It may sound odd to talk about the bridge builders in the Arts but in this jubilee year of Independence, it may perhaps be legitimate to be nostalgic about them.
Of the many bridge-builders, M. F. Husain is an eminent patriarch. And not only that: he could be the last of the bridge-builders who have helped to usher Indian painting finally into modernist sensibility. Significantly enough he first exhibited his paintings in 1947, and so in a way his art began to flower in the climate of freedom, in the year India became independent. He carried forward the tradition of Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Jamini Roy and George Keyt. As Shiv
Kapur, in the latest book on Husain (Abrams) says of him, “Freed of the bitterness of political subjugation and of the nagging urge towards establishing a collective national identity, Husain is the harbinger of a new mood in Indian art. This is a mood at once self-assured in its use of universal idioms of artistic expression, contemporary in outlook and experience, socially committed and deeply humanistic in its exploration of the nature of reality.”
It is indeed not far wrong to say that with Husain modern art finally arrived in
India. Or was it because of the first avant-garde group, the Progressive Painters
Group in Bombay of which Husain was a leading member? This is indeed difficult to answer, as difficult as speculating on Husain’s development without his membership of the group. Joining it was advantageous for him in a way; it helped him to become his own critic and judge himself as austerely as he would others’ works.
Those were great days, says Husain when we fought, quarreled and even showered imprecations at each other-but always with understanding, without meaning to cause hurt and without ill feeling. The group disintegrated in a few years when most of its members (especially Raza and Souza) left to settle abroad. The final disintegration came in 1965 when former members of the by then moribund group held a show of drawings in New Delhi’s Shridharani Gallery. This was the last time Husain ever participated in any group activity.
Husain recalls with a sad, lost look that that was also the time of his total isolation-everyone talking about art, with New York or London as the main referents and not their own visions. “We fought like children and we agreed that there was nothing common which can bind us into even a loose group.” How very different was it from those heated debates amongst members of the Progressive Artists Group which went on till dawn broke and ended because no one had energy left to talk. The long years of neglect made him hard enough to take criticism in his stride but never did anybody doubt the premises of his art sketched out in the days of the Progressive Group.
For the first time then he was confronted with a new attack, and he had no defenses except his own energy and faith. Everyone was against him because “I did not follow the fashion of the day, because I was painting those same old things which I had been painting since my first show.”
“I was played out, they thought. There was no hope for me. So I turned to the epic themes, went mystic as it were to rediscover myself in painting the human drama of the Mahabharata. I was at it for three years.”
The 1965 exhibition would not have proved such a bitter experience if he had not heard the familiar criticism from critics outside the country. A reputed New York critic was very cold towards his work because it seemed old-fashioned stuff. He wanted to know why Husain did not go abstract. Husain merely said, “How can I, or anyone in India, when we live amongst 500 million people. How can I deny those people?”
Husain may very well be the only frontliner who has never attempted anything consciously avant-gardeish. Perhaps because of this he never got into those muddy foreign waters enough to soil his work. He has been and still is proud of what he can do with the hand than invent intellectual games for his art. Today, he prefers to show his paintings at village fairs because, there, no one asks him the “silly” questions which people in the metropolitan art galleries do. Nothing for him is more depressing to hear than criticality in the old art history jargon. In the finest traditions of Indian art he expects nothing from his audience except the joy in their eyes.
A Husain painting is indeed made for the eye, like the best music for the ear. And yet his is art with a capital A-art which is meant to give joy and addressed to the eye even when it is loaded with symbolic content and images that have freed themselves from logic, time and place: images which are however linked with their own time. Saying it another way, his work may not be defined with any reference to the ideas of art in general. What Husain’s 25 years as a successful artist affirms is a simple truth-that there is no progress in art. And this makes it so different from every other way of achieving the truth.
How has Husain not lost his way when most of his contemporaries, at one time or another, were out on a limb of the current of art history? The answer is simple: he never cut himself loose from his own moorings, tradition. May be the other artists attempted to replace tradition by art history consciousness.
This confusion is not peculiar to Indian artists. Everywhere, the modernist artist has faced the same dilemma and wasted his whole energy in choosing between one aesthetic school and another. Each such choice has been a matter of professional life and death.
This confusion hit Husain indirectly -when the shifting aesthetic premises affected the sale of his work! He has come into his own again because most young painters have begun looking for roots in their own environment. And this may prove to be the biggest breakthrough for Indian art, promising the birth of many Husains.
Published in Link Magazine, New Delhi, August 15, 1972