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M.F. Husain, one of the great artists that came from India, was born on September 17, 1915. Known as the painter of the people, he is celebrated for his exceptional yet sometimes controversial works that deeply embody the Indian aesthetics and made him popular and relatable to people from all walks of life. His themes too are Indian; from the great epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the British Raj, to the motifs of Indian urban and rural life. His memorable works reflected the life of an artist that is as vibrant and spirited as his canvases.
Through his career, he enjoyed great popularity and reverence that earned him the moniker ‘The Barefoot Picasso of Indian Art’ attributed to his style which reflected influence from Pablo Picasso and his atypical characteristic of foregoing footwear no matter the occasion or the establishment.
As a tribute to the master on his birthday, here are 10 things to know more about M.F. Husain:
1. His exact birthday is unknown but as a general belief, he was born on the 17th of September 1915; a date that he thought of when he applied for a passport on 1950 for the first time without having proof of his birth date.
2. He started his art career painting cinema hoardings for six annas (1/16th of a rupee) each in 1930. Working on these huge hoardings helped him use space effectively and to paint quickly and boldly on large surfaces. He also took up designing and painting nursery furniture and toys to make a living before becoming a full-time artist.
3. He sold his first painting for Rs 10 in his first show in 1934. To date, his works fetch top dollars; his most priced work sold for USD 1.6 million at an auction in 2008.
4. An extremely prolific artist, his works are estimated to be in the thousands nearing to 40,000. It is said that at one point in his career, he was producing as much as 6 artworks per day.
5. He executed a mural painting titled ‘Mahabali’ (The Great Sacrifice) on the walls of the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York freehand. The 21-meter by 6-meter ‘floor to wall’ mural speaks of human suffering and the environment.
6. He walked around everywhere carrying a long oversized paintbrush that had become a part of his legend.
7. One of his favorite muses was Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit; his adoration of the actress resulted in many works inspired by her and her films. He would later direct the film ‘Gaja Gamini’ featuring the actress in 2000. Rumor has it that he watched one of her film a total of 67 times!
8. Husain’s diverse influences both in inspiration and style acknowledged his respect and openness to ancient and new styles of painting. He used symbolization to pay homage to some of the western masters by incorporating Salvador Dali’s signature mustache, Cezanne’s apple, and Van Gogh’s chair among others in his works.
9. Aside from being well-respected and sought after, he was also multi-awarded. He was conferred the Padma Shri (1966), Padma Bhushan (1973), and Padma Vibhushan (1991) by the Government of India along with several honorary doctorates from several distinguished universities.
10. Although considered one of the greatest artists in the history of Indian art, he remained in a self-imposed exile from 2006 until his death on June 2011. He accepted Qatari citizenship in 2010.
Establishing his practice along with the Partition in the 1950s, M.F. Husain participated and played a big part in the creation of the modern Indian pictorial tradition. “For Husain, modern Indian pictorial language needed to be recognizable to the people on the street and in the village. After the Partition, a modern India needs an artist for its people. For Husain, as shared Indian identity and humanity was the entrance to creating a universal pictorial language that Indians could understand and use.[…]”(Thaara Shankar, M.F. Husain’s Modern India, Bowdoin Journal of Art, John Hopkins University, 2018, p. 12)
As the country was struggling to regain identity post-independence, there was a great desire to document and promote the nation’s rich and varied heritage of art. Believing that modern Indian picture has a firm place within India’s long history, Husain plied various sources and presented a range of images depicting the nation; from dancers, sculptures, to images of the great epics – subjects that Husain considered readily available and deemed representative of the Indian culture and heritage.
Imbibing the creative interaction between different art forms, Husain initiated his series on musicians in 1959, a theme that he revisited throughout the following decades. He adopted traditional postures from sculptures to convey a sense of movement in his figures and depicted traditional instruments to express a sense of music and dance on his canvases.
In the current lot featuring the junction between artistic interpretation and content, Husain used his own pictorial language by straying from any defined qualities and adapting symbols as visual stimuli. The featureless face of the woman is adorned with ‘kumkuma’ and jewelry while the veena seen here is typical of Husain’s iconography, and a recurring motif in his paintings of musicians. The blue outlining the figure in contrast to the otherwise earthy swatch of ochre and brown creates a sense of depth and movement in the composition. Husain stretched icons and played with the blurriness by employing a simplified composition in an undefined setting and focusing on the representational more than individualizing details.
“My subject is woman”, M.F. Husain once stated. Women of all sort – rural and urban, anonymous and famous, mortal and divine– have been his subject from the very start of his career as an artist.
Husain’s interest in the female figure and posture led to his involvement with the subject and a personal idiom that emphasized on the form and not on the emotions evoked. In order to do this, he depersonalized his women and rendered them faceless; with few exceptions including the current image. Here, the titular woman appears with a clearly delineated face; although half of it is partially covered with the canopy of hair. She is placed in an undefined setting completely liberated from the confinement of any social or ethnic references. The shadows around her play an important role in defining and outlining her figure.
As an artist, Husain had a keen interest in the erotic but usually avoided frontal nudity in his work. He deliberately emphasized the erotic aspect of the female form as an epitome of sensuality and beauty, yet none of this was explicitly and directly explored. Instead, he juxtaposed the female figure with folk elements and symbols –of which India has an abundance of– such as lamps, spokes, and spiders. In this case, a snake around the woman’s neck alludes to male energy and virility.
