The Thing About the McAloo Tikki Burger and Emperor Jehangir…
…Is that you can mistake both for being representatives of imperialism, unless you look closer. But we weren’t colonised by America even though they kept trying. McDonald's came to India and had to McAloo tikki itself and yes, then they did manage to sell the idea of instant food.
The best way to tell that Mughal Emperor Jehangir was quite a lot like the McAloo Tikki is by looking at pictures and objects at the time he lived.
Here he is, in the year 1620, staring at a portrait of the Virgin Mary.
But aren’t Muslims not allowed portraiture you ask? Wasn’t Jehangir an evil Islamic despot? Is this picture even real? It’s easier if I answer the third question first. Yes, the portrait is real. It is housed in the National Museum and was on display until earlier this week as part of an exhibition the museum held in conjunction with the British Museum and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalya (CSMVS) in Mumbai. The exhibition was called India and The World – A History In Nine Stories. It was on exhibit at the CSMVS first, for three months and then at the National Museum in Delhi for another three. Now you can catch glimpses of it here and here.
Think about the picture of Mughal emperors that the right-wing has painted for us today – blood-thirsty, rapacious bigots. Then contrast it with the picture you see before you. An emperor gazing at a revered figure from another religion.
There are other images worth looking at alongside Jehangir gazing at the Virgin Mary. In the section in the same exhibition called State and Faith, were coins in gold from the Gupta period – AD 335-80, from the CSMVS museum.
In a book accompanying the exhibition, published by Penguin, the coins are described as follows: “The visual language of Hinduism was established in the Gupta period around AD 400. The coin from Samudragupta’s reign shows a horse before a sacrificial post on one side and the queen with a flywhisk on the other. The horse is symbolic of the Ashwamedha yajña, an elaborate, and very public, Vedic rite of kingship that was revived by the Gupta kings to assert themselves as a Brahmanical monarchy.”
Mix religion and ruling because that was the only way to make ‘the burger’ in those days.
Look further at these gold coins issued by the Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus in AD 475-76, on display from the British Museum.
There is the emperor’s face on one side and the cross on the other, indicating how the state and faith were inextricably linked in Rome as in India under the Guptas.
It’s fun when the past turns out to be as unpredictable as the present. Look at this picture from Ahmadnagar, 1605-10, an African nobleman in India, on display from the National Museum. This is the portrait of Malik Ambar or possibly his son. Ambar’s story is fascinating. Here’s how the exhibition described him.
“Malik Ambar was born in Chanbu (or Shan-bu) in Ethiopia and sold into slavery as a young boy. He was eventually brought by his owner to Ahmadnagar where he served in the military. Here, his talent was noted and, on being freed from slavery, he rose to become prime minister and general of the Deccan sultanate of Ahmadnagar. The long Deccani sword, and the green writing case attached to the red belt make clear the instruments by which he lived his life. He became a thorn in the side of the Mughals, who were unable to capture Ahmadnagar despite twenty-six years of expensive and constant effort.”
Sometimes, pictures in their right context can make you wince. Like this hand – an installation piece made by the Raqs media collective.
Made in 2011, this work is called `The Untold Intimacy of Digits’ and is an animated hand print of a Bengali farmer called Raj Konai. But it isn’t just there because it’s a hand print. This is “the earliest impressions of a hand made by a person in power to identify and verify a human subject,” said the exhibition label. “It was taken in 1858 in lieu of a signature under the orders of William Herschel, a revenue official with the Government of Bengal, as a means of colonial control.
This work links the colonial past with the present concerns of global mapping and the recording of each person through technology.” That last line in the label is crucial. “Links the colonial past with the present,” it indeed does, bringing us back to the whole question of the burger as imperialism.
There’s a question being dropped on our plates in this tour that is important because it is so political. These prints affect us all.
There is this way in which a throwback to the past is disturbing because it contrasts so sharply with the distortions of the present. Look now at the Futuh al-Haramayn from Gujarat, 1548 AD, on display via the National Museum.
This beautiful visual guide from medieval Gujarat. The exhibition points out that this is one of the earliest examples of a guide for Muslims going on the annual Haj. Commissioned by the ruler of Gujarat at the time – Mahmud Shah the 3rd. Contrast it with the Gujarat of today, where many Muslims say they still live in fear, after the violence committed against them by Hindu mobs in 2002.
At a time in Gujarat where the ruling party and its affiliates valourise everything Hindu and give the impression of emasculating Muslims, there seems to be a deliberate erasure of history that contains anything Islamic; where the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has re-christened itself Amdavad.
Since there weren’t two founders and there was no Amda, only Ahmed, your guess would be as good as mine.
That’s why you and I need to look longer, and harder, and closer – for those McAloo tikkis wherever we can find them – before Big Mac comes in and homogenises them.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and filmmaker based in Delhi. She tweets@revatilaul. This is a personal account. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)