A recently-opened retrospective of MF Husain in Qatar, his adoptive country, celebrates the artist’s six-decade-long career
| Ranjit Hoskote
My earliest memories of Maqbool Fida Husain come from the 1980s, when I would see him at the Jehangir Art Gallery or the Pundole Art Gallery — a magisterial figure, at once larger than his surroundings and utterly unselfconscious of the effect that he had on people around him. While he undoubtedly pursued celebrity and had perfected the art of managing his public persona, he never let it burden him. He always carried around with him an extraordinarily electric atmosphere of rapture and restlessness. I recall afternoons at the Pundole’s old Flora Fountain space when Husain and I would find ourselves sitting across from each other, with Dadiba and Khorshed Pundole behind their writing desk. Not a word would be exchanged for more than half an hour. Husain would sit there, one long leg crossed over the other with careless elegance, a portrait of panther-like energy held in reserve. He would play with the long, mahlstick-like brush that he carried around like a wizard’s wand. Then, out of nowhere, an impulse would come upon him. He would call for pen and paper. Over the next half-hour, as he transited across a sheaf of sheets in a dance of ink strokes, one scintillating image would succeed another, and a new suite of drawings would come to birth.
This memory came back to me on Wednesday, at the opening of M F Husain: Horses of the Sun, a large-scale exhibition of the master’s work, which I have just curated for Mathaf: The Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. Horses of the Sun brings together 90 works by Husain, embracing paintings in oil, acrylic and mixed media, as well as watercolours, drawings, lithographs, serigraphs, tapestries, sculptures, his first film (Through the Eyes of a Painter, made for Films Division in 1967, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), and archival material that includes construction photographs from the building of the Husain-Doshi Gufa, the arts complex on which he collaborated with the celebrated architect B V Doshi.
The invitation to curate this exhibition came, several years ago, from my friend and colleague, the Moroccan scholar and curator Abdellah Karroum, who is Director of Mathaf. The works in the show are drawn substantially from the collections of the Qatar Foundation and Mathaf, as well as several other collections, including those of Sheikh Hasan al-Thani, the Glenbarra Art Museum, and the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation.
How best to bear witness to this seminal figure of Indian modernism, who saw himself as a global nomad and, tragically, was forced into exile during his last years? How best to invite viewers into the imaginative universe of an artist who was born a British subject, led most of his life as a citizen of the Indian Republic, and died in London as a Qatari national, having meanwhile formed strong connections with friends, colleagues, collectors and audiences in the UK, the USA, Czechoslovakia, and the Arab world? The curatorial challenge was to offer a compressed overview of the six-decade-long career of an artist of legendary versatility and kaleidoscopic interests, who lived to be 98 (among our archival materials is a birth certificate issued by the artist’s birth community, the Suleimani micro-minority, which established that he was born in 1913, and not 1915 as is widely believed). The earliest work in Horses of the Sun is a 1950 oil painting, Dolls’ Wedding. Chronologically, the show ends with Husain and His Horse, an expressionistically flamboyant painting rendered in metal paint in 2011, a few weeks before the artist’s death.
I have structured Horses of the Sun into three sections, each one named for a conception of home that resonates in Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, and Arabic — the languages of the transregional ecumene, straddling South Asia, the Iranosphere and the Arab world, to which Husain belonged by birth and family background. The first section of the exhibition, Bait, invokes the home as a space of childhood memory and ancestral linkages, a space that is both intimate and epic in its possibilities. In this section, we bring viewers into an encounter with paintings in which Husain revisits his early years in Pandharpur, Indore and Sidhpur, as well as a late series of paintings made after a visit to Yemen, from where his forebears migrated to India’s west coast. In these, he memorialises the warriors and poets of ancient Yemen, and also Bilquis, queen of Sheba.
Here, too, belong two triptychs in which Husain celebrates the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and lithographic series devoted to a spectrum of world religions in which Husain includes Humanism, flagging it with the poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal’s famous verse, “Kar khudi ko buland itna ke har taqdeer se pehle/ Khuda bande ko khud poochhe, bata teri raza kya hai.” [“Make such a citadel of your confidence that, before your fate is decreed,/ God Himself would ask man what his desire is.”] Throughout the show, we signpost the poems that appear in Husain’s work — by Iqbal and the Leftist poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin, among others — to recall that the artist was steeped in a literary culture, and was himself a poet and memoirist who wrote in English, Urdu and Hindi.
The second section, Manzil, regards home as the destination where our journeys take us, and is dedicated to Husain’s abundant curiosity for the larger contexts in which his individual subjectivity found stimulation, delight and fulfilment. Here, we have positioned such works as Last Supper in the Red Desert and a suite of paintings drawn from an anthology-like project on which he had embarked in his last decade, representing the achievements of scientists, philosophers, alchemists, logicians and mystics in the Islamic world between the 8th and the 15th centuries. Here, too, we place the lithographic series he made, celebrating the heroic divinity Hanuman.
And here, as elsewhere in the show, viewers are accompanied by life-size figures rendered in wood and acrylic — props that Husain made for an exhibition of fabrics by his daughter Raisa, and which, through curatorial and conservation processes, have been reclaimed from oblivion to offer a glimpse of his fascination with the cut-out, the toy, the puppet theatre, and dance. Horses of the Sun, the title of which pays homage to Husain’s recurrent symbol of self-renewing vitality, also asks questions about the unpredictable afterlife of an artist’s oeuvre: How and why do ephemera become museum-worthy objects? What secrets of the artistic imagination do they reveal, as they stand beside fully achieved art works?
The third section, Dar, conceives of home as a space of play and experimentation, an expanded space of belonging associated with gateway and courtyard. Here, in a shadowed gallery, we bring together Husain’s 1998 watercolour series, Dabs and Wounds, his newspaper collage-paintings, Headlines, which respond both to political urgencies and historical horizons, his forays into textiles, print-making, and works made in homage to Chinese scroll painting. The keystone of Dar is Husain’s 1967 black-and-white documentary, Through the Eyes of a Painter, which is in fact a cinematic poem. A little over 17 minutes long, it acts as a manifesto. As we exit the show, we dwell on the title card that emphasises Husain’s creative freedom: “NO STORY. IMPRESSIONS OF PAINTER HUSAIN AS HE PASSES THROUGH…”
The author is a cultural theorist, poet and art critic; M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun will be on view until July 31 at Mathaf. Arab Museum of Modern Art
(left to right) Abrahamic Religions Triptych and the 2008-acrylic on canvas, Yemen, are part of the recent retrospective; (top) Husain self portrait