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On M.F. Husain's Bursts Of Flat Colour
On the tenth anniversary of the prolific artist's death, I want to revisit his body of work, with over 40,000 paintings and films that have always existed along my peripheral attention.
Last week I wrote about the second season of Family Man, whose arguments I honed — of all places — on Clubhouse. A lot of people have brought out their issues with the series — its irresponsible politics of using the LTTE to make empty apolitical entertainment, and the deeply disconcerting brownface. Both show the limitations of the Family Man series— that it is only a pan-Indian aesthetic project that uses a washed up understanding of local politics to make broader, engaging one-shot action sequences. In a sense then, it is futile to argue about an apolitical series not being political, because that was never the intent — however irresponsible or short-sighted. Instead, I think, it makes more sense, and conserves more personal energy otherwise spent on anger, to critique it from the aesthetic perspective.
This week I wanted to write about the artist MF Husain who loomed vaguely over my life. It’s 10 years since he passed away and I wanted to go back to some of his work and what they represent. Do write to me, like, share, subscribe, shred, scream, etc.
I was introduced to the artist MF Husain (1913-2011) as an anti-nationalist on the news, and an anti-Hindu in the local Vedic study classes that I would attend every Friday. They said he had painted Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, and that he did this out of disrespect, out of spite, a visceral anti-Hindu venom that spat out on the canvas. I believed it in the casual way we believe things our elders say at that indifferent age of 10, between the consummate submission of childhood and wholesale rebellion of teenage, which is to say I didn’t hold onto what they said of him passionately, nor did I have the information or will to pushback on this narrative. It was like ether, just floating around in my head.
Following the political raucous, in 2006, Husain went into self-imposed exile in Dubai, where I was living, and later Qatar, where he lived till his death in 2011. When he passed away, someone posted a status from his Facebook page circulating the sad news, and my friend who was new to social media site, messaged me with concerned confusion — How is a dead man updating his Facebook status?
He was also the first Indian artist whose name I decided was worth memorizing for future references. (The second was, ironically, the printmaker and painter of Hindu gods and goddesses Raja Ravi Varman) He had made a film in 2004, Meenaxi, that nobody watched because after the Muslim ulema railed against it for using Quranic verses to describe the beauty of a woman, Husain, a devout Muslim himself, took the films out of theaters and let it fester into oblivion. AR Rahman’s music for the film and the music video for ‘Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai’, with bursts of flat and deep colour like his paintings, circulated on the internet with fervent love. It is a testament to his style, to his vision, that all the explosions of colour that Tabu wears is not bordered with intricate zari or precious gota embellishments. Husain just wants the figure draped flowingly, often in shades of one colour. Instead he has all the extras draped in contrasting colours, so Tabu pops out of the frame in one uniform thrust. It was one of my entry points into his work of art.
Around that time an insufferably dated film Vivah (2006) had released and after watching it 9 times, MF Husain started painting the actress Amrita Rao. The word “muse” was used in newspaper articles and I picked it up as a vocabulary centerpiece to parade casually in conversations. What a sensational idea — to have a person so beautiful they make you want to make art.
Then much later, after I graduated and moved to Ahmedabad for research my paths crossed with the trail of art he left behind — over 40,000 paintings. I was briefly living next to the bridge that connected the old walled Ahmedabad of rotting textile mills and cultural heritage walks, to the new burnished Ahmedabad of management schools and stoic industry. A stone’s throw from where I lived was a small cemetary-cafe I would frequent for take-outs — there were two decorated graves, with cheap silk and gold frills over the marble, in the middle of the seating area, no one knew of whom, but the cashier told me it must be of some pir. On one of the walls of the cafe was a painting that I acknowledged in my peripheral vision. It was only a few weeks in, when in the hazy, dense heat of the city I gave up and sat down in the polished seat in front of the painting that I noticed the writing underneath it, “Gift from famous Painter M.F.Husain” (photographed below). At first I thought it was absurd — this man’s paintings go for as high as 18 crore rupees. What is it doing here, its glass frame gathering grease from the heat and smoke of the cafe?
It was characteristic of his style — a unique distillation of animals and people into simple geometric shapes, flattened by his composition, and made to pop by his use of striking primary hues, contrasted with colours not within itself, but with the colours of its neighbouring shapes. On top was a message from the Quran, “La ilaha illa Allah Muhammed Rasul Allah.” (There is no god but god, and Muhammad is the messenger of god)
If you ever find yourself in Ahmedabad, stroll over to Lucky Tea Stall or Lucky Restaurant, smack opposite the Siddi Saiyyed Mosque — whose exquisite jali work inspired the logo of IIM Ahmedabad — right under the gaze of a defunct watchtower. I used to buy perfume from a man who set shop every other evening right outside the cafe, trying to sell me fake Calvin Klein perfume every time I asked him to give me something that smells of jasmine or saffron. (He doesn’t care for haggling, so don’t try.)
