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:

Priest King with Trefoil Drape, Mohenjo-daro, Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1300 B.C).
National Museum of Pakistan, Karachi.

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.

Asian Art in London 2013 (31/10/2013 – 9/11/2013)

Aaina Bhargava of Saffronart introduces Asian Art in London 2013

Asian Art in London

Asian Art in London. Image Credit:

London: It’s Asian Art in London week, the perfect opportunity to indulge in your appreciation for Asian Art and simultaneously engage with London’s vast network of art institutions that hold various events such as lectures, symposiums, exhibitions, and auctions solely dedicated to Asian Art.

A few South Asian highlights featured include, The Annual Benjamin Zucker Lecture on Mughal Art: Jahangir’s Gulshan Album and its marginal decorations at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Nov. 7th, a lecture on Orchha not Mandu, 1592 not 1634: A Revolutionary View of ‘Malwa’ Painting held at SOAS on Nov. 6th, and a symposium on The Art of Being A Part: Two South African-born Asian Artists in Dialogue – Clifford Charles and Anthony Key on Nov. 9th at the Courtald Institute of Art.

A number of exhibitions featuring South Asian Art are being held including: The Surreal in Indian Painting: Select Works from the Arturo Schwarz and other Private Collections at Prahlad Bubbar, God, Demons and Lovers at Rob Dean Art, Indian Court Painting 16th – 19th Centuries at Sam Fogg, A Prince’s Eye Imperial Mughal Paintings from a Princely Collection Art from the Indian Courts at Francesca Galloway, Modern and Contemporary Indian Miniatures at Grosvenor Gallery, Indian & Islamic Works of Art at Simon Ray Indian and Islamic Works of Art, An Important Group of Sculptures from India, Southeast Asia and China at Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art, Nature at Alexis Renard and Indian Ivory and Imran Channa at Joost van den Bergh.

The Saffronart London team will be checking out the galleries participating in the Late Night Opening Mayfair tonight (Nov. 4th), hopefully we’ll see you there.

For more information regarding events visit Asian Art in London.

The Splendors of India’s Royal Courts Displaying In The Forbidden City.

Emily Jane Cushing suggests ‘The Splendors of India’s Royal Courts’, an exhibition curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Detail of Religious procession. A scroll showing, About 1825-1830. Image Credit;

Detail of Religious procession. A scroll showing, About 1825-1830. Image Credit;

London: For the first time the arts of Royal India are coming to China.

The exhibition will take place in the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City until 31st July 2013. This setting results in a collision of two of the greatest and richest civilizations in one place.

The 113 especially selected works are from London’s V&A collection, the range of objects is vast, including paintings, textiles, jewelry, thrones and arms and armor as well as instruments; all spanning from the 18th-19th century.

Stringed instrument, North India, 1800-1880, Image Credit,

Stringed instrument, North India, 1800-1880; Image Credit,

The works are symbolic of the wealth, power and influence of the Maharajah of the period. The magnificent works were intended to enhance status and royal identity and also reflect the shifts of power within the Royal kingdom.

The diverse exhibition is separated into four parts; the Darbar, Palace Life, Beyond the Palace and The Influence of the West.

The Darbar, meaning Royal court, is the area in which private rituals would take place which were attended by only courtiers and nobles. Formal events such as the King’s birthday however, were celebrated in public view. During these events the public would see their ruler drenched in the finest textiles and jewelry and surrounded by ceremonial weapons and royal regalia, all of which signified his wealth and power and examples of such on display here.

Turban Ornament, Mughal Court, 1700-1750; Image Credit;

Turban Ornament, Mughal Court, 1700-1750; Image Credit;

This turban ornament is a small example of the ornate decoration used on objects for ceremonial use that are displayed in this exhibition. The craftsmanship is evident here with the hand cut emerald, rubies and jade delicately placed. Interestingly, these objects of finery were often made by the private courts makers, intended for the sole use of the royal family and made only from the finest materials.

The second section of the exhibition, Palace Life, explores the private lives of the rulers and their consorts; there are examples of instruments, board games and costumes which were used as past-times and for pleasure.

The below work of a woman holding a kite is from this part of the exhibition, the kite symbolizing a distant lover; interesting to note is the figures and images in these works are not factual and are always imaginary scenes with symbolic value, usually evoking romantic notions.

