AGoogle search for “M.F. Husain” yields the usual clichés: He was the “Picasso of India”, he was controversial, and the “most famous” and “most celebrated” Indian artist of our times.
The spotlight moved from Husain’s art a couple of decades ago. We discussed, instead, his flamboyance (a Rs 7.6 crore Bugatti Veyron), his various muses, the vandalization of his works by Hindutva groups, his frustrations in exile, and most recently, his death at the age of 95.
Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India, a scholarly anthology of essays published in India by Yoda Press, is a pioneering effort to take the discourse back to the artist’s works. Each of the 13 essays in the book makes an interdisciplinary engagement with the artist’s oeuvre. It looks through political and sociological lenses to establish how Husain’s life and work are intimately entangled with the legacy of independent India as a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic nation. The book also has 67 plates of artworks, including reproductions of the artist’s own iconic works as well as works by other artists. It opens with a curious composite photograph by artist Vivan Sundaram, titled Barefoot with Husain, which splices together 16 images of people with bare feet and those of Husain’s, in a show of solidarity for the famously unshod artist.
Edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy, a professor of history at Duke University, US, the book has contributions by artists, curators, anthropologists, historians, art historians, critics, sociologists and scholars of postcolonial literature and religion.
In the opening essay, art critic Geeta Kapur traces the arc of Husain’s prolific career. She discusses his early significant works from the 1950s and 1960s, which reveal the “originary drama of a people becoming a nation”. Kapur calls Man (1950) the first sample of Husain’s virtuosity. It depicts a hulking dark figure poised between two disparate worlds—a possible depiction of the just-preceded Partition. She also dwells on the dark spots of his career, such as his defence of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
David Gilmartin and Barbara Metcalf, both American academics with an interest in the Islamic history of South Asia, explore Husain’s Nehruvian notions of secular nationalism. They elaborate upon the influence of Indian artistic traditions in shaping Husain’s art, ranging from classical Gupta sculpture and Basohli paintings to folk art.
Flashback: (above) Last Supper in Red, M.F. Husain, acrylic on canvas, 1991; and Barefoot with Husain, Vivan Sundaram, 2009. Courtesy Yoda Press
Ramaswamy’s own essay in the book, Mapping India after Husain, provides an in-depth analysis of one of Husain’s most controversial paintings, a 2005 untitled painting of a woman assuming the cartographic shape of India, which was later referred to as Bharat Maa (Mother India). Ramaswamy draws historical parallels with similar images appearing in Indian popular culture, including a 1947 chromolithograph by P.S. Ramachandra Rao from Chennai, which showed a goddess-like figure clad in a sari printed with the Indian flag. She also digs out a 1909 precedent from an expatriate revolutionary Tamil newspaper called Intiya, which was edited by the nationalist poet-journalist Subramania Bharati, almost a century before Husain’s painting. In this, Mother India holds four infants in her arms, two of whom are suckling at her exposed breasts, while the whole ensemble occupies a roughly delineated map of (British) India. A century has transpired between Intiya’s literalist picturing of Bharat Maa and Husain’s Modernist effort. And in that, Ramaswamy observes, the capacity of a Muslim man not just to draw images of Mother India, but to show her unclothed body, has been enormously circumscribed because of the events leading up to Partition, the avowed secularist and nationalist credentials of the artist notwithstanding.
The essays in Barefoot Across the Nation were commissioned—and an international edition published by Routledge earlier in 2011—while Husain was still alive. But it is even more relevant now, not as a last word, but as a preface to a new brand of engagement with Husain’s art.
Barefoot Across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India, edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy, Yoda Press, Rs 1,950.