Husain, M.F.
Karbala Horse (Zuljinah)
signed and dated 'Husain '91' (lower right)
oil and marker on canvas
46 ¼ x 24 in. (117.5 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1991
Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi
Private Collection, India
Grosvenor Gallery, London
South Asian Modern Art, exhibition catalogue, London, 2022, no. 35 (illustrated, unpaginated)
S. Zia, 'Across the Divide', Dawn, 26 June 2022 (illustrated)
London, Grosvenor Gallery, South Asian Modern Art, 10 June - 1 July 2022

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Nishad Avari
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Lot Essay

One of the most dominant and enduring motifs in Maqbool Fida Husain’s wide ranging body of work is the figure of the horse. “Husain's painted horses do not just bear majestic stateliness and striking beauty but also come alive in every mood, situation and form. Their forceful movement conveys so much that it carries us away with it” (R. Siddiqui, In Conversation with Husain Paintings, New Delhi, 2001, p. 112).

The horse became a central part of Husain’s oeuvre in the early 1950s, when he first painted the animal. His inspiration to paint horses was derived from a combination of sources, notably his childhood in Indore where he spent time with his grandfather’s friend who worked in a stable as a farrier, and later, his travels in China and Italy, where he encountered Tang pottery horses and discovered the modern equestrian sculptures by the artist Marino Marini (1901-1980).

A source of inspiration closer to home was Husain’s enduring memory of experiencing Muharram as a young boy. During this festival, men would carry tazias, or replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb, with figures of his faithful horse Zuljinah in a procession through the streets. Husain’s “earliest memories of artistic participation were with the making of the tazias in Indore where twenty foot high effigies of horses were carried in procession during the final day of Muharram, as symbols of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain the grandson of the Prophet. These gigantic horses signified all the valour of the warrior for the young boy and they emerged in some of his earliest paintings as animated, powerful animals” (Y. Dalmia, ‘M.F. Husain: Reinventing India’, Early Masterpieces: 1950s-70s, London, 2006, unpaginated).

The present lot draws on all these influences in its depiction of an important scene from Islamic history featuring the legendary horse Zuljinah. The animal, originally named Murtajiz, was gifted to Imam Hussain by his grandfather, the Prophet Mohammed, when he was a young boy. Imam Hussain rode Zuljinah into the battle of Karbala, and when the opponent’s arrows began to fly towards them, Zuljinah is said to have shielded Husain with his own body. Wounded, with arrows piercing both his flanks, Imam Hussain renamed him Zuljinah, horse with two wings. Zuljinah further proved his loyalty to Imam Hussain, even on the verge of death, galloping across the river Firat or the Euphrates to the tents of the Imam’s family to warn them that the Imam had died before himself succumbing to his wounds.

In this monochromatic painting, Husain recalls the tazias of his childhood, integrating the style of traditional Chinese ink paintings, Urdu calligraphy and the image of Zuljinah crossing the Firat. In depicting this crossing, Husain emphasizes the strength and power that is characteristic of Zuljinah, and by extension, of the figure of the horse in his body of work. As the horse leaps across the river at the lower edge of the canvas with arrows piercing his body, it seems as if he will break free of the painted surface and gallop into the world to faithfully complete his duty to the Imam.

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