A cart-load of leaking milk
Lights up the lane
And a boy begins
To eat up the empty town
With shoeless walks
On temple steps
- Maqbool Fida Husain, 1959
It is hard to build precise boundaries around MF Husain. He presents himself as a bright and florescent patch in the body-mosaic that is contemporary Indian painting. He, in his ritual of tackling theme and subject, changes contours and scale with the expediency of a wizard, an elusive dervish creating magic with the swirling of his robes in the marketplace. Pinning him down with continuous and even sonorities, leaves one grasping the fragrances of a careering wind that is indeed, him. We have to learn to assimilate the idea that Husain is the only artist here whose smallest action, whose processes and products are of equal significance in the consideration of a polyvalence which is his practice and which has come to be seen as the performance of his art.
Husain's indulgence of the role of a performer is beyond caprice, beyond gimmick. The word hyphenated as performer is particularly revealing because it implies that the performance with his special power, energy and inspiration is a carrier, a transmitter of things unknowable. He scans a vast world of kaleisdescopic proportions and brings into view a segment, spruced up and enlivened with his own sense of timing.
Husain takes to the role of performer-artist not as one who reveals slowly and lyrically but as one who suddenly lifts away the stage curtains to display a readymade tableau, an epic theatre, redolent with abrupt signs. He has tuned himself into the disciplines of several arts. The vibrations of dance; music and Urdu poetry are caught in a jagged thrust of lines and colour planes. He can draw and paint with complete surrender to the sound and graphic representations of these modes.
The aura of Indian classical dance has virtually beckoned him. He opens out his paintings on a slice of narrative which hovers about in Bharata Natyam or Kathakali. He derives equilibriums from the sculptural unity of dance is seen in the position of the chowk. The rapid pulsing movement of the body as it cuts the space in a tillanna for instance, is For him, a sensational and joyful stimulus.
The rise and fall of the voice, the pukaar and its vigorous oscillation of zigzag patterns impress themselves upon the mind. Many of Husain's statuesque figures carry the wisdom of denizens who have traveled through a gamut of experiences. Their condition is a powerful, totemic, present-tense singular. They have received all sound and frequency in their ears. They are held aloft and above the cacophony that is the world.
Musical rhythm or pure sound finds its way easily into the schemes of the paintings. The ripple formation or contrapuntal relationships of Husain's pictures, his festive arrangements with colour volumes, climax into a form which is as musical as a dhun (the grasp of a vibrating form).
Slipping into the robes of an artist-performer is hardly an arbitrary or cavalier act. It is plain to see the that Husain has all along desired the consecration of his drives towards art, its practice, its demands and his temperament. He brings to light a world with the storms and exuberance of one responding to the call of a vocation. The world, his way of looking, and himself are fused.
Performing his art has come about through necessity and desire which arose from the chance of his circumstance. More than four decades ago, when his confreres left the country to make their art and living in the western world, Husain grounded himself here and lived off his wits and drawing skills. He certainly was stirred to creation because of the lure of the sumptuous traditions in painting, music, dance, drama and the cinema here. Now, he is the most prominent myth of art activity in India and becomes the catalyst in a discussion of many fundamental issues: art and tradition, the art of excess and repetition, art and decoration -these themes are particularly relevant to the Indian context.
The problematic of modern Indian art has had to contend with the structures of feeling. Spaces are organized and arranged with feeling on the ground, on the surface of the canvas. The values of animation of the flat surface are not by and large the concerns of artists here. But Husain has been amongst the few who have engaged themselves with this and the language of materials and abstract configurations in space.
With him, the borders of art and craft, art and illustration become volatile areas for discussion. Indeed, these borders are the borders of Husian's life and art. The questions will bother us here for a long time since the traditions of craft and illustration and design are alive in our midst, are rich and impinge on the consciousness luminously.
