The Nomadic Eye of Painter M.F. Husain (b. 1915)1
Department of English University of Alberta
Edmonton, AB T6G 2E5
Published: June 19, 1998
"I never painted a still life because the word [sic] 'still life'
is not what I am about"--Husain 2
"Nationalist thought has not emerged as the antagonist
of universal Reason. To attain this position, it will need to
supersede itself"--Partha Chatterjee 3
This article originally published in
THE TORONTO REVIEW (Summer 1997)
Published in Asianart.com: July 3, 1998
Click on images below to view in full
I will begin my essay about the nomadic eye of Maqbool Fida Husain (known to millions of his admirers simply as Husain) by referring to his feet. This is in no way an odd or capricious decision, because what is odd for others appears to have become the norm for Husain. Husain walks barefoot--as far as I have been able to determine he does this at all times when he is in India, which is virtually most of his life. The gesture is peculiarly appropriate for the Indian painter who has come to represent for many people Indian art itself. For, in India the majority of the population goes about its daily business in unshod feet.
It will not be hard to bring to bear upon Husain's habit of walking about on naked feet some pietistic or fatuous symbolic reading: that he commiserates with the poverty-stricken masses of India, or that he "expresses" his Indian-ness through this act of remaining in contact with the soil of India. To say so would be merely to attribute to the man qualities of mind he doubtlessly possesses; but it would inevitably obscure yet another aspect of his personality--especially his artistic personality--his 'style' or, more accurately, his sense of style. But, of course, style is also always an extinction of personality, a reaching beyond the accidents of identity.
Style, as the classic humanist dictum of Buffon has it, is the man (and we could do worse than emphasize the word "man," after all Buffon's 1753 word was "l'homme"). The whole issue, clearly, operates at multiple levels. If by being barefoot Husain creates his "style" in the Western humanist sense of Buffon, then his action is not merely an expression of his personality, but nearly co-equal with it. After all, Husain is India's most public artist, 4 and on many highly publicized occasions he has created his art working barefoot in front of large audiences, including press reporters, art critics and art lovers. Moreover, numerous photographs of such occasions, depicting the artist doing his work in bare feet, have appeared widely in the press--in turn replicating nearly ceaselessly the image of the barefoot artist in the act of creation. At one level, then, Husain's barefoot "style" is a deliberately orchestrated circulation of a set image of his personality. But I wish to argue further that it is as much Husain himself, his identity, that these images broadcast as they do the "trademark" of his artistic enterprise in the postmodern economy of contemporary Indian public media. Not surprisingly, then, corresponding stories about a barefoot Husain having been denied entry into this or that snooty private club regularly feature on the front pages of newspapers and personality columns of countless news magazines in a country where the ephemeral printed word of journalism still provides significant challenge to the equally powerful and equally fleeting impact of numerous formula movies routinely churned out by film studios, especially in Bombay and Madras.
A point that is often missed by critics writing about Husain is that he operates out of probably the one country in the world that can mount a really serious challenge to the so called new imperialism of a postmodern, post-rational, fast replicating, information proliferating, media-dominated, United States of America. 5 Once the student of India, or the artist of India, learns to erase and overwrite the colonial "Orientalist" discourse of a stratified, hidebound ancient culture, she is likely to recognize--as I think Husain has clearly done--the fluid, multivalent, unsettled, ironic, absurd, and palpable vitality of the country and its multi-layered, multifaceted culture. Here ideas undergo metamorphosis rapidly while they also remain constant. And when one has cultivated the requisite rapidity of eye movement--the nomadic eye--and resulting ability of a fluid focus, one learns to look at once at many things and at one thing, to look through one thing at many things and, most importantly, to look at one object (or image) and know its unity to be as real as its possible/inherent multiplicity, its fractured wholeness, even its inscrutable absence within its undeniable presence.
Clearly, the nomadic eye, needed for such an enterprise, is also the ludic eye, or the playful eye; and that eye must be carried on restless feet--movement being the hallmark of that constantly playful gaze. Perhaps by some equation, which we can appreciate only by the other-than-rational logic of the postmodern, a connection exists between the unblinkered ludic eye and this artist's unshod feet; perhaps a metaphoric equivalence prevails between a vision unencumbered by convention, and fleet feet untrammelled by the bourgeois respectability routinely associated with footwear. Husain keeps his feet out of commodities, at the same time his bare feet become valuable investment in buying him the attention of media and the public. His feet support the productions of his eyes (and hand)--his paintings, collages, drawings, serigraphs.
How does such an odd equation help? Is there a real utility here? Do bare feet help nomadic eyes? I think they do, and very significantly. The language of the nomadic eye, as it expresses itself on canvas or in print, can easily lapse into mystification and cant: the one and the many; the real and the unreal; the noumenal and the phenomenal. This is especially a problem with India and Indian matters because such mystification derives directly from the received or Orientalist "wisdom" about the country, the almost solid construction of a mystical India. The earthy and earthbound feet of Husain--almost always in view--juxtaposed with his complex real vision and allow for a necessary lapse from metaphysics: an absurdist, somewhat irreverent, descent into the terrestrial. (At the same time, the absurd is not quite absurd, the irreverence not quite irreverent.)
At any rate, Husain always stops, as T.S. Eliot said the artist of necessity must, "at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism." The frontier is a divide, but its location is not spatial. It is a line, it is one-dimensional and lacks breadth. So, when one is at the frontier, one is at a liminal situation: no matter which side of the boundary one might be on, as long as one is at the frontier one cannot be any closer to the other side. It is a point of intersection. Husain's art, like all credible art, gets close, whereas fastidious and cautious Reason remains apart. Instead of the solidity (stolidity?) of the modern, Husain's art places us at the fluid frontier, at the threshold--in other words, in "India," in a rapidly reconfiguring topography that is also a rapidly recyclable topos.
Maqbool Fida Husain was born in 1915 and spent his childhood in the central Indian town of Indore. He lost his mother at the age of three, and spent his childhood and youth in considerable penury. Husain received no formal training in art. As a young man he moved to the bustling metropolitan city of Bombay--a major cultural and commercial centre of India--then as now--and while still in his teens he began his "artistic" career as a lowly paid painter of movie posters and billboards. Thus the crass vitality of oversized advertising art depicting the improbable, larger-than-life, glamour-and-adventure world of film images was able to register its imprint on the artist's mind at a very early and crucial phase of his career.
