Published in Lighting by Tamarind Gallery, New York, 2007, pp. 11-16
In Husain’s monumental 60-foot composition lightning, the artist’s wild and noble creatures hurtle across the canvas. Fluently executed in his unmistakable mature style, these horses reaffirm the artist’s depth of devotion to an iconography at once deeply personal and readily shared. In the composition Husain’s horses dwarf and humble humanity and its invention, even its deadly weaponry. The horses are cosmic energy incarnate, in the expansive universe and in each atomic particle.
The horse, as a being of visual fascination and mesmerizing form, emotionally charged, entered Husain’s artistic imagination early. In his childhood Indore there were toy terracotta horses, miniaturized and manipulable, and wooded carousel horses to ride. There were also real horses, some pulling tongas, some festooned with ornaments to serve in wedding processions as mounts for kingly bridegrooms. At the workshop of his grandfather’s friend, a farrier, he could closely observe all manner of horses, from draft animals to sleep mounts from the palace stables. Horses also figured prominently in the stories his grandfather told him. But the most exciting horse of Husain’s childhood was the 20-foot bamboo and papier-mache image of Duldul, the valiant steed of the Prophet’s martyred grandson, Hazrat Imam Hussain that was taken through the streets of Indore every year at Muhrram. On the 10th day of the festival the image of Duldul, along with models of the martyrs’ tombs (tazias), were carried in a huge procession and the faithful came out to pray in front of them. The artist’s grandfather took him to see the procession and to witness the immersion of Duldul, a poignant, moving reminder of the indivisibility of life and death. In the ecumenical Indore of his childhood, Husain also shared with his Hindu friend tales of the gods and was mesmerized by their strong visuality.
The story of Ashwamedha in the Ramayana fired his imagination. A fine white stallion is dedicated to roam wild and free. His unfettered passage through neighbouring kingdoms signals their fealty; interference or capture challenges that supremacy and is a provocation to war. From the outset, for Husain, the grace, power, and mystique of the horse was fed by all its manifestations whatever their cultural, historical roots.
Around 1950 Husain painted Duldul, his first major work incorporating the horse. But the simple, stylized form of Duldul could not carry the full expressive force so vividly experienced in the swirl of devotion and prayer that took place around the actual image as it moved in procession through the city. Husain continued to reach for an idiom that would endow his horses with the vigor and character they held in his imagination. A few years later, when Husain made his first trip abroad, to China, he found what he was seeking-- a means to imbue his horses with the expressive quality of line and form that matched his imagination.
Husain was invited to be a delegate to the 1952 World Peace Congress in Beijing. For the artist, the most important part of the visit was his meeting with two esteemed masters, each instrumental in bringing Chinese art into a new, global 20th century context. Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was the most respected traditional-style painter of the 20th century in China, renowed for creating a new style that revolutionized ink painting. Xu Beihong (1895-1953) was the leading exponent of the western style painting whose years in Paris, along with his traditional training in ink painting, provided him with the technical and stylistic means to lead Chinese painting in new directions, Husain met other artists as well. He was boldly dismissive of those who followed the socialist realism of the Soviet Union. I was inexpiable to him that Chinese artists would jettison their long and glorious traditions of ink painting for a crude naturalism. Husain’s commitment to artistic evolution that is firmly rooted in its locale, and at the same time expanding in new directions, was already firmly established. In Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Husain had found artists he truly admired.
Parallels and interactions with Husain are intriguing. Like Husain, Qi Baishi was a humble origin; he started out as a carpenter. Qi, too, was initially self-taught, relying for his study of form on a copy he had found of the 17th- century classic, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting. In Qi’s long life as an artist he participated in the transformation of China from an empire to a People’s Republic, as Husain did in India’s passage from colony to Republic, changes that in both instances brought about a great democratization of art. Qi’s signature style, like Husain’s was accessible was engaging to viewers, and brought great commercial success.
When they met in 1952 Qi Baishi was ailing so frail that his fingers could not pick up and grasp a brush. With his grandfather’s help in securing the brush to his hand he was able to demonstrate the calligraphic strokes for which he was so famous. Husain, predisposed by his early experience with the aesthetic and spiritual power of Islamic calligraphy, was deeply impressed by the virtuosity of Qi’s brush strokes, and came to think of him as the Matisse of East Asia. The impact on Husain was profound and long lasting, first prominently expressed in his Marathi Women of 1954 and, decades later, still present in the horses of Lightning (1975)
Husian also met Xu Beihong, whose greatest fame was as a painter of horses. In the work of Xu Beihong, Husain experienced an inspirational awakening. At Xu’s studio Husain saw a huge painting of a thousand horses. The scale of the work was amazing, but even more remarkable was the vitality and grace of the animals. Xu’s horses were in motion; they galloped, reared, and snorted. Inspired by Xu Beihong, Husain infused his horses with a new vigor, an enlivened energy of movement combining dragon-like elements of masculinity with feminine grace. Husian had found a way to transform the spiritual force of the Duldul horse of his childhood into an expressive form that would impact new life to the horses of his canvases.