Holding up Husain's work in the light of performance, one can stumble upon his strange and tenacious thralldom with this country. Everything about it. One must read it as the commitment of the artist, his amazing umbilical attachment and love for India. If a myth can become the self-image of a culture, then Husain is that myth. If we read him well, we will encounter moment upon moment of India's history, a celebration of a composite culture. He is the synecdoche, the sign. He reflects the temper of a place and time. He informs, pleases and sets off the alarm. We have to see him, we have to hear him, note by note. His exhibition is an event. Husain has to perform it the pace is unpredictable and the scope overwhelms. What is the prodigious energy that lays eternity on the line?
The greater part of the new arrivals have the arrangements of disruptive banquets. Fork and knife and plate and cup. A black burlesque, a Bunuellian mis-en-scene. Pure confection. There are extremities and a mundaneness of action. People assembled in columned hallways or in the ambience of a Diwan-e-Aam. There are also dream spaces of a cosmos. Havocs in heaven. There is conference and confabulation and paralyzed silence. Pop-styled motives are homage’s to Old Masters and masterpieces in art. A lot of rummaging. Discord of juxtaposition of figures remembered. Collisions and the baggage of MF Husain thrown in for good measure.
On another note, you have to take in Hilter's effigy - a vicious bestiality and a Marilyn Monroe sign of pure seduction.
While taking stock of and attacking the absolute symbols of the twentieth century Husain has to restore the sense of wholeness to life. He puts up his stamp of Mother Teresa; the hungry child; a wounded Gandhi and a bewildered Einstein. The muster of history has been signed by politicians, artists, philosophers and songmakers. Jean Paul Sartre is in a cup, Bertrand Russell on a plate.There is yet food for thought in the outlines of Gorbachev, Martin Luther King, Vivekananda and many morepersonalities. Thisis a line up. Here we are, activists, sinners or persons who sit on chairs, called upon to think or sing. Don't forget, the Beatles fondled Saraswati till one of them died in the throes of his serenade. The icon of the goddess the schematised veena cum tanp.urd cum sitar and the Beatles get together in a nutty, witty charade.
The mind of MF Husain is beginning to race. He is notating history with the noble savagery of his line. With the timbre of his calligraphy ringing in our ears, he challenges history to accommodate the likes of him. Paintings with the orientation of murals, executed in more than five cities in the world, unfurled as the placards which stroke new ideas on the sacred and the profane; a renewal in the poetics of the image, produced compulsively. In their epigrammatic styles and brusque manner they throw up questions and commentaries in a head-over-heels anarchy.
The situations are to be deciphered as slapstick or serious with waves of devotion caught alternating with attack and violence. Characters have been yanked from the courtyards of classical Greece and Rome. A taste for antiquity and Husain's willful entertainment with the signs is spreadeagled from edge to edge. Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci persistently stir the imagination to composition. The Last Supper is raided for the architectonics of a box-like space of assembly, and encounter. Zeus, Venus de Milo, Moses and Aristotle, mythic sprites, demons, cherubs and hermaphrodites and the artist in the guise of one or the other finds a place as a participant when lie isn't the conductor of the proceedings. All are actors in the time present, framed in the theater of the absurd with homage to the cinema of neo-realismand its other heroes - Buster Keaton, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin.
A dose of adoration and awe is poured into the figures of Marilyn Monroe and the blind-folded Gandhari with her sad, emaciated dugs. Remote queens, objects of veneration and desire, representing dilemmas old and new, owing their existence to the public gaze, equalized by it, their contour, their moulds uniformalized, their essences varied. There is appeal to ancestral memory or to unattainable womanhood. There is a terse sympathy in the gestures of conjuring the caption-like form of figures. Sometimes they invite reading more than looking. They are hieroglyphs - a verbal conglomerate. Clearly, an ultimacy of speech is on the agenda and if all this work appears to us as a babble, so be it. There is a new pitch and projection in the Husain image now. He makes his obeisance to things and people and offers his strong and broken phrases about the times in which we live.