Films, rather movies and moviedom, continue to fascinate Husain to this day. But this is no uncritical attachment, for Husain has discovered in the shifting and slippery world of movies and filmic images numerous different analogies for his projection of both a vibrant personal imagination--with its attendant contradictory and shifting demands--and (in the absence of a more appropriate term) a "postmodern" India, a country whose postmodernity is, certainly in Husain's eyes, as old as its history. At best, the characteristics one associates with contemporary postmodern society and the art it has generated provide a somewhat convenient analogy to Husain's sense of a trans-historical India and its qualities. Clearly, in the context of this India projected by Husain, the term "postmodern"--which does not occur in the title of my essay--must be used within quotation marks, and avoided altogether if possible. 6
To study the work of any major contemporary Indian artist we must consider issues relating to the particularity of India, not merely as another possible "case study" in the exploration of the supposedly universal notion of "postmodernity," "postcoloniality," or "nationalism." Each term needs to be problematized, its universalizing and homogenizing thrust challenged. Yet the terms cannot be entirely rejected. Whether one is dealing with Satyajit Ray's movie "Ghorey Bairey" ("Home and Abroad") or with Husain's long "The Raj" series of paintings--he is unique among Indian painters to have attended to this period of colonial history--one cannot entirely ignore nationalist or post-colonialist concerns. Similarly, in other contexts Husain's paintings require us to drag in the word "postmodern."
The terms are problematic for two separate reasons. The fact that they are privileged by the power operations of western institutions (its publishing industry, its media, its universities), is only one of these. The other reason is more significant because it does not operate merely by default, and goes beyond the negative mode of the first argument, which must run something like this: because the terms are produced outside of India they are not valid in India. The second argument operates, instead, on the basis of equivalence (at the least): India is a 'world' in itself. Here, what comes into the "endo-world" (so to speak) from the outside world has no especially privileged status because what is generated within is at least as adequate, self-validating and appropriate. Whether this argument (or sentiment) is overtly expressed, or its validity is silently and subconsciously accepted, its presence is undeniable in the globalizing thought processes of really powerful countries and their cultures. 7
Although it is hard to realize this in the First World, the artists and thinkers of India--especially those who live and work in India, and have not been co-opted into the First World's essentially alienating "visible minority" agenda--regard the world to be Indo-centric. A few other countries, too, feel that way about their own cultures but clearly not every country can do so. And, for a number of valid reasons, Indians can and often do feel that way. One reason has to do with the continuous presence of a very large number of contradictory discourses in virtually all periods of India's recorded history. A 'nation' in a narrow sense--in its classic European notion of a state--cannot allow a diversity of discourses to coexist; it would have a dominant discourse (the national discourse) subordinate the others. When that does not happen, one has--in the classical view--mere chaos. Or, one might in fact be describing an entity one could call a world-state, rather than a nation-state. In India--a country that routinely frustrates theorists of "nationalism"--an entire collection of nations co-exists, not always peacefully, often chaotically, but nearly always vitally. If in this synchronic view--perceived at one point in time--India presents multiplicity and diversity of discourses, it is multi-layered in a diachronic way too. Virtually all 'times' seem to co-exist in India, from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial.
India is, then, in a certain sense both all world and all time. 8 In the kind of complexity India presents, all normal categories of Reason breakdown. National thought in India transcends "nationalism." The distinguished Indian political theorist, Partha Chatterjee, has argued that this transcendence is the expected result of the conflation in India of borrowed European notion of "nation" and the continuously present pre-colonial realities and particularities. 9 In another sense, this transcendent nationalism, also transcends history. Consequently, in India the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern are all co-existent. And not only are they co-existent, in each case the meaning of the specific term transcends its limited routine sense. The only exception, perhaps, is "postmodern," which, by definition, appears to rupture limit and postpone closure.
In the view I am proposing, two things happen simultaneously; and we need to understand them clearly if we are to appreciate the art of Husain. First, the creative Indian mind can adopt any view or any principle from the outside world because the world is at once outside and inside of one's Indian-ness. Second, whatever is imported somehow also becomes native; it is possessed, co-opted, and transfigured. This will explain my hesitation with the academic expression "postmodern"--in that technical sense it can only be a borrowed concept in India. But it is not merely so. For Husain, as we will see, the postmodern has always been a felt presence in India, and the obscurity, open-endedness, and near absurdity that the term connotes can be seen evident in virtually all periods of Indian history and all aspects of its culture. The only odd exception is the officially-sanctioned 'nationhood' of the state, and the colonially induced modernity that to this day drives its official laws, its official science, its planned industrialization.
India's poor assimilation into the spirit of modernity--in spite of the creditable performance of many individual Indians in the fields of education, social thought, science and technology--has been commented upon by many. The utter despair that many colonial administrators felt about their largely-failed mission to modernize the country--the notorious white man's burden--is attested to in many chronicles of the Raj. In the arts, the profoundest statement is found in the admission made in the final words of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India: "No, not yet," and "No, not there." In Husain's "The Raj" paintings that encounter of cultures--the national and the modern on the one hand, and the supra-national (or non-national) and the ahistorical on the other--is depicted as utterly ineffectual; it is baffling for the colonizer, and absurd for the colonized.
How does Husain achieve this effect? He does it by employing a number of spatial and perspective-manipulating strategies, some of which are decidedly filmic--although not derived from Ray's particular movie that forms the narrative subtext for the painting, one that Husain creatively "misreads." In his movie Ray conveys much of his message by having the camera focus upon the face of Apu, particularly his wide, wonderstruck, dreamy eyes. 10 Husain presents Apu with his back to us--he stands in front of us in the centre foreground, his face away from us as he looks at the passing train in the background, the upper half of the picture. On the other hand, his sister, Durga, faces us, although the oval of her bright ochre face, traditionally the colour of Indian soil, is featureless.
Husain presents his picture within two elongated rectangles one sitting above the other, the lower one being the foreground containing the lush topography of Bengal as well as the two human characters and a roguish white goat. There is much colour and vitality in this foreground which has two deep green rectangular patches occupying most of the space. One green patch comprises the entire right lower half of the picture, the other green square is on the left nearly entirely framing the white goat. Between the two green rectangles--clearly suggesting the dynamic vigour of the fertile soil of eastern India--are two vertical strips extending from the near edge of the picture to the top of the lower rectangle. One strip is painted bright blue, surely a narrow but significant stream that waters the land and nurtures human beings, animals and vegetation. The other strip is a footpath between the fields, suggesting both community and history.
