Our upcoming auction Alive: Evening Sale of Modern and Contemporary Art on 17 September features two paintings that encapsulate not only the various spiritual associations of this city, but also the nuances of a friendship between two of India’s greatest modernists – M F Husain and Ram Kumar.
From Norway to New York, Indian artists have found patrons around the world. We look at three collectors whose travels led them on a journey of collecting. Paintings from their collections feature in our upcoming September auction.
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.
London: December 2011, M F Husain dies. Now, in 2013, the Sovereign Gallery in Dubai is celebrating his birth centenary with an exhibition featuring twenty-five rare self-portraits of the iconic artist.
Known for his cubist take on Indian modernism, his horses, and sometimes ‘controversial’ depictions of sensitive subjects such as religious deities, his self portraits were usually kept private from public display, until now. Amongst creating an estimated 60,000 artworks, self-portraits are only a few. Most works belong to private collectors who had to be rigorously convinced by Sovereign Gallery owner Dadiba Pundole to lend for display. In his words,
“It has taken me several years to identify and borrow this exceptional body of work from collectors around the world, and we are glad to mark Husain’ birth centenary with this ode to his extraordinary oeuvres…MAQBOOL showcases the legendary artist’s interpretation of himself – at different ages from six upwards, through a range of mediums, and highlighting various aspects of his life… Husain was an acclaimed portrait painter — albeit not in the classic sense — and his self-portraits are another dimension of this medium…however, it is fitting that we could finally bring it to fruition for his birth centenary. This is a tribute to the man I have known and the artist I have represented for most of my life.”
The exhibition presents a unique opportunity to view the artist’s experience of self-reflection at and of various stages in his life. An artist, who has been instrumental in representing modern art not only to the Indian public, but representing Indian modern art to the world, certainly has a self-perspective worth experiencing. The works are featured in a variety of mediums on canvas and paper and six additional non-portrait works will be displayed as well.
As a precursor to the opening, and as a tribute to Husain’s lasting influence, Mirror Images will display self-portraits by 9 – 11 year students from Dubai International Academy. Maqbool will run from 22nd November to 12th December 2013 at Sovereign Gallery, Dubai, an expansion of Pundole gallery in Mumbai, where the relationship between the Pundole family and M F Husain initially began. Consequently, it is only fitting that Husain is re-introduced to the Middle East in the more intimate manner that Maqbool intends to reflect.
Ram Kumar’s works, from his figurative to city and landscape, reflect his emotional world. His landscapes have a subtle lyricism and lively buoyancy, thus defining his artistic oeuvre.
“When I paint, I don’t think about any specific elements- be they spiritual or supernatural elements of nature. They are paintings –pure simple, plain, painted color propositions, emerging from one’s past experiences” -Ram Kumar
As a student in Paris, Kumar had several interactions with poets and intellectuals, who influenced him and his work greatly. He studied art under Andre Lhote and Fernand Léger. Attracted by the Pacifist peace movement, Kumar joined the French Communist Party, thereby seeking inspiration from Social Realists such as Käthe Kollwitz. His artistic approach was centered on a humanist rather than an ideological approach; Sad figures with gaunt expressions and starry eyes, painted against the backdrop of an industrialized ambience, reflected by the almost monochromatic use of a limited color palette. Ram Kumar currently lives and works in Delhi, India.