Drawing from Literature and Legend: 4 Inspired Paintings

Four works from Saffronart’s upcoming Evening Sale in New Delhi on 20 September which draw upon themes and characters from folk tales, mythology and history.

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India in All its Glory in Husain’s Paintings at the V&A

Audrey Bounaix takes you through India’s 3000-year history in eight triptychs by Husain

Back in the 1980s, the Victoria and Albert Museum had acquired two sets of lithographs by Maqbool Fida Husain. This time, they’ve set up a room to house his painted triptychs. Eight large panels on view from 28 May – 24 July 2014, offer viewers—especially those new to Indian art—a chance to interpret India in its myriad traditions. As someone with a deeply rooted interest in Bollywood cinema hoardings, I jumped at the occasion thinking that Husain’s monumental triptychs would be in the same vein as his early billboard paintings. My visit to the V&A convinced me otherwise. It had nothing to do with the glamorous cinema world, but instead illustrated the richness of India’s history. We sense reminiscences of his early work freely inspired by photography; Husain is no longer roaming the streets of Madras to capture street imagery, but roaming through Indian history in order to translate as closely as possible its richness. This manifests metaphorically in the art on display. It was meant to be on a grander scale; the artist was still working on the project at the time of his death and originally envisaged a series of 96 panels for Mrs Usha Mittal who commissioned it in 2008.

I was first plunged into darkness as I stepped into the V&A room, but a brightly-painted Ganesha then welcomed me. As if I was performing the traditional pradakshina—or, to use an approximate translation, circumambulate a Hindu templethe display transported me to a similar spiritual mindset. The dynamic representation of Ganesha is accompanied by a curvaceous female form similar to the terra cotta modelling produced during the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1300 BCE).

M.F. Husain, Ganesha, 2008. Courtesy of Usha Mittal,  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

M.F. Husain, Ganesha, 2008. Courtesy of Usha Mittal,
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This painting is significant in setting a new benchmark through its representation of Indian cultural heritage through eight triptychs. The scale allows for the narrative to move and inspire viewers. The first triptych is titled Three Dynasties, and explores Indian history through three different rulers. Among them, two are foreigners and assume the left and right panels, whereas the Maurya reign is in the centre with its famous Ashoka pillar erected under Emperor Ashoka’s rule. The four-headed lion facing the four main directions is replaced by a real one here. Husain also added what seems to be a seal representing Buddha’s Enlightenment, to recall Ashoka’s renouncement of the world and adoption of Buddhism. Mixing the time and forms, the artist is playing with timeless symbols. In the right panel, he has pared down the time of British Raj to medal-laden British dignitaries with imperceptible features. Queen Victoria is enthroned in a neo-classical pavilion, and Mahatma Gandhi and a Rolls Royce also figure in this panel. Husain’s aim is not to depict historic events as they happened but more to give us an idea through symbols that encapsulate the stakes of Indian history.

M.F. Husain, Three Dynasties, 2008-2011. Courtesy of Usha Mittal, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

M.F. Husain, Three Dynasties, 2008-2011.
Courtesy of Usha Mittal, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another triptych full of details and references, so much so that it will make you smile once you decipher them, is titled Tale of Three Cities. Here again, the middle panel seems to hold a special significance and Varanasi, city of spirituality, holds this privileged place. Delhi is on the left, while Rabindranath Tagore, Subashchandra Bose, Satyajit Ray and Mother Theresa all figure in Kolkata’s panel in a patchwork’s assemblage, where only the Indian nationalist is given recognisable features . Even though the faces are left without features, symbols are recognised at first sight since they are reduced to their essential attributes. Colours are used for some clarity purposes to delineate the different parts and persons. Strokes of warm paint alternate with shadows to create volume. Husain’s genius lies in his mix of forms and ideas which trigger an immediate sense of identity.

Husain has always believed that Indian culture is not fundamentally Islamic or Hindu, but secular. In Traditional Indian Festivals and Indian Householders, he takes the viewer through a composite culture that has evolved over centuries. The glimpse into the homes of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim families is specified by an aim “to tell a true story of our common people”. In light of his commentaries, the Singer sewing machine, a Hindu journal, an umbrella, a bicycle, the Coran, a Siva Nataraja statue, a hukka, a calendar poster of Govind Singh are stressed as common objects characterising people more than their religion does. Husain attempts to attach himself to reality by portraying his family from memory, the Nanboodri family of Madurai, and Sardarji Bunta Singh of Ludhiana, but the faces and expressions remain obscure. Though on the surface it tells us to assimilate ourselves with families going about their daily life, the underlying theme is of unity which resonates with Husain’s own beliefs.

