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Malvika Maheshwari

THE ART OF SECULARISM: THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF MODERNIST ART IN CONTEMPORARY INDIA
By Karin Zitzewitz
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 206, Rs. 1795.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 7 July 2015

Chapter 4, on page 99 of Zitzewitz’s book The Art of Secularism begins with a quote by painter Gulam­mohammed Sheikh where he says, ‘in one sense it is the communal situation that opened doors to understand the role of reli­gion in life. Then you are told who you are. Until then, you are an artist.’ Unlike the be­ginnings of so many chapter fours of so many other texts, this statement—almost half way into the book, hauntingly accompanies the reader for the rest of the hundred and odd pages, as much as it proves to be a pivotal moment to reflect on the ninety-eight page journey undertaken till now. Sheikh’s words in many ways capture the problematic that the author grapples with, the slant of her arguments and the ‘normative secularity’. Zitzewitz in this book explores the rela­tionship between modern art and the prob­lematic of secularism in present-day India. She does so by observing ‘changes in artistic practice wrought by the rise of Hindu na­tionalism’ and with this in mind, studies closely the lives and works of five eminent figures of the modern Indian art world— Sheikh is one amongst them. Others include painters M.F. Husain, K.G. Subramanyan, Bhupen Khakhar and gallerist Kekoo Gandhy. It is these five, Zitzewitz argues, who have been ‘less able—and less willing— than many of their fellow artists to accept the idea that art’s autonomy translates into its isolation from public discourse.’ Divided thematically, the first two chap­ters on Husain and Subramanyan ‘compare artistic treatments of Hindu iconography;’ the third and the fourth on Gandhy and Sheikh respectively look at ‘art world insti­tutions as distinctly secular spaces,’ and the last chapter on Khakhar explores the ‘social role of the artist.’ In studying these, Zitzewitz’s central aim is to show how ‘In­dian artists have produced a sophisticated “secular critique of secularism,”’ a phrase she borrows from Rajagopal. Two things are im­portant to note here: first, she argues that ‘when compared with the Indian public dis­course at large, the art world shares different assumptions about central issues associated with secularism, including the public role of religious authority, the constitution of political subjectivity, and the very definition of religion itself.’ Artists have not only found in ‘iconographies of devotion and religious practice a richness that counters the appar­ently thin cultural vocabulary ...


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