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The Raj Series: M.F Husain’s Colourful Journey To India’s Colonial Past
By Anandita Bhardwaj
19 Dec 2022
Forged from his experience of growing up during the twilight years of British imperialism, the famous ‘British Raj’ Series of paintings by M.F. Husain Husain captured the events of this transformative milieu through playful canvases, where tableaus of Indian and British subjects come together with elements of Indian culture in a satirical visual commentary. The artist started work on the series in 1986, initially calling the works ‘Images of the Raj’. Offering an insight into the social, political, and economic realities of life in India as a colonised nation, the British Raj series is at once personal and political and chronicles the artist’s reflection on his nation’s past.
AstaGuru will present three important creations from this series in its upcoming ‘Historic Masterpieces’ auction.
Lot no. 26: Princess Nisha Raje. Afternoon Tea With Lady Mcbull
The presented large scale acrylic on canvas work was executed by M F Husain in 1997. An Indian woman from a royal family, in splendid jewels, is depicted having tea in a garden with a Lady Mcbull, a play on the word ‘Maqbool’ that Husain often used as a nickname. This artwork was part of ‘The Harmony Show: A Tribute To Art’ - a major group exhibition celebrating 50 years of India’s independence. Organised at the Nehru Art Centre, Mumbai in 1997, the show had eminent artists invited to exhibit their works. Considering the occasion the work reflects a certain degree of assertiveness with regards to India’s independent identity; reflected by the protagonist Princess Nisha Raje’s confident demeanour and stature. The power dynamic between the characters is evident and showcases the Indian princess as a graceful host as she entertains her guests with confidence and charm. With a hint of the national flag’s hues in the colour composition and the ode to nationalism that often appeared in Husain’s Raj series, the presented lot was a prominent part of the show.
Lot no 4: Jemdanee 1787
Like his other bodies of work, the series featured several paintings forefronted by the artist’s female protagonist. Inspired by a painting attributed to Thomas Hickey executed in 1787, titled ‘An Indian Lady (Indian bibi Jemdanee). This watercolour painting from the year 1986 by M F Husain makes a powerful statement about the relationship between a British barrister and an Indian woman. The painting depicts a portrait of an Indian woman supposedly married to William Hickey who arrived in India in 1776 and started to work in Calcutta. The relationship between William Hickey and Jemdaane began after the death of his first wife, Charlotte, in 1783. “As gentle and affectionately attached to a girl as ever a man was blessed with,” wrote William Hickey in his memoirs about his Indian wife. Unfortunately, however, she died in childbirth in 1796. While Irish painter Thomas Hickey has captured the Indian lady in a graceful portrait beaming with her beauty, M F Husain rendered his Jemdaane void of facial features. Unlike Hickey, Husain has also included the English barrister, Jemdaane’s husband, visually representing him as a mere relic of the past in the form of a bust placed on a plinth. With this work, the artist chronicles the humane and personal aspects of life in colonial India.
Lot no 5: Credentials Of Gwalior, Nizam And Patiala!
This watercolour on paper work executed in 1986 belongs to the first set of Raj series paintings. The work depicts the Maharaja of Gwalior State, the Nizam of Hyderabad State and the Maharaja of Patiala having an audience with a British officer. The three royals belonged to princely states that entered into subsidiary alliance treaties with the East India Company, losing their sovereignty. This would later play a key role in solidifying the British Empire’s establishment. In the work the Indian royals can be seen under duress while the British officer is seen at ease in his position of authority on his throne. A bull, lion and turtle hold up this throne, also showing up often in the Raj series, symbolic of the British invasion. Elaborating about the painting the artist stated “Even as a young boy, I used to make caricatures of viceroys, residents generals and commissioners. But our Indian rulers were a laughable lot too. I remember how I used to feel ashamed reading about the sycophancy of the Maharajas of Patiala, Gwalior, and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Don’t forget I have spent a major part of my adolescence and youth in large princely states such as Indore, Baroda and Hyderabad. The impressions I gathered over the years have filtered through and remained etched in my mind as if I was actually present there, observing, ridiculing the English, but more than that, our own servility.
The stellar collection of AstaGuru’s upcoming ‘Historic Masterpieces’ auction will present several rare and unseen Avant-Garde works from the oeuvre of India’s eminent modernists including Hemendranath Mazumdar, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Jehangir Sabavala, M.F. Husain, Akbar Padamsee, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Krishen Khanna, Jogen Chowdhury, Prabhakar Barwe, K.G. Subramanyan, Ram Kumar, J. Swaminathan, Somnath Hore, Himmat Shah, Satish Gujral, N.S Bendre, K.K. Hebbar, Nicholas Roerich. Several of these works are appearing in an auction for the first time. The auction is scheduled to be held on December 27-28, 2022. Please visit our website to view the entire catalogue and register to bid today.