The narrow and long rectangle that comprises the top half of the picture shows us the train. Husain has drained out all colour from this half of his picture. The foreground, as I have noted, has the vivid blue of water, the luxuriant green of the fields, the orange-ochre of the soil, the bright red stripes of Durga's saree, the white of Apu's loin cloth, and the sturdy-looking white goat. In the upper half of the picture the sky is painted a drab smoky haze, against which a miniature two-dimensional train with three tiny black coaches pulled by a black steam engine are presented as if drawn by a child in a kindergarten classroom. Husain critiques Ray's simple realism, and using an improbable cartoon technique juxtaposes the mature, solid yet unostentatious craftsmanship of the foreground against the successfully imitated child's elementary drawing of a toy train across the top half of the picture. By means of this compositional innovation Husain situates his somewhat essentialist and anti-historicist reading of the role of modernity in India directly beside the realist Ray's much acclaimed "integrity in the handling of social history" (Barnouw and Krishnaswamy 236).
Railway was introduced into India by the British government in the middle of the nineteenth century. By the early part of this century it had become the most pervasive mode of transportation in India, giving the country one of the largest networks of passenger and goods movement systems in the world. Probably more people travel by train in India each day than any where else on earth. But the great mechanical horse of modern technology has been reduced by Husain to an ineffectual two-dimensional cut-out toy. Drawn as if by a child, the engine and the coaches have been first outlined in the most elementary fashion and then filled in inexpertly with black crayon. While the train and the engine are coloured black, the overall lack of depth denies it any power, sinister or otherwise. The engine belches dirty green smoke against the dull background; and three puffs, again drawn in an unsure hand, create a questionable banner of sorts across the top right of the drawing. The puff over the engine, on the right, is the largest; the two behind it--occupying roughly the top centre of the picture--are much smaller, the third one being the smallest. This creates a wedge-shaped patch of dull grey-green across the top right of the upper rectangle, wide on the right and narrow on the left. As one glances at the bottom edge of the picture one cannot help noticing that Husain has drawn a corresponding (but also contrasting) wedge of bright red across the forepart of the foreground. The red wedge is wider on the left, and it narrows towards the right. As Apu waves energetically at the distant train, he stands ankle-deep in this splash of invigorating red, perhaps the substance of life itself.
I have spoken repeatedly of the top and bottom rectangles; and by this division Husain, I think, creates more than just structural patterning. The artist has, indeed, sharply outlined the two rectangles, the top one sitting a little distance beyond the top edge of the one at the bottom. Husain seems to achieve several different effects by drawing the outlines of the two rectangles. The most obvious is that it allows him to position his composition away from the four edges of the paper thereby leaving a narrow band of unused space all around the picture. (Even his signature is placed outside this outlined area.) The effect is strikingly similar to the experience of looking at a single frame in a strip of movie film: the picture itself surrounded by blank celluloid space at the edges. By leaving a gap between the lower and upper rectangles, a gully of sorts running horizontally across the middle of the picture, Husain further emphasizes the distance between Apu's native world and the shadow world of imported and imposed modernity and machine power.
Husain heightens the contrast by yet another clever device. The top border of the lower rectangle and the bottom border of the upper rectangle are linked by a series of unequally spaced and unsteadily drawn short vertical sticks. These attempt to transform the two lines at the middle of the picture into a child's representation of a set of railway tracks, the 'sticks' being the ties between the parallel rails. But instead of creating a link between the two worlds, those of Apu and the train, the chasm between the two rails is made more gaping, virtually absolute, by the use of white crayon fill-in between the ties. The two-dimensional train, of course, rides the further rail in a fashion entirely improbable to the adult eye. Thus the engine and the coaches sit just above the white gully between the two rectangles, beyond an unbridgeable gap. Even if the railway track with its stick-like ties attempts to form a clearly untenable link between the lower an the upper halves of the picture, the train itself is contained entirely within the spectral, colourless upper rectangle, a space--rather a single plane--apart from the real vital world depicted in the foreground. In the physical world inhabited by Durga and Apu, the perspective from which people and objects are presented is reliable and their arrangement is believable. Thus Durga's hair covers her left shoulder, her right arm lies across her lap, and even the horns on the goat are drawn to suggest an appropriate distance between them.
If the foreground is filled with the bright colours of a sunny day, the train is trapped within a shadowless enclosure which depicts neither night nor day, but a colourless, greyish yellow gloom. Still, it is not night yet, although artificial interior light dully fills the frames of the empty coach windows. Not a single passenger travels by this train. The only colour to be found in the top frame of this picture is in the short, bold single horizontal stroke of red crayon Husain has placed just above the roof of each of the three coaches. The effect is almost that of chastisement. The vivid red lines draw our attention back to red band across the bottom of the picture, the vital ground that sustains Apu, and seem to press down upon the train brining to bear upon it a downward pressure almost capable of collapsing its flimsy man-made structure.
Of course, one might be tempted to characterize Husain's anti-modern, anti-industrial deconstruction of Ray's movie--or at least of a pivotal scene in it--as merely escapist fantasy, as unjustifiably romantic pastoralism. But one would not be correct in making that easy judgment. The sturdy, comic goat, so vitally present in the picture, allows for a playful self-awareness that counters any suggestion of escapism. The goat, incongruous in the overall serious and even didactic tone of the picture, is also entirely congruous in a depiction of rural life in India. It provides a focus for the inherent and desirable collapse of rationality that Husain appears to support--especially in the context of a country that baffles modern notions of history, a notion that has the idea of "progress" as its cornerstone. In other words, Husain creatively misreads colonialist and bourgeois historiography and shows the imported and imposed modernity to have been subsumed by a potent India. The imported notion of nationalism has been, I propose, "augmented"--augmented by its incorporation into a local or pre-colonial (therefore pre-modern) mode of valuation.
Socio-economic change, including industrialization, was not the only aspect of colonialism to affect India. Christian missions and missionaries, too, were active participants the imperial agenda. Although the activities of the Church have extended all the way from undeniably pernicious to the admirably beneficial--from coercive mass conversion to the establishment of educational, medical and similar modernizing institutions--even these latter activities can be held up for scrutiny. Husain seems to have done precisely that in a series of paintings about Mother Teresa, the celebrated "Saint of Calcutta." While the painter's admiration for the missionary worker is obviously very high, at times he appears to presents her in a manner that problematizes the subject in an unusual way. The series presents Mother Teresa as having been absorbed into the city (and the country) she has adopted as her place of work and as being deprived of her identity. I think Husain questions the odd way in which the tag "Mother Teresa of Calcutta" operates in the minds of people, especially those who live outside India. If anything, the words tend to suggest the opposite of what they seem to say. The popular understanding of the words suggest that Mother Teresa is not of Calcutta; rather the city is hers, or that the city has gained prominence and dignity through its association with her. In this reading the city has been adopted by the missionary.
