Over the course of his six decade long artistic career, Maqbool Fida Husain contributed greatly to the definition, development and propagation of modern Indian art. Primarily, as Yashodhara Dalmia explains, he “deliver[ed] the common man from the ordinariness of his existence to the international arena” by formulating a modern vocabulary that had its roots fixed firmly in the Indian people and their traditions. (Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi, 2001, p. 101)
From his humble beginnings as a billboard painter in Bombay in the late 1930s, Husain successfully developed this unique vocabulary to become one of India’s leading modern masters. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Picasso of India’, his deep engagement with history, civilisation and heroic epics aided him in breaking from tradition and the rigidity of academic painting styles, while never losing sight of the art heritage, energy and rhythm of the vast Indian landscape.
Early in his career, Husain would join the newly formed Progressive Artists’ Group, founded in 1947 on the eve of Indian Independence. This collective of likeminded artists took in the forms and idioms of Indian folk art, classical painting and sculpture, combining them with western styles and techniques to produce a unique mode of expression – a new, modern art for India. Husain along with fellow members of the group, including Francis Newton Souza and Sayed Haider Raza, emerged as a cultural standard bearer in independent India, his art exalting in the liberation of the new democracy but never hiding from the painful legacies of its birth. The Progressive Artists’ Group remained together formally for only a few years, but was as impactful as it was brief, propelling Husain and his contemporaries to become pioneers of Indian modernism.
The present canvas, a monumental ode to village life in India, was painted in 1958, during one of the most fertile and vital periods in Husain’s oeuvre. During this formative phase, the artist championed figures and scenes from ordinary life around him, specifically rural life, as icons of Indian culture and of independent India. “It was in the early years, that Maqbool Fida Husain created the essential idiom for his art and it provided him with the navigational resources for his later journey. The layered vocabulary of his paintings, as complex as India itself, also set the tone for his preoccupation which was to tap the pulse of a nation in its making, viewing it from the street as it were. In doing so he virtually re-invented India and he continues to do this at each stage of his art.” (Y. Dalmia, ‘M.F. Husain: Re-inventing India', M.F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s-70s, exhibition catalogue, London, 2006, unpaginated)
Throughout this pivotal decade, Husain captured the charm and colour of the Indian countryside in its most lyrical state, with men and women at rest and work alongside animals representing key cultural signifiers. It was during the 1950s that Husain produced some of his most iconic masterpieces, exhibited his work in several countries, and represented India at the Venice Biennale twice. Significantly, Husain’s work will once again be displayed at the Venice Biennale this year, more than sixty years later, as part of the India Pavilion exhibition, Our Time for a Future Caring. Perhaps the most celebrated work by the artist from this decade is Zameen, painted in 1955 and acquired by the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Zameen, which earned the artist the Lalit Kala Akademi award in 1955, is a lexicon of Husain’s pictorial language of this period and a hallmark of his style.
The present painting, extending almost eight feet wide, was painted shortly after Zameen, and offers a similar significant visual almanac of his early oeuvre. Each constituent vignette in this multipart composition represents familiar tropes, quintessential to his artistic output, establishing his assured draftsmanship and mastery of line and colour beyond any doubt. The four bold, individually bordered line drawings on the left elevate villagers engaged in quotidian activities to the realm of the heroic, from the artist’s simple, romantic portrayal of a young mother with a child and bird to the closely cropped portrayal of the turbaned face of an earnest farmer.
In the large coloured panel on the right, Husain brings these subjects together with others in a tightly orchestrated village scene, including a group of farmers with a plough, a seated lady milking a cow, a second group of ladies drawing water from a well, and another group at play under a shady grove of trees. The artist’s earthy palette and the few structures in the background recall Sienese landscape paintings of the fourteenth century, which the artist most likely encountered on his travels through Italy in the early 1950s.
In this distinctive widescreen format, Husain creates a storyboard for India a decade after its independence, celebrating its glorious past and the future promises it holds. According to the artist, both past and future are categorically linked to the villages and their people as keepers of history and drivers of sustainable growth. Each figure that the artist has carefully selected represents the strength of the foundations of the new democratic India, as well as the country’s incredible wealth and potential for glory.
This impressive painting is thus a record of life and art in India in a way that synergises the past, the present and the future in Husain’s characteristic lyrical manner. Ebrahim Alkazi, in his monograph on the artist, highlights the scope of Husain’s unique visual idiom, noting 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 [...] Husain’s concept is intensely poetic: with a stroke of genius, the entire mythic world which has enriched the minds of the common people is brought vividly alive. Past and present, myth and reality are shown to exist simultaneously in the Indian imagination.” (E. Alkazi, M. F. Husain: The Modern Artist & Tradition, New Delhi, 1978, p. 17)