Maqbool Fida Husain was not a man who played it by the book. And yet when he died, in 2011, he was painting Indian scenes not from his homeland but from history books in London. He’d been shrieked out of India with death threats, decried as a ‘butcher’ for his depictions of naked religious deities.
Husain had an objectiveness about his vision that won him few friends in a land which buys into sacred meanings and symbolism. He finished his life embarking on his Indian Civilisation series: analytical triptychs about his nation’s history, of which a group is on show at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The ‘Indian Picasso’ was dangerously good at using his work to size up and chop up people, symbols, and ideas. ‘Most satisfying,’ he observes of the traditional Kathak dancing, slicing up some moving figures with dispassion. ‘Engrossing usually as sheer poetry of female bodies in action.’
Husain’s dispassionate eye is of particular value in offering up alternative versions of history. One such is contained in the Hindu Triad, depicting Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in their respective roles as the world’s creator, preserver, and destroyer. A very different history — the Three Dynasties triptych — delineates what Husain considered an equally important narrative in which, before Gandhi stepped up, India’s multi-faith ‘varied hues’ and ‘richness’ get plundered by Mughals and then the British Raj.
Varied hues are preponderant in these works of intriguing detail and diversity. Indian Civilisation — this final, all-encompassing project — represents quite a life. We’re told the young Husain painted cinema hoardings for a living. Even his final work exhibits a fascination not only with filmic style, but also for the medium of the hoarding itself. A cubist, the man thought in terms of strong geometric planes, like walls. But his painting of India’s spiritual, artistic, and political histories onto six-foot boards was less an attempt to raise up barriers than – in his words – to create a ‘museum without walls’, with colourful, new interpretations of heritage designed to be accessible to all comers.
Any series about 21st century India must naturally include a representation of densified chaos. Husain’s Modes of Transport trio overflows with planes, train, and automobiles and with them the very essences of modernity and individualism. Here, and throughout the showcase, public and personal histories elide, and Husain’s own life journey is worked into this kinetic composition. ‘Man is in a mad rush to capture the world’, read his companion notes. ‘Who is the captor? Who is the captive?’
Some things in India had changed bewilderingly in Husain’s 95 years. Some things hadn’t. If the brush-wielding ‘butcher’ who meted out fragments and controversy ended up himself feeling more captive than captor, it is simply because some customs go beyond mere objectivity for millions or billions of people. Ultimately, the quality of Husain’s work is less in the chopping than in the stitching: in its long view of Indian transition (or lack of it), and its ability to speak right across a world-within-a-world.
MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 27 July at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Admission is free.