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A new exhibition looks at M.F. Husain, the performative artist

‘Master Maqbool’ at DAG shines the spotlight on different aspects of the modern master’s practice, from his fascination with Indian myths to interpretation of the female form

Detail from 'Untitled (Bhishma)'. Courtesy: DAG

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One has always associated Maqbool Fida Husain with colour—jewel tones, varying shades of reds and blues. However at DAG 1, located within the Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba, Mumbai, a very unique artwork by the modern master is on display. Untitled (Woman with Rooster), an oil on jute pasted on canvas from 1956, shows the power of simplicity. Husain has used his signature craggy yet bold lines to create the form of a woman and her body language as she tackles the rooster. It shows the artist’s skill with the line in conveying expression and meaning.

In another part of the gallery, one witnesses Husain’s command over scale, this time in another black-and-white Untitled creation. This painting features one of the artist’s favourite subjects—the horse—and spans a massive 30 feet in length. This work was used as a background for a performance by tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Husain at the Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai, and is now on public view for the first time since that memorable occasion. This is part of the ongoing exhibition, Master Maqbool. It’s interesting that this large-scale painting, ideally viewed at a distance, has been brought into a gallery space. “We decided to reverse things and bring the painting into an intimate space to see how it would react with his other works. We thought Husain too would enjoy looking at this kind of interplay,” says Kishore Singh, senior vice president, DAG.

The show, which is on view till 20 February 2023, looks at different aspects of the master’s practice: his exploration of the female form, fascination with Indian myths and legends and drawing inspiration from everyday figures. Though Husain’s paintings have come up time and again in auctions and group shows of modern masters, there has hardly been a concentrated effort to view specific aspects of his practice in the recent past. “In auctions, you can’t build anything thematically. Though we have an amazing array of artists across the whole modern spectrum, if there is one person who has straddled the 20th century singularly, it is Husain. He was this giant, who held a mirror to the Indian position on Modernism and was, perhaps, the only artist that a lay person could name,” elaborates Singh.

Also read: What 100 books and forgotten carpets tell us about the history of India

And yet, despite his range and the phenomenal level of experimentation, there have not been major solo exhibitions of his oeuvre in the last few decades. “Now that he is gone, one would have thought there would have been retrospectives around him. And somewhere I feel we have all failed to establish that legacy for him. This show, in a sense, is a small course correction towards that,” he adds. On view are works such as Arrival, Untitled (Maya’s Dream), Untitled (Bhishma), Cobra Girl, Yudha and Mridang/Drummer (toy series). All the works have emerged from the DAG collection.

'Untitled', acrylic on cloth.  This painting features one of the artist’s favourite subjects—the horse—and spans a massive 30 feet in length. Photo: courtesy DAG
'Untitled', acrylic on cloth. This painting features one of the artist’s favourite subjects—the horse—and spans a massive 30 feet in length. Photo: courtesy DAG

One has always associated Maqbool Fida Husain with colour—jewel tones, varying shades of reds and blues. However at DAG 1, located within the Taj Mahal Palace, Colaba, Mumbai, a very unique artwork by the modern master is on display. Untitled (Woman with Rooster), an oil on jute pasted on canvas from 1956, shows the power of simplicity. Husain has used his signature craggy yet bold lines to create the form of a woman and her body language as she tackles the rooster. It shows the artist’s skill with the line in conveying expression and meaning.

In another part of the gallery, one witnesses Husain’s command over scale, this time in another black-and-white Untitled creation. This painting features one of the artist’s favourite subjects—the horse—and spans a massive 30 feet in length. This work was used as a background for a performance by tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Husain at the Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai, and is now on public view for the first time since that memorable occasion. This is part of the ongoing exhibition, Master Maqbool. It’s interesting that this large-scale painting, ideally viewed at a distance, has been brought into a gallery space. “We decided to reverse things and bring the painting into an intimate space to see how it would react with his other works. We thought Husain too would enjoy looking at this kind of interplay,” says Kishore Singh, senior vice president, DAG.

The show, which is on view till 20 February 2023, looks at different aspects of the master’s practice: his exploration of the female form, fascination with Indian myths and legends and drawing inspiration from everyday figures. Though Husain’s paintings have come up time and again in auctions and group shows of modern masters, there has hardly been a concentrated effort to view specific aspects of his practice in the recent past. “In auctions, you can’t build anything thematically. Though we have an amazing array of artists across the whole modern spectrum, if there is one person who has straddled the 20th century singularly, it is Husain. He was this giant, who held a mirror to the Indian position on Modernism and was, perhaps, the only artist that a lay person could name,” elaborates Singh.

Also read: What 100 books and forgotten carpets tell us about the history of India

And yet, despite his range and the phenomenal level of experimentation, there have not been major solo exhibitions of his oeuvre in the last few decades. “Now that he is gone, one would have thought there would have been retrospectives around him. And somewhere I feel we have all failed to establish that legacy for him. This show, in a sense, is a small course correction towards that,” he adds. On view are works such as Arrival, Untitled (Maya’s Dream), Untitled (Bhishma), Cobra Girl, Yudha and Mridang/Drummer (toy series). All the works have emerged from the DAG collection.

 

The woman as the muse can be seen in some of his most significant works. He didn’t just paint the form but also drew in elements of history and mythology. In fact, in some of the works, he borrowed from Indian sculptural traditions. “There is one work, of the monkey pulling at a woman’s dress while she is in the midst of a bath. This trope can be seen in Khajuraho sculptures. Husain brings in a sense of humour with the study of the body,” explains Singh. In Untitled (Maya’s Dream), myths and legends come into play. It evokes the scene of Queen Maya dreaming of an elephant emerging from her womb, which is understood by the priest as a sign of the birth of a person of great significance. 

This sculptural, relief-like quality can be seen in three significant works from the 1960s—Untitled (King), Queen, Untitled (Peasant). These are anonymous portraits inspired from his travels to Rajasthan. “You can almost sense the pressure of his palm on the works. Though there is a primitivist quality to them, there is some amount of regality in the King and Queen portraits. The king wears a crown and the queen has a Rajasthani accessory on her head, thereby pointing to the region,” he adds. The portrait of the peasant is particularly evocative and represents a period of deep turmoil of the artist, due to the horrors witnessed during the Indo-Pak war.

Also read: A new museum of possibilities in Bengaluru

Husain was a firm believer in the idea of a secular India and its mosaic of culture and traditions. This can be seen in his paintings of performers and their legacy, which was passed down from generation to generation. According to Singh, Husain painted drummers and dancers, often as a group, where you can see different age groups in one frame—-from a performer at her peak to the youth in training.

In the show, the one thread that emerges is that of Husain as the performer-artist. Each canvas bears signs of an artist at work, from the imprint of his palm to the pressure of his fingers. They indicate the process, rather than simply showing the final creation. If you look at photographs of him at work, a great amount of physicality comes to the fore. “This comes, perhaps, from his work as a billboard painter in the early part of his career. The performative physicality in his art practice adds that joie de vivre. He didn’t turn his studio into a closed-door space where no one could enter. He was happy to integrate people into his workspace and that makes the act of creation even more joyful,” says Singh.

Also read: Now a platform for neurodivergent artists

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