South Asian Art History - In Memory Of Prashant H. Fadia
The following is part two of an essay by Susan Bean, Curator of South
Asian and Korean Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.,
published in conjunction with the exhibition, Epic India: Paintings by
M.F. Husain.(Susan Bean is curator of South Asian and Korean Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. )
incredulous when I was invited to exhibit along with Pablo Picasso as a
Special lnvitee to the Sao Paulo Biennale .... That whole night I could
barely sleep. And I remembered the night forty years ago, when my
father had gifted me boxes of Windsor and Newton colours .... They were
in my hands but I still couldn't believe I had actually got them ....
moment I got the invitation the first thought came to me... Mahabharata
this is the right thing. Then I thought of Picasso ... only Picasso
could do it justice, [but] he'd not done it. Let me try.
most of the ensuing eight months Husain sketched, imagined, and read.
He spent hours with the retelling of the Mahabharata by the renowned
statesman-scholar C. Rajagopalachari (a.k.a. Rajaji).
though I was familiar with the epic, the insight with which Rajaji
brought out the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists gave them
a different dimension.
His preparation, the forming of a
vision, didn't happen in one place. He went off to Europe with a
friend, and drove all around Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. With
less than a month left, he landed in Paris at the home of his friend
Jean Riboud, who gave him the maid's quarters for a studio:
way I work ... l made a lot of research, sketches, and then execution
doesn't take much time ... to create the vision takes time .... my
method of working is almost instantaneous and very very extempo ...
Husain worked, he drew on the elemental power of the tale, its
cinematic energy, its deep resonance for millions of people, and the
model of Picasso, especially his Guernica, a vision of the horror and
tragedy of war.
Though the paintings Husain created are drawn
from and inspired by the Mahabharata, they are, from his perspective,
to be encountered on their own as autonomous works of art:
main thing about it was the form ... images, that was the main thing.
All this philosophy, religion that was secondary. This is pure
structure. [The epic has] so much scope to create so many images ...
I'm not a scholar; I'm not a teacher. I'm not educating anyone. It is
purely imagery which only such an epic can imagine. You just look. You
don't have to ask the question, What does this mean? The moment you say
this, then you are leaving the painting ... you are reading the
Knowing that viewers are individuals with different histories and varying knowledge of the epic, Husain observes:
view those paintings according to their perception ... according to
their experiences... Just see and just feel it ... You interpret in
your own way ... when you listen to music, the music it creates ... a
mood ... [though] you can't name that mood.
Arjuna Split (Mahabharata 9) Husain deploys the visual essentials of
his Mahabharata. In a stark monochromatic composition, perhaps an
allusion to Picasso's Guernica, Husain splits a black disk, placing its
halves to throw the composition just off balance. The break between
Duryodhana and Arjuna, sons of brothers, will propel a conflict as
powerful as their primal attachment. On either side figures are
oriented toward the split disk, establishing the focal point and
incorporating the viewer as a third party witnessing the division. The
three-headed male figure, combining Duryodhana and Arjuna's fathers and
grandfather, dominates the canvas. In it Husain appropriates a familiar
neoclassical posture, recalling Michelangelo's Adam on the ceiling of
the Sistine Chapel. The energy of Husain's figure, like the split
itself, thrusts in opposite directions: up to where the raised hand
points, and down as the torso leans back to earth. At left two female
figures, the mothers, impart symmetry to the composition. Two sightless
figures, the blind King Dhritarashtra and his queen, Gandhari, who
chose to bind her eyes, face toward the viewer, icons of human frailty.
splits the canvas again in Ganga Jamuna (Mahabharata 12). A
luminous yellow column divides the composition; on either side, two
half-figures are positioned as the two parts of a single being. They
are inscribed in Devanagari lettering: Jamuna on the darker half; Ganga
on the lighter half, the two river goddesses who originated from the
same source, the Himalaya. They are the progenitors of the Kuru
lineage, which splits apart into mortal enemies, the Kauravas
(Duryodhana's faction) and the Pandavas (Arjuna's faction). Jamuna
holds a ruptured red disk. Ganga gestures at the confusion of torsos
and screaming horses, a portent of the terrible destruction to come.
probes deeper into human complexity when he employs the split again in
Kauravas (Mahabharata 17). The Devanagari letter k for Kaurava,
repeated twice, hovers over a divided figure- half red, half
black-composed of jagged chunks of flesh, against a background of hot
oranges and pinks. The harsh colors and coarse figuration project the
rapacious character of the Kauravas, l00 brothers and their allies, led
by Duryodhana whose lust for power drives them to risk, and lose,
everything. The divided composition provokes viewers to consider the
nature of the Kauravas, who were themselves created by a division.
