Book Review: Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia
Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia. By Iftikhar Dadi. 360 pages. University of North Carolina Press.
Iftikhar Dadi’s Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia encompasses so many concerns in its title that the reader is obliged to begin the book with either extreme alacrity or deep trepidation. In the introduction, Dadi tells us that the book is neither a historical delineation of modern art in South Asia nor a comprehensive analysis of the artists that are mentioned. In fact, he says, he “hopes to contribute to the emerging body of scholarship by employing recent comparative and inter-disciplinary approaches” (p. 1). Even more interestingly, Dadi expands the scholarly and intellectual map by seeking a “departure from previous histories of South Asian modern art, many of which are inscribed within the horizon of the national and do not acknowledge the full force of transnationalism until after the advent of globalization in the 1990s”(pp. 3-4).
Dadi bases his study of the emergence of art in Muslim South Asia on four discursive arcs: modernism, tradition, cosmopolitanism and nationalism, located in pre- and post-colonial frameworks.
He formulates an interesting view of the term tradition, dismissing the more common use of the term as ‘opposition to modernity’. South Asian artists, he says, “strategically reworked fragments of classic Islamic tradition into modern formulations, characterized here by the term modern Islamic art.”
Cosmopolitanism is also extracted from its Western moorings and set up as a definitive source of intellectual vibrancy in the cultural life of the South Asian Muslim in the 16th to 18th centuries. In the 20th century, Dadi informs us, this animated intellectuality was diminished, and instead of looking outward, artists referenced Mughal and Islamic art. Dadi talks about the idea of nationalism in Pakistan and how it differs from that of its Indian counterpart, stating that nationalism in Pakistan is closer to affiliations with political parties rather than the nation as a whole, “the idea of ‘Pakistani-ness’” becomes not so much “civilizational as merely political and is thus much less resonant as an identifying marker than ‘Indian-ness’”(p. 29).
There are many difficulties that Dadi identifies as impediments to the growth of creative imagination and scholarship. He examines these within the paradigms of Benedict Anderson’s foundational elements of growth as stated in Imagined Communities: national language, the novel, census, map and museum. These, as we know, have all suffered immensely in the decades of Pakistan’s existence and as a result, Dadi says, “Pakistan has thus failed largely to provide an adequate cultural aspiration for many of its intellectuals” (p. 31).
The artists that Dadi investigates seem at first to be an unusual selection to include in any roster of Pakistani modernism, but within the parameters of ‘modernism’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘South Asian’, they fall easily into the scope of the study. Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s distaste of Eurocentric modernism made him revert to Ghalib, Mughal conventions and Persian artistic custom as the source of his nostalgic revisitations and the focus of his practice. Dadi explains that “by the very singularity and massive scope of his achievements and by his exhaustion of the possibilities of ‘Chughtai Art’, he enabled the younger modernists to repudiate his nostalgic and enchanted world and initiate a new openness towards transnational modernism” (p. 92).
In the chapter on mid-century modernism, Dadi explores the praxes of Shakir Ali, Zainul Abedin and Zubeida Agha. All three artists are significant in that they contributed to the pedagogical advancement of modernism while establishing it in their own practice. Shakir Ali was instructor and principal at National College of Arts, Lahore, and under his aegis the college became a crucible for the development of modern art. In East Pakistan, Zainul Abedin set up the Government Institute of Arts and Crafts through which art gained a new stature, especially amongst the middle- and high-income urban sections of society. Zubeida Agha headed the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Rawalpindi for 16 years.
Shakir Ali, the erudite modernist, is located by Dadi in the “affirmation” of modernism’s “metaphoric and allegorical potentialities in offering deeper insights into the self and society than the kind of reductive realism the progressives had increasingly embraced from the late 1930s” (p. 123). Dadi informs us that Zainul Abedin was an earnest proponent of an indigenous Bengali modernism and he disapproved of the overt marginalization of cultural development in the former East Pakistan. His own primitivism and preference for the rural landscape is proof of this protest. Zubeida Agha was a bold colourist and abstract painter who refused to comment on her own work, thus inviting mediation by critics. According to Dadi, critics sought to associate her works “in relation to Islamicate ideas, rather than as representational motifs” (p. 119). But Dadi affirms that Agha “followed a rigorous and consistent modernism throughout her career”.
Dadi studies Sadequain and his immense influence on the modernist tradition of Pakistani art. Sadequain’s persona was larger than life, says Dadi, but he “charted a singular trajectory in enacting a paradoxical subjectivity”. Sadequain created a distinctive “calligraphic modernism” and his practice was an amalgamation of abstract expressionism and classicism. (p. 134).
In discussing contemporary artists, Dadi compares Rasheed Araeen and Naiza Khan in aspects of their contemporaneity and their use of “unorthodox approaches and media including performance, installation and photography” (p. 177). Naiza Khan’s investigation of the female self is extensive; it is not restricted to a dialogue within the boundaries of Pakistan or even Muslim states but is global and thus firmly rooted in the discourse of the day. Rasheed Araeen, who has spent most of his life in London speaking out against the racial and ethnic prejudices of Eurocentric art communities, is a founder of Third Text, one of the most respected journals of our times and a voice against the hegemony of the West in the domain of art and culture.
Dadi believes that the two paths being explored in Pakistani art today are that of tradition (neo-miniature) and popular art which includes the works of artists like Hamra Abbas, Risham Syed and Bani Abidi.
Iftikhar Dadi’s book may not be comprehensive in its survey, nor does it intend to be, but it is seminal and exciting in its extraordinary initiation and development of a myriad discourses. However, Modernism misses out on the discussion of one of the most central artists of Pakistan, Zahoor ul Akhlaque, whom Dadi refers to in passing as a conceptual artist. In fact, it was Akhlaque who bridged the portals of modernity and contemporaneity and introduced a new modernism to the country, the effects of which are seen in the work of almost every artist practicing in Pakistan today.