The time is ripe for him to tease and cajole the legacy of Picasso. He places himself in theatrical confrontation with him and admires him, derides the Picassian charisma with a double-edged snipe at consumerist society and sexual perversity. He intervenes explicity in another one of his mural pictures - a room with quirky signs and art objects and references. Van Gogh's chair is embraced by his fetish-symbol, the old chhatri, the umbrella. He, must compulsively invoke Cezanne and the red apple or Dali, as one who delivers antics. He wonders at Rothko's black, dimensionless space and lines up those gods and eccentrics of the art world who have put their imprints on his sensibility.
In this keenly designed operatic fantasy he keeps changing gear to hurtle towards the 'dome of the sky', his ultimate canvas. He etches a panegyric to Mother Teresa on it. The broad space cut by the wafting blue and white takes on the form of the celestial lantern. It hangs from a midnight expanse; it is that space, that void which is at the back of the mind of the artist-creator - a space which fills up with the searing dreams of the great mother.
Husain's image-making laboratory is a limitless pot His figures and portraits emerge and re-emerge as signs; they are placed in new knocking conjunctions of form and colour. The need for a fluency of speaking is overriding and poignant. He may not be .interrogating the ghosts of classical art and civilization but there is an outburst in the demotic stylistics of one who has seen and loved a great deal of art and is yoked to those traditions that are life-affirming and optimistic. The attention is drawn to a battlefield where the silence or clangor from a heterogeneous conference is transposed into exalted essays on colour. The acknowledgements to the Satyajit Ray films are mannered in a montage. The installations are as charged as walls with graffiti that toll the chilling arenas of the barbarism of today. It is in the pictures that contain the sprawl of the epics that celebrations occur and the reinvention of the folklore and myth is at its height.
There is no homogeneity, nor can one read the work as the phrases in the evolution of Husain. Painting, poster, design, installation or pamphlets have taken shape with break-neck speed. The pictures and scrolls carry the weight of a refined vocabulary. It is not vast but it seems be organizing itself into the form of an anthology.
When Husain picks up a theme, he does not chase the story around it nor does he seek reverberation from the sign-symbol he has designed. Impact rather than resonance is the principle behind proportion and pitch. If he is probing the form and meaning of a theme as the Three Graces, he superimposes archetypical forms of the female deities - Laxmi, Saraswati and Durga and grafts them onto the shastric typologies of the female gender - Shankirli, Padmini and Mohini. Divinities and nymphs, nature goddesses and the globe of the sun enter into Husain's realization of supra-womanhood, nuancing itself on his silent scream for the mother. Finally of course, the female identity remains deliciously vague, comprehensible all the same as a dulcet Husaini icon, a brief sign. The method of tossing nude figures in the limbo of a hollow space is a reach for the music of the spheres in as much as it is thought with Matisse On the mind. The relationship of the body to the stallion is a paradox of frenzy and unhurried movement. An elegant dissection of space with line and angle. There is a measure of a squared-off posture and high leaping which suggests the free dance of Martha Graham or hints at the ecstasy that is enclosed by the flashing lines of a Bernini sculptural composition or the mithuna representations of the Konark.
The meeting of a two thousand year old man with a twenty year old woman is a cheeky artifice, re-worked from Picasso's anguished and jaunty sketches: The supposed meeting taking place contains a distilled maternal ambience .and erotic-electric currents. The Overseeing care of the female figure is brought in over and over again. She is nurture and desire rolled into one spirit. The convulsion andequipoise become sustained rhythms that structure thepaintings into compositions with a self-generating momentum. Indeed, Husain seems to have a metronome going in the vast body of work relating to the epics. He has picked his way about the proliferating episodes that spike-the immense narratives and made taut with feeling a pivotal character with his typical signature of disembodied hand and enlarged foot stamped onto the surface.
The remythologising of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through his pictorial specialisms of figure and form, keyed-up with the purring sensations of mechanical toys is linked to Husain's perennial romance with village and bullock cart and the buff-coloured mud wall.