Sayed Haider Raza had grown increasingly unhappy and restless with his own work by the start of the 1970s. The desire for a new direction and deeper authenticity in his work urged him to move away from plastic arts and study his Indian heritage in an in-depth manner. Starting from this period, he underwent a gradual transformation from an expressionist to a master of abstraction and profundity before arriving at the Bindu.
Painted in 1974, a decade after Raza’s shift in style to find a purer form of abstraction, the current work is part of the culmination of this period of experimentation. He was no longer concern with the representational and began to communicate mood rather than images through his canvases. He skillfully used colors and gestural brushstrokes to convey warmth and lyrical messages rather than use direct representation to express emotions in the piece. Here, the composition is executed in loose brushstrokes, a departure from his previous style of semi-abstraction, and a precursor to his heavily structured geometric canvases. Albeit the change in stylistic and technical concerns, nature and its elements had remained the basis and inspiration to his art.
Films had long been a part of M.F. Husain’s preoccupation as an artist and one of the main sources of material and inspiration for his works. His exposure to cinema had started early in his career after getting his start in painting cinema hoardings. This has influenced his art in the same manner as his experiences with literature and mythology did. Even the technique of depicting different scenes and symbology or juxtaposing apparently unconnected or even contrary elements in a single frame can be attributed to this influence to some extent.
The current lot titled ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya Ho Ramji’ was painted in 1996, based on scenes from the hit song ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya’ in the Bollywood film ‘Yaraana,’ released in 1995. The film starring actress Madhuri Dixit became popular for this hit song, which was inspired by a Punjabi song of the same title written by 18-century poet Baba Bulleh Shah. In this painting, Husain presumably depicts Madhuri and another woman dancing to the same song, while Lord Ganesha, patron of arts joins them.
Madhuri is one of Husain’s muses; his fascination with the actress started after watching her performance in the film, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun!’ (1994) which the artist watched for a total of 67 times. His fondness for Madhuri led him to create a series of painting based on her and her films, including the present lot. In 2000, Husain debuted ‘Gaja Gamini’ starring the actress which was intended as a tribute to womanhood and to Dixit herself.
Husain’s gift of celebrating both the profound and the banal encompassed varied art forms including popular cinema. Aside from ‘Gaja Gamini’, Husain also directed the experimental film ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter’ (1967) and ‘Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities’ (2004). His obsession with cinema was palpable and continued until his death in 2011.
Throughout his long artistic career, M.F. Husain exposed the moral dilemmas of his nation using imaginative structures and images steeped in awareness of art history. Part of this prolific journey was the exploration of themes and subjects reflecting on the changing society and cultural landscape.
From 1991 onwards, the narrative elements in Husain’s work became prominent. He started digressing from his old repertoire of symbols after recognizing that it was no longer adequate to express his artistic concerns as he became a citizen and artist of the world. Husain accommodated trends and turned his gaze towards the contemporary image-dominated scene of America.
Coming from a period of time when a lot of famous artists have indulged in acquiring muses from the world of cinema, like Marilyn Monroe, who became Andy Warhol’s muse and a global favorite to be featured in various forms and mediums of art. Husain made public his obsession with his muse, Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, and created a string of works on her which was akin to what Andy Warhol did with the image of Marilyn Monroe. But more than the similarities and the perceived effect of bridging art and cinema, Husain also delved into Warhol’s depiction of celebrity culture. Warhol who is almost synonymous with American pop culture focused his artistic concerns to brands and products that were part of the mass consumerism phenomena.
In Andy Warhol versus Marilyn Monroe (2005), Warhol’s figure was depicted in a dominant stance yet at the same time clinging on to the image of Marilyn Monroe fading into the background and out of the frame. Husain’s brilliant colors envelop the space with symbolic and expressive values, and his distinct human forms transform the narrative on the painting surface into an intimate experience fusing contemporary imagery and poetic use of allegory and metaphor which serves as the core of this work. His lines depict motion, energizing his pictorial space in a whopping 6 x 7.5 ft. canvas, part of a 21-part series titled “The Lost Continent” reflecting Husain’s thought about lost human values.
Husain made use of Andy Warhol’s fascination on Marilyn Monroe in his explorations on the relationships between consumer society, fame, and sensationalism. Reflecting on the multiple images of Marilyn Monroe done by the artist, he breathes life to an icon and at the same time made a poignant allegory against consumerism. Through Warhol’s lens and in turn the popular culture, he referred to a society in which individuals were seen as mere products rather than human beings.
M.F. Husain’s endless quest for his cultural roots and his open-minded willingness to absorb diverse influences has made him almost synonymous with modern Indian art. He began his career by painting billboards for feature films and making furniture designs and toys, to earn a living à partir de ce site. When he took up painting as an art form, however, he returned time and again to themes of blended folk, tribal and mythological art to create vibrantly contemporary, living art forms. Husain’s paintings reflect his love of India and his knowledge of rural life. He depicted the icons of Indian culture, through the ages, seeking to capture the quintessence of his subject.
He employed an impasto technique to create texture in the present lot. The faces are monumental, simplified in a modernist manner and depicted in a roughly-hewn way. “Husain’s men and women, outwardly simple and unsophisticated, are highly conscious beings. They are conscious of being channels through which life runs its course. Very often they are caught listening and intent upon that flood within them, tense because of what they hear, with eyes of solemn curiosity and a mantle of silence around them. Even in groups, sitting or standing together, these men and women are supremely solitary. They do not communicate with each other. They remain locked in binding compassion, in a unity of color and composition divided by a wondrously understanding line.” (S. S. Kapur, Husain, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi 1961, p. v.)