Originally one indiscriminate mass, divided by their mother Gandhari
into a hundred pieces, each takes form as one of the brothers. The
Kauravas embody a tragic paradox. Born as Kshatriya warriors, raised to
honor a code of conduct, to be righteous and valorous, they are so
driven by greed and envy that wisdom and morality are cast aside,
leading inescapably toward annihilation.
Mahabharata 11, is a complex composition. Its four sections project
distinctive color-moods. An ascendant female figure against a strong
red vertical column dominates the composition. She is flanked by a
solitary bearded form on a background sharing his somber earthen hues.
At left a murky group of figures hovers in midnight blue; one of them
holds a white bow that emerges on a brighter, greener blue. The
divisions draw the gaze first to the female and then back and forth
between the solitary figure and the massed figures. Husain pulls
viewers into a narrative dimension: a bird alights on the woman's
shoulder. She tilts her head; its beak is open. What passes between
them? And what of the blue male figure between her thighs that seems to
allude to both acts of procreation and giving birth?
elements are Husain's images, perhaps reminders that from destruction
creation begins anew. The central female figure can be seen as
Draupadi, and the other figures as her husbands, the five Pandava
brothers. At right, the bearded eldest brother, Yudhishthira, son of
Dharma (God of Righteousness) is seated alone, while his
brothers-Arjuna with his bow, Bhima with his mace, and the twins Nakula
and Sahadeva, with blue mask-like faces-are pulled into battle.
other canvases visualize the universal dilemma of the Pandava heroes.
In Arjuna with Chariot (Mahabharata 15) Husain, using a classic device
of Indian painting, makes size relative to importance. The huge white
disembodied hand with outstretched finger encircled by golden lines
dominates the composition, infusing it with a sense of transcendent
presence. White horses pulling the chariot rear up in response, while a
large red fragmented figure looks toward the hand. A black elephant
holding a light-filled disk balances the composition on the right.
Husain's title indicates that the red figure is Arjuna, honorable and
courageous leader of the Pandavas. The hand, toward which Arjuna
directs his gaze, is Krishna's with his divine weapon, the discus,
sudarshan chakra. Arjuna faces Krishna, who serves as his charioteer
and moral guide. Viewers can read into Arjuna's attentive expression
core messages of the epic. Their discourse before the great battle
begins comprises the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), a portion of the
epic that is among Hinduism's most sacred texts. The elephant-noble,
powerful, playful, a recurring motif in Husain's work seems to hold the
cosmos precariously balanced like a ball on its trunk, a reminder that
existence is mere play, an illusion.
Husain conveys the enormous
power and fierce loyalty of the strongest of the Pandava brothers in
Bhima (Mahabharata 16). Bhima fills the canvas. His huge mace rests on
his shoulder. On his torso are tiny figures representing his brothers,
perhaps as he carried them, exhausted, through the forest after they
escaped a fiery trap set by the Kauravas: Arjuna carries his bow,
Yudhishthira is seated in yogic posture, and the twins Nakula and
Sahadeva are poised for combat. In Bhishma (Mahabharata 24) a supine
figure stretches horizontally from edge to edge of the canvas, partly
obscured in a murky, aqueous twilight. An arrow pierces his body. His
hand is raised, a gesture of life from an otherwise lifeless figure.
Bhishma, great-uncle and mentor to both sides, hovers where life and
death meet. He has been granted the power to choose the moment of his
death. In this image Husain projects the secret of existence, the
essential unity of life and death.
To be continued...
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
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