“In the mid-1980s, at the height of his celebrity as India’s most famous and flamboyant modernist and living artist, Maqbool Fida Husain cast his painterly eye back half a century and more, to a time when much of the subcontinent was still under British rule. This sharp – and surprising - (re)turn to India’s recent colonial past resulted in some among the most insightful, and also most playful, of works in different media to emerge from the brush of this prolific and imaginative artist” (S. Ramaswamy, Husain’s Raj, Visions of Empire and Nation, Mumbai, 2016, p. 12).
In Maqbool Fida Husain’s series of paintings on this period of British colonial rule, popularly known as the Raj, elements of history and satire come together in large scale tableaus and intimate watercolors to present a witty commentary on the social, economic and political realities of the time. In this epic painting of a royal procession, Husain satirizes one of the confluences between East and West in colonial India, portraying the marriages between rulers of India’s princely states and various British and American women, a common phenomenon in the early 1900s. Likely inspired by the infamous exploits of Tukoji Rao Holkar III, Maharaja of Indore, the city in which the artist grew up, these paintings seem to reference Holkar’s marriage to the American Nancy Miller (subsequently known as Sharmishta Devi) and his later scandalous affair with the underage ‘nautch girl’ or dancer from Hyderabad, Mumtaz (renamed Kamabai Saheba).
In Husain’s Raj series, unlike his other paintings, these references to historical figures are intentionally oblique and often fictionalized. While “Husain simultaneously mimics two separate styles of colonial British-Indian painting: formal portraiture (using prominent imperial emblems and icons), and the ‘picturesque’ that exaggerated the ‘exotic’ elements of the colony for ‘home’ consumption [...he] does not historicize his subjects, both historicism and nationalism being notions derived from European modernity. Nor does he seek to give articulation to a subaltern position. His India has much authority, and it forms a rather bemused backdrop for the historic mutual incomprehension that the Raj embodied. He situates his presentation of the drama of the coloniser and the colonized within a discourse of equivalence” (S. Bagchee, ‘Augmented Nationalism: The Nomadic Eye of Painter M.F. Husain’, Asianart Online, 1998, accessed August 2020).
Although both royal women in this painting are featureless and seated on royal elephants at a seemingly equal level, their depiction is strikingly different. The Western lady wears a white sleeveless dress with a sunhat, while her conspicuously crowned Indian counterpart is draped in a traditional sari. This underlines Ramaswamy’s observation that rather than representatives of correspondence, these ‘Angrezi Maharanis’ or English queens add to the artist’s tongue-in-cheek “postcolonial riposte to many a European Orientalist art work which, in the previous century, delectably and luxuriously similarly ‘framed’ female brown flesh” (S. Ramaswamy, Husain’s Raj, Visions of Empire and Nation, Mumbai, 2016, p. 86). Interestingly, the figure of the dancer or ‘nautch girl’ on the right is the most prominent in this monumental composition, larger than all the other attendants, the drummer, and even the two imperial couples.
In retrospect, Husain’s Raj series may be read as a timely endeavor, with a “national-patriotic impulse” that “provides both the political and ethical charge that runs through these works and that also distinguishes Husain’s attempts to laugh at the empire from other artistic attempts to do so that had preceded him. He really is the only major artist of his generation to deliver this message [...offering] a playful but nonetheless edgy postcolonial lesson in how one might hate and disavow empire in the right way, even while learning to live with it, mock it and laugh at it properly” (S. Ramaswamy, Husain’s Raj, Visions of Empire and Nation, Mumbai, 2016, p. 133, 139).