Sadanand Menon


The moment of M F Husain’s death is sombre and we could do with a serious self-evaluation of where we stand with respect to our arts. The hounding out of a 90-year-old painter who was constantly striving to make us look at ourselves from a multi-cultural, secular, syncretic perspective, and our failure to ensure his return before he passed away five years later, should worry us about where we are heading as a nation. The fact that India could not see itself through the eyes of Husain and, instead, interpreted his epiphanic invocation and celebration of our civilisational diversity as something narrow and divisive, points to the rapid thickening and blocking of our national arteries, constricting the openness we so hypocritically assume as our cultural credo and hastening the spread of iron in the soul.


Most media tributes to Maqbool Fida Husain, the flamboyant senior citizen of Indian modern art who passed away, aged 95, in a London hospital on 9 June, refer to him encapsulating the “spirit of freedom”. The philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi used to characterise him as being “as free as a child”. I also remember seeing, some years ago, a BBC interview with Husain, where the anchor Karan Thapar repeatedly described this artist as representing “a life of freedom” and of “being a free spirit”. The rather unthinking repetition of this sentiment upon his death five years into his induced exile from India by a combination of obscurantism, ignorance, intolerance and the impotence of our legal and administrative systems, necessitates a closer examination of this category of “freedom” and where the artist figures in that discourse.


Modern-day Sutradhar’


The painter/photographer/filmmaker who straddled the over 60-years’ post Independence canvas of the nation with his mercurial imagination, deft strokes and mordant wit came to be celebrated as its primary “visual representer”, its modern-day Veda Vyasa-like narrator, easily absorbing into his giant canvases all the floating symbols of national culture that were in currency. Geeta Kapur even profiles him as the “modern-day sutradhar” of the vast proscenium of the nation. Today he is posited as a tragic “cultural hero” of a nation where it has, indeed, become facetious to speak of such heroes.


The moment is sombre and we could do with a serious self-evaluation of where we stand with respect to our arts. The hounding out of a 90-year-old painter who was constantly striving to make us look at ourselves from a multicultural, secular, syncretic perspective, and failing to ensure his return before he passed away five years later, should worry us about where we are heading as a nation. The fact that India could not see itself through the eyes of Husain and, instead, interpreted his epiphanic invocation and celebration of our civilisational diversity as something narrow and divisive, merely points to the rapid thickening and blocking of our national arteries, constricting the openness we so hypocritically assume as our cultural credo and hastening the spread of iron in the soul.


It is a pretty good indicator of what little conversation contemporary ideas are having in a society still resisting the call of modernity. It is also symptomatic of the almost total absence of a discourse of the imagination in civil society. Everywhere we are surrounded with the unseemly spectacle of squabble and noise in the political space, unleavened by poetry and grace. The administration, the judiciary, the media and the community seem to have all succumbed to an overarching crudity of expression and interpretation. Over and above this is the violence and non-egalitarian impulse of globalisation which seems to be transforming us into a deeply uncaring society with those touched by its benefits turning a Nelson’s eye on those dumped at the margins. All the claims of high art ring hollow here. Husain too did not see and dwell on any of this ongoing strife. His was primarily a pacifying vision.


The life and times of Husain – specifically the past 15 years – should make us realise that in this era of globalisation, one can no longer speak of the artist as a “cultural hero”, a baggage that was an inheritance of the nationalist phase which even assigned a role to the artist (the kalakaar) as the quintessence of all that was innocent, pure and idealistic in the emerging nation state. The artist was romanticised as the “voice of the people” for possessing virtues like “clean eyes” and “pure intent”. It is not difficult to imagine a group of Bombay-based painters (including Husain) in 1947, led by Francis Newton Souza, declaring themselves the Progressive Artists Group. Just a couple of years earlier, another Madras-based group led by K C S Panicker had called itself the Progressive Artists Association. The artist at that moment could not have been anything, if not progressive. Today that entire edifice stands undermined, with the much touted “freedom” of the artist increasingly translating into the freedom to conform.


“Freedom” can only be a political category. It cannot be diluted into an advertisement gimmick or a catchy slogan like they use for soaps or sanitary towels or soft drinks. Nor can it be a category for elite self-indulgence where “freedom” is interpreted as license. It is not a primitive naturalism associated with open spaces and open skies; neither is it a privilege that a few impose on the many. Freedom, by its very connotation is a product of struggle, tension, opposition. It is a quality that all forms of social organisation militate against. It is also a condition, to define and attain which history has claimed many victims.


