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At the India Art Summit in January, one just had to follow the queues to reach the Husain. Partially obscured by beefy bouncers and men in khaki was Karachi, the canvas which was hung, taken off and re-hung after the government offered extra security. In the saga of controversies which have plagued the work of the artist since 1996, this was just another headline. But the 95-year-old artist in exile deserves more than just newspaper headlines. This scholarly anthology fills the breach.
In an insightful opening essay, art critic Geeta Kapur traces the long arc of Husain's prolific career (he's busier than ever in exile). She discusses Husain's most significant canvases from the 1950s and 1960s which reveal the "originary drama of a people becoming a nation". But she also dwells on the warts - his defence of Indira during the Emergency which compromised his reputation and his growing reliance, in the later decades, on stylistic flamboyance to get by. His idolising instinct is interestingly traced to the years Husain spent as toymaker in the '50s.
His very filmi story - boy from the country comes to big city, begins at the bottom but finds stardom - is mentioned in David Gilmartin and Barbara Metcalf's essay. They also touch on his early employment as hoarding painter and the influence it had on his art. More interesting is the influence of Indian artistic traditions in shaping his art - ranging from classical Gupta sculpture and Basohli paintings to folk art.
The book makes an attempt to understand some of the ways in which Husain has engaged with India. Karen Zitzewitz talks about Husain's two-part brief, namely to develop his individual style yet embody a national identity. This anthology of 12 essays also tries to understand what made Husain the country's most loved - and later mosthated - artist. The naked Bharat Mata painting which mapped India as it were is examined by Sumathi Ramaswamy, who has edited this volume. She draws historical parallels with similar images appearing in popular culture.
Another interesting essay is by sociologist Patricia Uberoi who delves into the relationship of the man and his muses which ranged from Mother Teresa to the dhak-dhak girl. So blown away was Husain by Madhuri in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun that he threw his giant paintbrush at the screen.
Art historians, critics, curators, sociologists, historians, activists, all step in to decode Husain who had more avatars than his directorial venture Gaja Gamini - marketing marvel, artist-genius, the modernist and cinema buff. This volume gives the reader a chance to step into his shoes. Though, of course, one can't since he refuses to be shod.
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