How does one talk about the Taj Mahal? Is it the kind of beauty that would help us defy the tyranny of cliche—and even politics? Apparently not. It seems we are not supposed to take it for what it is. A complex beauty that speaks of everything that we are. A thing that contains all our depredations, and creates something that surpasses all of that.
Even Sahir Ludhianvi’s socialistic take on it—recalling the labourers who built it—rested, ultimately, on the consensus that what was built surpassed its circumstances of creation. No theory about the circumstances of its building can adequately explain the sheer aesthetic effect on those who view it. Should we abandon that and see it as a sign of slavery? There is one fact that civilisational partisans of all hues could take on board, whether they like to associate themselves with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or any other world religion. No civilisation really lives up to its name. The bedrock assumption in being a ‘civilisation’ is being ‘civil’. Which, by definition, alludes to an attitude one adopts towards others, especially those who are not seen to be ‘People Like Us’.
All civilisations were built on slavery. There would have been no pyramids, no Egyptian civilisation, no Roman civilisation, no Pax Romana, and certainly no modern Western civilisation without slavery. The classical Indian culture that all of us proudly take to be part of our identity—often without any familiarity—would, on examination, prove to be a hybrid, and rich and robust precisely because of that. India must not fall prey to European diseases all over again. Any idea of nationalism has to account for our hybridity. The foundational irony in thinking that a civilisation is about the sophistication of one's own culture is that one does not admit the sheer plurality of encounters that has to go into the making a ‘culture’—not to speak about the power necessary to accumulate the surplus capital necessary to create a Taj Mahal.