Concept of Artistic Freedom


While philosophers – from Yajnavalkya of the Dharmashastras to the Shankara of Viveka Choodamani, from the Buddha to Patanjali, from Hegel to Marx, from Nietzsche to Sartre – have battled with the notions of freedom as “absolute” on the one hand or “conditional” on the other, the phenomenal and existential dialectic between “freedom” and “necessity”, the concept of artistic freedom is a considerably more recent and romantic intervention. It stems from a sublimated notion of the artist being a vital link between the divine and the profane, between the abstract and the real, between creativity and materiality. Art as the articulation of a higher discourse and the artist as its high priest, with artistic expression having legitimacy as the ultimate carrier of the civilising mission, is an idea less than 300 years old. Otherwise, through history, art and artisanship were largely functional or dictated by a patronising vision or need.


Further, the individual artist as an agent of “free expression” is an idea of even more recent vintage, a product of post-industrial individualism, and implicated in modernism’s heroic battle for privileging the “bourgeois self”. The artist as the avant-garde of the modern moment was both protected and isolated in the garb of the Bohemian and the anarchist. It was as if “art” operated outside the periphery of nation or state or ideology. It was as if artists were heroic souls, immaculately weaned on another planet, untouched by the colliding multiplicity of histories that constitute modernity.


It was only well into the 20th century that all this bushwhacking around the idea of “freedom” got congealed into the sharp and clear interpretation of freedom as being the freedom to buy and to sell; freedom as a prerequisite and an adjunct of market operations and manipulations. Which, of course, means “freedom” is merely “control” by other means.


With the result, art now stands suddenly bereft of a subversive potential. Increasingly it functions as a market-testing device – profoundly ennobling in its marking of our contemporary anguish, yet profoundly tragic in its divestment from the idea of a more radical and comprehensive transformation of society. What commoditization has done to other aspects of life, it has done to art too – push and nudge and coax it on the side of supply-side aesthetics.


Co-option of the Artist


The question then is, what are the possibilities for a “critical practice” in the arts? Today, the institutions and discourses that collectively function to construct the object “art” are allied to the material determinations of the market place. Art seems to oscillate between the delirious pluralism of the market and the sacral judgment seat that is the museum. The artist has been co-opted today as a fully institutionalized being. This was demonstrably true of Husain who, in his post-independence pursuit of the nationalisztion of the “Indian” symbol, ended up symbolising the nation as the most identifiable face of modern Indian art.


That Husain had a predilection for appropriating and addressing “national” symbols in a simpering, uncritical, illustrative manner and was, therefore, a central component of the ideological engines of nation-building tendencies is evident when one considers the primary thrust of the two decades of his work from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. He was part of a national psyche built around symbol-objects like Raj Kapoor, Satyajit Ray, M S Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Mother Teresa, Lata Mangeshkar, Sachin Tendulkar or Bharatanatyam. He could stretch the corners of his canvas backward in time to incorporate Kalidasa or Khajuraho or the myths of apsaras, kinnaras and dancing Ganeshas. He could populate his canvases with more folksy and recognizable motifs like the lotus, veena, peacock, monkey or tiger.


Only, Husain embarked upon a different trajectory – the narrativization of the self via the nation. He developed a robust and opportunist sense for poaching on “national” symbols indiscriminately, to pattern them into a cogent and unified personal narrative. From Pather Panchali to Panchatantra, Mother Teresa to Indira Gandhi, Raj nostalgia to celebrating the Emergency, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to Jesus Christ’s “Last Supper”, the assassination of the charismatic Kashmiri leader Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq to the murderous attack on Safdar Hashmi, bullock carts and hurricane lamps to Hindi cinema’s dancing stars and Ravi Varma paintings to the surasundaris from temple friezes – all were pulled into the Husain canvas to construct the modern myth of a homogeneous India, each narrative episode a picturesque metaphor of a wishful amalgam of historic dichotomies. It is this wishful refusal to directly address the contemporary that makes Husain’s canvases function as dizzily romantic “national” allegories.


