23/11/2015 5:24 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Floating Jaipur Cow Helped Neither Art Nor Religion

Chintan Upadhyay/Facebook

It has finally been proven that the culture war is real and will continue until the cows come home. Or at least until they descend to the ground.

The floating cow at the Jaipur Art Summit has become the symbol of the moment where debate tips over into sheer farce. Artists who made a Styrofoam cow and suspended it via a hot air balloon found themselves hauled into a police station. The cow found itself garlanded and worshipped once it landed on its Styrofoam feet on the ground.

The blinding irony is the artists apparently wanted to make a statement about how plastic waste we casually dump on our streets ends up harming the poor cows who eat it. Those who objected to the exhibit revere the animal as gaumata. Thus both sides were completely unable to see one simple fact about each other — that both ultimately wanted to protect the cow.

“The way the cow was hanging in the air it was only sending a negative message,” said a disapproving Mahendra Gupta, SHO of the Bajajnagar Police station who has since been shunted out.

ALSO READ: At Jaipur Art Summit, A 'Hanging Cow' Is Garlanded And Artists Get Arrested

It’s clear those offended by the cow did not see a floating cow. In a pre-Dadri world they might have seen a floating cow. In a post-Dadri world they saw only a hanging cow. And in an India where an ironsmith is lynched on suspicion of eating beef, a hanging cow could perhaps look uncomfortably like a lynched cow. Context changes everything.

What our culture war is doing is taking everything, even the most innocuous events and images and reframing their meaning, seeing a “negative message” in whatever we do not like. It is so polarized between those who want to see the Narendra Modi bogeyman under every bed and those who want to see a deep-rooted Lutyens liberal conspiracy behind every returned award, that meaningful dialogue seems pointless.

The only thing these two polarized groups have in common is mutual suspicion, a suspicion that is so rancid it prevents us from asking basic questions — “What does the art exhibit mean? Can you explain it to us?” It is much easier to assume the worst and call in the police just because you did not like it and the right to get offended is our fundamental constitutional right.

Even a Vasundhara Raje tweeting that she is “saddened by the incident” does little to bridge the gap. This cow will not fly again. As Amish Tripathi writes, “debates have descended into gladiatorial matches rather than an attempt to develop collective thought that is sophisticated, nuanced and productive.”

The decades long domination of the Left and their stranglehold on the marketplace of ideas is fact. But what’s also clear is that in the headlong rush to purge it, we are replacing it with a mishmash of braggadocio and absurdity — plastic surgery, television, and airplanes in ancient Bharat and garlanded Styrofoam cows in modern India. Amish tries to show with data that female foeticide and diarrhea are demonstrably far more deadly in India than any rising intolerance, but the Prime Minister’s own men respond to the critiques with a cringeworthy 'Mera Bharat Mahaan' video which looks and sounds more like 'Mera Modi-kaka Mahaan'. Romila Thapar’s idea of history might have its bias but it cannot be dismantled by the fulminations of a Mahesh Sharma.

Aatish Taseer laments in the New York Times that though a much-needed “social revolution” has happened in India, “the people now in charge might not posses the intellectual power to run the country” because too many of them are “crude, bigoted provincials united far more by a lack of education than anything so grand as ideology”.

At the end of the entire Styrofoam cow episode, both sides are left even more entrenched in their beliefs. One becomes the object of mockery for garlanding and worshipping and singing hymns to a Styrofoam cutout. The other remains the elite who are ready to sneer at every sacred cow that “ordinary Indians” venerate. The debate is seen by one side as a “sickular” attack on religion and by the other as a “Sanghi” imposition of religion. The truth is most Indians fall in the middle — religious yet secular. They are rendered invisible and irrelevant in this grand debate about the idea of India.

The Flying Cow would just be Monty Python satire if it did not come with police officers ready to enforce the whims of the fringe. That’s where it feels like one more step off the rails as opposed to something too absurd to be taken seriously. It is absurd and funny that the power of state machinery is employed to bring down a floating plastic cow until you realize the same state machinery in another part of India is missing in action when a man is being lynched or a cartoonist is facing a mob. It is amusing until you realize that the response to a piece of artwork can go in one heart-stopping moment (as an editorial in The Telegraph says) from the banal to the fatal. The Jaipur Foot is renowned the world over as a symbol of Made in India hope and ingenuity. The Jaipur Cow risks becoming a symbol of an intolerance that’s also Made in India.

This Styrofoam cow is down on the ground but the questions it raises still hang uncomfortably in the air.

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