Any great change in a nation's civilisation begins in the field of culture.
The water colours reproduced here were painted by M.F. Husain for this Special Issue of Frontline.
WE had our own parallel national movement. We were part of the Progressive Artists Group; there were five or six painters in Mumbai and a few in Calcutta. We came out to fight against two prevalent schools of thought in those days, the Royal Academy, which was British-oriented, and the revivalist school in Mumbai, which was not a progressive movement. These two we decided to fight, and we demolished them. The movement to get rid of these influences and to evolve a language that is rooted in our own culture was a great movement, and one that historians have not taken note of. It was important because any great change in a nation's civilisation begins in the field of culture. Culture is always ahead of other political and social movements.
I was never politically active in the national movement, but I was all for it, even from my school days. When I was 8 or 9 years old in Baroda, the patron of our school was Abbas Tyabji, a great follower of Gandhiji. The school was almost a religious school, but our clothes were khadi, and we used to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti. At that time I used to do huge sketches of Gandhiji on the blackboard. I was already involved in painting, and I was taking part in the national movement, though at a different level. On the first Independence Day I was in Mumbai. While working in a furniture shop, I organised a tableau of freedom with the workers.
When the Progressive Artists Group was formed, there were only six members in Mumbai, and we used to go out and paste posters on the walls, because our paintings were rejected by the society in Mumbai, whose patron was the Governor. It was like a parallel freedom movement. Bhendre did a painting in 1942 on Quit India, at the time of the Mumbai Congress session.
The movement started in the 1930s with Souza, Raza and others. I joined in 1947. Our concern was to evolve not only art as a profession to make a living, but to do serious research to evolve a language for Indian contemporary art. It had to be rooted in our culture and all the points of reference had to be ours, but it had to use modern techniques as well. There was no point in painting like Indian miniatures, or like Ajanta and Ellora.
Ashoka Pillar, water colour, M.F. Husain, 1997.
The group's achievement has been to change the shape of Indian contemporary art. We had no manifesto as such, it was just to initiate us. In art one has to be highly individual; even if you are in a group, each one is an individual. All of us are still working, all in our 70s and 80s. Some went to London, some went to Paris. I stayed on in Mumbai. We are still friends. We still exhibit together, we still meet together. This is unlike in the West, where because of the strong element of commerce, artists do not see eye to eye, there is competition.
ART, INDIAN AND WESTERN: The main difference between Indian art and Western art is that in the West, after the Renaissance, they had the Impressionists, then Cubism and so on. We, however, had already passed those stages. They were not necessary, because in our Indian folk art and tribal art, we had all these elements, and we have them even today. It is a living art form. After the Renaissance, artists in the West were concerned with depicting space and matter. We had already gone beyond that in our sculptures and paintings. When Michelangelo and others were trying to create the human form, we had passed that stage. The image of Nataraja is the highest form of art; it corresponded to the cosmos.
The West claims modern art as its own. This is wrong. It is Eastern, they took it from Japan and from Africa. Because their media are strong, they have dominated the art scene.
Also, we do not have a single person, a writer, who has a historical vision of our culture and can make people aware of it. After Ananda Coomaraswamy, there has been no such person. Luckily, in the last four or five years, we have been asserting our presence through our festivals and after Sotheby's and Christie's started auctioning our work.
ON CONTEMPORARY AND FOLK ART: I am a misfit in the mainstream of contemporary Indian art. It has no relevance to our culture. Its points of reference are in the West, and that has to change. The problem with Indian contemporary art is the lack of a historical perspective.
It is not only the painter, but even the general public that has lost touch with our rich heritage. That is why, in the last two years, I have taken on popular cinema with the superstar. That is another art form that is so relevant to our culture and day-to-day life. At the same time, I don't deny that the salon and intellectual work in art are necessary, but these must linked to day-to-day life.
Cinema has become a social phenomenon. If you remove this entertainment, what will happen to millions of people? It sustains them. There is so much poverty, but the moment the people see cinema, they start singing and dancing.
Ganga-Jamuna, water colour, M.F. Husain, 1997.
Tribal and folk art, on the other hand, are a living art form. Swaminathan has done great research into this. He brought young tribals into the city, gave them material, and exhibited the paintings parallel with Indian contemporary art. I saw it, and compared to their work, contemporary art looks pale. They have direct contact with nature, with life. You should see the way they visualise a bird or an animal.
I had done paintings of Ramayana, about 80 paintings over eight years. We took them to villages near Hyderabad on a bullock cart. The paintings were spread out, and the people saw them, and there was not one question. In the city, people would have asked: Where is the eye? How can you say this is Ram? and so on. In the villages, colour and form have seeped into the blood. You put an orange spot on a stone and the people will say it is Hanuman. They would never ask where the eye was and so on. This is living art.
ART AND THE FUTURE: I am optimistic about the future. The numbers of people doing art is growing by leaps and bounds. Ten years ago there were barely one or two galleries in Mumbai. Now there are 30 to 40 galleries that are doing well. People are buying. The quality is not all good, but it doesn't matter. In Paris at one stage, there were 50,000 painters. It is like the churning of the sea. Something will come out of it. Without the sea, there is nothing to churn. But our political system is frightening; our progress will be slow. We do not get what we deserve.
Fellini has a movie titled And The Ship Sails On. That describes our country. And the ship sails on.As told to Thomas Abraham in London.