Husain has been critiqued for his inability to lift any of these potent symbols beyond their obviously self-conscious ruse at tame indigenism. With the result, loaded symbols like horses, human torsos, working class women, mithuna couples – all turn into motifs devoid of content, pictographic short-cuts that fail to sparkle with semantic clarity in a vital plastic language. His celebrated and equally reviled commandeering of representational elements from Hindu mythology like Durga, Sita, Saraswati or Hanuman were merely part of this “nationalising” or even “civilisational” impulse and hardly intended to be iconic or iconoclastic. That, in fact, is a significant feature of Husain’s visual oeuvre – he is entirely devoid of iconoclasm. On the contrary, over the past 15 years, he waded into trouble for a sort of unreflective anthropomorphic representation of material – like deities and Bharat Matas – which were essentially abstract in their formal aspects.


There can, of course, be an entire chapter on his employment of the modernist art-historical device of the female nude and, in a larger sense, his engagement with female physicality. There is a certain distanced and non-sensual approach in his reworking of the female form as inherited from a Picasso or a Matisse which renders it flat and academic, setting it apart from anything that could be considered remotely erotic. On the contrary, as he himself claimed on many occasions, for him nudity was a “metaphor for purity and strength”. It is ironic, then, that it was this rather conservative aspect of his work which was to retrospectively “offend” a certain laboured, right-wing moral censor.

Instrument for Banality


What is clear is that it needed this sort of porous, diaphanous art which holds nothing, which forms nothing, to become the instrument for the banalities of the nation. What one then missed is the early promise shown by this essentially provincial painter whose preoccupations were then with his childhood material – folk toys, kites, calligraphy, tailor’s sections, colorful puppets – transmuted through a mythic imagination to yield limited insights into the carnivalesque character of the bustee and the bazaar.


Ritual and redemption were then as inevitable in the Second Act (1958) as frozen fear and seduction in Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956). Yet, from those early concerns for locating loneliness, anguish, doubt and predominantly moral dilemmas, Husain’s ease with a sort of pictorial eclecticism swiftly sucked him into seeking representational alibis for the clichés of the nation. It declined into a sort of empty stylization which does not permit itself the luxury of provocative content.

With the result, what one misses at the core of this versatile artist’s work is any emancipating statement on the human predicament, to which he seems to allude but, timorously, fails to address. In his self-appointed role as a symbolist and fabulist of the nation, M F Husain remained a conformist to the core.


What Husain will be remembered for, however, will be for having been one of the foremost exemplars of the subliminal Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb of the sub-continent, which also became an index of his painterly technique in the manner in which he played with positive and negative space in his canvas. It also made him effortlessly integrate the idea of transience in popular art – like in tribal and folk wall-paintings or floor-paintings – into his own practice within galleries. Thus the idea of making a work and then erasing it was something he was not afraid to approach, having already been schooled in such almost weekly erasures in the domain of cinema hoardings. His major exhibitions like Shwetambari in the 1980s and Visarjan in the 1990s reveled in the act of nomination, consecration and consignment. It was also to lead to his delightful deal with Kovil Restaurant in Delhi’s Connaught Place in the 1990s, where he could walk into the restaurant, draw a few quick line drawings on the blackboards that constituted its wall paneling and depart in return for a free south Indian meal. Next time he passed by, he would erase what he had drawn earlier, draw afresh and be treated again.


This also made him unafraid of often “plagiarizing” his own work, which was to have both comical and serious implications in the mid-1990s as many buyers were misled into believing they were holding “originals”. On the other hand, he was among the few senior artists who contributed to the boom in the arts by systematically investing in the works of younger painters.


Government’s Connivance


There is an abiding suspicion that along with the combined assault by the Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad combine, it was also some moves by the government at the centre in 2006 to prosecute Husain under the Indian Penal Code for “outraging the religious feelings of a community”, that seems to have precipitated his choice to leave the country. In January this year, there were reports of how the Central Information Commissioner had directed the home ministry, under a RTI appeal, to reveal whether it had ordered an Intelligence Bureau check on Husain to ascertain whether he should be prosecuted for his ostensibly provocative paintings.


This brings the whole affair full circle, when the very State on whose behalf Husain unwittingly spoke sought to punish him for imagined offences. No matter how much it denies it today, the centre is as culpable today as the loony fringe for alienating and isolating its most colorful storyteller. In the process, the nation also seems to have lost its own narrative.


(25 June 18, 2011)

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