My paintings, drawings and the recent paper work have been directly influenced by my experience of traditional Indian dolls, paper toys, shapes galore. The experience of being with them, and the inspiration to create them, are inseparable. A painter is a child in his purity of feeling - for only then he creates with authenticity of his being.
- Maqbool Fida Husain, 1955
From his humble beginnings as a billboard painter in Bombay, Maqbool Fida Husain successfully transcended critical constraints and financial hardship to establish himself as one of the strongest artistic voices in newly independent India. The artist’s deep engagement with history, civilization and heroic epics aided him in breaking away from rigid academic painting styles and creating a unique and strong artistic voice that never lost sight of the art heritage, energy and rhythm of the vast Indian landscape.
In 1948, Husain and fellow artist Francis Newton Souza visited an exhibition of Indian classical sculptures and miniature paintings at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. The works he saw at this exhibition made Husain acutely conscious of the rich veins of classical Indian aesthetics that he could draw from, and inspired the creation of the distinctive visual language seen in his works from the early 1950s. In the artist’s own words, “The exhibition left me both humbled and exhilarated. It was like scaling a mountain and then discovering a whole new range of mountains. Looking at the forms of the Gupta sculptures, experiencing the innocence of Indian folk art and seeing the rawness of colours in Basholi and Pahadi paintings, I knew I had stumbled upon something priceless” (Artist statement, K. Bikram Singh, Maqbool Fida Husain, New Delhi, 2008, p. 60).
Throughout the 1950s, a pivotal decade in his career, Husain captured the charm and color of the Indian countryside in its most lyrical state, with men and women at rest and work alongside their homes and animals. It was during this time that Husain produced some of his most iconic works, exhibited in several countries, and represented India at the Venice Biennale twice.
The Pull is a formative work, painted in 1952 at a critical point in the development of the artist’s unique visual vocabulary and the gestation of modern art in India. Viewed in this context, this painting takes on layers of meaning and complexity, addressing among other issues the supposed divides between tradition and modernity, past and present, that the newly independent nation of India and its artists were struggling with at the time.
In this painting, Husain draws from his observations of village life and the charms of rural India to portray a traditional puppeteer putting on a marionette performance at a local fair. Created with a restrained, earthy palette and the artist’s characteristic bold, calligraphic lines, the angular figure of the puppeteer appears monumental, occupying almost the entire painted surface. In his hands he holds two decorated sticks that control the puppet-couple at his feet. Their blue bodies suggest that they probably represent Krishna and his companion Radha or Ram and his wife Sita, divine couples from the Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Like the artist, the puppeteer manipulates his figures to relate ancient stories of love, heroism and morality to his rapt audiences, ensuring that Indian myths and legends live on in contemporary times.
In every aspect of Husain’s early paintings like this one, most notably color, form and subject matter, we are reminded that “behind every stroke of the artist's brush is a vast hinterland of traditional concepts, forms, meanings. His vision is never uniquely his own; it is a new perspective given to collective experience of his race. It is in this fundamental sense that we speak of Husain being in the authentic tradition of Indian art. He 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” (E. Alkazi, ‘M.F. Husain: The Modern Artist & Tradition’, Art Heritage, New Delhi, pp. 3-4).