Personas from the epics, the icons of Shiva and Parvati and the Vyasa-Ganesh combine have the significance of choral interludes. Reinventions occur from the molecular energies of these forms.
It is in his paintings with the epical overtures that his lucidity with the structure of feeling sweeps upto the surface in wave upon wave. Solemnities are toppled with Chekhovian humour and he feels free to give expression to his eternal search for the mother.
The elephant cocooned in queen Maya's womb is a plaintive and lustrous motif questing the feminine force. It is always an enigma, a high lyrical point, an essential punctuation in the picture, a resurgence of the feminine spirit.
It is typical Husaini lila to show the Pandava-s as a group of ovalesque heads, floating between the massive flanks of Draupadi who carries them along in splayed splendor in a great descent into the earth. The celestial relationship of Shankar and Parvati or one of filial piety as that of Hanuman and Sita is displaced with a faint humour tinting the allegory of love and valour. In some early paintings he would enthusiastically satirize his subject. The Shouting Man or Three Monks are seminal works where open fun is made of ritual and holy men. Over the years however, the satire has channeled itself into concerns.
Duldul, the brave horse of the martyr, Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet, is another central image. Husain's horse becomes a vehicle for multiple utterances - aggression, power and protection. The fury of steeds in Karbala overtures or the brute strength of horses born and released from fabulous regions mutate into thunderbolt energies, phallic and omnipotent.
These are the ways in which Husain mediates raw power, making it immediate and demonstrating it as the power of fate. Increasingly his images have begun to communicate power as the ultimate organizing principle of human existence.
Woman is a talismanic form, a deity, a mother; the most powerful and primary principle of life. The emotion is hardly ever modelled with expressions on the canvas. Rather, it is compressed and frozen in outline; abbreviated and withdrawn pride is held up as a rhythmical stroke of the universe.
The stillness and state of shock in Husain's pictography finds correspondences in shadow puppet theatre, monumental sculpture and friezes. He brings in this attention to form in the current works with a new pulse in the matrix of the abhinaya of the limbs and the gait. At the same time he is expanding himself, taking himself to the edge and is on the threshold of inspired speech.
In the fifties and sixties while the efflorescence with colour guided the staccato rhythm of the paintings, they appeared jesty, even melancholic as though, the time for speaking were over and the circumstance had to be emblematized in silence. Layered over this was an unfocused yearning which came through the paint and the pomp.The experience of loss, the search for nurture is an undertow of feeling. It is also quickly knocked out of the way, flattened onto the surface and left as a nebulous destinal force. Maternal strength and nature are abundant but unknowable. Motherhood is power. The womb is a place of visitation.
In one of the segments of his autobiography where he writes with the pace of unrelenting pictorial collisions, he says he has been flung from the voluminous womb of the Venus. In another episodic narrative of tumbling images he picturises Sophia Loren as a pagan mother with a thousand children attacking-feeding off her breasts. The conveyance of the absence of mother is not fully articulated but it is Husain's singular and important song. Fortunately, it is not a melodramatic lament. Whatever inner need there might have been to shout out anguish was easily quelled and transmutations made in the picture. The surface is unpalpitating but cathartic all the same.
Its flattened expanse contains short-circuited stories which are evocative with the power of a permanent imprint; they move with linear assertiveness and joy. The totems and motifs that functions as containers for the mother identity are incantatory disjunctions. The elephant; the monkey, the infant have become mascots. They often cling to the knees and the thighs of the female figure. A transposition takes place in these probes for the identity of the mother without a polarization of the nuances of the woman image. The cults that surround, feminity and the female gender are compacted into the personifications of shakti, also seen as sorceress and seducer offering engulfing protectiveness. Interestingly enough, she is very rarely a predator. Lest feminists cry for mercy or fight to be liberated from idealised definitions as earth mothers and related archaisms, it must be made known that Husain himself protests against the monolithic and sentimental notion of woman. He straddles the contradictions of sexuality and the mother with guiltless grace.
