Earth (Autobiography Series)

Earth (Autobiography Series)
signed 'Husain' (lower right)
acrylic on canvas
53 x 53 in. (134.6 x 134.6 cm.)
Painted circa early 1990s
Sotheby's New York, 24 September 2004, lot 173
Acquired from the above
New Delhi, Art Today, River of Art, 1995

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Lot Essay

One of the strongest artistic voices in newly independent India, Maqbool Fida Husain “has been unique in his ability to forge a pictorial language which is indisputably of the contemporary Indian situation but surcharged with all the energies, the rhythms of his art heritage”. He was drawn to images that captured the essence of Indian life and traditions, be it in either urban or rural settings, and frequently drew from his own childhood experiences and memories to ground and legitimize his work. This allowed Husain to paint “with the same visceral truthfulness and sense of commitment as the woman grinding corn, the potter at his wheel and the same lack of pretension” (E. Alkazi, ‘M.F. Husain: The Modern Artist & Tradition’, Art Heritage, New Delhi, pp. 3-4).

A strong personal memory from Husain’s early years in Indore that influenced his work over the course of his career, and fueled his fascination with horses among other subjects, is the time he spent in the company of his doting grandfather, Dada Abdul. The two were inseparable, and according to the artist’s friend and biographer, Khalid Mohamed, “His first waking memory, M.F. Husain remembers right away, was his grandfather’s charpoy, a room illuminated by oil lamps in the absence of electricity, and a stove emitting the smoke of smouldering almond-shaped coals” (K. Mohammed, M.F. Husain, Where Art Thou, Bombay, 2002, pp. x, xii). It was Dada Abdul who was a constant companion to him as a child, and encouraged his artistic talent.

Another figure from the artist’s childhood that recurs in his work, albeit in the shadows, is that of his mother Zainab, who passed away when he was less than two years old. The fact that he couldn’t remember her face tormented the artist for the rest of his life, and almost all of the portraits of women he painted lacked facial features as a result of this. Husain’s later fascination with Mother Theresa and the maternal compassion and altruism she represented may also be traced back to these roots. Recalling the lasting impact that his mother’s death had almost eighty-five years later, Husain writes in the third person that “she left no sign for her son to hold close to his heart, to cherish [...] Motherless Maqbool. Empty of the memory of her face. Perhaps it was a joke played on him by someone up there, when he was one and a half years old, when he was just about to touch the outline of her presence. She died, the child’s eyes were robbed of the glimmer of his mother. The eyes could never see her, love her” (Artist statement, K. Mohammed, M.F. Husain, Where Art Thou, Bombay, 2002, pp. 14-15).

In the present lot, a large painting titled Earth from 1995, Husain portrays both Dada Abdul and Zainab, acknowledging the important place they have always occupied in his life and work, and illustrating the central role family plays in grounding individuals by always providing a sense of ‘home’. Using a palette dominated by earthy tones, he portrays his grandfather restringing his charpoy or cot, with an open book next to him representing the respect for knowledge and culture he inculcated in Husain. His pious mother sits in front of the cot, with a taviz around her neck and a dark void under her blue dupatta obscuring her features. A crowing rooster at their feet completes the trio, symbolic perhaps of the undying pride with which Husain views his heritage.

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