Monday, 26 March 2012

Art/ Photography: M F Husain ~ The Camera his Brush

Portrait by K.N. Raghavendra Rao
An interview with India's best known contemporary artist ~ the late M. F. Husain ~ dating back to 1980. He was, then, experimenting with his camera instead of the paintbrush. His subject? The outsize cinema hoardings in Chennai/ Madras. 

IT TOOK two days in 1980. And two rolls of Kodakcolor film. And a Nikon camera with a wide-angle lens. And the vision of an artist of international repute who had his beginnings in the world of film hoardings. An exhibition was born.

Maqbool Fida Husain’s camera juxtaposes massive cinema hoardings in Madras with street life in an exhibit titled Culture of the Streets (Sarala Art Centre and Stage-1, April 20 to May 9, 1981). Of the blow-ups, none have dodged what the eye saw through the viewfinder. Except for a few collaged prints, none were cropped or altered for effect. Interspersed with the photographs are derivative drawings in which the same larger-than-life figures loom in almost caricatured forms in the Madras series and photo-prints of a set of Bombay-based line drawings.

What did Husain’s camera eye register? Women queue up outside a marquee that features an outsize Tamil mega-star Rajnikanth… The lurid figures of a poster for ‘Lonely Girl’ are juxtaposed against tattered illustrative papers upon a shoddy wall… Two giant faces from Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ loom large over a family sipping tea on the footpath… A set of erotic film posters, some peeling off the brick walls, while a forlorn mother wanders by with her child over her shoulder on the road… The gigantic, grinning matinee idol rears his head among the trees, while a cycle-rickshaw pedals by… A couple silhouetted against a huge head on a poster. Close by, people throng the streets, waiting for the right bus… Graffiti on a street wall, as a boy idles in a corner…

Husain is a man compulsively caught in the artistic whirlpool. Earlier this year, he exhibited water-colours at Baroda. This was followed by paintings on wood icons hinged in triptych shapes, displayed in Cochin in late January. March brought a show of large canvases ~ Man Suspended ~ in Montreal. Culture of the Streets, first exhibited at the Art Heritage gallery in New Delhi in February, next came to Madras. It is scheduled to reach the Tate Gallery in London next year. It is the first time Husain’s photographs have been on show.

The catalogue for this photographic exhibition contains an introduction by the noted US-based collector of Indian art, Chester Herwitz, who writes,  “Although these cinema hoardings may be seen by some as garish, indeed much of the cinema promoted by the hoardings may be seen by some as vulgar, both contain authentic folk art elements or even reincarnate some Indian forms of devotion. For the detached observer, the scene takes on an anonymous force and order…”

What does Husain recall of the poster experience of his past?  “Once, I had to create 11 hoardings in five days. I had no time to draw the squares (of a reference grid). I did it all freehand. One large face was 10 feet by 5 feet. After a few days, I did all the paintings freehand,” he narrates.

Faced with a man so prismatic in his talents, we decided to explore how the artist felt about his new medium when we met him at a preview of his exhibition in Madras. How does Husain respond to the camera as his brush?

“In the 1930s, the camera was considered the first enemy of the painter. In the beginning, there were many misconceptions about it ~ that the camera was only a machine with nothing creative in it. It has been accepted only recently. Painters are now using the camera. It is a great help. It is an apparatus like the human body. Instead of the brush, I use the camera. What is important is the image, whether by hand or the camera. I supplement my drawings and paintings through photography,” he explains.

That brings Husain to an anecdote about another contemporary giant. “Picasso once said, ‘I like using modern technology. I want to paint in Tokyo while sitting in Paris.’ Others objected. ‘It won’t be your painting if you use mechanization.’ To which he replied, ‘What is important is who presses the button.,’ ” he says, his hands evoking images in the air. 

The thought makes Husain break into cascades of laughter through the white aureole of his beard and hair, a recurrent motif throughout our hour-long interview:

Did you have an early yen to be a photographer?

I’ve always been fascinated by the camera. When I was 17 or 18 and studying at school, I took an interest in the darkroom. As a child, I remember my father had a studio portrait with his arm resting on a pile of books. It made him look very scholarly and impressed me very much.

In 1937, a friend and I bought a box camera and set up a street studio. We had backdrops, curtains, even a bookshelf. We were doing quite well… but my partner ran away with the camera.

What drew you to the Madras cinema hoardings as a subject?

Over the last two or three years, I wasn’t happy about the several photographs I had taken. I wanted a theme. I wanted to have something to say.

The posters here are very Indian in feeling, colour and form. Poster painting is very hard work. What I saw here is very competently done. Very unique and realistic. The scale is enormous ~ a figure can rise 150 ft. or more. And they don’t use mechanical devices. Their use of colour is so indigenous, so typically Indian.

