role in fostering conflict in the Middle East, specifically in Yemen, being a major seller of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Among European nations, it ranks behind only the United Kingdom, which last week received a visit by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was interested in purchasing a few more tonnes of war.
A number of British newspapers including The Guardian highlighted British responsibility for deaths in Yemen caused by Saudi intervention. European nations like Norway and Germany have slowed or frozen weapons’ sales to Saudi Arabia, though France has not announced similar measures yet. Germany’s attitude seems odd to me. Did the nation, while selling those billions of dollars worth of weapons, put in a clause insisting they never be used, or only used in a cause pre-approved by the seller? If not, why the shock when the purchases that have kept its arms industry in good health are employed by buyers for precisely their designed purpose, which is to kill people? The stunning hypocrisy of it all is like a heavy measuring weight placed on one pan of the scales of my attitude to Europe, though the positives outweigh it in the end, tilting the balance back towards Europhilia.