Literally translated, Mahabali means the ultimate sacrifice. In Husain's momentous painting from 1964, he has chosen to depict woman in all her glory as the symbol of this holy ritual. Husain's paintings are deeply rooted within a social context and as Daniel Herwitz explains: 'Under the concept of Shakti, women exist solely as the energy of man. Their lives are ordained to be sacrificial.' (Daniel Herwitz, 'Indian Art from a Contemporary Perspective', Indian Art Today, Washington, 1986, p. 22.) The individual faces of the figures are not important, as their identities 'consist only in how they are projected in space.'
The presence of a group of women and an elephant serve to heighten the importance of the central figure: '...the structure of the grouping accentuates the monumental character of the individual figure.... While surrealistic juxtaposition and displacement of associated symbols heighten the ambiguity of his pictorial world Husain frequently invests the human form with an archaic and timeless feeling. He depicts it as if abstracted from time and renders it, along with the signs and symbols, into an equation whose other, unknown elements must for all time exist outside the frame of the painting. The nature of sensual reality is transformed. In the final analysis sex is made abstract, viewed as an element within the equation, an instrumentation for seeking and establishing identity.' (Shiv S. Kapur, Husain, New York, 1986, p. 58.)
Jaya Appaswamy would describe this painting as belonging to Husain's 'middle period.' Here, the space is often divided into various planes of color which are linked together with a central motif that extends into all the areas. 'The figure is broken into colored divisions very often these belong to the same tonal group, their juxtaposition is entirely for their aesthetic effect. For example lemon yellow with chrome yellow and tones of umber, in the deepest areas the color is a rich black and in the lightest white.' (Jaya Appaswamy, 'Three Retrospective Exhibitions: Husain', Lalit Kala Contemporary 10, New Delhi, September 1969, p. 30.) The heads of these figures are usually 'inconspicuous', as the focus of the work is largely determined by the 'main slabs of color.' (Jaya Appaswamy, ibid.)
Husain has the ability to transfer the concerns of centuries past into a present day context. His work is 'not merely about the persistence of ancient India in the present but also about what the modern world knows of the nature of its own existence.' (Daniel Herwitz, op. cit., p. 23.)
Mahabali is a theme that Husain returned to in the 1970's. For a similar work, see Thomas W. Sokolowski, Contemporary Indian Art, New York, 1985, p. 35 and David Elliott and Ebrahim Alkazi, India: Myth and Reality, Aspects of Modern Indian Art, Oxford, 1982, p. 7.