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The great Indian canvas

M.F. Husain skethching in front of the V&A museum.  

Eight giant tryptych paintings — each 12ft x 18ft — dominate the gallery space at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The sure strokes, the trademark complex number of figures and deftly interwoven subjects all bring a smile of recognition, a sense of awe that so much could be artistically told in perfect proportion. These paintings are part of M.F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting, a recent exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. This Indian Civilisation series was commissioned by Usha Mittal, wife of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal. The artist had planned it as a series of 96 paintings but finished only 24 when he died in 2011. “Museums without walls,” he called the series.

The ‘Tale of Three Cities’ tryptych depicts Delhi, Varanasi, and Kolkata. Husain has indeed captured the soul of Kolkata on this canvas. A huge image of Tagore looms over the city, with a leaping Bengal tiger at the other end of the top frame. Centred is the Victoria Memorial. Mother Teresa and Kali protect the city. Netaji’s freedom fight is beautifully fitted in this vision, while one is startled by the way Satyajit Ray, with his prominent nose, leaps out from the scene, shooting the Kolkata scape, complete with a Bengali babu seated in a hand-pulled rickshaw. Masterly!

In ‘Modes of Transport’, Husain seems to ask, ‘Who is the captor? Who is the captive?’ From a Rolls Royce, railways and Air India to an elephant and a bullock-cart pilgrimage to Pandharpur (a trip made many times by Husain in his childhood), Husain captures it all. “We used to say the Devaji Shapath, often taking the Hindu term in full belief,” said Husain during an interview in 1997. The last panel shows the young Husain driving his grandfather to the weekly bazaar in the tonga and a Sardar family on a Bajaj scooter whizzes along Connaught Place, towards the gurudwara.

‘Three Dynasties’ leads the viewer through the ages from the Mauryas to the Mughals to the English. Gandhiji, the British royals, and Indian multitudes portray the changing times — from British India to a free India. The Mughal king Akbar is easily identified, while his Rajput queen is carried in the traditional palki.

‘Indian Dance Forms’ shows Madhuri Dixit dancing the kathak. Uday Shankar’s Kalpana, the first Indian modern ballet, takes centre-stage while colourful kathakali brings this tryptych to a close. ‘Traditional Indian Festivals’ is a delightful tryptych of Holi, Tulsi puja, and the full moon celebration. ‘Teenmurti’ depicts the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, complete with a leaping Ganga. One has to look carefully for forms emerging brilliantly from within another. The timeless stories in stone of Ajanta, Konarak, Khajuraho, Mahabalipuram and Qutab Minar appear to form the ‘Language of India’.

In ‘Indian Households’, a Tamil Brahmin reads The Hindu, while his wife is ensconced on the swing. A capsule from Husain’s young days occupies the second panel — his dadaji with a hookah, sister with a mango, and himself as a lad, idly doodling horses on the floor — while the third has a Sardar family, complete with a Singer sewing machine. Here is daily life, in various parts of vast India.

All the paintings have a beautiful guide, with printed explanatory notes in Husain’s own hand, making the guide a treasure in itself. Husain was not a stranger to London even before his self-exile. He could be seen sitting sketching at the V&A, probably recognised as our most famous artist by Indian visitors. This exhibition, while generating huge interest in all things Indian, has undoubtedly put Husain where he belongs — in the heart of India, a part of Indian civilisation.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 12:42:50 AM |

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