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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

In some of his own words
By Swapna Vora

May 14, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

'Yet, without a family a sketch book in
hand and rupees fifteen in my pocket
I landed in Bombay of British India,
year 1936.' (M F Husain)

Sitting sideways on time, MF Husain painted 'Lightning'. This then is the story of its acquisition, about Srikant 'Kent' and Marguerite Charugundla, the manager at Delhi's Maurya Sheraton, Indira Gandhi, the Congress party, the fruit of Indian engineering brains and the telecom millionaires. Indian horses are often christened Toofan (Storm) and Pawan (Wind), and M F Husain, riding the same wind, called his, 'Lightning'.

Kent and Marguerite Charugundla are major art collectors. In their love for Husain and after their adventures with Lightning, they have produced a rather emotional, wonderful memento: a book of tales, reminiscences, a sketch of words, horses galloping through 50 years, drifts of memories, Bombay, the US State Department in Delhi, early days of independence when again, finally, we could paint our way and not be sternly restricted to the Slade school or America's beloved Grandma.

Marguerite and Srikant, 'Kent' Charugundla
The first photo shows India's loved Husain with his white beard and black achkan near a sharp, strong painting of a mother and a baby, a heartbreaking self portrait. After several articles by various collectors and many scholarly opinions, we see 'Lightning' through their eyes before finally reaching the painter's own words.

Husain's horses have now cantered far and wide for they are scattered all over the world. There is a wonderful centerfold, a picture of the painting on off white paper, almost like a treasured print or a lithograph. And like the original he is, Husain does a sketch of Kent and himself in the airport shuttle at Delhi in 2004. The two flaps have self portraits of a young and lithe Husain carrying a sketch of a horse and a signboard which reads, 'Not for sale'. For, his work is swamped by buyers before he has even finished.

Dramatic and powerful, these galloping horses are a reminder of Duldul, the historical horse that belonged to Hazarat Imam Husain, Prophet Mohamed's martyred grandson. As a child, Husain had seen Moharram processions when every Muslim locality carries bright tazias representing the tombs as they remember and bewail this sad story. Many weep as they walk the streets. Traditionally, Hindus used to join these Shia processions. And again we Indians must count what we have so carelessly lost. Where did those secular dreams go, who was that temple for?

Born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra's temple town, and brought up in Indore, Husain had often observed a farrier, his grandfather's friend, working with horses. Then he knew too about Ashwamedh, when a Hindu king sent out a powerful, white stallion to go where it will. If it remained unchallenged, the land it covered automatically became a part of his kingdom: a tale known to every Indian child. Husain also met Xu Beihong, that famous painter of horses, who came to Shantiniketan, for he was loved by Tagore.

How Husain sees his work is very different from the others who have commented on it. This then is Husain's description: 'Lightning' was a mural specifically painted as a background for the Congress party campaign, for a public rally in Mumbai's Shivaji Park in '75, the year of the Emergency, (a horrific time for very many). It was not commissioned, but was simply Husain's contribution to record the country's progress. When great events are happening, he says, you do not wait for commissions. Like bijli (Lightning), he had to be almost instantaneous and says it had been extremely exhausting to paint such a large painting in such a short period. 'It had possessed me and I was not going to stop until I finished it,' he said. The work depicts the construction of modern India. Indira, the green revolution where the Indian Government spent millions in the Punjab to encourage massive food production, India's seeking nuclear energy for its cities, the military protection offered by the tanks, the farmers, the soldiers, and the factories which were finally producing goods marked 'Made in India' are all there, he says.

Asked why he painted horses, he spoke about his fascination with the 1400 year old Muhallam battle and said it was very similar to the Mahabharat epic. "We read the text and sang the ballad, and it left strong impressions." He described his horses, "The front is forceful and triumphant and the back graceful like a woman…. That is how I depict my horses - charging like a dragon in the front and graceful and elegant from the back."

"Lightning was not commissioned, Mrs. Gandhi had been a Prime Minister for 11 years. This was my contribution to the cause. I chose to depict 11 horses signifying the time and they stand for nuclear power, which was the future of our country." It is an amazing painting with many ciphers of our time: the red triangle used by the government in a birth control initiative. However an inverted triangle means female power, the descent of grace, for Hindus.

"During the celebration of 100 years of struggle for freedom, which Gandhiji had fought nonviolently against the British, I painted a 100 feet long canvas in separate panels as a celebration of this great event."

Husain mentions how he volunteers for a cause and likes his paintings to be on public view, "not hidden away in somebody's house". He recalls painting at a train station so millions could enjoy his work. "I enjoy working on the walls, in large scale, for museums …. and prefer not to work on canvas since one can roll a canvas and sell it." The symbols in the painting are, he says, a "depiction of the progress India is making in agriculture and defense. The tank symbolizes the struggle for freedom and the family planning also is a sign of the progress India has embraced. Large scale looks grand, is visible from a distance."

In the eighties, Lightning had been lent to a theater group as a background. (Perhaps for Equus?) Now the Charugundlas sought the largest painting Husain had ever done. It was in storage in Faridabad and had to be brought out and cleaned, rather dramatically, in a sealed-off Maurya Hotel lobby for all the banquet halls were occupied. Now while the painting may go from right to left like Urdu, Husain characteristically likes the sections to be rearranged, displayed a little differently every time, so it remains alive. Some people do not like their deities undressed and Husain, who has so loved the Hindu gods, was temporarily in exile in London after painting nude goddesses. Those days were long, increasing his longing for the narrow busy lanes in Grant Road and Byculla and recalling what used to be. He says those were slow days, with an echo now heard in his dripping paint. Must every fundamentalist insist on running the universe his narrow way? Can't we have compassion because someone exists or just because?


Ms Neelam Deo

Almost a centenarian, Husain still has real enthusiasm for almost everything. He is kind to the press, thoroughly enjoys our inane questions, pushes forward other artists, and is fully conversant with the chaos, the bathos and the tanks and turbines of our time. He charmed the cabdriver who recognized him in Manhattan, he bowed graciously to the awestruck hotel manager and sketched generously for the receptionist who merely asked him to sign in.

"I am trying to capture Arab civilization." He says about his painting 50 large panes for Dubai. He says in 30 years Dubai is doing what Europe took 300 years to do. "It's like cut off poetry", he said, "Where the poet got fed up with the logic of thought … where even if you mix the lines, there is still logic, meaning. You get a new dimension."

"Lightning is pure energy, a tremendous force, the life force. As an artist after a while, you do not struggle to paint a good painting or worry over the language of painting, you go beyond that and then what you do is you are painting history."

And the book has some good photos of Husain, (with shoes)! He says to Kent and Marguerite, "I am very happy that you exist, for you take Indian art to a new level."

MF Husain's autobiography:

Here I am
at 90 plus and people call me a painter.
I wonder!

Let me reverse the time frame.
At 80 I gained the title of Great grandfather
And by 70 the "Great" was taken off
To be a mere grandfather.

By 60 the "grand" too disappeared.
As father I became very productive.
Six children and hundreds of paintings.
Yet, without a family, a sketch book in
hand and rupees fifteen in my pocket
I landed in Bombay of British India,
year 1936.

Slept my first night on the street
under red light.
May be that night I dreamt the loss
of my mother's lap soon after my
birth in 1915.

A motherless boy starts his long long
journey into the world

'Lightning': From the private collection of Marguerite and Kent Charugundla, printed by Pragati Offset Pvt. Ltd., Hyderabad , India, 2007
Edited by Marguerite Charugundla and Deepanajana D. Klein, Ph D.

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