Irrespective of the good Mother Teresa does to some people in India, the way the signification of her naming works in the popular mind makes little sense. (One curious result of the nomination is the nearly universal ignorance of the fact that Missionaries of Charity, the Order founded by Mother Teresa, provides service to destitute people in nearly one hundred countries--including virtually all nations of the First World.) It can quite reasonably be assumed that she has been transformed by the city, by the country, by its Gandhian tradition, and so forth. Before she turned to her charitable work, Mother Teresa taught school in India for many years; in this role she was no different from many other unremarkable European teachers in Catholic mission schools in Asia or Africa. Her sudden moment of change--she has described it as "a call within a call"--came in 1946, at the height of the movement for India's independence--a year before the country attained its freedom. It is hard not to see a Gandhian influence in this conversion which made her an active participant in the new spiritual adventure on which the soon-to-be-liberated India was embarking. 11 Husain, appropriately enough for a painter, seems, primarily interested in the way the signs--linguistic, sartorial, visual, and so on--work in this case. To right the odd linguistic signification we must be willing to read the phrase "of Calcutta" to mean "Mother Teresa belongs to Calcutta (and to India)." One suspects that Mother Teresa is not likely to question the appropriateness of this viewpoint. But irrespective of her personal opinion, the public working of the sign suggests the opposite. In that popular version she is seen as bringing an impossible ray of hope into an entirely hopeless city. But as anyone who is familiar with Calcutta knows, it is a place of incredible vitality and energy; of much human suffering no doubt, but also of immense evidence of human dignity and pride. Also, its history is inextricably linked in the minds of Bengalis with the name of Rani [not a title] Rasmoni (1793-1861), the pious lady whose charitable work is the stuff of the city's legends. Moreover, to this list one might add the positive cultural and artistic life that Calcutta makes possible for imaginative persons. For Husain and for many million others in India, it is a metropolitan place.
Still, our reading of the "Mother Teresa" paintings need not be unambiguously negative. Perhaps the nun's dark face shows that she is now an Indian, a dark person, rather than a European embracing exile in India. Perhaps, it is she who has been accepted, embraced and validated--by India; and she is no longer a foreigner, a white person. Such a reading is consistent with the fact that we are looking at the situation through an Indian painter's eye rather than, say, through the viewfinder of CNN's news camera. In such a reading Mother Teresa is not degraded--at least no more than the numerous other extra-ordinary people who inhabit India: the sages, the philosophers, the saints, the poets, the lovers, and truly noble. That such people, innumerable such people, still live in India is no mere legend. It seems, then, the sari--restored to its appropriate Indian-ness--can add significance to Mother Teresa instead of suggesting the opposite. One could also argue that it is the sari, the symbol of Indian motherhood, that allows the European nun to wear her title with justification. Now, it is entirely right that the orphaned dark child should seek refuge in the arms of this sari-clad, dark skinned mother of the poor and the helpless. 12
Husain's attitude toward modernity is dismissive in "Apu and the Train," but obviously this is not his usual treatment of his subjects. For the most part Husain's paintings address issues, of both theme and style, in highly ambiguous and complex ways. Because the Apu picture is based on Ray's celebrated film, Husain has the assurance that an alternate point of view prominently exists in his source and will not be overlooked by his viewers. Subtexts and precursor texts are never more important to an assessment of Husain's art than in a consideration of his "The Raj" paintings. Here Husain effectively manipulates a wide range of possible viewer positions--including one that must regard the painter himself as a viewer of paintings produced during the Raj. Typically in "The Raj" series Husain simultaneously mimics two separate styles of colonial British-Indian painting: formal portraiture (using prominent imperial emblems and icons), and the "picturesque" that exaggerated the "exotic" elements of the colony for "home" consumption.
The co-presence of these styles in Husain's "The Raj" paintings produce what I will call a split-cum-stereoscopic parody. There is much evidence of reflexivity and playfulness in this odd juxtapositioning of discrete aesthetic material. The result is a particularly rich ironic stance which is at once distant (from the "normal" perspective of a late twentieth-century Indian) and near (in that the present painter's "intention" is embedded in his compositional and stylistic decisions). Husain's technique is particularly effective in making the colonialist's inflated self-perception confront his odd and exotic (i.e. picturesque) misperceptions of the colonial subject. Of the latter, Mildred and W.G. Archer have written: "The picturesque impressions of the day could [later] be taken out like butterflies from a killing-bottle, laid out on the setting board, and reduced to final order" (7). The overly formal portraits, on the other hand, helped shore up the colonialist's much embattled ego, and also assured people back in England that the Empire had indeed been solidly founded, and was triumphantly flourishing.
As one looks at these various elements, one discovers that on the whole Husain has maintained a checks-and-balances equivalence between them. The exotic "Maharaja"--a common theme of "picturesque" paintings--seems quite comfortable on his home ground. That ground is complexly marked by European and Indian presences in architecture, livery, and equipage. But "Lord and Lady," the European colonizers, look distinctly out of place in a location that is supposedly under their occupation. The one element in the painting that is not matched by a corresponding element, is also its most colourful and dominating feature. This is a blazing red canopy above the heads of the two "rulers" of the land; painted on this canopy and entirely subordinating the human figures is the image of Hanuman, the monkey-faced god of Ramayana, flying through the air, his mighty club positioned just above the English visitor/ruler's head. Instead of a dismissive attitude towards the colonizer's imposition on the Indian location, Husain presents in this painting a very well-regulated play of equivalences, with the final agency residing in the vigorous and centrally-placed yet somehow playful Hindu icon.
Bafflement and incomprehension mark both Indians and Europeans in the peculiar phenomenon of the Raj. "Sir Hukamchand," although now knighted by the government in distant London, still squats on the floor in front of his low wooden desk. As he sits calculating his daily profit and loss in business--the legend on the painting tells us that his is one of those rags to riches stories that the Empire had made possible for opportunistic Indians--his coyly over draped wife sits on her haunches next to him wearing heavy gold jewellery literally from her head to toe. On the wall behind them hang pictures of his "deities": the much venerated Hanuman, of Ganesh (the God associated with success and wealth) and, of course, the newest member of the Indian Trinity--the English Emperor himself, bedecked with medals and wearing an elaborate and probably uncomfortable crown. There is also, on the same wall, a framed imprint of the fortunate merchant's palm, one that is evidently astrologically blessed. Clearly, desire (not all that obscure) operates significantly in the life of the coarse-featured Indian knight and his plump and substantial lady. Chivalry and romance of knighthood take quite a beating here--but who can say it is not deserved.
