A rich perspective of the artist and his personal proclivities and professional prolificacy
The Indian state and that cross section of enabled and privileged civil society that is ostensibly committed to the liberal principle stood permanently diminished on June 9, 2011 when the grand old man of Indian art — Maqbool Fida Husain (b. 1915) — died as an ‘exile' in London.
Husain and some of his better known paintings of Hindu deities have been at the centre of an abiding controversy for the last two decades when he was charged with hurting the sentiment of the majority Hindu community in India through his rendition of certain sacred figures in the nude. The origin of the controversy that ultimately led to Husian's exile from the land of his birth began in 1996, when a drawing by the artist of the Hindu goddess of learning and knowledge — Saraswati — drew the ire of the right-wing. Paradoxically, the drawing in question was actually done in the mid 1970's and became the object of public scrutiny and censure only in October 1996 by way of an essay in a Hindi language magazine published from Bhopal. Soon thereafter, members of the Bajrang Dal vandalised Husain's work in Ahmedabad and the Mumbai police filed criminal charges against the artist.
Husain became a marked man after this incident and was harassed ever since and his exhibitions disrupted. Finally in 2006 the artist decided to leave India and moved to Qatar. Peripatetic till the end, Husain travelled the world but retained his links with ‘home' and in what must have been an anguishing decision — he forfeited his Indian citizenship in early 2010.
The politics of Husain's self-imposed exile in the face of various criminal and defamation charges filed against him have been the dominant theme in the documentation around the artist and the more critical and rigorous evaluation of his oeuvre has been modest. This volume makes a substantive contribution to redress this gap and the editor Sumthi Ramaswamy, a Professor of History at the Duke University, U.S. is to be commended for her perseverance.
The contestation about Husain has dogged the book as well and as the editor laments: “It is ironic — but telling — that a scholarly volume exploring the entanglement of the artistic imagination in the cultural politics of risk should itself be placed at risk … subjected to the unaccountable fears of those who refuse to be on the right side of history.”
Planned for release in September 2010 to celebrate the 95th birthday of the artist, the volume finally saw the light of day in 2011 — first as an international edition — being the inaugural issue in the new ‘Visual and Media Histories' series; and then in India under the aegis of the Yoda press. Derived from a conference held in April 2009 at Duke University, the 13 chapters by accomplished scholars offer a multi-disciplinary perspective that locates and identifies — but goes beyond the controversy around Husain that began in 1996. In her preface to the volume, Monica Juneja provides an insightful context to the controversy over Husain's rendition of the goddess Saraswati. Suggesting that while genuflecting in the direction of art as sacred image, the image is cast “in the modernist language of autonomy and irony.”
Analysing the female form and Husain's preference for the stretched line, Juneja notes “for all its suggestive erotic power, Husain's drawings resist the gaze … visual access to the figure is mediated through traditional attributes, only to be then denied, for the rendering conforms neither to the habitus of Western modernism not (sic) to local Hindu practices of the sacred gaze.”
Yet the stern ‘gaze' of his virulent critics and the effete response of the Indian state to uphold the creative right of the artist led to the ignominy that followed and Ramaswamy asks in aguish: where is ‘home' today for the embattled artist ? Her lucid introduction maps the “complicated career” of the artist against the trajectory of independent India as a “democratic, secular and multi-ethnic nation”. In many respects Husain epitomised the Nehruvian vision of the secular Indian and was the recipient of state munificence — though he attracted considerable criticism for his uncritical endorsement of Indira Gandhi and her authoritarian excesses. The 12 articles that follow offer a very rich and rewarding multi-disciplinary perspective about the artist and his personal proclivities and professional prolificacy — across a range of disciplines — including the celluloid foray, with Madhuri Dixit as the object of the infatuated Husain ‘gaze'.
The individual contributors provide very persuasive and rigorous analysis of Husain and his many facets and the list includes Geeta Kapur, Veena Das, Ram Rahman, Kajri Jain, Patricia Uberoi and an equally accomplished set of foreign scholars. Two perspectives that I found very stimulating were the exploration of ‘Fault-lines in a National Edifice' apropos the rights and offences of contemporary Indian art by Tapati Guha-Thakurta; and the location of Husain as an ‘Indian Muslim artist' by Ananya Jahanara Kabir in the framework of the ‘Secret Histories of Indian Modernism'.
Was Husain accepted as an artist of stature by the West? Was he accorded the mantle of being a ‘modernist'? These issues have been persuasively addressed by Susan Bean while the Husain extrapolation of da Vinci's ‘Last Supper' is the subject of Bruce Lawrence's interrogation of the artist as a ‘metaphysical secularist'.
Ramaswamy and her team have rendered yeoman service to the public discourse in resurrecting the ‘exile' in an empathetic yet critical manner — but a thought lingers. Would this volume have been further burnished if the critics of Husain had been given an opportunity to present their views? Synthesis and accommodation of divergent views can only come through sustained dialogue and India has failed the test in being able to nurture the spirit of tolerance and normative liberalism in the public sphere in the face of the provocative.
Perhaps the ultimate though partial redemption would lie in mounting a major retrospective of Husain's vast body of work to mark his birth centenary — including the ones that led to the artist's final internment in a ‘zameen' that was foreign.
BAREFOOT ACROSS THE NATION — Maqbool Fida Husain & The Idea of India: Edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy; Routledge, 915-917, Tolstoy House, 15-17, Tolstoy Marg, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1950.