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

Susan Bean

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.

I was 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 ....

The 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.

For 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).

Even 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:

The 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 ...

As 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:

The 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 painting.

Knowing that viewers are individuals with different histories and varying knowledge of the epic, Husain observes:

People 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.

In Duryodhana 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.

Husain 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.

Husain 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.

By contrast, 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?

These 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.

Three 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...

[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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