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Book Review
Barefoot Across The Nation - Husain & The Idea of India
A significant compilation of essays, probably the first inter-disciplinary elaborate engagement with the late Maqbool Fida Husain’s work, looks to critically examine the artistic statement that it presented on the self, community and nation. The legendary artist’s pursuit to trace his cultural roots coupled with his willingness to grasp diverse cultural influences made him one of the most recognizable names internationally.

Husain’s mythological paintings had been at the centre of a ceaseless controversy for several years. In 2006, he left India and moved to Qatar. He finally forfeited his Indian citizenship in 2010 in what sure must have been a painful decision. Forced into exile, the master died in London, aged 95, five years after he fled Mumbai - his home for almost 72 years. “Husain was India's most iconic and prolific artist - and painted right up until two weeks before his death in London at the age of 95.” The BBC obituary revealed. “He was a protean maverick who embraced the free market, took to making cinema, angered Hindu radicals at home with his provocative work, gamely took leaving India in his stride, and accepted Qatari nationality.”

Against this backdrop, the book entitled ‘Barefoot Across The Nation - Maqbool Fida Husain & The Idea of India’ (edited by Sumathi Ramaswamy; Publishers: Routledge, New Delhi; Pages: 312 - Hardcover; Price: Rs 1950), considers how India as a nation has responded to Husain: with admiration, adulation and affection, on the one hand, whereas with rejection and hostility, on the other. An introductory note rightly mentions the document is more relevant than ever before especially in backdrop of the debates that have arisen over his self-imposed exile following a spate of attacks on his exhibitions in India, and his subsequent decision to leave the country – never to return.

Derived from a conference at Duke University, the insightful chapters provide a multi-disciplinary perspective by distinguished anthropologists and art historians, artists and curators, critics, and scholars of post-colonial literature and culture, to not only locate and identify but also to traverse the controversy surrounding the late artist. In her preface, Monica Juneja offers a fitting context, suggesting that even while genuflecting in the direction of art as sacred image (his rendition of the goddess Saraswati) the image is cast ‘in the modernist language of autonomy and irony’.

The underlying idea is to juxtapose them in debates around the creative freedom of the artist with the broader sentiments of the social community, between elitism of intellectuals and the perceptions of ‘common man’, between ‘virtue’ and ‘obscenity’, and between an artwork and a religious icon. Editor of the book Sumathi Ramaswamy, a Professor of History at Duke University, did her M.Phil from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and later the PhD from University of California, Berkeley. The astute cultural historian focuses on visual studies and the history of cartography.

Highlighting the contribution of ‘arguably India’s most iconic contemporary artist’, an accompanying write-up mentions, “His work and life are intimately entangled with the evolution of independent India as a secular, multi-ethnic and democratic nation. For over half a century, and across thousands of canvases, he painted individuals and objects, events and incidents, offering an astonishing visual chronicle of the country through the ages.” A series of thought-provoking articles collated by her deftly decipher Husain’s oeuvre. Among them are ‘Modernist Myths and the Exile of Husain’ by Geeta Kapur; ‘Art on Trial: Civilization and Religion in the Persona & Painting of Husain’ by David Gilmartin/ Barbara D. Metcalf; ‘Mapping India after Husain’ by Sumathi Ramaswamy.

Adding further to our understanding of the maverick artist’s social and cultural relevance are essays ‘Secret Histories of Indian Modernism: Husain as Indian Muslim Artist’ by Ananya Jahanara Kabir; ‘Of Husain and an Impossible Love’ by Veena Das; ‘I am an Indian and a painter, that is all’’ by Karin Zitzewit; ‘Defending Husain in the Public Sphere: The SAHMAT Experience’ by Ram Rahman; ‘Fault-lines in a National Edifice’ by Tapati Guha-Thakurta; ‘Husain and the Politics of Desecration’ by Kajri Jain; ‘The Bliss of Madhuri’ by Patricia Uberoi; ‘ Viewed from Across the Globe: The Art of Husain’ by Susan S. Bean and ‘Decoding Husain as a Muslim Painter in Exile’ by Bruce B. Lawrence.

The engaging volume undertakes the more rigorous and critical evaluation of his oeuvre, to offer a rich and diverse perspective about the artist’s personal proclivities and his professional prolificacy - across a wide range of disciplines. In the process, they engage with the myriad controversies that have continuously erupted about the master’s work. The idea is to resurrect the debate in an empathetic yet more meaningful manner – going beyond the rhetoric. It will be of great value to those studying art history, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and politics, as well as to any layperson keen to decipher contemporary issues of identity and nationhood.

However, as a reviewer rightly argued, the debate would have been better validated by including views of Husain’s staunch critics. But then accommodation of and synthesis of opposing views through sustained dialogue is becoming tougher owing to the diminishing spirit of tolerance and liberalism in the public sphere.