A Tribute to India’s Picasso in Qatar

M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun, a rare collection by the artist is open at Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art – till July 31 and is one exhibition that should not be missed. By Sindhu Nair

It could perhaps be factually right to say that this is the largest collection of M.F. Husain in a country outside his birthplace. That his life and times were rife with controversies is a manifestation of this great artists’ creative mind which was usually without barriers. It is also proof of his country of birth India’s growing intolerance to freedom of expression.

M. F. Husain

One of M. F. Husain’s images at the exhibition

M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun, curated by the acclaimed Mumbai-based poet, art critic, and cultural theorist, Ranjit Hoskote, features more than 100 works by M. F. Husain, including paintings, drawings, textile works, and films, drawn from QF and Qatar Museums collections, as well as from private collections from the Gulf region and around the world.

Curator Ranjit Hoskote says: “M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun is the first large-scale exhibition of his works. It will present this magisterial artist’s body of work across more than six decades and examine three thought processes at the heart of Husain’s oeuvre.”
First: the idea of home, as a habitat remembered from childhood, shaped in the present, or to be discovered through exploration. Second: the human adventure of creativity across societies, periods, and disciplines. And third: a pluralist approach to the divine and cosmic aspects of being articulated through the symbolism of the world’s religions and philosophies.

The love for his homeland and his later exile from the same country, are all facets that shaped and perhaps honed his work and it seems most appropriate that the exhibition begins with the large vertical canvas of the depiction of the Quit India movement of 1942 with Gandhi featured in it. The respect and love for India and how the socially and sometimes politically laced dialogue he had through his painting are easily visible in this work. The idea of home is discernibly expressed and introduced with this painting.

HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser at MF Husain's exhibition

Ranjit Hoskote takes HH Sheikha Moza bint Nasser through the exhibition at the launch. Wadha Tariq Al Aqeedi is also present in the frame. All of them stand in front of the most significant of Husain’s work in his later period of life, The Last Supper of the Desert in Red, 2008, where he says “Arabia, in my Last Supper, remains uncoded, unlike how it is in Leonardo’s Last Supper, where Europe is heavily coded.”

M. F. Husain was a foundational figure in the history of Indian modernism, as a member of the vanguard formation known as the Progressive Artists Group. Every aspect of his life assumed mythic proportions, beginning with his birthdate. Long assumed to have been born in 1915, he was in fact born two years earlier. And the birth certificate is also exhibited which Ranjit explains thus, “ I wanted to display Husain’s birth certificate both to demonstrate the actual date of his birth and to provide two bookends to his life and to the show – the birth certificate appears alongside a poem by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, which he had wanted as the epitaph on his grave. Each document demonstrates a different and complementary aspect of Husain’s personality.”

The curator in Doha, Wadha Tariq Al Aqeedi, is insistent that the artist was equally in touch with his Doha roots; a fact that is confirmed through his later part of the collection, which throws light into the global perspective Husain had and how it transcended on to his work.

As Ranjit speaks of the all-encompassing nature of Husain’s works, the characteristic of “global artist” becomes more evident. “I wanted to make his very first film, ‘Through the Eyes of a Painter‘ (1967), a cornerstone of the show,” explains Ranjit. “And I designed the exhibition along with three definitions of home, that ideal which was always with him yet beyond him, first as a nomad and later as an exile. Thus my structuring of the show into three spaces, each named for a different interpretation of ‘home’, deliberately using words that are common among Urdu/Hindi, Arabic and Farsi, the key languages of Husain’s life – ‘Bait’, indicating the intimacy of early years and ancestral homelands; ‘Manzil’, indicating a destination or edifice, contexts for which he had both longing and curiosity; and ‘Dar’, meaning a public space of engagement, collaboration, experimentation and play.”

A beautiful if poetic way to take us through the exhibition as you would expect from Ranjith, an acclaimed contemporary poet cum curator of art.

SCALE asks Ranjit to explain more about the artist who has always remained a mysterious if loved figure in the history of Indian contemporary art.

SCALE: Don’t you think that Husain’s work was a major loss to the Indian art world which would have benefitted if he had lived in India all his life?

RH: In our global times, location doesn’t necessarily matter. Husain’s work is the legacy of all humankind. Having said that, yes, his departure into exile was a loss for India. On the other hand, his art might not have taken the dramatic turn it did in his final years, had he not been pushed into this upheaval.

SCALE: The Last Supper recreated by Hussain is a masterpiece in the current social and cultural setting. What are your thoughts?

RH: I agree with you. That is why it is in the exhibition. It brings together diverse elements from Islamic and Christian religious traditions as well as aesthetic traditions and reclaims the Christ narrative for Asia. Remember that Christianity began as an Asian religion of anti-imperial resistance, even if it is today regarded largely through the lens of European culture and the colonial period.

SCALE: Which in your opinion is the most valuable of the last paintings of his?
RH: All of them, of course! I particularly love the series of paintings devoted to Yemen, and ‘Husain and His Horse’, as well as the series on Arab Civilisation.

SCALE: His love for his country was very much the focal point of Husain’s work, did that change?

RH: Husain always loved India, and it remained a magnificent source of inspiration with him. But he was a transregional artist and had multiple frameworks of belonging, including in South and West Asia, the context of international modernism, the UK. He was too grand a personality and presence to be squeezed into any single box of identity, whether of nationality, region or religion.

In our pursuit to know more of Husain, the larger-than-life artist of modern times, the poem that is inscribed on his tomb, is a perfect epitaph and as Husain himself says, “it is exactly what I am.

The poem goes thus:
I am all sorts… I overwork and I malinger
I am both ex- and inexpedient
I am completely incompatible, clumsy incompetent
Good and evil, bashful and impudent
I love everything
To alternate and shuttle!
For in me, so much of everything is shuffled….
From the East all the way to the West.
From jealousy to joyous zest.
I know you will say, where is the “wholeness”?
But, in this all, mighty value consoles us!