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South Asian Art History - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia

Susan Bean

THE MAHABHARATA IS INDIA'S GREATEST EPIC.  Its captivating narrative, flawed and troubled heroes, and philosophical and moral conundrums have been a force in the Indian subcontinent for more than 2000 years. M. F. Husain (b. 1915, Pandharpur) was drawn into its circle of enchantment nearly forty years ago and has returned from time to time pulled by the visual imagery of its characters, conflicts, and dilemmas. This exhibition brings together works from projects in 1971, 1983, and 1990. At the center of the exhibition are seven major canvases from Husain's first interpretation of the Mahabharata, a series of twenty-nine canvases painted for the 11th  Bienal de Sao Paulo in Brazil. Twelve years later a set of eleven lithographs produced from his watercolors shows Husain revisiting and reworking his imagery for a wider audience, while a large watercolor painted around the same time translates his original approach into a new medium. A sixteen-foot canvas from 1990 completes the installation, reconnecting to Husain's early years as a cinema billboard artist as he incorporates iconic imagery into a unitary composition that epitomizes the epic.

In 1971 when Husain began to paint from the Mahabharata, he was fifty-six years old and had achieved unrivaled celebrity as an artist in India. The Government of India awarded him the Padma Shri in 1968, the first of several high civilian honors to come, including an appointment to the upper house of parliament in 1986. In 1969 he was given a twenty-year retrospective by the Chemould Gallery in Bombay’s

central exhibition space, the Jehangir Art Gallery. The 1960s brought him international recognition as well, with solo shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo, Rome, Baghdad, Kabul, and New York. In 1972 Husain, published in New York by Harry Abrams, became the first international book on a living Indian artist. Abroad, Husain had taken the place he has occupied ever since, as India's most famous living artist.

Husain's reputation, while based on his work as a painter, far surpasses it. His genuine conviction that art is for everyone and his unabashed enjoyment of the limelight have driven his celebrity. He is drawn to subjects of popular significance: religious icons including Durga, Christ, and Buddha; saintly figures such as Gandhi and Mother Teresa; celebrities like film stars Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit; and India's beloved epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Husain has painted murals in hotels and airports where they are seen by millions of travelers, many of whom recognize his work immediately. He has cultivated a public persona conceiving his work and life as a form of performance art. His reputation and celebrity, as well as the market value of his works all signal the success he has achieved toward his goal of bringing contemporary art into the public domain.

The star status Husain has attained opens him to both sycophants and detractors. For many he has the charisma and attraction of a celebrity. Yet there are others who find his depictions of Hindu deities offensive. In the resurgence of religious violence and animosity in India since the 1990s Husain has been a tempting target, as a famous Muslim who has taken all of India's rich and complex cultural history as his artistic terrain. His home in Mumbai and a gallery showing his work in Ahmedabad have been vandalized by Hindu extremists. In 2006 a painting portraying a nude Mother India, sold at a benefit auction for victims of the earthquake in Kashmir, precipitated not only protests, but also threats on Husain's life, and an exhibition in London was closed after works on display were damaged by an intruder.

While Husain himself is not a political activist, he grew up during the height of the nationalist movement in a family and community deeply committed to the idea of a modern, inclusive, culturally diverse nation. As a boy he attended a Muslim religious school where students and teachers wore Gandhian homespun to symbolize a self-sufficient and independent India. The nation's freedom movement energized his own quest for new modes of artistic expression as a young artist in Bombay. He joined the Progressive Artists Group in 1947 and with them strove to reject the Victorian naturalism then taught in Indian art schools as well as the revivalist style so admired in early 2oth-century India. Together the Progressives championed a dynamic approach that appropriated from Western modernism the primacy of color and form on the two-dimensional surface, and simultaneously looked for inspiration to qualities and subjects of Indian art and culture.

Husain is a product of secular nationalist ideology and this is a key to his work.2 But neither politics nor religion are his concerns as an artist; rather, his is the painterly pursuit of the power of imagery and the imagery of power. Husain is a painter through and through. Ebrahim Alkazi stated it most eloquently in a 1978 exhibition catalog:

Of few artists can it be said with as much confidence as of Husain that painting is an integral part of their being, natural as the act of breathing and essential to their existence. It is as simple and fundamental as that.

Husain's relentless quest for transcendent imagery, compelling visions, universal significance, and broad appeal inevitably drew him to the Mahabharata. Through a complex of intertwined stories the epic tale relates how human passions-love and hate, envy and generosity, wisdom and greed, lust for power and selflessness-lead inexorably to a war of near-total annihilation. When he first painted the series, India, Pakistan, and newly emergent Bangladesh were embroiled in fratricidal conflict, and today, as this exhibition revisits Husain's works, civil war in Iraq, ethnic violence in Sudan, and the conflict in Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine are reminders of humanity's terrible frailty in which trust and fear seem inextricably bound-fated to wreak havoc and destruction.

For Husain, the Mahabharata provided a source of stirring inspiration and monumental imagery. The Bienal de Silo Paulo presented the opportunity to pursue it. In 1971 Husain was one of two specially invited artists given exclusive exhibition spaces. The other artist was the legendary Pablo Picasso, whom he revered as the founder and leading exponent of modernism. To be shown as Picasso's peer was for Husain a tremendous honor.

To be continued...

[This article has been reprinted from "Epic India M.F Hussain's Mahabharata Project" - Essays by Shashi Tharoor and Susan S. Bean with the permission of the author. The book can be purchased at Peabody Essex Museum]

(Susan Bean is curator of South Asian and Korean Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. )

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