Art News & Views

Husain's Calcutta


by Manasij Majumder

Exhibition of paintings by MF Husain
Calcutta 300, from Job Charnock's Calcutta to Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar, 1990
At Tata Center, Kolkata
Sponsored by Tata Iron and Steel Co Ltd

With all his legendary fame in India and abroad the only Indian artist, given the honour, 'India's Picasso' by Forbes magazine, Husain is no longer an Indian. Now a citizen of Qatar, he lives permanently abroad, out of bounds to a pack of Hindu bigots, who have successfully blocked the return of the native with the connivance of the powers that be. In Calcutta he showcased his works several times on two or three occasions he did exclusively Calcutta-related paintings and was always warmly received, except when he exhibited in 2003. It was a trinity event at the age of 88 he showed 88 paintings at the Gallery 88. His show, scheduled to be opened by the Chief Minister, was boycotted by the city artists. The Chief Minister too, to oblige his then friends among the artists, cancelled the slated engagement. The Calcutta artists and writers boast of enjoying and zealously defending the writer's/artist's right to free expression and that is why they defended Husain against the Hindu fanatics who made it impossible for him to live in India. But what caused their fury this time was an innocuous remark by Husain that only 10 per cent of the artists here are really good.

The most spectacular shows Husain held in this city were those mounted on the topmost floor of the Tata Centre in Calcutta. They included, besides the famous series on Mother Teresa, a series on the Raj, another titled, Assassination, and the two directly devoted to Calcutta were From Gitanjali to Pather Panchali and From Job Charnock's Kolikata to Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar (1990). Unfortunately no records, no documentations, if Calcutta has kept any, of the exhibitions, are available even at the Tata Centre, or could be had from two of the most distinguished Calcuttans who were Husain's hosts in the city at the time. Only a portfolio of Calcutta 300, with an introduction by Behula Chaudhury and published by the Tata Centre, is all that remains for posterity to recall one of the major shows that Husain gifted exclusively to Calcutta. He also held two more shows in the city, Gajagamini (2001) and Minaksi (2003) but they were painterly spillovers of two of his films of the same name.

Husain has occasionally turned out canvases which can be labelled as abstractions. But most of his thousands of canvases and drawings are teeming with life filled  with heavily painted and often strong line-bound emotive images of gods and goddesses, men and women, lovers, bathers, nudes, village belles, dancers, musicians, moulavis, monks, Brahmins, Kusums and Fatimas as well as horses, elephants, tigers, bulls etc. Each of his canvases is primarily a portrait with figures and forms in their liveliest gesture of signification which transcends the narrow limits of the semantic and attains the most evocative depth of the symbolic. All his figurative images are embedded in an eloquent abstraction rooted in the silent dialogue between the artist and his subject. He captures the essence of whatever comes within the epic sweep of his painterly perception, he reaches out both vertically and horizontally to the entire range of Indian lifescapes, taking the cue for his pictorial values and vocabulary from the life and art, history and religion, culture and nature of everything he saw and experienced during his extensive tours of his native country. His art and vision have absorbed a great deal from the past and present of India, from classical sculpture to folk and miniature painting and from what he learnt while doing those huge billboards of Bollywood movie ads and during the brief spell of his early life as a toy-maker and furniture-designer. At the same time, he also imbibed from the updates of western modernism of his time the spirit and strategies of Expressionism. The result has not been an eclectic assemblage of forms and values but a unique idiom, chiselled to express his solitary soul soaked in the densely layered multidimensional reality of India.

Husain's art with its severity and simplicity of figural evocation, its strong, exuberant and dynamic lineality and with a palette, rich and complex to vibrant and vivid, responds to life both in its framework of eternal narrative and in the format of a historical event, past or present. Paintings like Passage of Time, Blue Night or Between the Spider and the Lamp address the quintessence of Indian reality and hence locate the images in undefined space and time devoid of any topical reference. But in canvases like Nehru or Moonlanding or in the series on Mother Teresa and Assassination he turns his gaze on contemporary history and its lead characters and events.

In his Calcutta paintings, too, he builds a fragmentary narrative comprising scraps of his impressions about the city's past and present, its culture and chaos, its distinction and decadence and the passion and pastime in the life of Calcuttans. The fragmentary nature of the narrative is suggested often by piecing together separate panels which split a total frame.

Figures and forms in these acrylics are as line-bound as in most of his major works. But the lines here are often laid not in brushy rush of emotive stress but in sharp edgy definitive strokes bearing more a series of cerebral accents. Husain can be detached as well as fascinated by what the city has produced in arts, literature and film. He is neither effusive nor critical but a detached observer of the city with a good deal of feeling for it.

In most of the frames he chooses as support of his line-specific imagery heavy-weight paper tinted brown and ochre with creasy textures like arid earth ploughed and levelled, thus lending a solemn back-up note to his story of a 300 year old city. His palette ranges from bright and warm to solemn shades of red, yellow, brown, sienna and black or the occasional blue and green but is often dominated by pure to toned white in thick patches and passages. In most instances they charge the images with a feel of weight and solidity, making them forceful pictorial statements.

