Searching for My Indian American Life in Contemporary Art
In art, I was seeing the world. Yet, the entire time, I could not name a single Indian artist in my family’s homeland.
Three years ago, I walked through the Alsdorf Galleries as I’d always done. But this time, the Institute had a special installation called: India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain. They featured large triptych paintings that depicted everything from festivals to important moments in history to the likeness of Indians on a grand scale. One of them was the Hindu Triad.
The Triad is a three-paneled painting with a striking red, black, blue, and brown color palette. In the center panel, Brahma the Creator’s pensive face is brightly illustrated in red, eyes cast downwards, as if in prayer, as He imagines the world and it comes into being upon his first thought. On the right panel, Vishnu the Preserver is depicted as keeping a watchful eye over humanity, depicted by his watching over a red sari-clad woman, who is praying. And off to the left panel: Shiva the Destroyer, destroying the world and overseeing the path of the Ganga river.
I stopped and stared, my jaw slightly agape as I walked from painting to painting soaking it all in. Then I saw the name written on the museum label: M.F. Husain.
M.F. Husain was born Maqbool Fida Husain on September 17, 1915 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India. He became interested in art after taking calligraphy lessons and eventually designed posters for Bollywood films. His first major exhibit took place in 1947, the year of India’s independence, which was followed by a bloody era wherein the former British colony was divided into India and Pakistan. Bangladesh was originally included within Pakistan’s control as East Pakistan and seceded in 1971, the same year Husain was invited to the São Paulo biennial, alongside other Indian artists—and even Pablo Picasso.
The India Modern showing at the Institute was the first time this series of triptychs was ever shown in the United States. In looking into Husain’s biography, I learned that India revered him and his work at first, only to then shun him, decades later, because of the way he pushed the boundaries of his artistic vision, because he painted nude portraits of revered Indian gods and goddesses. He lived in both Qatar and the United Kingdom, where he died in 2011.
Until that day at the Art Institute, I had never heard of India’s most revered modern artist. Growing up, my art education took place in American museums. I read books about art for kids sold at Barnes & Noble—books about Picasso and Matisse, Kahlo, and O’Keeffe. The only Indian art I saw, I found at Indian restaurants or in my grandparents’ house in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago. These acrylic images mostly depicted sari-clad women and their male counterparts on stark black backgrounds, or else scenes from the Bhagavad Gita.
I was particularly fond of a wood relief of Ganesha that hung on a wall opposite the living room. The depiction of Ganesha, arguably my favorite god, and the contrasting colors of the relief—as well as its strategic position at just higher than my four-year-old gaze—always made me stare for a little longer. Such pieces of art were, I thought, far removed from the life I lived. These pieces were not the grand paintings by Flemish masters, not the murals of Kahlo, not the capital-A Art I saw in museums.
Then I saw Husain’s Three Dynasties. It depicts leaders: Ashoka, Akbar, and Queen Victoria. I knew the history of India, and the broad strokes that Husain was referencing in this triptych meant to illustrate the rich and complex history of India. This museum that I had always associated with Seurat and Van Gogh was now displaying women with saris and bindis, women who looked like my grandmothers and extended family. Husain was also referencing Indian history in a clever and grandiose way, a history I never thought I would ever see at a museum.
As I looked around at Husain’s work, I realized that the only Indian art I had seen was of religious statues. On the other hand, the definition of “Western art” at museums encompassed more than just religious iconography. If the Met, for example, only displayed statues of Jesus and called it “European art,” that would limit the scope of what’s considered “European art.”
While such images of those Ganeshas and Buddhas have a great deal of meaning to me, they’re only tied to the religious context of my life as a Hindu Indian-American, only one facet of my lived experience. As such, just this one aspect of Indian life, a religious one, would come to define its society in a museum. The art of our people, who were trying to understand and document life as it occurred throughout human history, would be limited, overly simplified.
This museum that I had always associated with Seurat and Van Gogh was now displaying women with saris and bindis, women who looked like my grandmothers and extended family.
The dearth of Indian and South Asian contemporary art in museums is connected to who decides what is considered “art.” In the United States, as recently as 2018, curation staff at museums was eighty-four percent white. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation reports that this is actually an improvement; three years prior, their surveys showed that curation staff was eighty-eight percent of curation staff was white.
This whiteness does a disservice to not only Indian art. Consider how Native American and African arts are represented in museums. There are countless exhibits that simply take artifacts from centuries ago and display them prominently, in an attempt to present how people from these parts of the world used to live, rather than how they live now. It seems that the distant past takes precedence over the near past in representing the lives of non-white people. Such exhibitions might even subconsciously suggest that this is how people outside the “Western world” still live today—as primitive beings.
To better represent and document the pluralistic society that we live in now, museums must pursue national and temporal diversity in their collections, must hire curatorial staff that is diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and lived experiences. Otherwise, a limited view of any artistic culture risks surface level interpretations and stereotypes about the people who make that art.
Great art captures a certain essence of humanity. It might be a painting like Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, which is featured prominently at the Art Institute. Or it might be a piece like A. Ramachandran’s Dancing on a Full Moon Night. Both paintings display groups of people enjoying themselves, but in radically different contexts.
One depicts a group of Parisian cityfolk relaxing alongside a river and embracing a lazy day. The other shows a man and a group of sari-clad Indian women, dancing and playing music, in the midst of anthropomorphized animals in the background. Each painting is very specific in the culture to which it is speaking, and equally important in the canon of international art.
Even during the time that they were active, many Indian and South Asian artists like M.F. Husain had achieved incredible amounts of fame and recognition. Our inability to recognize their genius fully limits the scope of what is considered “good art” or worthy of our attention. Art museums are struggling to keep patrons coming through the doors. And artists that were previously out of view have gained notoriety.
When museum doors open once more, as we weather the aftermath of a pandemic, a fresh and inclusive perspective might persuade newcomers to walk those long hallways in numbers greater than before, visitors who might not, until then, have seen themselves worthy of being depicted in capital-A Art.