Decoding M.F. Husain

Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India, edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy, Routledge, $135.  

Maqbool Fida Husain (b. 1915), a nonagenarian Indian seminal artist with an iconic status is ironically a shining star in exile. The paradox is, that as an artist he passionately conveyed Indian culture, tradition and its sentiments; refused settling outside the country at an opportune moment in the late 1940s and early 50s, took immense pride being an Indian and developed a distinct visual language integrating Indian visual tradition with western modern stylistic ‘isms'; dimensions that spell his patriotic zeal. Husain was the core member of the Progressive Artist Group [PAG] established in 1947 in Bombay (Mumbai). His genius lay in intuitively interpreting the Western modernist vocabulary with his understanding of the folk and popular idioms. This gave his version of linear Cubist expressionism an earthy power, deftly using it to carve out a space for himself within the project of nation building. In his artistic repertoire, he moved from laying stress on themes, motifs and style to his engagement emblematically with traditional myths and motifs. His prolific output has been put to a count of more than 10,000 paintings, in addition to murals, films, toys and jewellery designs. The multidimensionality of his artistic praxis within the national milieu is insightfully analysed in the anthology Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain & the Idea of India edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy published by Routledge, 2011, in its new series based on Visual and Media Histories with Monica Juneja as its series editor.

Husain's art opens space for analysing different approaches to his works as an inter-disciplinary engagement, since his life and art are intimately woven with the emergent democratic, secular and multi ethnic independent Indian nation. It contains 12 essays that estimate critical methods in decoding Husain's art and persona through the discerning lens of scholarly art historians, art critics, sociologists, artists, curators, anthropologists, historians, activists and post-colonial authors of literature and religion. It argues, debates, and critically demonstrates Husain's formation as an artist particularly post-Independence. He has been positioned as a ‘paradigmatic Nehruvian citizen' and a ‘civilisational artist' because of his projects in delineating Indic epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, religious icons Ganeshas, Shiva, Parvathy, Hanuman; ragas, the natyas and Benaras in the post 50s and 60s.

The book begins with Sumathi Ramaswamy's Introduction: “Barefoot Across India-An Artist and his Country”, which painstakingly and, insightfully lays bare within a capsule form the contents of the book. The essays begin with Geeta Kapur's, “Modernist Myths and the Exile of Maqbool Fida Husain” followed by a knowledgeable analysis in the desecration of his images within the public domain and ending with Susan S. Bean's essay, that positions his art internationally and an interview by Bruce B. Lawrence with Husain who now lives in Qatar.

Varied angles

The book conceptually has strong academic orientation since the authors from varied disciplines have studied, debated, argued and offered perceptions about his works in a scholarly way, through engagement with various cultural and critical theories, making the reading dense, yet strikingly absorbing as it insightfully meanders through, revealing Husain's intellectual, emotional, social, cultural and patriotic approach to his works. The book makes an attempt to understand some of the ways in which Husain has engaged with India in an intuitive, determined, reverential, playful and melancholic manner; reflecting also the response of India to his works with affection, admiration bordering on adulation as well with hostility and outright rejection as his exile from his beloved country.

Geeta Kapur's essay, “Modernist myths and the exile of M.F. Husain”, incisively traces the development of his long prolific career, contextualising his modernity to align with artistic autonomy of the modern, which allowed Husain to access the vast plenitude of culture in terms of epics, visual Indian imagery etc. She scrutinizes his varied artforms from painting to flat wooden toys, paper works, murals, films, jewellery design etc. Seminally 1950s mark the beginning of his career with the painting of ‘Man' that demonstrated virtuous exploration of craftsmanly language in conjunction with his modern cubist vocabulary and grammar. Kapur explicates her idea of modernist myths referencing “Man”, which according to her “allegorizes a theme more epic than any of his other works dealing demonstrably with epics and myths, civilisation and history…”

Her extension of ‘modernist myths' foregrounds Husain's personal interpretation of the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, India's visual tradition from classical including nudes and semi nudes as apsaras and devis, to the contemporary popular and the modernist lineage. His translation of the mythic imagery, resonating as the female nude and hence the erotic, places the ‘genres' of mythology in liaison with the erotic marking the beginning of his troubles. The essay concludes with Husain's exile, which she classifies as seven different types and whose art she contends was national in content and international in form.

Engagement with the female form and its extension cartographically as the imagined ‘Mother India', which Husain explored at critical junctures within the nation is explored by Sumathi and she draws historical parallels with similar images appearing in popular culture. The concept made popular from early 1920s has become integral to the historical tradition in visual art, which ironically with Husain's delineation has raised questions and aggressive behaviour from the public and others, though his iconography loops to modernist methodology of essential reductionism, with contouring of her form to fit within the Indian map.

