By Bina Shah
June 20, 2014
On June 7, a lovely Saturday afternoon, I visited an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum: “M.F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting.” The air was redolent with the morning’s rain and the scent of blooming grass, the museum garden packed with families, their children in underclothes, splashing in the pool outside.
I felt very far from Karachi, my home, where a terrorist attack on the airport would take place a day and a half later; and farther still from the Middle East, where the situation in Iraq would deteriorate into bloody chaos in less than 10 days.
Still, my thoughts were with the frenetic world I’d left behind, riven by historical wrongs and current divisions. And I couldn’t help thinking of art as its own religion, antithetical to the violence that plagues us, as I walked among the many worshipers who had come to let their souls commune with the divine in the form of paintings, sculpture and the blue spring sky.
Maqbool Fida Husain was one of India’s most celebrated artists, and one of its most controversial. A Muslim born in Pandharpur in 1915 or 1917 (the year is in dispute), he grew up in Indore and studied art in Mumbai, developing a modernist style. Then he turned to painting billboard posters for Bollywood movies. It was here that he developed his singular techniques: bold colours, freehand drawing, larger-than-life figures and a playfulness that could fill theatres with the promise of escape from the travails of daily life.
Later in life, Mr. Husain angered Hindu extremists when he incorporated Hindu religious figures in his work. Hindu nationalists and prosecutors accused him of obscenity and “hurting religious sentiments.” He left India in the 1990s for a self-imposed exile split between Qatar and London, where he died in 2011.
Whatever culture they come from, artists are often misunderstood. The best incorporate cultural and religious symbols as essential parts of their work, lending those symbols personal meaning. This is a threat to literalists, who want the symbols always to mean only one thing to everyone. What seems “disrespect” or “blasphemy” to a literalist can actually be worship and reverence by an artist.
In Pakistan, I’m familiar with conservative Muslims who won’t keep any images of living beings in their home because they believe it is sacrilege, since only God can give any being life. But whenever I enter a museum, I am astonished by the idea that any sect would condemn art as un-Islamic. One of the names of Allah is Al-Musawwir — “The Creator,” “The Shaper of Beauty” or, plainly put, “The Artist.” And while we can’t dream of becoming God, what happens when we do create art, music, poetry, literature or dance is that we reflect, in some small way, an attribute of the divine in our own earthly lives.
This Husain exhibition consisted of large triptychs that portrayed the myriad aspects of India’s history and culture. One, depicting Indian families, began with a panel showing Husain as a child drawing under a rope bed in his Muslim family’s house; the second a Hindu family going about their daily lives, and the third a Sikh family, with a young son in an army uniform. In huge splashes of vibrant colours, the figures flowed one into the other, bursting with movement and energy. It made me envious. Writers try to paint pictures with words, but the result can feel like a dim second to paint’s emotional pull.
There were also panels with the figures of Hindu gods — Hanuman, Ganesha, Vishnu; figures from Indian history — Nehru, Gandhi, Tagore; and three great emperors — Akbar, Ashoka and Victoria, standing with their armies. I marvelled at the dancing figure of the Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit (Husain’s voluptuous muse) and at the erotic temple statues of Khajuraho, the sacred Tulsi plant and a spinning wheel. Everywhere were orange, green and white, the colours of the Indian flag.
It struck me that while I knew all these figures and symbols, they felt unfamiliar, a bit exotic. This is because in Pakistan, children don’t learn much about India, and so its symbols retain a whiff of the forbidden. And these images and symbols were so different from those of Pakistani culture and upbringing.
Many times, I’ve seen Indians arguing with Pakistanis on social media boards, spitting out the insult: “Pakistan has no culture; everything it has is Indian.” But this isn’t true. Much of what was on those triptychs was not in my cultural vocabulary. I grew up not knowing the significance of the spinning wheel, or the Tulsi plant. While Pakistanis enjoy Bollywood movies, we don’t venerate their stars as much as Indians do. And while I know the customs of the Pakistani province of Sindh, I know much less those of its neighbour Rajasthan, an Indian state. It became clear to me, at the exhibition, that when I see the Quaid-i-Azam’s mausoleum or the Khyber Pass, I’ll always feel a sense of belonging, of a kind that the Gateway of India or the Taj Mahal will never give me. And paintings by Ismail Gulgee, Sadequain or Jamil Muhammad Ali Naqsh will move me in a way that a Husain painting doesn’t.
Nevertheless, even though the separation of India and Pakistan was a violent divorce, the art of M.F. Husain stands clear-eyed and truthful above the divide — showing us, in shadings more subtle than any ideology or theology, just what our two nations once were to each other, as well as what can never be again.
Perhaps it’s the tendency of artists to tell these kinds of difficult truths that renders them, like soothsayers and visionaries, so dangerous to the rest of the world.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.