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The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India.

The Art of Secularism: The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India

Karin Zitzewitz. New York, Oxford University Press, 2014, 256 pages, 89 illus. $50.00 cloth, ISBN-13: 978-0-19-933-541-1.


When India gained Independence from Great Britain in 1947, the original vision was for a secular state reflecting the great democracies of the modern Western world. Artists adopted modern Western visual idioms, combining the styles of the European modern masters with their own symbolism and experience. However, with eighty percent of the population identifying as Hindu, religious-based nationalism brewed just under the surface. It exploded in 1992, when the Ram Jamnabhumi movement, orchestrated by powerful nationalist organizations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), brought down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The site of this famous sixteenth-century mosque was also contested as the birthplace of Rama, an important Hindu deity. On December 6, 1992, Hindu nationalist volunteers destroyed the mosque using pickaxes, hammers, and grappling hooks in anticipation of a temple to Rama being constructed on the site.

Hindu nationalists also targeted artists, particularly those who used modern styles and Hindu imagery in their work. One of the more infamous attacks was upon the renowned artist Maqbool Fia Husain, who began a series of "nude goddess" images (both paintings and drawings) in 1996. The VHP and other Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups were quick to dismiss the paintings as obscene. The objection appears not to have been to the nudity per se (nude goddesses appear throughout the history of Indian art), but the use of the Goddess image in a modern art format by an artist who was not Hindu (Husain was a well-known Muslim). Hindutva activists descended upon Husain with an avalanche of lawsuits, derision, and even destruction of his work, forcing him to renounce his citizenship and flee to London, where he died in 2011.

Using M. F. Husain's persecution and the destruction of the Babri Masjid as framing elements, Karin Zitzewitz explores the connections between growing sectarian politics in India and the critique of modernist idioms in Indian art. The return of Hindu nationalism heralded by the Ram Jamnabhumi movement and its destruction of the Babri Masjid evinced an increasingly antagonistic view of modern forms and subjects in Indian art, as the use of (now highly politicized) religious, and specifically Hindu, subjects were being used more for symbolic value than religious expression in art. Zitzewitz effectively demonstrates the complexity of issues in the use of modern idioms in Indian art through five selected cases, covering a diversity of artistic subjects and attitudes. Although the main focus of the work is an exploration of the complex relationships between art, artists, politics, and religious imagery, it also highlights the problems of censorship, constraints placed upon art by politics, and issues of personal expression. Zitzewitz has specifically chosen examples where religious ideas, imagery, and symbolism cause a clash between secular and Hindutva politics, and discusses the resulting changes in the art world of India.

The main focus of the work is on the changing interpretation of art and its role in Indian society with the rise of Hindutva activism. Zitzewitz explores these shifting views through a discussion of four prominent Indian artists (M.F. Husain, K. G. Subramanyan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, and Bhupen Khakar) and a prominent gallery curator (Kekoo Gandhy). Each chapter uses a different writing style to present the story of modern Indian art, from personal narrative to stage-setting impressions of the modern art world in India, creating a collage effect and heightening a sense that we are getting glimpses at a single theme through a range of facets rather than a connected series of essays. Every chapter uses biography for a different sort of framing. Thus, each chapter considers the events that occur with an individual artist's career as well as the development of the art world in the last century to show how in many ways, the modern idiom in India was connected to events that shaped the experience of the artist. Zitzewitz also demonstrates how interpretation of the work became divorced from the ideas and thought of the artist in key ways.

The opening chapter lays out the situation of M.F. Husain and his legal troubles in the world of the Hindutva. The cornerstone of the legal battle was one of intention: was the intention of the artist legally primary, or did the interpretation of a painting by the viewer take precedence in judging an artist and his work? The careful legalisms of the cases against Husain are shown to also reflect on the way art and secularism were viewed, discussed, and used by the Hindutva movements to support their own anti-western and anti-modernist ideas.

Moving away from legal wrangling and into a more biographical narrative, the work of K. G. Subramanyan is discussed in view of the role of religious icons in popular Indian culture. Even non-Hindus are familiar with Hindu mythology in India, and Subramanyan stressed the use of art as communication--specifically, as activist propaganda. The multivalent nature of art is at the heart of understanding Subramanyan's ideas about living cultural tradition and the goals (and uses) of visual culture. Zitzewitz outlines a brief biography of the artist to emphasize his role in Indian nationalist activism even during his college years, and his use of Durga, especially her Mabishasuramardini (the Goddess killing the Buffalo Demon), in his push for cultural continuity when communicating new artistic and political ideas. Zitzewitz notes the connection between Subramanyan's use of ancient icons and the western notion of these symbols being key to Indian art. However, she also notes that this is a fallacy in western approaches to Indian visual culture. The use of ancient forms is not about reviving religious feeling and culture, but in creating a new, more secular, use for these familiar icons.

