Volume 67 Number 4, June 2016

Husain’s Raj: Visions of Empire and Nation

By: Sumathi Ramaswamy
Binding: Hardcover
Specifications: 144 pages, 142 illustrations
ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6
Dimensions: 305 x 241 mm

Husain’s Raj forefronts the ludic quality in the work of Maqbool Fida Husain, postcolonial India’s most iconic modernist and also arguably its most playful.The book focuses on a series of paintings in which the artist offers a postcolonial visual commentary on the erstwhile colonial world in which he had been born and raised. These works are densely packed with objects and people (British and native, high and low, male and female) and some animals as well, brought together in narrative action that reveal the anxieties and absurdities of imperial rule in India.

Husain came of age in the waning days of British colonial rule and was witness to the rising tide of Indian nationalism. Instead of providing grim portraits of what it meant to grow up in such a context, he presents playful vignettes of the Raj to a new generation of viewers—many of whom would not have experienced colonial rule directly—showing us how it is possible, even necessary, to laugh while looking back at a painful and traumatic past.

Sumathi Ramaswamy is Professor of History at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA. Over the course of her academic career, she has published extensively in the fields of language politics, gender studies, spatial studies and the history of cartography, visual studies and the modern history of Indian art. She is a contributor to the Marg books, India’s Popular Culture: Iconic Spaces and Fluid Images and Art and Visual Culture in India. She is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in the USA and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany.


In Gratitude

“Images of the Raj”: Recalling Empire

“Shikar and Afternoon Tea”: England’s Hard Work in India

“Raja and Rani”: Lampooning Princely India

“Memsab and the Bearer”: The Sexual Politics of Husain’s Raj

“100 Years of Struggle for Freedom”: Husain’s Pictorial Patriotism

“Last Vestige of the Raj”: Laughing at Empire Properly

"Images of the Raj": Recalling Empire
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 12-29

Drawing upon Sunil Agnani’s monograph Hating Empire Properly (2012) and formulations first discussed in Zareer Masani’s Indian Tales of the Raj (1987), this chapter introduces the reader to M.F. Husain’s Images of the Raj series, and provides the broad context in which it came to be produced and circulated. It also provides a brief biographical sketch of Husain’s work and oeuvre in order to lay out the key conceptual argument the author makes regarding the artist’s relationship to his past and present, the empire and the nation. This argument is that colonial rule in India left Indians "too British to ever really hate the British," hence all one can ethically offer is "anger without hatred." This argument is developed in the following chapters.

"Shikar and Afternoon Tea": England’s Hard Work in India
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 30-55

British empire-building is reduced to play in Husain’s tongue-in-cheek recasting of the antics of the King’s representatives—the pukka sahibs—who are shown hunting, sporting, riding, lounging about and drinking tea, in fact doing everything else but actual governance, it seems, in a series of visual vignettes that are analyzed in this chapter. We know that by the early 20th century, at what is referred to as the high noon of empire, the British Raj presented itself as a work of art itself, in which spectacle played a constitutive role. Empire’s flesh-and-blood embodiments appeared incongruously in its distant outposts, inappropriately clad in Victorian high gear of which Husain gently makes fun in several of his sketches, even while the authentic Indian is the lightly-clad mother holding her baby. At the same time, these caricatures also show how the mighty British Raj was built on the edifice of Indian labour without which it could have barely survived, let alone flourished, in the grand manner that it did, and that undeniable fact too, Husain is at pains to show in various subtle ways in these paintings.

"Raja and Rani": Lampooning Princely India
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 56-81

If the agents of a global empire are reduced to literally sporting away in the colonies, their native lackeys are in turn mocked as seekers after petty symbols, meaningless honours like gun salutes and faux titles, and as fawning sycophants who did not think anything of “humbling [themselves] before the white man” by parleying with them in events that kept most “real” natives out. Indeed, Husain’s most biting mockery is reserved for India’s native princes who he depicts from the retrospective position of the sovereign inhabitant of an independent nation-state that had proudly cast off the colonial yoke and by the 1980s had felt it had come into its own. From such a subject-position, the indignities of colonial subordination when visited upon the erstwhile royalty appear comical, as India’s native princes are reduced to their craving for the baubles promised by the Raj. Yet the mockery is laced through with the sense of outrage that the artist also clearly feels against these allies of colonial rule who also opposed the rising tide of nationalism.

"Memsab and the Bearer": The Sexual Politics of Husain’s Raj
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 82-103

In Husain's Raj paintings-in contrast to his other canvases-his native females are never rendered nude; that privilege is reserved for the white woman. At the same time, she is also set up as the subject of the native male's lust, even absorbed into princely harems. The capacity of the native artist to draw the white female body in the nude in colonial India was highly circumscribed, so for the postcolonial citizen-artist to paint such a nude body points to how the playful is always already charged with the political and the polemical. This chapter uses several of Husain's canvases to explore the sexual politics of British rule in India as seen through postcolonial painterly eyes.

"100 Years of Struggle for Freedom": Husain’s Pictorial Patriotism
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 104-127

There are three heroes who emerge to the fore in the Raj series: the Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan who put up a valiant fight against the East India Company in the closing years of the 18th century; the Rani of Jhansi who led the "first war of independence" in 1857 and died a martyr's death; and Mahatma Gandhi. These heroes are the focus of a couple of paintings in the Raj series, and their "visual patriotism" stands in contrast to the pictorial mockery that is the governing sentiment of the other works. This chapter examines the logic of these five paintings, arguing that for Husain, these individuals and events around them constitute significant turning points in India's colonial history, as also models to look up to for India's citizens in a postcolonial era, in contrast to sycophancy of the Native Prince and the Brown Sahib.

"Last Vestige of the Raj": Laughing at Empire Properly
Ramaswamy, Sumathi
Vol. 67 No. 4, June 2016; ISBN: 978-93-83243-13-6, pp. 128-139
The anchor image of this concluding chapter is a self-portrait of the artist titled "Last Vestige of the Raj". In painting himself as "the last vestige of the Raj," is Husain conceding that postcolonial India-and Indians like him—may have formally cast off the mantle of imperial rule, but that there is much that remains indelibly British as well, and perhaps not just in the realm of outward appearances of clothing or in speech, but perhaps more enduringly and more deeply? The postcolonial ludic modality can thus perform a conciliatory function, calling upon us to cultivate a hospitable and accommodating relationship to our recent past that may have subjected us to the ravages of imperial exploitation and brutality, but also nevertheless fundamentally re-formed all of us children of empire, the last vestiges of the Raj. Is Husain then reminding us that this is what it takes to hate empire properly, and that hence our only recourse is to laugh (back) at it, properly? The chapter ends with an exploration of this intriguing possibility.