Tribute in acrylic

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

Piece de resistance. Akbar watches Anarkali dance, but with her face turned away, presumably to receive a flower that Salim offers.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Piece de resistance. Akbar watches Anarkali dance, but with her face turned away, presumably to receive a flower that Salim offers.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

M.F. Husains latest works, exhibited at the India International Centre in New Delhi, are inspired by the 1960 classic Mughal-e-Azam.

M.F. HUSAINS latest works reveal a joie-de-vivre that is most infectious. He is a man who has lived life to the full, and shared his pleasures and perceptions with his viewers most generously over the years. A 10-day exhibition of his paintings hosted by the India International Centre and Dolly Narang of the Village Art Gallery (December 18-28) brought a lot of pleasure to those lucky enough to see it.

Husain Sahibs love of old Hindi films is well known. He wanted to be an actor in Hindi films but fortunately did not. Instead, he made in his advanced years two experimental and truly beautiful films, Gaja Gamini, starring Madhuri Dixit, and Menaxi with Tabu.

The pictures in this show are clearly inspired by K. Asifs memorable Mughal-e-Azam (1960), which still grips viewers cutting across generations thanks to the video revolution. That the artist, like millions of other Indians, loves Hindi films is plain from the pictures he has painted in tribute. They are not merely nostalgic creations but also a painters exploration of the creative impulses that have so generously fed and nourished over centuries the best of what one may call Indianness.

Take the song Mohey panghat pe Nandlal ched gayo re, a traditional composition from Uttar Pradesh about Radha complaining about the child Krishna teasing her on the ghats of the Jamuna as she fills her pitcher. Composer Naushads masterly adaptation of the tune memorably sung by Lata Mangeshkar is given a novel, fresh treatment by Husain. He places the blue-blooded flute-playing Krishna in the background, receding diagonally in the composition, to create a spirit of longing without the presence of Radha.

There is a playful composition, inspired by certain pictorial elements in Rajasthani Pichwais, of two elephants, possibly moving towards each other in aggression; the one on the left is in green, of a verdant variety. The picture paradoxically brings with it a sense of good cheer.

A composition of rural life done in pale yellowish brown is a tribute to Mughal miniatures in its vertical treatment of space, which recalls the compressed perspective of a long lens in photography. Here, too, the painter, through entirely visual, plastic means, manages to evoke an imagined memory of times gone by. For those who care for this sort of thing, it can trigger certain feelings associated with the melodic possibilities of a raga like, say, Madhmat Sarang.

A sculptor in Mughal-e-Azam does a sculpture of a woman, which turns out looking like Anarkali, the beloved of the rebellious Prince Salim, heir apparent to the Mughal throne. The painter treats this scene as he should, only as a starting point. The vertical composition in dun and a touch of magenta on the dupatta verges on the austere, with both the sangtarash (sculptor) and Anarkali as near-silhouettes.

But there is a gong-like vibrance to it. There is also knowledge of pain and pleasure growing on the same tree.

Celebration is the theme of a rectangular canvas in which a royal procession moves from right to left. There is a carnival spirit about it.

Here again, a restricted colour palette works in favour of the picture, and how. Mastery of technique is a given, but the knowledge of a need for happiness is a bonus, even more important in the context of the grim times in which we live.

The late great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib of Patiala sang two raga-based compositions in Mughal-e-Azam. The first, Prem Jogan was in Sohni and the second, Shubh Din Aayo Rajdulare in Bagshree. Both these songs are used as inspirational elements in two separate paintings. The figures of Salim and Anarkali reclining amorously on the floor, with a figure in the background emptying fish in whitish tones into a basket, create an elastic feel of time, and one can hear once again the strains of Prem Jogan echoing through the head. But even if there is no foreknowledge of the song or the film, the intensity of romance can still be sensed purely from the painted image.

Acrylic on canvas is the chosen medium in this exhibition. Husain handles the medium with customary ease and puts its quick drying characteristics to creative use. Every image here is evoked by the dialogue and songs of a film he enjoyed seeing a long time ago.

But the inspiration for a painting in the series may have come on the spur of the moment. Spontaneity was of the essence. The ideal way to capture the essence of an idea was perhaps acrylic.

Husain began life as a painter of large film banners announcing the latest releases, and as a result fell in love with cinema. The banners were large and had to be drawn and painted in large, bold, evocative and essentially accurate strokes. It is here that he got his technical grounding, which equipped him for his future vocation as a painter of more serious intentions and ideas.

He also acquired some technical training as well as knowledge of Indian aesthetics from the famed Devlalikar of Bhopal. The rest he managed on his own.

Having learnt early to draw and paint over large surfaces has given him the freedom to work over smaller working spaces with verve. In terms of colour he has always worked economically and even austerely, making the most of the means at his disposal.

A canvas of black, white and gray attains dynamic qualities because of the frugal means employed, and in the deployment of lines meeting at diagonals. Elephants at the top of the frame add drama to the proceedings.

He appears to believe that pleasures must be earned, and rightly so. He has worked very hard all his life, from the days of struggle to the long years of fame. Rain or shine, he has retained his optimism and love of life. You see in his work the same directness, sincerity and, yes, sensuality, as in the ancient temple sculptures found in Aihole, Badami, Pattadakal, Konarak and Khajuraho. Hinduism in those halcyon days was a source of health and happiness, not a cause celebre in the hands of neo-fascists with their one-eyed agenda, as it has become in these days.

Husain has had fun painting the pictures on exhibition, though he has not foregone rigour. The piece de resistance of the show is a rectangular composition of a seated Akbar in yellow, blue and green, watching the white figure of Anarkali dancing before him, but with her face turned away, presumably to receive the single flower that the partially visible figure of her suitor, Prince Salim, offers from behind the drapery. A moon, full and waxing, is visible in the background. In the foreground to the right, a figure in bright red seen from the back brings the composition together to give it zing and real romance.

The painter suddenly becomes a young man capable of falling head over heels in love with the woman of his dreams. So do we, the viewers.

There is always this feeling of sharing with a dear friend the good things of life, not necessarily bringing material well-being, but certainly contentment and pleasure in viewing this body of work which, at first glance, seems slight, even frivolous. But it grows on you and makes a lasting place in your heart.

That by itself is an achievement. Not bad at all for a man of 94. It is hard to believe because it seems to be the work of a young man in the rowdy prime of life.


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