Lady Flying a Kite, Bikaner or Jodhpur, 1730-1750; Image Credit,

Lady Flying a Kite, Bikaner or Jodhpur, 1730-1750; Image Credit,

The third section of the exhibition, Beyond the Palace, shows the life of the King outside of the royal palace. These images of a richly adorned king joined by his horses and elephants are believed to show the kings ability to protect his country from threats.

Painting of procession on Ram Singh II of Kota, India, Circa 1850; Image Credit,

Painting of procession on Ram Singh II of Kota, India, Circa 1850; Image Credit,

The final section, The Influence of the West, examines the impact of Western culture on the Indian Royal courts and includes portraiture by British artist Tilly Kettle and others. These works exhibit western painting techniques such as chiaroscuro and perspective.

I hope you like the look of this exhibition; I do! This diverse and exciting collection is showing until 31st July at the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Further information can be found here.

Jamdani: A Tribute to the Bangladeshi Weaver

Jamdani Sari The Nadia Samdani Collection, The Story by Saffronart

Jamdani Sari
The Nadia Samdani Collection, The Story by Saffronart

Manjari Sihare of Saffronart explores the art of Jamdani weaving in conjunction with the saris featured in Nadia Samdani’s collection on The Story

New York: This past week, Saffronart launched a new collection in The Story, curated Bangladeshi collector and philanthropist, Nadia Samdani. Best known as the foremost connoisseur of Bangladeshi contemporary art in her capacity as the Founder and Director of Dhaka Art Summit, Nadia Samdani has brought together an exquisite collection of contemporary art, jewelry as well as traditional textiles from Bangladesh. What caught my fancy are two light hued jamdani saris. It is common knowledge that Jamdanis are handloom woven fabrics made of cotton, which was historically referred to as muslin.

Jamdani weaving is the foremost symbol of Bangladesh’s rich cultural heritage. The cities of Dhaka and Narayanganj in Central Bangladesh have served as hubs for Jamdani handlooms for centuries. Numerous chronicles reference jamdani weaving. In the book Sril Silat-ut-Tawarikh, written in the 9th century, the Arab geographer Solaiman talks about the fine fabrics manufactured in the state called Rumy, or modern day Bangladesh. An interesting article in The News Today references the famous Book of Periplus of Ertitrean Sea (written as an navigation and trading account of the world), noting that it documents the fine fabrics available in this area as far back as the first decade before the birth of  Christ. The golden age of Dhaka muslin, however, began with Mughal rule in the 17th century. Due to the labor and time intensive manufacturing process, Jamdani fabric was frightfully expensive and thus a luxury afforded by only royals and aristocrats.

An authentic Jamdani loom with two weavers sitting alongside each other Image credit:

An authentic Jamdani loom with two weavers sitting alongside each other
Image credit:

Jamdani weaving is similar to other handloom weaving techniques, wherein small shuttles of threads are passed through the weft. It is hand-woven on a bamboo loom with the weaver sitting in a trench dug into the ground. As illustrated in the above image, two weavers sit alongside each other at the loom and add every discontinuous
supplementary weft motif separately, by hand, interlacing the supplementary
weft threads into the warp with fine bamboo sticks in a zigzag manner using
individual spools of thread. It is a special process as there is no use of mechanism what so ever and neither does the loom make any noise. The design is drawn on a graph paper and placed underneath the warp. It is remarkable that the designs are never sketched or outlined on the parent fabric. In fact some seasoned weavers don’t even use the graph paper; they insert motifs from memory! The patterns are mostly floral or geometric. The Victoria and Albert Museum of London have a fine collection of Jamdani saris.

Sari (jamdani) Bangladesh About 1880 Muslin Width 86 cm x Length 335 cm IS.664-1883, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Sari (jamdani) Bangladesh About 1880 Muslin Width 86 cm x Length 335 cm IS.664-1883, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Two of the saris in the Nadia Samdani collection are excellent examples of Jamdaani weaving. The ivory and gold sari exhibits a beautiful  ‘butidar’ pattern, a term where the entire sari is scattered with floral sprays. A design with larger flowers is also referred to as ‘toradar’. My preference of the two is the pink and gold sari for its lightly colored hue and its beautiful ‘jaal’ (a term used when the design covers the entire field of the sari).

