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 temple—the 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.