But the Empire represents for Husain a much more complex play of desire on both sides, the natives and the foreigners. It was born of obscure lack, of attempts to possess--and even become--the Other. Several of Husain's paintings present the almost fated intertwining of the colonizer and the colonized. In "General and the Nautch Girl," the bald and stiff army officer with white whiskers sits on an elaborate golden chair and extends his arm toward the Indian dancing girl. But both his hands are amputated, and what we see are empty circles at the ends of his sleeves. The General's hand-less arm does not quite reach the young dancer, who is presented as a dark figure in a swirling skirt. She seems to become a whirr of energy and passion--even perhaps evil passion--beyond the reach of the maimed and aged solider. Yet, she is clearly at the beck and call of the authoritarian military figure. It is hard to tell who is escaping the greater danger in this apparent failure of union, this frustrated attempt to connect.
Yet the Maharani is not entirely passive, for she extends her naked right foot right across the confining frame--which is a painted border rather than a real frame--and sticks it out beyond it--into our world. But we see the painting at a further remove, because it is presented to us within a photograph which is the most immediate plane of Husain's composition. The photographer has positioned a living person, an ordinary, dark, modern Indian woman of the working class, beside the large painting, her arm near the stuck-out (and transgressing?)foot of the painted queen. One wonders if this woman of modern India is the end-product of all the mixed streams of passion, hybridity, cross-cultural and inter-racial sexual adventure, and romantic enterprise. Entirely subsumed into the 'body' of this ordinary citizen of today's India is the 'body' of the European expatriate who once dreamed of becoming--and had perhaps become--the consort of royalty and the mother of royal children, in an order of royalty quite other than the royalty of her "imperial" native land. Yet not all is lost. Although, the photographed woman, the uncomprehending modern, is the only kind of person we can meet on the streets of India today, Husain's painterly backward glance ties up the past and the present in an irrefutable even if rather pointless relationship. In any case it should be clear by now that Husain's treatment of the "Raj" theme is far from consistent with the usual "nationalist" or postcolonial practice of "reading for resistance." He does not historicize his subjects, both historicism and nationalism being notions derived from European modernity. 13 Nor does he seek to give articulation to a subaltern position. His India has much authority, and it forms a rather bemused backdrop for the historic mutual incomprehension that the Raj embodied. He situates his presentation of the drama of the colonizer and the colonized within a discourse of equivalence.
Let us now return to the question of postmodernity in India, and Husain's use of related ideas in his paintings. The link between India and the postmodern condition is not new. Several people have pointed out the proximity between what might be called a trans-historical India, and the complex of ideas and assumptions we now associate with postmodernity. Salman Rushdie is probably the most notable of them. He relates his notion of "off-centring," elaborated in his 1985 essay "Midnight's Children and Shame," to the fact of his Indian cultural inheritance. Rushdie's other notion is that migrating people have a special claim to postmodern awareness because they have been uprooted from history and thus set free. This second idea seems to me to be one conveniently cooked-up to draw sympathy from complacent Western consumers of "postcolonial" art. In India, being rooted means no more or less than being always aware of contingency, of not being rooted. For millions of India's street-dwellers and migrant workers this is no mere play with words. Because the place called India is, in this mode of experience, all places and no place in particular, movement is always predicated in the very act of existence. 14
Cinema, the art of postindustrial western world that most effectively exemplifies the tenor and tone of postmodernity, becomes a central metaphor for Husain who has himself produced several short films. ("Through the Eyes of a Painter," a short impressionistic piece he made in 1967, won the Golden Bear at that year's Berlin Film Festival.) But given the innumerable commercial movies Indian studios make, and the cultural dominance these enjoy among the masses in the country and among its far flung diaspora, one can hardly regard this medium as foreign to the country. The postmodern, in a very slippery but real sense, is India. But although it is real it can be ambiguous enough to be missed by the imperceptive. Sometimes a kind of acutely rational perceptiveness can itself become a hindrance to one's ability to understand India. Such is the case, I think, with V.S. Naipaul in his new book on India which talks about the country's "million mutinies" as a recent development ("now"). Naipaul seems to have sensed the postmodern (or simply Indian) reality where numerous contradictory discourses ("mutinies") remain simultaneously viable, but typically he sees it as a step in the evolutionary myth of reason and progress. For Naipaul "mutinies" provide evidence of a historical process; they signify for him "the strength of the general intellectual life, . . . [of] wholeness and humanism" (518). Too much a product of colonial schooling, Naipaul translates unreason and play he observes in India into the Western concepts of Reason and History. By contrast, Husain evidently sees the world taking on an Indian aspect; and some of his recent film paintings make the point clear.
The repertoire of Husain's film paintings is vast and wide ranging. Moreover, their purpose seems to extend from straight-forward representation (although this is rare), to the most complexly metaphorical suggestion; from clear and vivid portrayal to densely evocative but profoundly obscure patterns of colour and shade; from single "snapshots" of abiding images left in the mind by memorable films to intricate series of paintings inspired by a single movie. In a long series, like the one inspired by the 1977 film "That Obscure Object of Desire" by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), the disjunction and flow between separate paintings reproduce some sense of the jerky continuity of movie images. At the same time, the series leaves us baffled by the range of startlingly inappropriate or irrational associations Husain seeks to utilize/effect in seemingly random ways.
Husain's purpose, as it is of Buñuel, is to transform or the psychological centring of desire into a complex metaphor operating in the social. However, the necessity of or the opportunity for such transformation or translation is not available in all societies, and at all levels of society, especially in the Eurocentric world. To be truly effective, it seems desirable to move away from the modern bourgeois middle class and seek validity among the masses. If that is the case, it is possible that Buñuel's extensive experience of producing popular movies for the Mexican mass market brought him some insight into the extra-European possibilities of the theme of desire. Although not set in Mexico, "That Obscure Object of Desire"--the director's last notable film--was produced after his Mexican years. Mexico brought Buñuel insights that were not available within the art world of Europe, no matter how avantgarde or experimental. At any rate, Husain was aware of Buñuel's extra-European career as a filmmaker, and of the fact that in addition to being one of the most prominent "artistic" directors of Europe--for instance, Buñuel, who collaborated with Salvador Dali, is a key figure in the history of surrealist cinema--the director had also made many popular films for the vast Mexican movie market. It is more than probable that the matter of popular cinema, and Buñuel's involvement in it, was significant to Husain. Husain finds art credible if it is able to accomplish its mission of translating outside the confines of canonical/canonized art spheres.
