I find Husain’s art pleasing to the eye but “grating” on the mind. I’ll elaborate the “pleasing” part first and then go on to the “grating” section.
At the outset, I must tell you that I am no “trained” art critic. But I do not believe that one needs to have a master’s degree in Fine Arts to be able to appreciate or interpret art. If you think otherwise, you’re better off quitting reading this blog post at this point, for it saves your time and probably mine as well.
I saw Husain’s work in the original in a gallery once, and in print and on the net several times. A bank I frequent hangs a paiting of his on the wall, and I believe I also saw his original paintings in a hotel.
I see an awesome simplicity in his lines, shapes and color schemes. I do not think this simplicity is easily imitable. It is the kind of simplicty that takes a gifted artist to conceive and give life to. Simplicity does not happen by accident. It takes the ability to see through and camouflage layers of complexity to achieve it. I believe this is true not only of engineering and science (check out Google or your iPhone) but also of art and literature.
On a “visual” plane, then, Husain appeals to me because of pleasing simplicity. The effect of his art on my “mental” plane is quite a different story though. Before we embark on it, a few points are in order.
Husain’s art is protected by right to freedom of expression. Yes, some of it is of the nature that may give offence to Hindus. Those offended are entitled to take offence and entitled to protest; however, they cannot stop Husain or anyone else from creating such art.
Articulating such a position on the issue of freedom of expression immediately brings up the question of Dansih cartoons, Da Vinci Code and Indian liberals’ endorsement of curbs on free expression when it (purportedly) offends Muslims or Christians. That our liberals are pontificating humbugs, that they make a virtue of their cowardly necessity to kiss extremist butt, that they will not be able to recognize Freedom of Expression if it bit them on the scrotum, is no excuse for demanding, just like them, a right of veto on free speech. Remember: it is because of America’s first amendment to its constitution that forbids legislature from making any curbs on free speech, that the nation has not yet sunk to the insane multi-culti depths that Europe has.
Having said that though, I find Husain’s Hindu deity series “grating” on the mind, not because it offends me but because it troubles me. Looking at it, pleasing thought it is to the eye, I do not experience the aesthetic pleasure that one is supposed to feel when contemplating great art. Far from it, I feel unease, as if I am listening to the anguished cries of a tortured soul!
Husain’s vocal admirers tend to interpret his Hindu deity art mainly in two ways. Many of them react defensively to Hindu anger, and deny that there is any sexual symbolism at all in his work. Nudity is explained away as being routine in art. Any suggestion of sexual contact between naked goddesses and the subjects in their proximity is stoutly denied. This is being disingenuous, kind of like a middle-aged guy caught with a copy of Playboy claiming sheepishly that he buys the magazine for its journalism, not centerfolds. Understated or symbolic eroticism is as common in art as is portrayal of nudity. Not surprisingly, often both go hand in hand. This is as true of high-brow art as it is of street graffitti. I recall being baffled reading a book long ago, by illustrations in it that the author claimed were pornogrpahic. They were apparently reproductions of drawings actually found on the walls of public rest rooms. I only saw some circles, triangles and straight lines, and couldn’t fathom on my own how they added up to obscenity. I needed to read the author’s reading of the “artist’s” mind to understand the point he was making. Sexual symbolism in art need not be in-your-face; in fact in sophisticated art it is a clever, partially disguised insinuation.
The second set of Husain’s vocal defenders take the opposite position to that of the first. Perhaps intent on baiting enraged Hindus, they assert unapologetically that there indeed is suggestion of copulation in Husain’s art, and demand to know aggressively: why not, isn’t there freedom of expression? etc. A few of them take a seemingly less cantakerous position, spout some mumbo jumbo as to why such sexual symbolim elevates — rather than demean — Hindu deities, and conclude the lecture with a smirk.
Needless to add, my interpretation of Husain’s goddesses takes a different approach than the above schools of thought.
Let us contemplate the larger social context in which Husain grew up to be an artist. By the standards of the sexually-liberated parts of the world, Indians are a repressed lot. Let alone sexual contact, mere contact itself between unrelated men and women is frowned upon. In Husain’s Islamic culture, women’s faces are not even to be seen in public, they must be veiled. The only women then one is famailiar with growing up must be women of the household. It is not unthinkable therefore that sexual awakening and early fantasy may involve some form of incest. The family member is loved as mother or sister, of course. But in the sexual subconscious, she is also eroticized. Compounding the problem further, in male-dominant, sexually repressed cultures, the woman of desire is considered ‘dirty’; it is her fault to be desired by men. (Hence honor killings). I speculate that incestuous thought entails conflicting, tortured emotions. I also conjecture that the mother or sister, as the case maybe, is loved as mother or sister during the day, is yearned sexually falling asleep at night, and is hated in dream or the subconscious for being ‘dirty’. Most men tormented by these emotions come to terms with them perhaps at some point in their lives, bury the demons, and get on with their lives in relative peace. But a man gifted with the talent for abstract representation of thought has the opportunity to exorcise his ghosts in a “creative” manner.
Note that Husain cannot be unaware that in Hindu tradition goddesses are considered mothers. His Muslim tradition forbids depicting humans, let alone female subjects, let alone of the scripture, let alone in the nude, let alone in a sexually suggestive manner. He must have felt doubly repressed. On the contrary, the goddess of Hindu art, ‘mother’ at any rate for Hindus, may have suggested to himself as a close-enough approximation for the mother-figure. Did he blame this mother-figure then, for robbing him of the sense of normal filial affection that other young men may have experienced for their mothers? Did he condemn her to a union with an animal for example, for luring him to the path of sin with ‘dirty’ thoughts of the forbidden? If he did thus condemn the ‘defiled’ mother, did that punishment lead to a reconcilation?
We will never know for certain. His Durga, or Sita, do not seem to project happiness. I hope they are not expressions of the artist’s bitterness for someone he otherwise loved dearly. Let us also hope that Maqbool Fida Husain, wherever now he is, is finally happy.