What makes Jamdani the exquisite art form it is? Its exclusivity is attributed to its rarity. The decline in the Jamdani industry is reported to have begun as early as the  middle of the eighteenth century.  With the decline of the Mughal empire in the Indian sub-continent, Jamdani kaarigars or weavers lost their most influential patrons. This is considered to be the primary reason for the decline of this exquisite art form. The decline was accentuated with the subsequent import of lower quality and cheaper yarn from Europe. These issues have had repercussions in contemporary times as well. With the oldest generations of artisans unable to sustain their craft production, the younger generations did not have any training to fall back on. Also, the main Jamdani-making belt in Bangladesh, on the banks of the river Shitalakhya, is under severe threat with waste from factories, mills, and settlements. The long-winded nature of the Jamdani weaving process demands a price that limits its consumer base. A craft process at risk of extinction, it must be recognised that the Jamdani industry can only survive if the market is expanded.

The Jina Parsvanatha Sculpture: A Study in Symbolism

Josheen Oberoi briefly explores the signs and meanings embedded in ancient Indian Jina sculptures

New York: Jainism, one of the oldest faiths in India, is defined by its commitment to non-violence and a self-directed effort to attain enlightenment. The ‘Supreme Beings’ who achieve this state of liberation and assist others in the process are called Jinas (victors) or Tirthankaras. There are said to have been twenty four Jinas in Jainism, the last of whom, Vardhamana Mahavira, is possibly the most widely known among non practitioners of Jainism.

However, when it comes to the arts and representation in Jainism there is a rich history of sculptures of many of the Jinas, replete with symbolism relating to their positions, accompanying objects, and their meaning.

Jina Parsvanatha
Object: Sculpture
Place of origin: Garsoppa, India (probably, made)
Date: 12th century (made)
Materials and Techniques: Black shale
Museum number: 931(IS)
Image courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum

Two similar sculptures from different time periods are wonderful examples of Jina Parsvanathas and their symbolism. This beautiful 12th century sculpture (on the left) from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection in London represents the twenty third Jina Parsvanatha, who is revered as a great teacher and is one of four Jinas most often portrayed in Jain art. A similar sculpture in the ongoing Indian Antiquities auction conducted by Collectibles Antiques India and powered by Saffronart is from the 11th century, created during the rule of the Hoysala Dynasty. It is a distinctive work from a time period rarely seen in private hands; most works from this Dynasty are in museums or preserved at heritage sites.

Parsvanatha lived in the 8th century BC. He was the son of King Ashvasena and Queen Vamanadevi of Varanasi who renounced the world at the age of thirty to become an ascetic. He attained absolute knowledge and became the twenty-third Tirthankara or Jina in Jainism and is associated with the color blue and a seven hooded serpent.

The Jina fact file on the Victoria & Albert Museum website allows us as viewers to read the sculpture as well. Jinas are always shown in either a padmasana (seated) or kayotsarga (standing) position. The two Jina Parsvanathas in discussion here are standing; the immobility and discipline required is considered a form of severe penance and asceticism.

Jina Parsvanatha
Greenish Schist
11th Century
Hoysala Dynasty
Height: 51 in (129.5 cm)
Image courtesy: Saffronart Indian Antiquities Auction (Nov 28-29, 2012), Lot 3

The three tiered umbrella at the top of the sculpture is a symbol of the Jina’s spiritual sovereignty, while the seven headed snake, Dharanendra, protects the Jina with his coils and a canopy over his head. Jinas, like those in these two sculptures, are the only Jain figures shown unclothed as a sign of their absolute enlightenment and rejection of all materialism. They are often flanked by guardian spirits called yakshas and yakshis, positioned in these sculptures by the feet of the Jina.

The strength of the physical body and the powerful features in the sculpture above is distinctive of the Hoysala Dynasty, which oversaw great developments in architecture and classically modeled sculptures during its rule.

You can hear some interesting ideas about the importance of the seven hooded serpent and the significance of the standing position in context of the Jina Parsvanatha in the collection of the V&A Museum here.

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