In India--perhaps also in hybridized countries like Mexico--the popular is neither extraneous nor opposed to the canonical, except for brief periods of imperialism-induced modernity. In particular, Husain knows well that even in the seemingly remote aesthetic world of canonical Western art, non-aesthetic concerns of marketability, highbrow popularity--that is, popularity within an economically privileged class--and corporate sponsorship are far from negligible. Husain, who is historically alert and, unlike V.S. Naipaul in An Area of Darkness, not unduly sentimental about "purer" times, has written with clear-sightedness: "From the conclaves of dark ages to the sunlit slabs of civilization, and then rising high touching pinnacles, the 'Work of Art' [now] goes shopping in the briefcase of multinational conglomerates" (Indian Painting Today, 1981 qtd. 45). He is aware that canonized art is selectively "popular," and gives rise to a linguistic double-bind: an art that is "popular" with the cognoscenti is rarely also popular in the real sense--that is, it is seldom derived from and accessible to the lived experience of the masses. Yet, as Husain's experience of India repeatedly tells him the epical and the mythic are also the experiential, the experiential is the religious (not the same thing as dogma), the religious is folkloric, the folkloric is highly adaptive, and it is truly popular and demonstrably contemporary. Cinema is one art location where, typically in India, the epical, the experiential, the contemporary and the folkloric come together. In this India of Husain, tradition does not oppose modernity. In fact, the Reason-sponsored conflict between them is transcended: the epical or the mythic is contemporary in India--as is the absurd postmodernity of media and movies.
Before we proceed any further it will be important to link a bit more clearly the notion of the epical and the question of Husain's response to Buñuel. Another important series of Husain's paintings that in complicated ways related to his paintings on Buñuel's theme of the "obscurity" or the palpable Unreason that dominates our "desires" (therefore, also our actions), depicts the painter's response to the Indian epic Mahabharata. In fact, Husain himself linked the two series when he remarked during a 1986 interview: "I had been working on the Mahabharata series with its conflicts and I saw the Buñuel film. I decided immediately to turn to contemporary things" (Herwitz, qtd. 26). The "turn," however, did not signify a change in the painter's thematic focus; rather, Husain could see his concerns with Mahabharata projected onto the contemporary filmic text of Buñuel. As Daniel Herwitz correctly points out, "These [two] series share an epical and cinematic concern with the fate of conflict," although I am not certain that "fate" is a key matter here. The exploration, both in the Mahabharata and Desire series, is of the inevitable defeat of Reason in the working out of human lives. It is hard for me to see a notion of fate, or preordination, or even supra-rational design informing paintings in either series. In particular, one sees questions, paradoxes, absurdities, puzzlements, as well as a painterly stance that allows these conditions full play on canvas. What Husain seems to be saying is that when Buñuel shows the defeat or inadequacy of order, reason and proportion--when, in other words, the director steps into an extra-European mental territory--he speaks a language that is remarkably akin to a reality that the Indian epic fully privileges, or can be seen by a contemporary person to be privileging.
It is a commonplace about epics that they are produced in the early stage of a culture, and then they somehow recede into the background of cultural life. It provides an initial ordering impulse which becomes the pattern for much that develops later in a culture. Northrop Frye explains,
As the epic mode of thought, both in its visual form and in its universality of range, is most typical of a culture in the first flush of its vigour, the major epic tends to come rather early in the nation's history and hence may form, if it is great enough, a sort of matrix for the whole cultural development that follows it. (Fearful Symmetry 316)
The imprint of the Homeric epics may still be latent in the make-up of the cultures of Europe, but one can hardly say that it still remains vital and viable in European consciousness, or that it still animates its folklore. If anything, it has retreated into the artistically and aesthetically privileged region of mythology. The Romantic artists tapped into its deep and "symbolic"--therefore, hidden--resources. In modernist art, it provided a narrative method for James Joyce's Ulysses. 16 But any broad-based appeal of the epics at the popular level is hardly perceptible. Notably, Frye made a significant qualification about India's epics: "The Indian epics have gone a step further, and have actually absorbed much of this later development, the Bhagavadgita itself being an episode from one of them" (317). Nevertheless, it has to be understood clearly that the connections Husain (or Frye) makes between the epical and the contemporary--the latter consisting of Buñuel, the absurd and existential, the postmodern, and so on--are not ones that people in India routinely make. Far from it. As a conscious artist, Husain projects unerringly a conception of India that is both viable--once one thinks about it--and imaginatively constructed. The notable point, it seems to me, is that the "India" he constructs/ invents/imagines can be verified empirically and theoretically by any critically inclined but imaginative person who is familiar with the country.
Ancient Indian epics and contemporary European cinema equally animate Husain's paintings about the persistently puzzling and entirely real theme of desire. Strong erotic elements in the figures he portrays coexist shockingly with elements of violence, terror and disintegration. One of Husain's most powerful paintings, entitled simply after Buñuel's movie and signed cryptically by the painter in the assumed name "McBull" (a somewhat threatening and sinister pun on the artist's first name), depicts a naked woman in what might be called free fall. Her silent scream of terror is indicated by a dark mouth gaping open--it is a graphic proof of her awareness of onrushing doom. The body of the woman is painted deep blue with prominent tones of black in it. She has no eyes; her loose dark hair flies away from her face and extends beyond the left edge of the painting. Although she seems to be falling into a bottomless chasm, she is also at once wedged between two solid wall-like structures which appear to close in on her naked, vulnerable body. It is hard to tell whether she is more terrified of falling through the opening between the walls, or of being crushed by them.
Husain endows this dislodged and tumbling woman with the sensuous beauty typically celebrated in India erotic sculptures. Her full buttocks, her one exposed breast, her outstretched slender right arm are obviously displayed. She prominently occupies half of the canvas space. In the other half of the painting we see a miniature figure of a man falling off a horse; the horse itself has stumbled and is about to go down in a heap. The man and the horse are enclosed in a blood-red circle of light. From the top edge of the canvas a massive green gun appears; it seems to have found its target in the two falling figures. It is hard to make any easy sense of this powerful multi-plane composition. But the thematic mix of sensuality and death, of the allure of the human body and its corruptions, of longing and fear, of passion and violence, is made clearly manifest. The relationship between the trapped man, whose attempt to reach the woman is fatally halted by the gun, and the dark blue woman is left obscure. The intention behind the firing of the gun--which, in its green appearance, is the most living object in the painting--is no more clear; nor is an agent for its operation clearly depicted. One notices with a sense of sharp of re-cognition the similarity between the falling woman in this picture and the screaming figure of Draupadi in Husain's Mahabharata painting titled "Draupadi on Dice."