In one of the photographs you can see a queue of ladies. The oranges, maroons, blues, greens, reds of their synthetic sarees reflect the colours of the hoarding behind… (Smiling) In Bombay, the figures on the hoardings are so incongruously westernized. But in Calcutta, there is sophistication even in their cinema posters.

Are your photographs a humorous look at life or a social comment?

(Spontaneously) In a subtle way, it is a social comment, even a judgement. Especially the graffiti. Or maybe it is a reflection of present-day reality. Today, film hoardings are the only bit of entertainment left to the common man. All others are so elitist. Only 10 per cent of the people are conscious of a religious front to these posters, but they take that with a pinch of salt. A small group of people may want to bring up their children in a certain way. But what about the other 99 per cent? We can’t ridicule them.

Nowhere else in the world is this work done so well. I was searching for a way to both capture it and focus it ~ both for the people who see it and for those who are not aware.

How do you view the lot of the hoarding painter?

The film industry treats them so shabbily. Their plight is similar to that of the artists of the 9th and 10th century in Europe, before Giotto. (Passionately) They are considered as artisans, not as individuals or creative entities.

Can you recall your days as a hoarding painter?

Yesterday, I went to see the hoarding painters here. They had huge boards and buckets of paint. I had an impulse to pick up a brush and join them.

I began as a poster painter in Bombay. I painted hoardings for four years. It gave me tremendous confidence. You have to work very fast. There is no time to be afraid. No time to sit and think.

(Ruminatively) That old habit remains. I still sit down and paint on the floor at one go. It gives me a different optical perspective.

How do you view yourself as a photographer?

Photography captures the reality from life. In our country, there has been a tradition of narrative painting ~ the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the church paintings… Photography and film have a more direct appeal than painting. I have dabbled in films and still photography, but I still don’t know all about the numbers of lenses.

Last year, in just two days, I went around Madras with two rolls of film. It was all sheer chance. This exhibition is the result. I tried to compose exactly within the rectangle of the viewfinder. No trimming. In some cases, I’ve joined two frames, used the whole space. The effect is horizontal, almost two-dimensional. I haven’t tried to achieve any other perspective. There are images and figures in the foreground. But I was most concerned with the poster design ~ that it shouldn’t verge on the vanishing point.

What of your experiences as a film-maker?

In 1967, the Films Division invited a number of non-professional film-makers to make films as an experiment. I was the first victim. I decided to go to the laboratory and see for myself. What is important is the vision. It doesn’t matter if the technique is faulty or the camera jerks.

I made a 20-minute film. It had a shoe, an umbrella and a lantern. And just background music. The Films Division rejected it. I took it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They wanted to buy it. (Chuckling) The Central Government then sent it to the Berlin film festival, where it won an award.

Why has your life been so threaded through with controversy? Remember your deification of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and the hue and cry over the Bangladesh war series?

I keep reacting to happenings. I am not a politician. Plunging into controversy doesn’t bother me. There is a certain habit or conviction to it. I am really concerned with true Indian culture. It is not fundamentally Islamic or Hindu, but secular. It is a composite culture that has evolved over the centuries.

Today, there is a distinct communal element to it. Mrs. Gandhi was the first to ban the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Jamiat-i-Islami. That should have been done long ago.

Is it essential for an artist to have religious moorings?

Artists are concerned with humanity itself. And religion should have a humanistic basis and not be dogmatic. Salvation or nirvana should not be proclaimed as the only way out. At the same time, I’m not an atheist.

(Ponders awhile)  Perhaps I’m an agnostic. The trouble begins when artists assume the roles of philosophers and saints. But it is passion that drives one. From the 1920s to the 1940s, I never wanted to do anything but paint.

As a person who’s been considered a one-man art movement, do you have an explanation for the mediocrity of current Indian art?

Today, the opportunity is immense. But the artist has to make what he does relevant to his environment. Tackling existing problems is part of the contribution of the individual. The days of a Van Gogh-like struggle are gone.

Much depends on the man. Very few have the integrity and dedication to steer clear of the onslaught of commercialism. Fewer still are enlightened in the spiritual sense. Out of ten, only one or two try to find their identities. Most are followers. And the widespread economic and political hardships only add to the difficulty.

The atmosphere today is not congenial. We are living in a mediocre society. Not only in India, but all over the world, we find only mediocre leaders. Fifty years ago, there were brilliant leaders in all countries. Therefore, paintings today are the result of a mediocre society.

How do you view the future as an artist?

I’m pessimistic at the moment. We are passing through this phase. We are stagnating. Maybe we’ve reached saturation point and a collapse must follow.

(With intensity) What we need is Shiva doing the tandava nritya for destruction. In a sense, Picasso did that. He destroyed all the old values in art. But somebody must come along to create. There is nobody in sight.

Let us hope for a miracle.

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