Pragmatism and Steel: For Monica

by Karin Zitzewitz, Michigan State University

I “met” Monica, first, as the author of “Reclaiming the Public Sphere: Husain’s Portrayals of Saraswati and Draupadi,” a compact and astute art historical commentary on the accusations of obscenity that were lodged by Hindu nationalist agitators against Indian artist M. F. Husain, beginning in 1996.[i] A graduate student in anthropology, I was interested in visual culture as public culture—as a site of debate and contestation, and of complex and layered signs—and in Hindu nationalism. By the time I got to them around 3-4 years later, the attacks on Husain were a kind of classic of the Hindutva genre. They had been preceded by several similar, if less spectacular campaigns and followed by a constant stream of what we can anachronistically recognize as culture-war clickbait. Husain was a nearly perfect target: he was wealthy but approachable, a prominent supporter of the Congress party, and among the most famous Muslim public figures outside of Bollywood. Whether the nature of his artistic work was one of the attractions for the Hindutvavadis—followers of the ideology that underpins Hindu nationalism—was cause for significant debate. And it was that conversation in which Monica’s piece intervened.

Monica planted herself firmly within art history as she responded to the debate about Husain, which had until then focused on freedom of expression versus offenses to religious sentiment.  Speaking from her expertise to read the images in question, she contextualized Husain’s work with regard to the history of the female nude in both the pre-modern Indian and colonial-modern traditions, weighing those gestures against the roles played by Husain’s persona and the marketability of his work.  And yet, even as she held these arguments in view, Monica dismissed them as essentially epiphenomenal.  What was really at stake in the Husain affair, she argued in concise and declarative terms, were the roles of gender and caste in nationalism, or, as she put it, “the upper caste Hindu preoccupation with the policing of female sexuality, perceived as a central factor that would guarantee the maintenance of caste purity” (157).  The risk of someone like Husain to these reflexive impulses to protect privilege, to maintain purity was just too much.  In response, she argued, Hindutvavadis would gladly “destroy the public sphere within which multiple perspectives and identities can find expression, engage with, contest, subvert and replenish one another” (157).  Please note:  Monica did something kind of tricky here, for her art historical account of Husain becomes, at the end of her essay, a contribution to that sphere of discussion and debate.

My experience as a graduate student was that when I saw something like this piece—something really good—it makes me want to write.  Monica’s piece, along with writing on Husain by Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Geeta Kapur, exemplified a clear-eyed reading of art as it functioned in the public sphere.  The key, I observed, was to respect the complexity of artistic expression without imagining that all audiences would necessarily engage with art as intended, not to mention in the same way across time.  Those principles animated my own writing from that point on, as I published my first piece, subtitled “Further Notes on the Husain Affair” to acknowledge how dependent I was on those that had come before.[ii]

We can then fast-forward a number of years, to a 2009 seminar at Duke convened by Sumathi Ramaswamy to build the first scholarly monograph on Husain. The essays were written by some of the leading scholars of visual and media studies across the disciplines (plus me). Many of them framed questions in ways anticipated by Monica’s 1997 piece, and so it was fitting that the volume was slated to be the first in her Routledge India series, Visual and Media Histories. In the final moments, however, its release was quashed by the publisher on the grounds that it violated the contractual clause against obscenity. In other words, our writing—which included a number of essays that dealt explicitly with the 2006 High Court ruling that Husain’s work did not fall under the legal definition of obscenity—was caught up in the very logic of public offense that it was meant to unpack. Monica and Sumathi responded to this infuriating and ridiculous situation with a combination of pragmatism and steel. They negotiated the volume’s publication under Routledge’s UK division, for international sale, as well as by the independent and activist Yoda Press in Delhi, for distribution in India.[iii]

All of the authors associated with that volume continue to be proud of it, as I am.  Yet, the experience also exposed how vulnerable the academy and its broader institutions are to interference by Hindutva forces.  Monica’s identification of the goal of the movement as to fundamentally change the public sphere has been continually reconfirmed, particularly since the 2019 landslide election of Narendra Modi’s government.  The diminution of the sphere of debate—though most marked in the media—has also strongly affected the academic and museum institutions that have supported the field of art history in India.  It is worth noting how crucial, then, the Centre for Transcultural Studies has been for supporting student work.  As Chair of Global Art History, Monica has chosen to develop a rich institutional space for Indian students, as well as those engaged with other South Asian sites. That is one thing that attracted me to Heidelberg as a Humboldt fellow. Engaged in writing a book on the relationship between artistic and institutional form, I was particularly primed to appreciate this institutional formation.

I was slightly more surprised by how inspiring I found Monica’s sense of calm forward movement, which I found was bolstered both by a keen analytical separation of nuisance issues from core dilemmas and by an acknowledgement of which aspects of phenomena are properly art historical, and which are not.  I invite blog readers to join me in observing how these principles function in Monica’s scholarship and institutional work.  Certainly, they have become an aspiration in my own.

Endnotes

[i] Monica Juneja. “Reclaiming the Public Sphere: Husain’s Portrayals of Saraswati and Draupadi,” Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 4 (1997): 155–157. Accessed September 1, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4405019.

[ii] Karin Zitzewitz, “On Signature and Citizenship: Further Notes on the Husain Affair,” in Towards A New Art History: Studies in Indian Art, ed. by Shivaji K. Panikkar, Parul Dave Mukherji, and Deeptha Achar (New Delhi: D. K. Printworld, Ltd., 2003), 276–287.

[iii] Sumathi Ramaswamy, ed., Barefoot across the Nation: M. F. Husain and the Idea of India (London: Routledge, 2010/New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2011).

 

Karin Zitzewitz is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Michigan State University, where she also coordinates the artist/designer residency in Critical Race Studies.  She is the author of The Perfect Frame: Presenting Modern Indian Art:  Stories and Photographs from the Kekoo Gandhy Collection (Mumbai:  Chemould Publications and Arts, 2003), The Art of Secularism:  The Cultural Politics of Modernist Art in Contemporary India (London: Hurst & Co Publishers/New York/New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), and the forthcoming Infrastructure and Form:  The Global Networks of Indian Contemporary Art, 1991-2008 (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2022).  She wrote the majority of Infrastructure and Form while on a Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship at the Centre for Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg, in 2017-2018.