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Le Triomphe d’Alexandre le Grand Gustav Moreau

Le Triomphe d’Alexandre le Grand Gustav Moreau

At the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris hangs a mysterious incomplete painting The Triumph of Alexander the Great (“Le Triomphe d’Alexandre le Grand’). Begun by Gustav Moreau in 1880 and left unfinished, it’s incompleteness adds to its dreamlike character and how Europe saw itself in relation to India.

All the features which Freud attributed to dreams are to be found at work here. The ‘temple’ in the background, with it’s ‘idols’, is itself a condensation of all the religious building and images of ancient India (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain), combined together (from drawings of monuments at Elephanta, Sanchi, Ajanta, Mount Abu, Bhubaneshwar, and elsewhere) in a single structure. At the same time, these religions of mysticism and dread are all summed up in the giant, dark statue that stands menacingly in the centre of the picture – he seems almost to levitate – separating the foreground scene of homage, from the temple behind it “ muses Ronald Inden[1] Alexander himself, whose white clad figure dominates the foreground, at right, is the only one seated. His throne, apparently assembled out of available materials, on top of a small Buddhist chaitya, (congregational hall) and surrounded by a Winged victory, must be one of the most undetermined chairs ever painted! The whole ensemble completely dwarfs the figure of the defeated King Porus, who stands, arms upraised in salute, in his chariot before the youthful, new overlord.

The Indian idol can be seen as displaying from within itself the lower, lower emotional depths of the human mind, the imagination that, Indology tells us, dominates in India. The figure of Alexander, can be taken to exemplify the world-ordering rationality of the West. We see in this canvas, the triumph of the latter over the former, There is however, something disturbing about this dream, of the West (as there is in many of his works) that Moreau has depicted. The Kings of India, the instruments of her mind, have clearly submitted; the women of India, the embodiment of her sensuous beauty and riches, have laid themselves to the feet of the triumphant West. Yet the immense monolith hat embodies the mentality of the East, broad-shouldered and standing erect, faces serenely and over this passing moment of conquest, seemingly unaffected by it. We can also see how in Moreau’s notebook and on his easel the metaphor of Indian thought as dream collapses back on itself. Is it his dream image of India that we see or does he simply mirror what is there?

India differs because she survived repeated invasion mostly unchanged.

It is useful to compare how Sinologists describe neighbouring China.

China, say Siniologists reached its fundamental shape under 3rd century BCE Han dynasty and continued to unfold. Until the Sung period of the 13th century then survived attempts of the Moghuls to govern it after conquest. Then remained static and slipped behind the west.

India, say Indologists, begins with the Aryan invasion in 2nd millennium BCE, flowers under the Mauryas 4th century BCE then began to decline exacerbated by invasions of Hellenes, Scythians, and Turks in 1st 2nd cent BCE to 1st cent AD renascence under the Guptas of the 4th and 5th century declined again with the Hun invasion in the 6th and never reversed.

In other words, China fended off but India succumbed[2]. The myth of Aryan speaking conquest of India, Persia and the Mediterranean essential for the myth of an Aryan pure Greek civilization, so inspiring to Europeans. Nor did European mind did not seem to account the glories of Medieval India, such as Khajuraho.

Yet the conquest of India remained incomplete, like the incomplete outlines of captives and elephants centred in the foreground, of Moreau’s work.

Arabs replaced the previous cultures of the Levant, Africa and Persia, Indian civilisation , or an idea of India, remained!

Islam “introduced new forms into some of the principle departments of state” but, said Mill(Mill,1858: II, 165), “it had not greatly altered the texture of native society,”

Nehru agreed with similar observation by Arthur Anthony MacDonnell:

“And in spite of successive waves of invasion and conquest by Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Muhummadans, the national development of the life and literature of the Indo-Aryan race remained practically unchecked and unmodified from without down to the era of the British occupation. No other branch of the Indo-European stock has experienced an isolated evolution like this.[3]

India differs because she survived repeated invasion mostly unchanged. The conquerors come and go, and like Alexander in Gustav Moreau’s painting, they leave a legacy that pays homage to India.

[1] Ronald Inden, Imaginative India, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

[2] P54, ibid.

[3] Jawaharhal Nehru, 1951, p. 71, The discovery of India, London, Mridan books.

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