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M.F. Husain: the master’s last works

  • From 2006 until his death in 2011, Husain lived in exile, between Dubai, Qatar and London, after receiving threats from right-wing fundamentalists in India
  • Almost a decade later, the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha has opened a large-scale exhibition celebrating the late artist’s works

‘Last Supper In Red Desert’ by M.F. Husain, acrylic on canvas (2008).
‘Last Supper In Red Desert’ by M.F. Husain, acrylic on canvas (2008). (Ranjit Hoskote)

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In February 2010, M.F. Husain took a blank sheet of paper and drew the silhouette of a horse—a regular presence in the artist’s works. Right above the black and white sketch, Husain scribbled, “I, the Indian origin painter M.F. Husain at 95, have been honoured by Qatar nationality,” and then went on to sign his name below. From 2006 until his death in 2011, Husain lived in exile, vacillating between Dubai, Qatar and London after receiving threats from right-wing fundamentalists in India.

The then emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, conferred upon him Qatari citizenship, which the late painter accepted, thereby nullifying his Indian passport. Al-Thani’s wife would commission Husain for a project tracing the history of the Arab civilization.

Almost a decade later, the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha has opened a large-scale exhibition celebrating the late artist’s works, which include works from the collection of Sheikh Hassan al-Thani. Spanning an oeuvre of six decades, M.F. Husain: Horses Of The Sun encompasses 90 works. From paintings in oil and acrylic to sculptures, lithographs, serigraphs and textile works, as well as his first film, Through The Eyes Of A Painter (1967), the exhibition maps the trajectory of the artist.

Curated by art critic Ranjit Hoskote, the works are borrowed from collections housed at the Qatar Foundation and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (Mumbai) and the Glenbarra Art Museum (Japan). In an email interview, Hoskote speaks to Lounge about the show. Edited excerpts:

A file photograph of Husain.
A file photograph of Husain. (Alamy)

This is the first time a large-scale exhibition on Husain is being held in Doha. How strong is the presence of, and appreciation for, Indian artists in the Gulf country?

As an artist and a cultural figure, Husain occupies a special place in Qatar’s public imagination. It was at the invitation of HRH Sheikha Moza that Husain settled in Doha. In Qatar, he is regarded as a bridge figure, as both an Indian and a Qatari artist. The interest in Indian art, particularly on the part of the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art, is a dynamic part of the institution’s commitment to collecting and presenting art from the extended North Africa-West Asia-South Asia zone. My Husain exhibition opened alongside a beautiful curated exhibition of recent work by the Raqs Media Collective, for instance. The shows complemented each other very well, with Husain as a seminal figure within the Indian modern, and Raqs as an equally seminal presence in Indian contemporary.

The exhibition is subdivided into three sections spanning six decades. As a curator, what challenges did you face?

With Horses Of The Sun, which I named for a recurrent motif of self-renewal and vitality in Husain’s work across the decades, my main challenge was the question of establishing an axial principle, at once spatial and conceptual, by means of which to organize the sheer vastness and diversity of the work of this highly versatile artist.

I decided to map this vast production by means of three key terms, each indicating a mode of home and belonging, each named with a word common to Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and Arabic, the languages of the West and South Asian oecumene to which Husain belonged by birth and cultural background—bait, manzil and dar. These modes also map, respectively, on to three continuing concerns that I identify in his art—a preoccupation with place as an ethos of intimate memory and ancestral association (bait, a house), an abundant curiosity about larger frames of knowledge and historical horizons (manzil, a destination, also an edifice), and a kaleidoscopic sense of exchange and play among varied media (dar, the gate, courtyard or city, an expanded sense of home).

‘Horses Of The Sun’ also exhibits archival construction photographs of the Amdavad Ni Gufa art gallery (the Husain-B.V. Doshi collaboration). Tell us about these.

The archival photographs from the collaboration between Husain and B.V. Doshi, which took place during the early 1990s, show the two collaborators working together, the different phases of the construction of the Husain-Doshi Gufa (as it was originally known), and Husain interacting with various people involved with the project. I asked Mr Doshi’s granddaughter and collaborator at Sangath, the architect Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, for these photographs, and she very graciously sent them across, along with material that will go into the book that will serve as the afterlife of Horses Of The Sun.

Are any rare, never-seen-before works being exhibited?

Yes, many of the works made in the last decade of his life have never been exhibited before. Husain And His Horse, which was among his last works, for instance. There is also a series of paintings dedicated to his ancestral homeland, Yemen, from where his Suleimani ancestors sailed to western India.

Why are six decades of Husain’s modernist works important in today’s contemporary context?

Husain died at 95, and his life as an artist was charted across one of the most catastrophic yet vibrant centuries in human history. He lived through, and responded to, the two world wars, Partition, the Cold War, the anticolonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, the wars in South Asia, the Afghanistan crisis, and the Gulf wars. He celebrated the Jet Age and the Space Age. In preparing for his Ramayan paintings, he had pandits read and annotate the canonical versions of the epic for him, and also travelled extensively, engaging with folk performances. The form of his imagination, his way of extending himself through research and preparation, was as important as the paintings he made—and remains relevant to artistic practice.

Especially relevant, also, are the paintings from the series on Islamic civilization on which Husain embarked in his last years. He often worked in the spirit and manner of an anthologist, creating series around a topic. These works remind us of the glories of Arab, Persian, Indian, North African and West African contributions to science, inquiry, doubt, experiment and aesthetic pleasure, in the long period from the sixth to the 18th centuries—this is especially vital in an epoch of widespread Islamophobia, when this awareness is obscured, if not suppressed altogether.

M.F. Husain: Horses Of The Sun is on view at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar, till 31 July.

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