Interview with artist Vivan Sundaram.
HE was a celebrity even in the 1950s, says Vivan Sundaram as he recalls how he, as a young man, had caught a glimpse of Maqbool Fida Husain in a popular restaurant in Delhi. A renowned contemporary artist himself, his association with Husain goes back more than 50 years. He has been a crusader against the right-wing forces that attacked Husain's work and is a member of the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust. He talks to Frontline about Husain's life from an artistic and a political perspective.
Husain's death engenders a sense of ambivalence. One does not know whether to celebrate his individual professional life or talk about the politics because of which he had to die in a foreign land. Each is incomplete without the other.
Husain, in a sense, had a larger-than-life spirit. His capacity to ride over unfortunate situations, to keep himself in place despite various forces acting against him, was incredible. Politically, he was able to handle different thoughts. After all, he did support Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. He was very much pro-Congress, Nehruvian, and became the most flamboyant icon of the Nehruvian idea of modern India. He carried a pro-Congress image without hesitation. He would always say that he was an artist who was a part of nation-building. And if Nehru stood for this new nation, he was all for it.
That was one part that had survived. Within that understanding, he also believed that art must be connected to the soil. Not many artists of his time said this as they were much more in an existential frame, being solitary artists, pursuing that artistic vocation. Husain, however, pursued that vocation very much within the social parameters and politics of the time. Once when Shekhar Gupta [editor of The Indian Express] asked him about the American policies in West Asia, Husain said that he did not understand much. He did not want to openly say that he was anti-American in a political sense, but he said that he did not share American values. His opposition was not marked by political language, but he located all of this as a larger cultural phenomenon.
His exile was deeply painful. He wanted to come back. But he was a gypsy, never really had a home. Mobility was very important for him. In India, he could feel the aggression against him and that was why he felt restricted. That extraordinary capacity to not have a bourgeois sense of home, of not being settled, and an unmatched impulsive attitude kind of pulled him through his exile. He would not perceive himself in a tragic mode, but he knew that there was a larger Hindu, educated, middle class which bought the whole theory that his depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses was insulting. Hardly anyone saw those paintings. Not many knew Husain's love for Indian pictorial and sculptural traditions.
Husain was a determined modernist, yet he stayed away from commenting and critiquing. He grappled with many themes, from mythology to sexuality. Like many modernist painters, did his paintings place the subject matter in a social context?
He was not like F.N. Souza, who was an iconoclast and liked to shock people. Husain was at one level deeply puritanical. Those two or three paintings that became controversial out of the tens and thousands that he created show an aspect of play, of leela, of taking a different look at something. He was not into such big words like questioning and critique. Just a delicate move of the hand. Sometimes a playful impulse comes out, sometimes an erotic impulse. A little sense of humour that comes out sometimes. That is what modern art introduced in terms of language. A kind of spontaneity. When you start drawing the line, you don't know how it will end, unlike the classical mode which had structures and orders. But he was not at all a provocative artist. There are many others who were intensely provocative. He thought of Hindu mythology not as something that was static and dead but as living. There is the Ram Leela, there are aspects of the Mahabharata which are continuously being contemporanised by society. He believed that these mythological characters are not like Sanskrit, which very few people know. There is no fixed language of communication that Hindu mythology needed. His topics were already socialised. He thought all he had to do was to make images of it. This is an aspect of modernity that pushes you into deeper structures, abstractions, and psycho-analytical meanings. Husain, in his last years, wanted to paint the Arab civilisation. He interacted with Arab historians, got many interpretations out of them, and informed himself about its history. He worked on a volatile energy principle; he could do one or two paintings a day, but his themes were socialised in different ways.
Can his life and works be divided into set phases?
His interactions with Souza, a far more intelligent, intellectual and political artist than Husain, had a lot of influence on his work. The post-War language in paintings is broadly called expressionism, which dealt with the social context, the environment, a certain sense of history. On the other hand, existentialist language was much more personal and talked about personal philosophical positions without the social references. Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee took that kind of position. Husain and Souza put it out in the social context. In the 1950s, until about the mid-1960s, attempts were made to bring in Indian pictorial traditions into this vocabulary. Both Husain and Souza, and in a different way Padamsee, started to get excited with the Indian pictorial traditions and made their own versions. Khajuraho sculptures became one of the muses to many. Husain started thinking of the Indian tradition at multiple levels from the classical to the folk and to the tribal in a simple and schematic sense, very much on an intuitive basis. Souza later on restricted his paintings to his own subjectivities and his own sexualities. Husain, until about the mid-1960s, was struggling to evolve this kind of vocabulary, where he was trying to give it a form, structure and meaning. He sort of mastered that, and then it became a sort of facility which he could do with his left hand.
After this phase, he took interest in a whole range of topics that became part of his narrative. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata figure in this phase. He was tending to illustrate rather than interpret to get something new. He had become an illustrator. He also has a comic strip aspect in this phase. With his facility, he could pull off those images with the spontaneity of a folk artist who has got a given vocabulary. In all these phases, he relied on his intuition. However, even he has said many times that he did his best work in the 1950s and the 1960s.
Many see him as an artist who got obsessed with something be it mythology, icons, cinema, women, and even horses at different times.
