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A Guide to Husain
By Sakshi Batavia
31 Jul 2020
M.F Husain started his career back in the 1950s right at the helm of the Indian Modernist movement. At that time and age in India, it was difficult to find people who would patronize art. Husain found his first-ever Indian patron during his second solo show. The patron was a man called Badrivishal Pittie, an extremely wealthy person from Hyderabad, who gave NR 3000 to Husain for his paintings. The national museum bought the famous ‘Zameen’ for INR 6000, a price we cannot even fathom buying a Husain for, in this time and age. Husain left a legacy behind and his works form an integral part of any Modern Indian auction catalogue out there. Over the years it has become apparent that any works by Husain perform well in auctions and seasoned collectors know it is always a good choice. For people who have recently started venturing into the art market to build a stellar collection, here is all you need to know about the eminent artist M.F Husain.
Born in Pandharpur, Husain was a largely self-taught artist. One of the foremost experiences in Husain’s life was the death of his mother Zainab before he was even a year old. One can see the influence of this in the way Husain depicts various women on his canvases. The family soon moved to Indore and Husain formed a comfortable companionship with his grandfather but fate was to strike another blow on the young child, with the death of his grandfather. The loss of such crucial figures at a young age played a monumental role in Husain’s life as an artist. It was this lack of parental figure at home that led Husain to focus completely on painting and observing the scenes around him. Husain decided to move to Bombay in 1935 with the dream of becoming an artist but things weren’t always easy. During that time, money was a big constraint and Husain had to find a job painting billboards and posters for Bollywood movies. Painting these huge posters for films would eventually make Husain comfortable enough to even take on painting large canvases with utmost dexterity. During his early years in Bombay, Husain also worked for a toy company designing and building toys. It was in 1947 that he finally left everything to seriously pursue his goal to become an artist. It was a risk, leaving a well-paid job but Husain said ‘Survival alone was never my goal. I wanted to make my mark as a painter, and to achieve that, I had to get out, be on my own and paint’.
The Treasured Subjects
To understand any artist, it is imperative to look at the kind of subject that the artist keeps returning to time and again. There were several subjects and themes that Husain explored in the entirety of his career. The one theme that is ubiquitous to the name of Husain is that of Horses. Husain’s tryst with the theme of Horses started when he visited China and met the artist Chi Pai-Shi. On seeing the master’s painting of a thousand horses on a huge canvas, Husain was inspired to explore this theme further. Apart from the influence of the Chinese master, Husain’s fascination with Horses also reflected his Indian roots. In Indian mythology, the Horse is a symbol of Sun, Knowledge, power and fertility and this symbolic meaning comes through in Husain’s work. He once claimed ‘My horses, like lightning, cut across many horizons…hop across spaces, from the battlefield of Karbala to Bankura terracotta, from the Chinese Tse Pei Hung horse to St Marco’s horse, from the ornate armoured Duldul to the challenging white of Ashwamedha…the cavalcade of my horses is multidimensional’
Husain also worked on two series based on the epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. He started painting his Ramayan series in 1968. As soon as Husain finished painting 20 works from the series, he took them to a nearby village and went around displaying his paintings on a bullock cart. He soon followed the Ramayan series with his Mahabharata series. He was invited to exhibit at the Sao Paulo Biennale along with Picasso and that is when the idea struck him, to do a series on the great epic. He felt that the pageantry and monumentality of the epic suited his style and temperament. The Mahabharata series, that Husain displayed at the Biennale, was later bought by Chester Herwitz.
A key to understanding Husain is remembering the fact that even if he returned to the same themes time and again, there was no fixed medium. The style kept evolving to showcase his maturity as an artist. It was only after his Mahabharata series that Husain started gaining international recognition. Soon the decade of the 1980s arrived, marked by Husain’s meeting with Mother Teresa. This meeting was monumental for Husain and brought about his famous Mother Teresa series. Ever since the loss of his mother as a young child, Husain had yearned to find a woman who personified love and compassion. Within Mother Teresa, Husain found that universal mother. As was his habit, Husain conducted a lot of research before executing his Mother Teresa series. He visited Italy, to study several pre-Renaissance paintings of saints and apostles, paying the utmost attention to their robes and folds. It was probably here that the idea germinated of depicting Mother Teresa through the folds of her white saree.
The Evolving Style
Husain was an artist constantly evolving in his artistic practice and looking for the right mode of expression. During his first time in a Bombay Art Society annual show, he used a more impressionistic style. His career was in its nascent phase and he was still trying to explore and arrive at a personal, individualistic style. The exhibition that he witnessed along with F.N Souza in 1948, held at Rashtrapati Bhavan of Indian paintings and sculptures left him exhilarated. It was this exhibition that led Husain to arrive at a style distinctly his own. That is when he decided to showcase the quintessence of Indian art through his works. Consequently the colour palette he used in most of his works reflected the festive spirit of India.
Husain was referred to as the Picasso of India for the modified cubist style that he adopted in his later works. So even though the style might have been European his subject matter and colour palette remained true to his Indian roots. He was adept at incorporating traditional Indian narratives and motifs and executing them with a modern sensibility. It becomes difficult to put Husain in a single category due to his varied experimentation as an artist. He was one of the earliest Indian artists to gain recognition globally. His paintings till date, serve as a perfect reflection of the rich, cultural traditions of India. Over the years our team has sourced some monumental works by Husain like Last Supper, The Passage of Time, British Raj Procession and Mother Teresa Series – Pieta to name a few.
The British Raj Procession, an acrylic on canvas work from 1999, has been the most expensive Husain painting sold at AstaGuru. We have till date presented 145 artworks by the artist in our various auctions and our upcoming auction ‘Husain’ is going to offer equally spectacular works by him.