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M.F. Husain Lithographs at the V&A

M.F. Husain in the Cast Courts at the V&A, 1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

M.F. Husain in the Cast Courts at the V&A, 1990. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Maqbool Fida Husain, known as M.F. Husain, was one of the most renowned Indian artists of the Twentieth-Century. Gaining artistic recognition in a newly independent India, Husain’s paintings incorporate the vivid richness and iconography of centuries of Indian art with a modern, semi-abstract style that was greatly influenced by the masters of Twentieth-Century European painting.

Husain was born on 17th September 1915 into a large, working-class Muslim family in the town of Pandharpur, in the state of Maharashtra, in central India. The instability of the family’s financial situation meant that Husain received a haphazard and largely informal education, and, despite gaining admittance to the Mumbai J.J. School of Art in 1934, he was unable to take up his place. Three years later, Husain finally moved to Mumbai where he worked during the day as a ‘graphic wallah’, painting the huge cinema hoardings that advertised the thriving Bollywood film industry. At night he worked on his own paintings, eventually achieving recognition as an artist in 1947 when his own work was exhibited at the Bombay Art Society. Concurrently, he became a founder-member of the Progressive Artists’ Group alongside other prominent modern Indian artists, such as Francis Newton Souza and Syed Heider Raza. The founding principle of this movement was to embrace the styles of the international avant-garde art movements of the Twentieth-Century, while rejecting the nationalist style of art developed and promoted by the Bengal School.

Husain became one of the most popular painters in India with a prolific output of work. Soon achieving a national and international reputation, his works were acquired by museums and galleries worldwide. A secular Muslim, Husain drew much of the subject matter for his art from traditional Indian festivals, rituals, mythology and literature. He was also inspired by the richness of colour found in traditional Indian paintings and the iconic forms of Indian sculpture. He was particularly influenced by Basholi artists from the Punjab Hills, who combined bold pigments with a distinctive flatness of line.

The last quarter of the Twentieth-Century saw Husain’s life clouded by controversy, brought on by objections to the style of his portrayal of nude Hindu deities. Protests against his art escalated and led to attacks on his home and paintings, so much so that, at the end of his life he lived in self-imposed exile between Doha and London. He died in London on 9th June 2011 aged 95, still working on a series of large triptychs, ‘Indian Civilization’, which celebrate India’s history, culture and people.

In the early 1980’s, the V&A acquired two series of lithographs by Husain, each comprising ten prints. The contrasting subject matter of these two series of images typifies Husain’s interest in both contemporary Indian culture and traditional mythology. One set depicts scenes from the adventures of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman in the popular epic, the Ramayana. In these exploits, Hanuman tirelessly assists Rama and Lakshmana in recovering Rama’s wife, Sita, who has been captured by the many-headed demon king, Ravana.

The second set of lithographs is inspired by the figure of Mother Teresa and the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, the nuns who worked alongside her to help alleviate the great poverty and deprivation suffered in India in the second half of the Twentieth-Century.  An immediately identifiable motif within each image is the iconic blue bordered white cotton that made up the saris worn by the nuns. In contrast to the adventures of Hanuman, here Husain draws upon traditional Christian iconography to convey the pathos of these images of the nuns with the poor and the destitute.

With thanks to Mrs Usha Mittal

With kind support from Christie's

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