A common point of debate about this "marriage" episode of Mahabharata focuses on how well Draupadi and her five husbands honour not merely the words, but also the spirit, of the old Queen's (clearly mistaken) "wish." It is evident that they heeded the literal sense of the command by marrying Draupadi jointly; but did they love her "equally"? Did she love them "equally"? Or, in spite of the apparent social arrangement, was it not the case that Draupadi and Arjuna were truly the "real" husband and wife in this marriage? Clearly that special bond can be defended in terms of romance tradition, which is appropriate to this kind of narrative. But how is such ambiguous treatment of the mother's words to be evaluated?
The story of Draupadi's marriage to the five princes, which I have recounted at some length, is not the ostensible subject of Husain's painting. The particular episode illustrated in the painting has to do with the aftermath of the fateful dice game called satranj (broadly similar to chess), in which the five Pandava princes lose to their cousins, the Kauravas, their entire kingdom and every other earthly possession. (Indians regard their country as the birthplace of the game. Chess is a central metaphor in many Indian narratives--recall, for example, Ray's movie "The Chess Players" ). The last Pandava "property" left to be wagered is Draupadi; and this time, too the Kauravas win their object of desire.
In order to humiliate their enemies to the utmost, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers, decides to force Draupadi to undress in public. Whether it is mere malice or has a prurient undertone is unclear from the text, although the catcalls of the audience suggest the latter possibility quite distinctly. In her desperation, Draupadi appeals silently to Krishna to save her honour. Krishna is Arjuna's friend--although he is also quite notorious for his erotic adventures in other Indian narratives. As Duryodhana tries to pull off Draupadi's garment--in a scene saturated with images of violence--Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, miraculously extends the length of the distressed woman's garment. After many futile attempts an exhausted Duryodhana is compelled to give up his evil desire.
As might be guessed, this complex scene is a popular theme of Indian religious paintings; these usually depict the smiling deity answering the earnest entreaties of his distressed supplicant. Husain's treatment of the episode is anything but comforting. It focuses tightly on the helpless figure of Draupadi painted against a forbiddingly grey background. No other figure, human or divine, intrudes on the scene. The drama is purely private; it is as much true to say that the space contains Draupadi as to suggest that she contains the space in which she is depicted. Colouful pieces of the chessboard, square-shaped projectiles, fly about the woman who has lost her balance is falling backward. Husain has captured the figure at the middle point of the fall: her feet are in air, and her head is yet to hit the ground. But, we cannot be sure that there is a solid ground that will end her fall even if it also breaks up her body into fragments.
The end of Draupadi's "endless" garment is clearly visible as it flaps about the body of the tumbling woman. It has been reduced by the painter to a narrow and short strip of fabric barely covering the breast and the hips of the woman. Draupadi appears to be almost naked., Or is she? While her ashen- white body is quite visible, and its contours, limbs, and extremities clearly painted on the canvass, it also seems that her body is actually wrapped like a mummy in white bandage. The endless sari gifted by Krishna is here reconstituted as wrapping signifying deadly bondage. Draupadi's face is featureless except for a dark open screaming mouth. It registers eloquently her scream of terror--or Conradian horror?--and brings back to our memory Husain's "Obscure Desire" painting I have described earlier. Here, too, the falling woman's hair flies about unrestrained.
As in the other painting, here, too, access to stable meaning is severely restricted. But ambiguities abound. But these are the ambiguities are born of the complexities inherent the ancient epic, and which make it relevant to contemporary readers: Draupadi's bondage in the strange "marriage," the "illicit" favouring of one love over others. There is also the suggestion in the swirling coloured spaces--the squares representing the fragmented chessboard--of the hopeless tangle brought about by words as insubstantial and fateful as dice cast in a game of chance. These "facts' of the narrative seem to pass all at once before the bandaged eyes of the victim. The rapidly circulating coloured pieces--red, green, blue, orange--appear to suggest taunting (as well as erotically stimulating) memories of past pleasures, lusts, joys, deceptions. In short, they may very well represent the volatile, perhaps even unreal, nature of all sexual giving and receiving, all such promises and betrayals. It should be needless to add that Husain does not undermine the character of Draupadi in his painting--rather he humanizes it.
It is apparent that Husain has powerfully reconfigured an epical or mythic matter that the comfort and solace seeking middle-class mind had reduced to safe pietism. If my speculation about the painting is even partly valid, we have to assume that Husain finds little in the complexities of contemporary life to which the Indian epics cannot respond fully. Husain makes equally powerful use of Ramayana as well. In this case he focuses on the much-valorized figure of Hanuman, the monkey-god who is immortalized in Indian popular mind because of his unswerving loyalty to the epic's hero and heroine, Rama (another incarnation of Vishnu) and his wife Sita. While religious use of epic material is characterized by blind faith and sentimental adulation--we discovered an image of the venerated deity in Sir Hukamchand's room--the treatment of characters in epic literature is far more ambivalent. In addition, Husain uses this material to show how an Indian artist working on the Indian soil is not deprived of modern themes or issues because virtually every such matter is readily available within a world-nation like India and within its pre-colonial traditions.
The connection Husain makes between Hanuman and Superman is entirely reasonable in another sense also. Popular consumption of classical and religious images in India had its beginning with the works of the first major "nationalist" painter of India, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). Ravi Varma was the first Indian artist to look seriously at classical Indian literature and to represent its dramatic and emotive themes in his paintings. He was also the first to sense the need for making the colonized masses aware of the cultural inheritance of the country. It was clear to him that this task must be performed by Indians, and without the mediating influence of European Orientalism. Throughout his life Ravi Varma was inspired by this nationalist zeal. And although it is not the kind of nationalism that a free and secular India needs any more, Ravi Varma's paintings gave visual "form" to the subjects embedded in the mythical literature of the country. That form may look dated today, but in its time it had no other source than the imagination of this painter. In fact, the imprint of that form can still be seen in the typical costuming practices of Bombay and Madras film studios as they continue to churn out highly popular religious and mythical (these are interchangeable terms in the Indian context) movies. That such movies have wide impact even today can be seen in the fact that the actors and actresses who play leadings roles in them often enter the political arena with huge support at the polls.
