India's pride

Print edition : July 29, 2011

Artists and admirers get together at the initiative of SAHMAT to commemorate M.F. Husain's work.

in New Delhi

Maqbool Fida Husain, an April 2004 photograph.-JAYANTA SHAW/REUTERS

ARTISTS, academics, journalists and many other admirers of M.F. Husain came together to commemorate his work at an event in July organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), a socio-cultural forum of artists in Delhi. Husain's contribution to the nation, his paintings and his films were discussed. Amid the glaring television cameras, everyone present there recollected his or her association with Husain, paid tribute to the iconic painter, took pride in calling him an Indian, and yet could not hide their discomfort in accepting the fact that Husain had to die in a foreign land.

The meet started with an exhibition of Husain's paintings and photographs in Dhoomimal Art Gallery, with which Husain had a long association. And then the venue of the celebrations shifted to the Vitthalbhai Patel House lawns in the heart of Delhi.

Here, a film written and directed by Husain, Through the Eyes of a Painter, was screened and Husain's recurring motifs lantern' and umbrellas' were presented to his family members, who had come out together for the first time after his death. Husain's last giant Ramayana painting was displayed at the event.

The tributes came from different circles of artists, the veterans and the younger ones. Anjolie Ela Menon said: Today we have set aside our grief at having lost Husain to pay tribute to the great artist and celebrate his life and talent. We always thought of Husain as immortal. His place in the Indian art world is secure for ever. Artist Arpana Caur recalled, I will always remember the generosity and quiet kindness that M.F. Husain bestowed on young upcoming artists. When I was a young artist and held the exhibition of my works in Mumbai in the 1980s, he bought some of my works to encourage me. Many years later on a trip to Bangalore I saw my works put up on display at his gallery. It was a very touching moment. Speaking about Husain's desire to come back to India, she said: His friends told us that Husain often said that he wanted to touch the Indian soil just one more time.

His eyes spoke of his desire to come back to his country. You could not have taken India out of Husain and the exile did take a toll on him. Seeing a great artist like him covered in white cloth ready for burial was one of the saddest moments of my life, said prominent Indian stylist Shahnaz Husain.

In his first public appearance after Husain's death, Owais Husain, his youngest son, said: The world can describe my father's works as good or bad but his art was always relevant and you can't take that away from him. This relevance' is the legacy that my father has left behind. The love, respect and support that my father got from his friends and admirers is overwhelming, he added.

Husain always located himself within the symbols of the nation despite interpreting them in different ways, and this was his relevance. Artists of the first 20 years of independent India realise its importance even today. In the process of nation-building, Husain, as an artist, tried to depict modern mythologies in different ways and that was perfectly acceptable to a nation that was still finding its way. To recreate, to reinterpret, and to give new meanings have been historically an artistic practice and were legitimised by modern nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was only artists who had full liberties to reinterpret modernist myths within a liberal nation-state, unlike other members of civil society who directly participated in the political process. The only exception to this unofficial rule was seen in fascist states like Nazi Germany where even artists were persecuted. Husain's exile, thus, can be seen as a result of the changed Indian political polemics in the 1990s, with a solid fascist Hindutva presence. His paintings, which were in the public domain, began to be debated again and Husain was made the political target by the Sangh Parivar. It was also the time when the Babri Masjid was demolished, the Bharatiya Janata Party was gaining a foothold all over the country, and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh was fully engaged in a cultural propaganda, dismantling all norms of heterogeneity that India stood for since Nehruvian times.

Husain's life seems to bear out the great French philosopher Roland Barthes' thesis about the construction of myths, devoid of different meanings, and in the process fixing the meaning of a modern myth. Barthes examined the tendency of contemporary social value systems to create modern myths. While writing about the process of mythologisation, Barthes refers to the socially constructed notions and narratives which gradually become naturalised, which are then taken unquestioningly as a given practice within a particular culture. In Mythologies Barthes contends, through the example of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, built as a national symbol, and that of red wine, branded as the national drink in France, that mythologies are built by the bourgeoisie in its various manifestations and are intended to create a society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media.

The 1990s in India, both economically and culturally, was a time when the state was engaged in creating modern myths all over again. It glamourised new meanings in economic routines, not just dismantling but derailing all the old ideas of socialist economies that India followed until then. Similarly, individualism, and not communitarianism, was advocated as representing the new social values. Culturally, the Indian state pretended to give enough liberties to different streams of thoughts and did not check the growth of fascism. Fascist forces, gradually becoming strong, attempted to create their own value systems and to fix meanings for old Hindu myths and mythologies, defying all other interpretations that existed in history. Brahminical interpretations started getting naturalised in the process of this highly politicised Hindutva campaign. So, whether it was a tribal depiction or Dalit depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses in pictures or texts, it all began to be attacked. This was when Husain's paintings, which depicted Hindu gods and goddesses and the nation's imagery outside the Hindutva box, began to be attacked. His being a Muslim made the Hindutva brigade target him more.

If only Husain had been a 19th century painter, he would have got the liberty to reinterpret modern myths. But in the 21st century, his liberties got punctured by the fascist polemics of both the Sangh Parivar and the Congress, which failed to ensure that such a blatant violence on freedom of expression did not happen.

The art historian Geeta Kapur explains the challenges Husain's life and his works faced and the threats most modernist artists face today. How does a mid-20th-century Indian artist deal with modernist myths, meaning (Western) art-historical discourse that valorises the (male) artist's originality of self and style, spans the unconscious as it does a vanguardist mode and revolutionary world view, yet overlays this terrain with a formal logic that makes late modernist art so determinedly autonomous? On an opposite plane, how are modernist myths tested once they cross the threshold and encounter cultural modalities of modern art as it is actually practised around the world? Contrary to the claims of the canon, modernism is countered/ complemented by distinctly different genealogies of the modern, and it flowers and shrinks at different political and cultural sites during the 20th century. In its many avatars, modernism comes to be inscribed within different civilisational structures, national cultures and artisanal protocols whereby other linguistic and iconographic resources open up, posing questions to the Western rubric of authorship and style. Husain's position exemplifies such a conjunction where artistic autonomy of the modernist kind is balanced' by an assumed access to cultural plenitude, putting a different ambition in place with regard to the symbolic, Kapur writes in her paper on Husain.

In a political environment where artistic expressions have been under threat, the artists at the SAHMAT meet expressed their concern. In a booklet that SAHMAT released, the photographer Ram Rahman wrote in his essay: The collective understanding of the Husain issue was based on SAHMAT's own experience in 1993 after it was attacked by the Sangh Parivar for its exhibition Hum Sab Ayodhya' [in protest of the Babri Masjid demolition] and accused of religious blasphemy, an accusation subsequently faced by Husain. My point here is to underline our understanding of the cynical political nature of the campaign against Husain, and to clearly underline the communal agenda, the politics and the groups behind this campaign. The experience of facing the same forces and the same charges gave us some insight into the strategies used by the Sangh, which have only become more vicious and refined over the years since they were first deployed against us.

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