Zitzewitz's methodology employed in interviewing Kekoo Gandhy is striking, as is her relating the rise of the art district and galleries of Mumbai to his life narrative. Gandhy was apparently well-known to be frustratingly rambling in relating his own biography. To organize narratives and memories during the interviews, the artist and historian together used a trunk of old photographs, organizing and re-organizing the them according to different categories, in order to access different sides of events and stories. This visual-spatial organization not only integrated well with the chapter's theme of cosmopolitanism, it also brought in the connection between narrative and image seen throughout the book. Through this method, we also see how the book itself is arranged as a set of views into the central theme of secularism and history, through the multi-faceted prism of art-world lives.

Zitzewitz offers a different sort of narrative to open the chapter on Gulammohammed Sheikh: a more personal, first-person narrative experience. We are placed by her side when the Gujarati communal riots of February 2002 broke out in Godhra. A train carrying Hindu pilgrims (and Hindutva activists) was set afire, and the backlash against the Muslim population of the area was devastating. It also emphasized the secularist political alignment of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vasodara, where Zitzewitz was studying at the time. It was Sheikh, an artist and Professor of Painting at the University, who had organized peace protests after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. His anti-Hindutva stance and his identity as a Muslim forced him into retirement, as the rest of the campus and city were strongly nationalist. Zitzewitz notes that he was forced out of Vadodara altogether when the 2002 riots broke out. The chapter focuses on Sheikh's work as an artist and secularist activist, which attracted Zitzewitz to the University. Sheikh's paintings represent the multiplicity of the urban Indian world and experience. The juxtaposition of the paintings against the periodic communal rioting of Gujarat sets up an interesting relationship between the energetic, colorful paintings of social spaces and the increasingly communal nature of everyday life in Gujarat.

In the chapter on Bhupen Khakar, the author emphasizes how placing a painting in the public eye risks politicization by others. Bhupen Khakar was well known for paintings that combined religious iconography with themes of sexuality and gay identity. Using Hindu iconography to express sentimentality and intimacy, Khakar deliberately aimed for responses that were immediately emotional, rather than nationalistic. However, he found that his work met with increasing controversy, especially as Hindu symbol and imagery were claimed as the territory of Hindutva ideology. Though he often used sacred spaces and images to relate spirituality and sexuality, he found the need for more care as these spaces and images became progressively more political rather than personal. For example, a Khakar painting employing the highly politicized subject of the Ramayana (the story of the life of Rama) was not displayed for fear of it being interpreted as too explicitly sexual or obscene. The painting itself was more reserved, less "emotionally evocative" than others of his works, because Khakar was sensitive to the possible political implications of the subject. By keeping his painting out of view in India (it was shown later in Japan and Spain), the artist allowed historical events such as the rise of Hindu nationalism and the Ram Jamnabhumi movement to affect his art.

One enticing undercurrent threaded through the chapters was a critique of how modern and contemporary art is studied and discussed in light of the modern idea of the genius. Within each chapter is an examination of how "professional historians" and "academic scholarship," specifically Western art historians and academia, intimately link the artist and their art, equating the value of the person with the interpretation of their work. This "western" idea of modern history framed the way such art was viewed as "western" by critics in India. By infusing secular modernist visual forms with Hindu iconography, Husain becomes a monster in the eyes of Hindu nationalists and critics as they view his work as obscene and monstrous. Zitzewitz also points out how the methods used to study Indian modernism emphasize Indian art as a "single generative form," rather than a living and dynamic complexity. In other words, she subtly accuses art historians of Orientalism in their methods of interpreting art. By applying the methods and interpretations of western art to Indian art, the meaning of the work is missed--or more precisely, dismissed--as the idioms are recognized as being rooted in western art, rather than as tools for expressing the artist's own experience, which in these cases is not, as a whole, European. Thus, Zitzewitz questions the assumption that modernism is somehow a late import to Indian art, supplanted by "contemporary" art at the close of the last century. Instead, modernism appears to have been used in India as a deliberate statement of artistic freedom right at the moment when Indian art and politics came to a crucial debate about secularism and its relevance to India and Indian cultural identity.

Amanda Guyton

Germanna Community College
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Author:Guyton, Amanda
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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