The other significant factor about Ravi Varma is his engagement with the marketplace in order to secure wide circulation for this nationalist art. Although he never made much money through his paintings, he borrowed a large amount to establish, in 1894, The Raja Ravi Varma Lithographic Press. No one can accurately estimate how many of Ravi Varma's mass-produced and inexpensive oleographs were sold. But as one critic points out, their number certainly exceeded a million (Venniyoor 40). It is clear, then, mass circulation of nationally privileged images is not a new phenomenon in India. Nor, indeed, is it odd for Husain to claim an early Indian presence within the discourse of late capitalism. Like Husain, Ravi Varma too lived much in the public eye. So significant was the anticipated news of his death that during his final illness various news agencies, including Reuters, set up camp in the painter's native village in southern India (64). There is special relevance to the fact that Husain should have painted many of the same themes that Ravi Varma had first made famous. The treatment is always different in Husain's work, but an acknowledgement of the precursor's genius remains in the later artist's repeated revisiting of these classical themes.
Husain has been highly perceptive in selecting as his target the Hollywood film "The Bridges of Madison County." In one sense this movie is typically American because of its fictional location in the American heartland--rural Iowa. At the same time it is quite un-American in aspiring to present a sensitive, non-macho portrayal of a sentimental and memory-driven storyline. Especially, the film is notable in the popular mind for Clint Eastwood's success in putting behind him the stereotypical role of the taciturn, gun-toting Western "hero" that had made him famous in his earlier movies. In the painting, however, Husain nullifies Eastwood's attempt to rewrite the history of his typical popular image. Husain drags him back on a recalcitrant horse, places a Stetson firmly on his head, hands him a gun (held up, rebel-like, with one hand), straps an ammunition belt over his naked torso, slings a revolver on the belt of his blue denim trousers, and shods his feet in Western boots. The horse is short-tailed, ill-tempered, thick-maned, and it is bucking: the wild bronco rearing up, its head turned backward in an exaggerated fierceness. There is no rein in Eastwood's hand, and he appears to be riding without a saddle. The "hero" rides bareback, and his back is bare; the American film ideal--"Dirty Harry"--is bared for what it is. Every stereotypical association of the much valorized, conventionality-defying western hero is exposed by Husain. By reconfiguring the agricultural mid-west as the stereotypical wild west, he denies America the right to civilize itself; and he punctures popular American movie industry's claim to respectability and fine human feelings.
Eastwood, as the proto-American male, occupies the lower half of the painting, riding away from us. He seems to be riding along a dirt track, a dusty gully of sorts that runs towards the fairly nondescript bridge drawn across the middle of the canvas. On the bridge are the two female figures: Meryl Streep and Madhuri Dixit. The former, in pale yellow sits on the bridge's edge toward the left occupying rather insignificantly about a quarter of the top half of the picture. Although she turns her face around toward the viewer, she is actually sitting with her back towards Eastwood. Madhuri Dixit, on the other hand, occupies most of the top half of the composition. Not only does she face Eastwood, she actually bends down toward him, arching significantly above the approaching hero. She is brown skinned and dark haired; her breasts, outlined against a strikingly white pinafore of sorts, are suspended above Eastwood's head. The white of the pinafore repeats the white head and body of the rampant horse. She is wearing a long red skirt that matches the colour of the sunburnt hero's bare body. Eastwood is framed first by the arch under the bridge; but more significantly, Eastwood and the bridge-arch are placed under sign of the arching body of Madhuri Dixit.
Each woman in the picture is shown with a child. Streep's child hides behind her, and is barely visible. Dixit's red-faced child, dressed in white, repeats the red and white colour scheme of the rider and his mount. This child bravely rides on its mother's back as the latter leans over the edge of the bridge. Typically, Husain also manipulates perspective and depth. The lower part of Streep's body is obscured by the bridge on which she sits. One arm of Dixit rests on the bridge's edge concealing part of Streep's dress and pushing her further into the background. By a complete defiance of logic, Dixit's voluminous and pleated red skirt can be seen overlapping the lines of the bridge, although realistically they ought to be obscured by the fore part of the bridge. In effect, Dixit appears to arise from within the masonry of the bridge and seems like its spiritual emanation. While the typically misogynist American frontier male is denied much authority in the picture, he holds aloft his gun in a hand awkwardly raised above his head. The barrel of the gun is suggestively pointed toward Dixit's crotch. Clearly, there is much sexual suggestion in the composition, but it is hard to determine how far it is meant to be erotic, and to what extent it is merely parodic. On the other hand, there can be no question about Husain's reflexivity in the painting in which he takes up the notion of stereotype itself as his prominent theme. By juxtaposing the image of Madhuri Dixit, currently the most popular heroine of Bombay movies, with the American male stereotype represented by Clint Eastwood, Husain posits the co-equal status of India and the United States of America in the contemporary, "postmodern," world.
The "sculpture" the Graces look at in some amazement, is a multi-media piece. The base is a plaster model of the lower half of a woman's figure. It stands within a marked display area on its two well-formed legs; the three-dimensional "sculpture" is drawn in a realistic manner--the perspective is believable as is its size in relation to the shadowy viewers, although perhaps not as tall. But all we see of this realistic artwork is the body up to, say, the height of its navel. The upper part of the model has been sawed-off. In the exposed abdominal cavity is placed a painting. The painting, a vivid charcoal drawing, is recognizably that of an Indian erotic sculpture, and its sensuous form seems to emerge from within the womb of the topless "sculpture". The partial mannequin-like plaster model casts a shadow on the wall of the gallery just behind it; together with the painted representation of the typical temple sculpture rising from it, the arrangement forms the dynamic "exhibit" watched by the two-dimensional, almost see-through, Graces. Evidently, at one level this self-aware artwork, "The Three Graces," contains some postcolonial allegory about the making of art, and of the cultural conditions necessary for its nurture. The Graces have been eliminated from the world of art, and now occupy the position merely of consumers of art. The highly artificial "realistic" installation on display, is at once more mysterious and sensual than them. In this dramatic presentation of the discourse of equivalence, Husain's claims for his "augmented nationalism" the right to reevaluate and reposition even the canonical emblems of Eurocentric art--in the very sanctuary of its own galleries where much of Indian and other "colonial" artwork remains on display.
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