M.F. Husain, Indian Households, 2008-2011.  Courtesy of Usha Mittal © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

M.F. Husain, Indian Households, 2008-2011.
Courtesy of Usha Mittal © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Husain’s sensitivity to history is evident in his picturisation of Rabindranath Tagore’s quote: “How the language of stone surpasses the language of man”. In Language of Stone, he chooses to pay a tribute to the rich South Asian lithic heritage. As before in Tale of Three Cities, the statuesque figure of the poet is represented in dark shades while Husain uses warm colours for art objects. He makes reference to the Indus Valley Civilization with the insertion just under the epitaph of The Priest with Trefoil Drape, a masterpiece ranged between 2500-1500 B.C. and preserved today at the National Museum of Karachi. With the Qutub Minar painted in a low-angle shot, a 10th century high-relief from Khajuraho and a wheel from the 13th century Surya Temple, Husain opts for pre-historical or medieval Indian sculptures. Even if there is no Buddha with gentle modelling forms typical from the Gupta Age, I have to say that Husain knows how to pump energy in objects that are inherently statics.

M.F. Husain, Language of Stone, 2008-2011. Courtesy of Usha Mittal © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

M.F. Husain, Language of Stone, 2008-2011.
Courtesy of Usha Mittal © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Priest King with Trefoil Drape, Mohenjo-daro, Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 B.C).  National Museum of Pakistan,  Karachi. PhotoCourtesy: http://www.harappa.com/indus/41.html

Priest King with Trefoil Drape, Mohenjo-daro, Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 B.C).
National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi.
PhotoCourtesy: http://www.harappa.com/indus/41.html

The same frenetic energy is seen in Modes of Transport, where Husain presents the multiple journeys of India’s citizens as a metaphor for the journey of life. His impressions of India’s history, religion and everyday living are translated through strokes of vibrant colours and superimpositions of ideas and symbols.

Husain’s journey through Indian history is completed through another medium: film. His early cinematic experiment—a 1967 film documentary—translates his impressions of Rajasthan in a very aesthetic way. This freely inspired work filming a shoe, an umbrella and a lantern in a close-up, does not remain extraneous to the triptych series. It intersperses countryside, faces and objects in the same way symbols are isolated in his paintings.

This exhibition is a prompt to travel. More importantly, entry is free to the public. Husain’s images are powerful and vivacious, and that’s enough incentive to drop by to view these works.

The Second Jehangir Sabavala Memorial Lecture By Rustom Bharucha

Elizabeth Prendiville shares a brief note on a talk with Rustom Bharucha this past weekend.

 New York: On October 4th The Jehangir Sabavala Foundation presented its second edition of an ongoing memorial lectures series. The lecture focused on the relationship between Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and Japanese art historian and curator Okakura Tenshin. The talk was conducted and monitored by esteemed writer, cultural critic and director, Rustom Bharucha. Bharucha has authored several books on cultural exchange and globalization.

The lecture took place at The Visitors Centre in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Fort in Mumbai.

We look forward to announcing more details from this event as it breaks.

Bauhaus in Calcutta: The Opening of an Exhibition that Revisits 1922

Gaganendranath Tagore, "Poet Rabindranath on the Island of Birds," 1920s; Image credit: www.timerime.com

Gaganendranath Tagore, “Poet Rabindranath on the Island of Birds,” 1920s; Image credit: http://www.timerime.com

Guest blogger Tracy Buck shares details on a forthcoming show of Bahaus artists

Dessau: On March 27, 2013 the Bauhaus Dessau will open “Bauhaus in Kalkutta,” a show of works by Bauhaus artists including Kandinsky, Klee, and Feininger as well as Indian artists such as Gaganendranath Tagore.  Described as a “special laboratory of the transcultural avant-garde” on the Bauhaus’ website, the show looks back for the first time at the artistic exchange and political climates of the original 1922 exhibit on which it is based.

Wassily Kandinsky, "Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)," 1913Image credit: www.ngma.gov

Wassily Kandinsky, “Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle),” 1913
Image credit: http://www.nga.gov

Art Historian Partha Mitter – one of the present show’s curators – has referred to the December 1922 exhibition as an entry point for modernism in India in his seminal work The Triumph of Modernism: Indian Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1922-1947 (2007).  Indian artists (or, at least Bengali intelligentsia) began to move away at this point from naturalism towards non-representational art.  As Mitter describes, however, neither the artists’ reception nor the path towards experimentation was necessarily smooth and even.  Earlier press had depicted cubism in particular as bizarre, distorted, too extreme; others, particularly artists and intelligentsia, welcomed the influx of new inspiration, talent, and the opportunity for international exchange.  Important, then, is the present show’s interest in reconstructing and revisiting the political conditions and international environment of that original 1922 exhibition.