Burst Of Flat Colour
MF Husain is called the “Picasso Of India”. I usually find transferred cultural epithets uncomfortable, but I found this one oddly fitting, because I am not moved by either artists’ art as much as I am by their myth. (He also exhibited with Picasso in São Paulo)
Husain’s work has never grabbed me as much as invited me to look — and this is because of his use of colour, bright pigments that can stun even the most inensate eye. I love that he creates boundaries, sometimes in thick black, so your eyes are almost guided through the piece. He often begins his paintings with an outline sketch, filling it with colour, later. This makes sense, given that he began his life as an artist studying calligraphy and then, when he moved to Mumbai, painting billboards for Bollywood films — these were not impressionistic mediums, and very much required boundaries to objects and people painted for simplicity of consumption. The borders had a utility that Husain lapped up into an artistic proclivity, a trope. It’s not surprising that borders, surfaces, and shapes preoccupied him, given that he later went onto design furniture and sculpt sculptures — both media wrestling with space, carving themselves clearly into it with intention and definition.
Whatever I feel about his art comes from his biography, a kind of bastardized impression where I can never see a Husain painting without running through his life in my head. It is therefore easy to see something capacious in Husain’s art. We often see each new art movement an erasure of the previous movement — impressionism as the erasure of realism, post-independence as an erasure of colonial, colonial as an erasure of traditional. Husain was one of the few who eschewed the sequential and opted for a palimpsestic, yet forward-looking approach to art. He was part of the new generation of post-independent artists in then Bombay, the Progressives, who were trying to create a style distinct from the company paintings, and many even rejecting the traditional underpinnings. Husain imbibed an artform somewhere between ritual and rehearsal i.e. repetition of something already occurred, and repetition for something about to occur. He was firmly rooted in the shaky present feeding from the past, into the future. There was nothing nostalgic or futuristic or even the greed to express the magic of a moment in colour and bold brush strokes. His references too were both traditional and contemporary.
Ranjit Hoskote the cultural theorist and art critic has noted how the horse, a powerful archetype in his paintings came from a variety of places — Zuljanah, Imam Hussain’s horse, who especially in Shia popular culture in India is seen as the witness to the massacre and sacrifice of Imam Hussain; the Vedic Ashvamedha sacrifice where a king would send a horse across geographies with an understanding that wherever the horse travels falls under the dominion of the king, and if the horse is stopped, it implies a challenge to the king’s authority, and if it returns back to the king it is sacrificed in celebration of dominion; the Chinese painter Xu Beihong’s Galloping Horses from the 1940s.
The range of references, Hindu, Islamic, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, that calcify on his canvas, burnished by Picasso’s Cubism, gives his work the semblance of not just rousing art but an empathetic archive. Here was an artist who signed his paintings in the Roman script, in Devnagari, in Nastaliq, and even in the Vatteluttu script of Malayalam. Parthiv Shah, a photographer, followed Husain and collected his photographs of him in a book. He tited it Sadak, Sarai, Sheher, Basti: The Recurring Figure, a fitting title, sadak for road, sarai for refuge, sheher for city, basti for slums. His last work of art was titled Seeroo Fi Al Ardh, which comes from the opening verse of Surah 29, “Travel across the earth and see how god has originated all creation.”
All of this goes to show that he wasn’t a provocateur by design. The nudes of gods and goddesses for which he was hauled over the coals by the largely ignorant, and sensationalist media on the 90s and the 2000s, were actually painted in the 60s and 70s. Hoskote notes, “They had been shown in the context of religious festivals. This is not about an artist insulting his audience, but his audience ceasing to understand what this artist was really doing.”
Last week was very exciting. I got a copy of the book, “Indian Culture, Art and Heritage” a textbook for UPSC exam aspirants that I helped research with the author Devdutt Pattanaik. He was kind enough to have my name, photo, and blurb under his in the author’s page.
The book “At Night All Blood Is Black” won the International Booker Prize last week. I had written a review of it for The Hindu, it was published in their weekend print edition. For Film Companion I compiled a list of queer films for Pride Month (If you can sense how “gay but over it” I am in the introduction, clapyourhands, clapclapclap), and reviewed two awful works of art — an 8 part show on Zee5 Sunflower, and a Netflix film Awake. A Little Late With Lily Singh ended on July 4th, IST. I wrote about what that talk show did and didn’t, could and couldn’t do.