As one of India’s leading modern masters, Maqbool Fida Husain has been called the ‘Picasso of India’. Husain, fascinated by history, civilisation and the heroic epic, broke from tradition and the rigidity of academic painting styles, while never losing sight of the art heritage, energy and rhythm of the vast Indian landscape. The charismatic and erudite artist began his career by painting billboards for feature films and making furniture designs and toys when he first moved to Bombay in 1937. Husain would later join the newly formed Progressive Artists’ Group which was founded in1947 on the eve of Independence. This collection of likeminded avant garde artists absorbed folk art, classical painting and sculpture, combining them with western art to produce a unique mode of expression. Husain along with fellow members of the group, including Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza, emerged as key cultural standard bearers in a newly Independent India, their art revelling and exalting in its new liberation whilst never hiding from the painful legacy of Partition. The Progressive Artists’ Group remained together formally for only a few years, but was as impactful as it was brief. Husain and his contemporaries became the leading figures in Indian modernism. It is then no surprise that Husain went on to export this radical and powerful art to Europe, exhibiting in the 1950s, including three times at the Venice Biennale.
Husain painted the present monumental canvas for the Venice Biennale where it was exhibited in 1956, representing India on the highest international stage. The 1950s represent the creative crucible of Husain’s oeuvre, and during this formative period the artist championed the icons of Indian culture, which meant ordinary life around him, specifically village life, representing symbols of the post-partition, independent India. Throughout this pivotal decade, Husain captures the charm and colour of the Indian countryside in its most serene and lyrical state with women working in the villages alongside animals representing key cultural signifiers. During the mid 1950s, Husain reached full maturity as an artist, producing iconic masterpieces. Perhaps the most celebrated work by the artist, is Zameen, painted in 1955 and acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, where it is prominently showcased. Zameen is a lexicon of his pictorial language of this period for which Husain won the Lalit Kala Akademi award in 1955. Over the years, Zameen has come to represent a hallmark of Husain’s artistic maturity. Husain also produced Yatra which he exhibited for the first time in 1956, the same year as the present work, 8 Painters show in 1958.
The current painting which stretches well over eight feet wide, was painted during the same period as Zameen and Yatra and is of comparable style and significance to these masterpieces. Husain painted few works of the scale and ambition of the present painting and specifically chose this to represent India at the Venice Biennale. This painting has been in private hands in Italy for many of the intervening years, out of public view and it is a rare privilege to bring this painting to public auction. This painting represents a visual almanac of Husain’s oeuvre of the period. Each constituent picture in this composite vignette represents familiar tropes, quintessential to his artistic output. Over the ten constituent panels of this magnum opus, Husain brings together the familiar village woman, iconic stylised male, triumphal elephants, boisterous birds, stallions and the Bengal tiger.
Husain, in this widescreen vignette format, creates a storyboard for India in the 1950s, celebrating its glorious past and the future promises it holds. These carefully selected images are narratives and subplots telling the literal and metaphorical story of a new independent India. Husain describes village life comprising women at work and powerful patriarchs as a symbol of hope and optimism. Mighty tigers coexist with majestic elephants in a symbol of unity, strength, fertility and communitarianism. The skeletal horse’s head is perhaps a memento mori, alluding to the Bengal Famine of 1943, and a warning to ensure such sufferings have no place in the new India. The tall accompanying male figure appears frequently in Husain’s iconography of the time as a symbol of the sufferings and evil of man inflicted so needlessly in the wake of Partition. The two blank panels however, perhaps refer to the unknown future, a space yet to be filled. These represent the potential of India, one of progress, change, growth and most significantly, hope.
This painting, exhibited at the most prestigious biennale, was not just a record but a political testament to a progressive India. This epic canvas is a record of life and art in India in a way that synergises the past, the present and the future in a profoundly poetic manner creating narratives through stylisation with unparalleled lyricism. Ebrahim Alkazi, in his monograph on Husain, highlights the scope of the artist’s unique visual idiom, “Husain’s concept is intensely poetic: with a stroke of genius, the entire mythic world which has enriched the minds of the common people is brought vividly alive. Past and present, myth and reality are shown to exist simultaneously in the Indian imagination”. (E. Alkazi, M. F. Husain: The Modern Artist & Tradition, New Delhi, 1978, p. 17)