Rabindranath Tagore, "Dancing Woman," ca. 1910Image credit: http://ngmaindia.gov.in

Rabindranath Tagore, “Dancing Woman,” ca. 1910
Image credit: http://ngmaindia.gov.in

Many of the Indian artists featured in the exhibition were affiliated with Rabindranath Tagore’s experimental educational site, Santiniketan, and with the Bengal School that was centralized there.  The Bengal School, in these formative years of early Indian Nationalism, developed a style that was considered uniquely Indian – a new art for the development of a new nation – that looked inwards and eastwards rather than westwards for its inspiration.  Its members – Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Gaganendranath Tagore, among others – were internationalist in perspective and lifestyle and were focused largely on Indian subject matter.  Perhaps because of the Bengal School’s interest in avoiding the adoption of Western stylistic and formal artistic conventions for political reasons, the 1922 Calcutta exhibition – with its largely cubist focus – did not receive much attention lasting interest until several decades later, in the 1940s.  According to Mitter, Kandinsky was lauded, the organizers were congratulated for bringing important artists’ works to India for the first time, and critics were reminded that the interests of the Bengal School and the European artists were not dissimilar.  Most of the works, however, remained unsold.

From the perspective of today, however, this fact and the resulting avoidance of the works’ far dispersal has facilitated an important look back at that landmark and historic show.  The Bauhaus Dessau’s “Bauhaus Kalcutta” – opening in March – is set to offer insight into the internationalist gaze and the virtual and actual communities that print media and artistic exchange formed and helped shape.

The exhibition is curated by a group of curators including Kathrin Rhomberg, Regina Bittner, Partha Mitter and Ranjit Hoskote, and will be on view till June 30 2013. Read more.

Images appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the images included in the Bauhaus Dessau exhibition, but rather are representative works of the artists featured.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked as Collections Manager and Curator in several history and art museums in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Mukul Dey and the Kalighat Painting Revival

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart shares a note on Kalighat paintings in response to a 1932 article by Mukul Dey

London: In conjunction with the collection of Kalighat paintings currently featured on The Story I would like to share few extracts from an article by Mukul Dey published in 1932 by Advance, Calcutta.

Lovers; Early 20th Century Kalighat Pata Painting. Image Credit: Mukul Dey Archives http://www.chitralekha.org/articles/mukul-dey/drawings-and-paintings-kalighat#

Lovers; Early 20th Century Kalighat Pata Painting. Image Credit: Mukul Dey Archives http://www.chitralekha.org/article
s/mukul-dey/drawings-and-paintings-kalighat#

Born in 1895, Dey was a prolific author and pioneer artist and print maker who adopted and experimented with different Western techniques but remained faithful to Indian themes and imagery in his work.

Dey was one of the first writers to express support for a ‘national’ art, and wanted to build a museum of national art in Calcutta, but did not manage to accomplish this project, which was later undertaken by Rabindranath Tagore.

In this 1932 article, Dey reflects on the disappearance of Kalighat paintings over the years, and attempts, through his words, to revive an interest for this superb art form of Bengal.

In his essay the artist recalls a visit to the Mother Kali temple in South Calcutta, when he saw many different shops suited for pilgrims that were displaying souvenirs as well as these magnificent works of art.

“These drawings had a peculiarity of their own which attracted the attention and interest of any man who had any taste for art and drawings. The drawings were bold and attractive and at the same time their technique was so different and simple, that they looked something absolutely distinctive from their class found anywhere else.”

Before the disappearance of this tradition, Kalighat was a great market for these paintings and other goods, since pilgrims wanted to bring back memories and souvenirs of their spiritual journey.

“These drawings from the Kalighat patuas, however, would naturally possess a peculiar interest and if they would be hung up in any place amongst ten other pictures, they would outshine the others not only for their different characterization but for their wonderful colour-effects and contours as well…From a study of the drawings it will be found that these patuas were expert in handling the brush and colour and they were keen observers of life, with a grim sense of humour.”

A Vashnava Saint Preaching Doctrine of Non Violence to a Pair of Hungry Looking Tigers. Kalighat Paintings; 19th Century.Image Credit: Mukul Dey Archives http://www.chitralekha.org/articles/mukul-dey/drawings-and-paintings-kalighat#

A Vashnava Saint Preaching Doctrine of Non Violence to a Pair of Hungry Looking Tigers. Kalighat Paintings; 19th Century.Image Credit: Mukul Dey Archives http://www.chitralekha.org/article
s/mukul-dey/drawings-and-paintings-kalighat#

According to Dey, after some time, these pictures disappeared from the market, and no artists or buyers were to be found in Calcutta. Saddened by the disappearance of Bengali traditional culture, Dey felt it was our national duty to revive and glorify this art through support as patrons and the training of the new patuas.

Mahishasuramardini, Uttam Chitrakar. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35132

Mahishasuramardini, Uttam Chitrakar. Image Credit: https://www.saffronart.com/TheStory/ItemV2.aspx?iid=35132

Dey played an influential role in the shaping of Bengali art, and he left after him an incredible painting tradition. So please do not hold back from acquiring any work from this special collection of Kalighat Paintings celebrating the traditional art of Bengal through modern and contemporary patuas.

Click here to read the full article by Mukul Dey.

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