Xu Beihong excelled at both traditional Chinese ink painting and oil painting, and led the integration of Western and Chinese painting. He travelled to Japan in 1917 to study ink painting and Western painting, returning with a determination to go on to Paris, then considered the center of artistic innovation and excitement. A few years later Xu won a fellowship to the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts. He spent eight years in Paris and returned committed to a progressive transformation of Chinese painting based on the creative integration of elements from disparate sources. This was a quest Husainfully appreciated and admired. As a young painter associated with the Progressive Artists Group in 1940’s and 50’s Bombay, he participated in a similar struggle to break free of the artistic establishment and gain an audience for an innovative Indian modernism.
India, as it happens, had been the setting for Xu Beihing’s own epiphany as an artist a decade earlier. In 1940 he was invited by Rabindranath Tagore to teach at Santiniketan where leaders of the Bengal School, including Abindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, and Benode Behari Mukherjee, looked East for resources to create a new art for India. Chinese and Japanese artists were regular visitors to Calcutta and to the campus of Rabindranath Tagore’s new progressive university at Santiniketan. Rabindranath, who had visited China, was an admirer of Xu Beihong as painter, innovator and teacher.
Xu Beihong’s second wife and biographer recount the impact of his several months as Santiniketan, “the abode of peace”: “the mango trees laden with clusters of fruit, the fiery silk-cotton flowers, the indefatigable, soft-voiced singing of birds, together with Tagore’s refined speech and demeanours were to live forever in Beihong’s memory…” In Santiniketan Xu Beihong made sketches of people at the university and in the surrounding community that were incorporated into later paintings. He painted a portrait of Tagore and a sketch of Gandhi during a visit to Santiniketan, which was autographed by its subject and dated, Feb 17, 1940. Both works are now at the Xu Beihong Museum in Beijing. Exhibition of Xu Beihong’s work were mounted at the university and in Calcutta. Xu travelled to Darjeeling where he created one of his most famous works, The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains (1940), visualising a famous Chinese fable that perseverance can triumph over all adversities. Many of the figures in this work were based on sketches of people he encountered in India. During his stay in Darjeeling he also painted his well-known Himalayas and Forest on the Himalayas in ink, and Mornings Mist on the Himalayas in oils as he gazed at the mountains in longing for his homeland beyond.
In a marvellous alignment of happenings, Xu Beihong, on this trip to India, arrived at the treatment of horses that is his most renowned artistic achievement, and that a decade later would be a transformational inspiration for Husain: Beihong also went galloping on horseback on the vast plain and reached places as d=far as Kashmir. He loved the graceful, sturdy steeds with long, steely-hoofed legs. H was spell-bound. He now came to know even better how docile, bold, loyal, tireless and patient these animals were. From then on, the horses he painted were characterised by greater vigor. With the technique of splash ink or that of fine brushwork plus freehand strokes, he portrayed horses in a great variety and neighing, some prancing high up into the air, some trotting away.. He personified horses to express his own sorrow and care, or hope and joy. 
Xu Beihong adapted his calligraphic ink painting to enliven his portrayal of horses in action as eloquent expressions of human emotion. Ten years later, Husain, encountering the brilliance of Xu Beihong’s interpretation, found inspiration to imbue his own horses with more eloquent expressive form and vigorous movement.
The horses in Lightning, inspired by the painting of Qi Baishi and Xu Beihing, are created on the canvas in brushstrokes that harness pure space, transforming it into beings of boundless energy. The sources for Lightning, as for all Husain’s horses, are scattered far and wide, moving on from the Duldul and Aswamedha of his Childhood and the ink painting of Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong. Over the many decades of his career Husain’s fascination with the horse had never flagged and he had fed it with experience across the globe and close to home. Soon after his trip to China, Husain visited Europe for the first time. He took in great equestrian statues of Classical Rome, the work of Renaissance masters like Pablo Uccello (1397-1475), and of near contemporaries, including Franc Marc (1880-1916) and Marino Marini (1901-1980). In 1984 Husain returned to China for the first time in more than 30 years, and experienced firsthand the magnificent horses of the terracotta army at Xian, adding new images to his store. At home, the equestrian sculpture of Maharaja Sayajirao in front of Baroda’s Public Garden, has remained a reference for all Husain’s horses is an infinite visual resources, combining form, feeling and significance, always inviting exhilarating embodiment of cosmic energy.
1. Sources for Husain’s early Childhood are MF Husain, The Story of a Brush, Bombay: Pundole Gallery, 1983 and Rashda Siddiqui, In conversation with Husain Paintings. New Delhi: Book Today, 2002, P.110, and personal communication with the artist January, 2007.
2. Citations are from Lio Jingwen, Xu Beihong: Life of a Master. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1987, pp. 148-151.
Published in Lighting by Tamarind Gallery, New York, 2007, pp. 11-16