The analysis of Husain's works through themes and subject matter which accords him the status of a “quintessential ‘civilizational' artist in the Nehruvian mode” due to its iconography putting his art on trial marks the central theme of historians David Gilmartin and Barbra D. Metcalf. They have argued that Husain has searched for an underlying civilisational spirit, refusing to draw clear-cut lines between Hindu and Muslim. Both authors offer critical nuanced reading of the 2008 Delhi High Court Judgment by Justice Kaul, which vindicated Husain's right as an Indian citizen to paint civilisational themes but also the importance of India's free construction of its own culture and national identity by its artist. Extending the idea further Kajri Jain the Art Historian, reasons and argues the recurrent attacks on Husain's works within the context of the politics of desecration in the public sphere from mid 1980s. She questions this through the “image” rendered by a minority artist making it a privileged site for Hindutva violence, in “their choice of weapons” marking Husain's detractors as grieved victims of hurt sentiments.

Her innovative approach foregrounds India witnessing a “disturbance or redistribution in the domain of the sensible”, a disturbance which gestures towards the complex relationship between art and religion within contemporary India. There is a commonality of thread linking Kajri's essay with that of Tapati Guha Thakurta's with the former laying concerns of desecration of Husain's art within the public sphere, while the latter lays it at the threshold of elite and exclusive contemporary Indian art world for its accountability and mediation. The particular work debated upon is the Bharat Mata painted by Husain in 1997 as a cartographic image as well as his engagement with iconic religious imagery. At the heart of her argument is the concept of ‘fault-lines' disturbingly appearing within contemporary national edifice concerned with religion, art and identity.

She offers three categories of arguments, namely privileges and rights of art which should offer nudity the rightful place in modern Indian art and for its reading a different sense of artistic proprietorship. Her second argument concerns the secular status of art and the distinction required to differentiate a religious icon and a work of art within the public sphere. Her final issue is the realm of public field, highlighting the lacuna of visual and artistic literacy not just within the general public but also manifested across a large body of elite and middle class opinion. Her essay quotes works of various artists who have engaged with diverse type and kind of religious or mythological imagery as F.N. Souza, S. Chandramohan, Jatin Das, Gogi Saroj Pal, Jogen Chowdhary et al.

The burden of exile, which Husain shoulders, arose out of his religion as a Muslim artist. He had painted images of gods and goddesses from 1950s, innocently manifesting child like assumption that all religious traditions of India were part of his heritage as an ‘Indian'. He characterised his Indian heritage as his love which the anthropologist Veena Das explores. She argues why such love becomes impossible, dangerous and loving the country even more so unbearable. Her argument is centred on the capacity of art to hurt in what she terms ‘agnostic intimacy' - a structure of intimacy that over time has been contested between Hindus and Muslims. From the position of ‘agnostic intimacy' Husain's accusers have laid claims of hurting the feelings of his fellow Hindus by painting their gods in the nude. The anthropologist Karin Zeitzewitz details the reason of Husain's detractors committing desecration of his works in public spaces to the complex conjunction of art, subjectivity and politics. His ‘wilful literalism' as she characterises his re-negotiation of Indic epics meant to be read symbolically and allegorically, was used as a weapon describing him as a “Muslim trespassing on Hindu Symbolic ground”. She sustains her argument through the review and analysis of the legal case mounted against him following the exhibition of his so-called Bharat Mata in 2008.

To his defence

Yet there was defence for Husain and his works through a secularist organisation Sahmat which the photographer Ram Rehman in his essay provides a perspective of activism against the Hindutva Right, generating and gathering support from the concerned public. Rehman an active member of Sahmat postulates that his experiences in his activist struggle convinced him that there is nakedness of political calculations by non-secularist forces, for communal ends. His essay details various reactions and responses as appearing in newspaper articles, Sahmat's statement, legal notes and letters, which offers a holistic approach to activism in the defence of a hapless artist.

The sociologist, Patricia Uberoi's essay deals with the moving image created by Husain in the film medium; wherein Madhuri Dixit the Bollywood icon prefigures as his muse. Within the discursive social field she highlights the film Gaja Gamini, by Husain as celebrating the mystique of the beauty of womanhood manifesting Indian visual arts and literary tradition, and foregrounds his fetishisation of the female form embodied by Madhuri. She also reflects on the importance of Bollywood cinema in the making of Husain as a modernist which he said was ‘ultimate art'.

Post-colonial theorist Ananya Jahanara Kabir's essay debates on a Muslim artist painting in India. Her analysis draws out skeins of argument from Husain's autobiography particularly his non-commitedness on the bloody partition. She does not relegate him as a secular artist but says “his secularism is underwritten by the subject position, partition has forced him into”. She also suggests that post-Partition, even while showing an excess of enthusiasm, whereby his consciousness attempts to conceal his responses which Ananya terms “inadmissible melancholia”. The melancholia she gestures towards manifests indirectly as playfulness and jouissance which he celebrates in his art.

The book is scholarly, well researched and provides insightful information that clarifies Husain's position as an artist demonstrating his individuality and autonomy within a secular Indian state.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 6:42:11 PM |

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