Is there indeed room for everything and everybody? And is that what makes India a vibrant democracy and multi-culture? ‘Kaun Mara?’ (‘Who Died?’), Manjit Bawa’s painting (left), was a direct comment on the death of both people and constitutional principles when a militant social fringe broke the Babri Masjid. (Didn’t you hate the way some Indian and international commentators called that mob “the Hindus” in one sweep, without any qualifiers, as if all 82 per cent of India’s resident population was attacking those domes that day? It was as emotionally irresponsible and unfair then as it is today to say “Muslim terrorist” in one blanket assumption — and it fetched India so many enemies needlessly.)
But a multi-culture works in strange ways.
The childhood of Farhan Mujib, professor of physics at Aligarh Muslim University and an atheist, was “spent with an extraordinary maternal family, revolutionary uncles hiding from the British police”, says his friend and art dealer Momin Lateef. Mujib was the only child of “an amusing, sharp-witted and destructive mother and an aggressively atheist, extremely kind, nurturing father” and loved making collages with paper and colours since he was little, with precision and attention to placement.
In 2003, Mujib had a heart bypass operation, a near-death experience. Always the Sunday painter, Mujib now began regularly depicting rooms within rooms, an eclectic but ordered mix of colour and culture. “I paint my inner world, which is reflective, harmonious and happy,” says this Cancerian stoutly, “though a few years ago, a number of sad things happened to me.” Curiously, Mujib’s works reminds Indian viewers of the architecture of a Hindu temple, that leads you from outer spaces to the sanctum, suffused with mystery and deep emotion — to those allowed inside.
However, says Momin Lateef, though Mujib’s collages “present a curious juxtaposition of images, full of light and colour, very decorative and attractive… inviting one into comfortable, obvious and seemingly known spaces filled with gods and goddesses, birds, beautiful calligraphy and furniture and a lightness of being approaching frivolity as in domestic Vaishnavite temples… suddenly… one perceives an aura of darkness, of the unknown — the forbidden closed doors and windows, strong balances but empty spaces which are not synchronised, birds and other forms straying across solid frames, open vistas, sudden tears on surfaces which should be perfect, and constantly false perspective. You look into palatial rooms with spaces only for a table, a few chairs and a vase of flowers; awaiting people who never arrive — there being anyway no room for them.”
This ‘invitation and refusal’ (invited to enter that space by its attractive forms and colours, but rejected inside) could be read in many ways, even as a deeply internalised response to — oh, all sorts of sociology and history, you don’t it spelled out. Nor do I wish to put unintended meanings into Mujib’s work, for he, like his favourite painter, Henri Matisse, believes that if you wish to be an artist you should lock your mouth. Suffice to say that since Mujib took premature retirement to become a fulltime artist in 2005, every show, always curated by his discoverer Sharan Apparao of Chennai, has sold out to delighted buyers. The last such ‘must-get’ work delivering straight to the Indian heart was by Thota Vaikuntam. Mujib never does more than 25 or so works a year. A new show is coming up between October 17 and 30 at Emporio, New Delhi, and will move to Paris in November.