London: The final nine paintings by the celebrated Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011) will go on public display at the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum this summer. The series known as “Indian Civilization” comprises eight monumental triptychs, each measuring 12 feet wide by six feet high, which represent Husain’s vision of the richness of Indian culture and history.
They capture India’s vibrant cities, colourful Hindu festivals, iconic figures and historic events. These imposing, large-scale artworks will be presented alongside a single painting of the Hindu god, Ganesha, which serves as the symbolic beginning of the series. Towards the end of his life — Husain, often referred to as the “Picasso of India”, battled nostalgia about his homeland, India, after his self-imposed exile in 2006. He spent his time between London and Qatar. Sources close to Husain said the artist would recollect “his years in India through memories of sights, sounds and smells that he experienced for nearly nine decades in the country since his birth in Pandharpur in Maharashtra on September 17, 1915. The family moved to Indore in Madhya Pradesh when Husain was barely one-and-a-half years old”.
He began his career as a movie billboard painter in Mumbai to support his large family before moving to a serious pursuit of the arts — which he would often describe later as his “karmic destiny”. The barefoot painter — who stood out for his striking good looks, flowing mane and an ascetic beard — loved the bling. His distinctive style of cubist human and horses figures, bright colour palette, bold and controversial depiction of religious motifs and fascination with Bollywood - the Mumbai movie industry and its muse Madhuri Dixit — complimented his flamboyant lifestyle. He loved fast automobiles and at the end of his life owned a fleet of 13 fashionable sports cars that included his trademark red Ferrari and Bugati. He died in London (UK) as a citizen of Qatar in July 2011.
Husain is regarded as one of the leaders of the modern art movement in Indian painting. Using freehand drawing and vibrant colours, he depicted Indian subject matter in the style of contemporary European art movements.
The “Indian Civilization” series, also known as the “Vision of India through Mohenjo Daro to Mahatma Gandhi”, was commissioned by the Mittal family — a business conglomerate of Indian origin — in 2008. It had never been previously displayed in a public space. Usha Mittal of the Mittal Group, has lent the paintings to V&A, where the artist attended a residency in 1990, to showcase the final works.
Mittal said, “Spanning mythology, architecture and popular culture, the Indian Civilization Series is the final achievement of M.F. Husain, an artist whose work was continually inspired by the traditions of India. I was privileged to see this series as it was created and I am delighted that it will be shown at V&A, as a lasting tribute to Husain Sahib and his vision.”
The paintings were made in London, where Husain spent his final years immersing himself in books about Indian history, which fed into the varied themes of the paintings. Each panel explores a different theme, together creating a personal vision of India, which Husain called “a museum without walls”. Interweaving religious and symbolic iconography with historic figures and events, the paintings incorporate memories from the artist’s own life as well. The “Indian Civilization” series is a tribute to the country Husain loved, but had to leave after his life was threatened for portraying Hindu deities in the nude.
The artist’s initial intention was to paint 96 panels exploring the breadth of Indian culture; unfortunately he died before he could achieve this ambition. Husain’s handwritten notes, describing his ideas, themes and stories for each painting and explaining the scenes depicted, will be included in the exhibition guide.
A short film directed by Husain, “Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967)”, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, will also be screened.
The 24 panels which make up the eight triptych paintings portray the following:
The Hindu Triad in which Husain depicts the Trimurti, the three principle gods of the Hindu religion. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Vishnu its protector and preserver and Shiva as its destroyer.
Three Dynasties is a triptych that celebrates three ruling dynasties from India’s long and tumultuous history. Husain places the ancient Mauryan civilization centrally between two invading rulers, the Muslim dynasty (1525-1857) and the British Raj (1858-1947).
Tale of Three Cities presents three of India’s greatest cities: Delhi represents India’s nationhood, Varanasi its spiritual centre and Kolkata its culture and activism.
Indian Dance forms capture the regional diversity of Indian dance forms, an integral part of the high culture and festival ritual. Reflecting his love of both dance and the cinema, Husain explores how movement is captured on film.
Traditional Indian festivals portray the colour and the spirit of Indian festivals Holi, Tulsi Pooja and Poorima. These ancient celebrations and rituals reflect the passing of time and show the enduring role of religion and tradition in Indian culture.
Language of Stone uses the words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore to pay tribute to India’s great sculptural heritage. ‘How the language of stone surpasses the language of man.’
Indian Households reflects the domestic lives of India’s citizens, showing the daily routines of three ordinary urban families.
Modes of Transport presents the multiple journeys of India’s citizens as a metaphor for the journey of life.
A single painting of Ganesha opens the exhibition. Known as the remover of obstacles, Ganesha is a patron of the arts and letters, worshipped at the beginning of any endeavour. The exhibition will be presented by the auction house Christie’s.