Ut pictora poesis’ (As is painting, so is poetry)
-Horace, Ars Poetica
The great painters and poet philosophers drink from the same Helicon; if one moulds the human mind through visual images in space, the other, strives to move us with verbal images in time. The wisdom of all ages lies in art and poetry. India is one of the oldest civilizations which embraced its glorious rebels and mendicant sons with the nonchalance and pride of a wise mother. It is a blot on our cultural heritage that the father of contemporary art in India, M.F. Hussain passed away in exile, longing for his only love, India, which was in his blood and being. India was to him the Muse, the eternal spring of inspiration and he wandered as a prodigal son adorned with the crowns that we bestowed without the kingdom.
Nation states are habitual offenders in crushing exceptions and thwarting genius. Yet in ancient Greece, Epicurean philosophy flourished and Diagnose preached Cynicism. Both were not banished from their countries. Milton with his rich verbal tapestry lashed out at the irrational censoring of his time through his ‘Areopagitica’ and Swift wrote the mock epic ‘Battle of the Books’ to tease the Puritanism of his age. Satire is the antidote to supercilious Puritanism and it is only fair that le mot juste (the right word) defends l’image juste (the right picture). InIndia, irreverence has never been sacrilege. From the ancient temple images that depicted nudity and sensuousness we matured into a modern India which refused to ban Nabokov’s Lolita. Freedom of expression was guaranteed as a Fundamental Right in our Constitution and Supreme Court’s verdict that ‘where art and obscenity are mixed, the artistic, literary and social merit of the work in question outweighs its obscene content’ was in compliance with contemporary mores and National Standards.
But later on, we grew strangely insecure with James Laine, Rohinston Mistry, Joseph Lelyveld and M.F. Hussain. Whereas the former were not present in India, the latter had made India his home and his large canvas. Bellicose Puritanism drove out benign purity. Censoring films, burning books and curbing artists was a way to ensure conformity of thoughts. When dissent was suppressed, democracy was maimed. When we opened schools of mediocrity to dispense a monotonous cultural credo, the enigmatic artist who evoked vast lovely poetic and pleasurable spaces became unbearable. Did not we bottle the sorcerer who unleashed the genie of a thousand magical nights? The profligate and the profound Hussain, with the swiftness of a winged horse, created an empire of memorable images which mirrors India through the millennia. Akin to an image the great writer Italo Calvino evokes, Hussain like the Greek God Mercury, with his winged feet light and airborne, connected Universal laws with individual destinies. He captured our imagination to communicate to us of another world.
To understand the oeuvres of Hussain is to understand the simultaneous co-habitation of the ambiguous and the alternative with the accepted norms. While displaying a sumptuous fiesta for our eyes, he teases our vision. Playful and profound, his deft strokes belie the sincerity, the penetration and humanism of the artist and the man that he was. He was as Carlyle remarked of great souls, ‘always loyally submissive, reverent to what is over them.’ Those among us who cannot winnow the chaff from the grain are lost to the meaning of his greatness and the melody of his works.