Artists have obsessions, and at different moments, the themes are something different. It is known that Ram Manohar Lohia asked him to paint the Ramayana because he thought it was about time it should come down to people in folk form. It was a story that peasants, labourers and common people knew and talked about. Husain did a series on it. The obsession with Madhuri Dixit and other Bollywood stars was a different case. I have a reading that this was the time when Hindutva as an ideology was growing. Madhuri, through a new level of seduction, represented a woman who was desired by people. That was also the time when the effects of globalisation were articulated through the beginnings of a consumer culture. Everything had to be consumed, from goods to Bollywood's sexuality. The reactions against Husain, in such a scenario, could be seen as also a reaction against a Muslim' who took away Our Madhuri'. Once Husain enters this public culture called Bollywood and gets a woman who is the most desirable, the repressed sexuality of many men is articulated through a particular brand of hate politics. Until the time he was a niche artist and was not a part of popular culture, everything was fine. When he entered the public culture, his older paintings were criticised with unprecedented vitriol.
Husain's paintings showed a vast canvas, as if he was not happy with the restrictions of the frame or easel. What do you think?
Husain was always tempted to go out of the easel. One of his famous paintings, Zameen, is like a panorama; it is like long pan shots with a series of still shots. It is a not a question of its length. It is a question of how it is structured. It does not have a single point of view where everything organises itself in a limited frame. It has multiple points of view.
What made Husain distinct from other artists of his generation? Do you see a kind of continuity between him and Amrita Sher-Gill?
There is definitely a continuity between Amrita Sher-Gill and Husain. Sher-Gill brought back the oil painting that was rejected by the Bengal School. Sher-Gill painted a lot of figures, painted the poor, the peasant. Those representations, the aspects of abstractions that she brought in, were relatively much more realistic than an expressionist Husain's, but Husain took up these abstractions in the way he painted women, the way they are sitting, their hands make the Mudra gesture, and many postures like that. That formed the beginnings of Husain. Most of the artists in the Progressive Artists Group, including Husain, acknowledged the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gill as interlinkages. They didn't know about Ramkinkar Baij or Vinod Bihari Mukherjee. They were biased against the Bengal School. They took the entire Bengal School as one that was incorrect.
What made him distinct was that Husain was continuously referring to Indian pictorial traditions. Then there is reference to subject matter, which later on became a thing for granted. In his later works, it tends to get illustrative, whereas earlier on he tried to deal with the subject in many abstracted and iconic ways. For instance, he was constructing a figure for the tribal woman where the subject has a character from mythology or elsewhere.
Did his paintings in his last years reflect his life in exile?
Husain, in that way, did not illustrate his life. He took on various issues and themes. So there were series on mythology, civilisation, etc. If he admired Chaplin, he would do a series on him. He was interested in the cinematic medium in his last years. But if one thing could be pointed out as a departure from his Indianness, it was his series on Arab civilisation, which he did while staying in West Asia. Doing a series on Arab civilisation and naming it that was new.
Husain's life had two aspects. One of a gypsy and the other of one who splurged for an extravagant lifestyle. How are these reconcilable?
Husain did not even have a car until the age of 90. He had an old Fiat, which he painted. Dubai is immersed in consumer culture. In India, it is just beginning. He just thought that now that he was there, he could experience it. He bought his car at the age of 90. His only luxury until then was flight tickets, on which he spent a lot. He was an extravagant gypsy. He would step into a plane to go to Bombay only to return in the evening. And he kept doing that.
He was unattached to the commodities he possessed. There was a charming sort of innocence even when he would buy a Ferrari or a Bentley. Husain was a different sort of person. Very unworldly. He never started a foundation in his name like many other artistes. I mean, S.H. Raza set up a foundation, even Ashok Vajpeyi set up a scholarship fund. Husain never wished to have an institution in his name where he would put his millions. He said he was always in love. Cars, commodities, all become objects of desire as much as they are fetishes.
There is an incomplete modernity which has positives and negatives that Husain's life characterises. Who would say that the soil is within me? The new artists live in the virtual world and they have been erasing the idea of the soil. Yet, Husain's life characterises an incomplete modernity, which has both positives and negatives. And this is a typically Indian characteristic.
How did Husain perceive the burgeoning global art market?
He was market savvy. Market depends on publicity, and there was no better publicist than he was. He dealt with many art galleries, all sorts of shady entrepreneurs, a whole string of them who were promoting him in different sorts of ways. On the one hand, he was very shrewd about the market; on the other hand, he also liked to be humorous and funny about it. He would say: I made all this money because I made all these awful horses. He had a kind of irony. He created many great paintings. But he would also say that if people like mindless stuff, I will produce it. Very few artists would say this kind of a thing.
Talking about the international market, 95 per cent of the audience are NRIs. Husain doesn't figure in that market. Young people like Subodh Gupta or Jitish Kallat are much more saleable than veterans like Raza or Husain. The investors in the market look out for people who are in their thirties or at the maximum forties so that they can invest in them and reap profits out of them for a long time.
Husain showed a lot in 1950s in international galleries, but at that time an organised global market (auction house-big gallery-big buyers nexus) like today was non-existent. Husain, that is why, is limited to being a national artist. People will be shocked to hear that Subodh Gupta is more famous than Husain in the Global Market. Great works of Souza and some vacuous painting of new artists are priced the same.
Which work, according to you, stands out among all of Husain's works?
Though Between the Spider and the Lamp became seminal, and it is of course remarkable, Man is my favourite. You can read many things into it. It sorts of names it and half-names it. That makes this painting very rich, layered, and complex.
Man portrays so many readings of man: the existential man, the post-Independence man, a hurt man torn in Partition woes, a deeply pained Muslim man who has to leave his home and go to a new land. Man uses complex performative traditions, extraordinary visual structure and complex techniques of drawing and colours that lend many complexities to the painting which no other artist could ever create. Even Souza could never make such a complex painting despite his overtly political tones.
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