M F Husain’s ‘Lightning’ strikes New York, again

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M F Husain’s largest painting ‘Lightning’, from 1975, exhibited at the Asia Society, through August 4, 2019. Sitting in front are the owners of the painting Kent Charugundla and Marguerite Charugundla. Photo: Mohammed Jaffer-SnapsIndia.

NEW YORK – More than seven years after the death of India’s acclaimed and renowned artist Maqbool Fida Husain, a seminal work of his from 1975, inspired by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party rally that year in Bombay, was exhibited finally at a museum here on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. Something which he never did get to see in his lifetime.

The painting, ‘Lightning’ – a humungous mural-sized oil on canvas comprising of 12 panels, with each panel having a height of 10 feet, and five feet in width – is also the largest ever work Husain did in his lifetime.

‘Lightning’ is being exhibited in the exhibition, entitled, ‘M.F. Husain: Art and the Nation’, at the Asia Society, in New York, through August 4, 2019.

‘Lightning’ was bought by Indian American entrepreneur and top art collector Kent Charugundla and his wife Marguerite Charugundla in December, 2002, at $400,000. It created a new world record then for a contemporary Indian work, beating the price paid for Tyeb Mehta’s triptych ‘Celebration’, which had gone under the hammer at a Christie’s auction for $317,000, bought by a Chinese-owned art institution.

A photo of M F Husain at the exhibition at Asia Society. It is from April, 2003, when Husain inaugurated the Tamarind Art gallery in New York, founded by Indian American entrepreneur and art collector Kent Charugundla. Photo: Sujeet Rajan.

Months after he parted with his beloved painting, Husain came over to New York to inaugurate a new art gallery to showcase modern and contemporary Indian art, Tamarind Art, founded by Charugundla.

At that inauguration and reception on April 11, 2003, Husain not only did a ‘live’ painting, which he titled ‘Gajagamini’, inspired by actress Madhuri Dixit, he also told a gathering – which included this writer – that ‘Lightning’ was his favorite painting. Only a few panels of the work were displayed that time, due to the paucity of space at the gallery.

“This is one of my most significant paintings. The horses in ‘Lightning’ have sheer energy in minimum of lines. They say that when there is lightning in the sky white horses are cutting across the spaces,” Husain said.

According to the condition set by Husain when he sold it, the 12 panels of ‘Lightning’ have to be interchanged every time they are moved for a fresh display. That, said Husain, would give new insights to the lovers of art.

“It is like cut-off poetry, where the poets got fed up with the logic of thought; where even if you mix the lines, there is still logic, meaning. You get a new dimension,” he said in an interview.

The year Husain did the painting, Gandhi imposed emergency across India in response to what she perceived as a state of dangerous instability in the country.

‘Lightning’ is filled with visual references to India in the 1970s and allusions to Indira Gandhi, though she is absent visually, notes Asia Society. Against a background of green, red, blue, and purple, white horses outlined in black charge in an energetic and frenetic line toward the left, as if indicating the unstoppable progress of the new nation.

A grain stalk references India’s Green Revolution from 1967 to 1978 that was initiated by the Prime Minister in an attempt to make the nation self-sufficient in grain production. A depiction of a mother with her two young children marked with a red triangle denotes India’s family planning policies, which included mass, forced sterilization under the State of Emergency. Other visual references in ‘Lightning’ evoke the country’s industrial and military ambitions.

Juxtaposed with the painting’s contemporary references are images of horses that Husain modeled after historical prototypes: the horse from Tang Dynasty tomb pottery and the ink paintings of twentieth-century Chinese master Xu Beihong.

‘Lightning’ is also part of a series of paintings about Indira Gandhi, which Husain continued even after her assassination in 1984. Ironically, by the 1970s, Husain’s depiction of the political leader as the embodiment of Mother India resulted in the loss of support of some members of the intelligentsia and artistic community critical of Gandhi’s leadership.

‘Lightning’ is also emblematic of Husain’s rebellious nature, which made him an icon in the art world.

He had said in an interview to this writer: “Unless you break norms, how can you discover life.”

In an interview to News India Times, at the reception for ‘Lightning’ at the Asia Society, Kent Charugundla said that the exhibition of ‘Lightning’ is “very, very important not just for me but for Indian art and also for artist M F Husain.”

He said it is also a sign of how as “a globe we are appreciating and looking at art after a long time,” adding that, “it is mind boggling to me to see this work like this. And I’m amazed and humbled, to just sit and look at this work (being put up as a single piece of art).

Charugundla said that the work had been in storage all these years, but there has been a lot of interest from other museums to display it.

Asked how he remembers Husain, what stands out for him about the artist, Charugundla said: “In my mind, I remember him telling me this is the most important work that he has done, and one of the most seminal works from his collection. He kept it from 1975 till 2002.”

“I only wish he (Husain) were to see it here like this in his life time. He would have been happy to look at this in a museum setting, as a single solo painting.”

Charugundla opined that for him the painting was only about horses, regardless of what others saw in it, when asked of the political ramifications of finally unveiling it with the Indian general elections scheduled for next month.

“I live in New York City. I’m an American. I really don’t know what really goes on elsewhere, to be honest. I lend works to museums, whether it is Husain, Ram Kumar or Raza. Or Krishen Khanna. I collect works, of the Progressive Artists,” Charugundla said, adding, “If you look at this (‘Lightning’), I see horses. I don’t see anything else but horses. I don’t know what you see, or other people see. But for me, it is lightning. It is the movement of the horses, and the way they are projected on the canvas.”

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