NEW YORK – ‘M. F. Husain | Restless Traveler’, an exhibition themed around Husain’s constant travels throughout the world and the significant inspiration they had upon his work, is on exhibit at the Aicon Gallery in New York City, through December 1, 2018.
The centerpiece of this exhibition, which opened with a reception on October 26, is a monumental masterpiece on canvas over 16 feet long, ‘Beyond Theora’, dated June 1, 1994, which has never before been publicly exhibited. This one-of a-kind work, the largest single canvas painting by the towering giant of Indian modernist art, comes directly from Husain’s Estate, according to Aicon.
Long considered a pioneer of Modern Indian art, Husain initially made a living as a billboard painter and children’s furniture designer, painting at first in his spare time until joining the Bombay Progressive Artist’s Group (PAG) in 1947.
The PAG grew to be the most influential group of Modern artists in India, fusing Indian subject matter with Post-Impressionist colors, Cubist forms and Expressionist gestures, forging a synthesis between early European modernist techniques and the ever-shifting cultural and historical identities of India.
While many in the Progressive group would quickly take their chance to move away to London, Paris or New York, Husain remained in India until he was forced into self-imposed exile at the hands of his detractors following communal rioting in the early 1990s and a litany of cases against him on the grounds of ‘obscenity’.
This ‘war of attrition’ played out in his shows that were desecrated and through the courts that waged war against him the length and breadth of the country. Despite all of this, his deeply emotional commitment to the land of his birth remained absolute, said Sona Datta of Aicon, in a note to the exhibition.
Husain’s works lend themselves to complex, multiple, sometimes competing narratives. With no formal training, he moved to the city of dreams in his teens and began his career as an impoverished painter of billboards and cinema hoardings. Thus, the vitality of gargantuan advertising art depicting the larger-than-life glamour and dreams of filmic images became emblazoned on the artist’s mind at an early and crucial phase of his career.
Datta notes, unusually, ‘Beyond Theora’ seems to be read from right to left, as the artist and protagonist has pictured himself standing on the far right of the canvas, his head buried in a broadsheet reading the news.
‘What is he reading? Does the work reference the plague that broke out in Surat in 1994 that claimed hundreds of lives across multiple states? Or does it reference the big news of the preceding year, which undoubtedly still reverberated across the land in 1994: the devastating series of terrorist bombings that were deployed across Bombay and claimed the lives of 257 civilians and leaving more than 1000 injured?
Buried in his paper the artist, is clearly identified by his bare feet. The drama of the painting, however, unfolds beyond the post. To his proper right, a large black disc, or sun, takes up the entire height of the canvas. A bearded figure extends out and across the length of the canvas, reaching out toward the two seated women whose aura reminds us of Husain’s depictions of Mother Teresa who appeared repeatedly throughout multiple works during the 1990s,’ she theorizes.
There are several works of Husain centered around Mother Teresa in the exhibition, at Aicon.
The reference to the Sistine Chapel is unmistakable. Husain had the self-belief to liken himself to Michelangelo in a natural and uncomplicated way. Is this the hand of God reaching out to humanity, here enshrined in the figures of two women, whose heads are covered but remain faceless and unlit? The images hark back to Husain’s many depictions of Mother Theresa, whose significance in rescuing the abandoned children of Calcutta cannot go unnoticed in relation to Husain’s own biography.
The ubiquitous bullock cart pulls away from the torsos tumbling out of the orb as the women sit, silently watching the scene unfold. Or is it the artist himself, reaching out towards the mother figure he never knew?
At the far left another popular image of Hanuman is poised to move out of the picture but looks back at the scene of devastation behind him. It is a curious work, replete with images familiar from Husain’s oeuvre yet strangely, almost hauntingly, ambiguous, concludes Datta.
Or, perhaps, Husain could well have been making a point between the great divide separating the agrarian and poverty-ridden India and the urbane masses, with a vicious cycle of news on modern India which churned out new celebrities as if being expunged from a black hole, and blanketed the poor and deprived.
The exhibition also features some canvases on horses, perhaps works which are most identified with Husain. There is also a work titled ‘Devdas’, dated 2002, which immediately brings to mind popular Bollywood films made on the doomed lover, consumed by his addiction to alcohol.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)