Writing about Maqbool Fida Husain’s work from the mid-1960s, Shiv Kapur notes that “In painting after painting his colors shine out with an inner glow [...] His lines are quiet amid colors that have the design and luminosity of stained glass. The richness of this mystic illumination is reflected in his choice of colors: glowing blues, browns, and reds from the diagonal reaches of the spectrum, lit by patches of white [...] The result [...] is a near autonomy of colors, used in full awareness of their symbolic values, to create the very structure of painting in the manner of Cézanne and Matisse.” (R. Bartholomew and S.S. Kapur, Husain, New York, 1972, p. 52)
In this seminal work from 1966, glowing with the ‘luminosity of stained glass’ that Kapur describes, Husain illustrates a well-known episode from the rasa lila, the story based on the life of Krishna as described in Hindu text, Bhagavata Purana, where the blue-skinned god climbs a tree by a river in which a group of gopis bathe and steals their clothes. This incident, known as Gopi Vastraharan, has been illustrated in century-old manuscripts and temple sculptures found across the Indian subcontinent, as well as in later popular genres like Kalighat paintings and the oleographs of Raja Ravi Varma. Modern South Asian artists from Nandalal Bose to Francis Newton Souza have also explored this scene in their work, as an exemplar of the multifaceted relationship between the human and divine.
In Husain’s version of this tale, however, the human aspect seems to overshadow the divine. Compared to the four statuesque figures of gopis on the left, the blue figure of Krishna in the tree seems diminutive. Quarantined in a separate, smaller vignette on the right, in this painting Krishna is perhaps only a reminder of the viewer’s own voyeuristic gaze. The artist’s portrayal of the gopis, however, echoes the focus he has always placed on powerful female figures in his oeuvre. Drawing on classical Indian sculpture, Husain’s depictions of the female form were defined by his confident line and bold palette. In the figures of the gopis in the present lot, the bearing that ancient sculpture had on the artist’s early work is evident, as is the ingenious way in which he draws on the disciplines of music, dance and sculpture to bring this painting alive. Drawing from the Sanskrit philosophical notion of rasa or aesthetic rapture, Husain sought to express each of these artistic forms through the two-dimensional surface of the canvas to afford his viewers a holistic aesthetic experience.
“Conceptually and in their modeling Husain’s figures of this time belong more to his lyric than to his archaic vein. His usual style is to structure his forms, eschewing perspective and chiaroscuro, in flat surfaces of paint, applied with the brush or the knife. The influence of traditional Indian art has been strong in shaping this style, but it is also clearly the product of his own sensibility, permeated by a sense of the archaic and the ritualistic [...] His preference for abstracted and slowly formed emotion in art, as against the immediately perceived sensation, has further strengthened the tendency to archaizing. However, as has to be observed, there is another, divergent pull which draws Husain to the rounded and active figures of dance and sculpture. These are the forms of affirmation and sensuous perception. But many of his forms inevitably come from a territory in which these two stylistic approaches overlap, and some of his compositions, in an intermixture of moods, contain both types of figures.” (R. Bartholomew and S.S. Kapur, Husain, New York, 1972, p. 54)
Acquired directly from the artist by the Seventh Earl and Countess of Harewood, this painting represents the close friendship they developed with Husain over several visits to India in the 1960s and 70s. On one of these visits in 1968, Lord Harewood was unwell and Lady Harewood opened Husain’s solo show at Pundole Art Gallery in Bombay in his stead, where this painting was originally exhibited. Husain, with his usual flair, declared that as Lord Harewood was unable to come to the exhibition, the exhibition would go to him, and arranged for all the paintings on display to be taken to Lord Harewood’s hotel room and shown to him in a memorable procession. A few years later, in 1972, Lord Harewood presided over the Bombay release of the monograph on the artist published by Harry Abrams. After many decades of friendship, Husain exhibited a group of recent paintings at the Harewood House in 2007, alongside the early works acquired by Lord and Lady Harewood.