The cosmogonic diagram which represents woman is always imbued with the pulsation of prana-s the life-force. Husain's carefree and swiftly rendered depictions hint at nectar-filled yogini-s. Isn't he briefly indicating the craving of the god-artist to enter feminine form?
In the representations of Qraupadi and Mohini a multivalent arousal of sensations can be seen as the frontality and serenity of medieval Indian temple sculpture and wood reliefs are sustained. Yet another subtlety comes into play in the creation of the androgynous character. Mohini as the mirror image of the Vishnu occurs freely in the jostle of signs; Shiva and Parvati are also treated symbolically. The transformation of male to female is a subject of Puranic tales. Shiva in theform of Bhairava is often a woman; Shankara turns into a woman to please Parvati. The great Mahadev on the left and right side of Parvati is steadfast and vulnerable. His enlarged palm curves in mudra over his consort's breast and is a tantalizing sign of male and female bonding. This is asublime play of divinities. Husain has absorbed its piety, its majesty andmorality. The mood of the theater of gods is ripened with his jousty interventions.
The androgynous entity flits about in; many compositions now and exudes nurture, seduction and control all at once. The shadows of statements seem to issue forth as a volley of missiles. There is a lateral tension and clash. A desperate crossfire. The icon of the transvestite in the civilization series represents life in a society that breeds anomie, panic and robotisation.
The pictures gel on moods of militancy and mirth. Husain is moving towards the edge. He is the attacker and the victim. He is the actor and the author of this theater. He is the receiver of traditions and history. But he is not content to have it this way. A huge repetoire. It stands quintessentially modern as it takes into account Husain as the protagonist and the spectator. He charts his own progress and demands an ironical confrontation from the spectator who is expected to ask questions as well as accept his view of the world.
Husain is placing himself behind the missiles of a critique. To make a critique however, is to see the crisis. He is alerting us to the times in which we live with a militaristic currency of tone. The spread of his paintings contain pamphleteering statements and formalize scuffles in space. They are full of naughty reversals. Madonna is consecrated, the table of the Last Supper profaned with confusion. There is no comfort to be taken from Husain's agility and elegance. There is no time for admiration of the picture on the wall. There is only time to heed the call.
Husain has already made a poignant performance of the call against consumerism. He, is confronting us with his image - a supreme commodity.
Wasn't the Shwetambari show, a plea for a pure space, a hollow womb space? Swathes of white khadi draped on the walls, twisted into canopies and painted with soft electric light were the chaddar-s, the material of shrouds. Husain was playing dead. He had to alert his audiences on deadness in the ways of seeing. He had not produced an object or a canvas. The only thing tangible was his statement. He was trying to say something about himself and his image - a fetish in the marketplace. When he went on with the next show, which he called Visdrjan, he was respecting an age old ritual of ancient civilizations - of consecrating an icon by delivering it to its birthplace. By effacing his favourite deities, his triad of beloveds, his ultra-hued mother, he was eliminating the image, not himself or his art. They are already on the road to immortality.
The artist-worshipper breathes life into the image-icon. He has every right to take it away, to efface its present form, to clear away the obstacle of form, so that he is free to recreate it. The icon, the deity does not die but disappears, to appear renewed in the next season. Yet another alarm signal had been set off by Husain on this occasion. He was warning his Spectators about possessing him and his art. Wasn't he seeking the renewals for his own image?
Maqbool Fida Husain lost his mother when he was two years old. She did not see him in the shoes that she blessed him with. So he went and sacrificed them to the alter of her memory. In the stories that he writes about himself these days, in the anecdotes that are cadenced with Urdu poetic addresses, he says that he sees MF Husain adulated (lynched) by the crowds while Maqbool, hides outside, watching the show.
Published in a catalogue by Vadehra Art Gallery in 1993.