What marks their execution is his deft and decisive formulation of ideas delivered straight onto the canvas in moments of creative excitement and a discipline of rigorous selection and elimination of detail. A master draftsman and a fine colourist Husain knows how to handle a subject which lends itself neither to a solemn and serious treatment nor to cartoonish or caricaturesque fun however good-humoured it might be. Calcutta in Husain's eye has quite a few great monuments contouring its cultural skyline as well as a pedestrian base that makes Calcutta no longer a great city worthy of its claim to fame.

The title piece sports on the top an arched inscription in Bengali script which reads in English translation: From Job Charnock's Calcutta to Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar. The title is flanked on either side by a stone plaque, one bearing the year, 1690 and the other, 1990, marking the tercentenary of the city as the occasion of the series.

The image evokes, in colourful cartoonlike figuration, three squat sari-clad seminude females with wide-eyed rustic looks, each  given a marker in a row, Sutanoti, Kolikata and Govindopur, to represent the three villages of those names, the original sites which its growing urban sprawls embraced after Calcutta  was “chance founded” by Charnock. The fourth female in the frame, a city-bred young girl with specs, is Durga. She represents today's Calcutta and highlights the city's present day cultural score, Durga being the name of female lead in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. There is also the tongue-lolling head of Kali, the presiding Goddess of the city, with the multi-layered association of Kalighat from which Calcutta gets its name. Goddess Kali, of course, gets a separate four panel frame, portrayed with least deference to traditional religious iconography. She is not a dark deity sticking out a blood red tongue, she is a kolkattawali, mother Calcutta, or Calcutta's self incarnate, colourful but not attractive.

Kalighat is not only the address of Calcutta's presiding deity but it was once also the den of folk artists who in the 19th century created a body of magnificent artworks both sacred and profane in content. Husain recalls the curvaceous courtesans of the Kalighat paintings even in the title piece. The three plump village women, one of them evoked with explicit sensuality, are telltale evidence of Husain's fascination for the most remarkable art event in the city a hundred years ago. He pays further tribute to the Kalighat painters in two of the pictures of the suite, titled Matsya Sundari, (piscine beauty in literal translation) sporting, not mermaids, but two monumental bare buxom beauties, bulging with sensuality in every curve. Painted in lovely browns the naked figure is encased in lines of massive curves reminiscent of the Kalighat brush strokes, although distilled as in Jamini Roy's handling of this folk tradition. She holds a fish in her hand in double symbolic signification. Fish signifies her Bengali identityit is the indispensable item on the menu at any Bengali lunch or dinner. Moreover, a fish is a fertility symbol, but more than that, in her hand it acquires a phallic connotation as does any object, a cactus or a lamp, included often in Husain nudes. Probably it is in the most gorgeous frame of the series that Husain pays his best tribute to both the Kalighat pats and the sensual vitality of Bengali women. Titled, Bagh Mane Har (tiger concedes defeat), and painted in splendid yellow and hot terracotta red, it has the vividness and simplicity of the Kalighat School though not the latter's chromatic and calligraphic rhythm. A scantily clad shapely young married womanthe vermillion mark on her head gives away her Bengali identitytames and overpowers a ferocious Royal Bengal tiger inside a cage as if in a circus arena. As the tiger's mighty tail, held between her bare legs has an obvious phallic suggestion, the image needs no oblique cover of symbolic language to betoken the source of her strength by which beauty wins over the beast.

The historical shift in the city's fame and fortune is the subject in a couple of frames. One of the twin image frames traces the trajectory of Calcutta's journey or passage (Yatra1)not unlike a rake's progressfrom the feudal past to the impoverished present. One panel shows a group of bearers, drawn from the exploited underclass, holding aloft on their heads a hookah-smoking leisurely landlord reclining on a large mattressan image of wasteful feudal economy of 19th century Calcutta, thriving on the exploitation of the poor peasantry. The companion piece (Yatra 2) shows the downswing in Calcutta's fortune in the 20th century the affluent minority of the city carrying on their heads the dead load of poverty symbolized by an enormous carcass of a beggar. One panel depicts a society lady riding in a phaeton pulled by a pair of horses and its twin shows a bouncy crowd of Calcuttans at the races. In either picture Husain employs black as the colour of lurking darkness especially in the black horse ominously towering above the white ones.

The most memorable moment of glory recalled in this pictorial account of Calcutta's past and present is the soccer match of 1911 in which the Mohan Bagan Club team beat their 'white superiors'. The visual detail includes both factual and symbolic signifiers of how the unshod Bengali players spiritedly fought against their white opponents in heavy boots. Husain gives one of them an extra pair of barefoot white legs only to betoken that the native side played with double the energy of the white players.

Apart from painting, Husain's major love is film. Hence Calcutta for him is Satyajit Ray's Mahanagar-- the great city. No less fascinating for him is the city's popular film culture that reached its peak in the sixties and the seventies with the raging popularity of the reel life love pair Uttamkumar and Suchitra Sen. Husain draws in silver screen white these two matinee idols of Bengal wistfully looking at each other in a romantic frame and signs Guru, the moniker given to Uttam by his fans. But he also pays his tribute to the father of the popular Bengali screen heroes, Pramathesh Barua, sketched in an inset.

Husain, who did earlier a great series on Mother Teresa, cannot forget that Calcutta is her city as well. Titled Motherly Affection, it portrays the spirit of the Mother, her love and affection, her concern for the poor and destitute rather than her physical resemblance. The white sari bordered with blue stripes worn in the Mother's well known style around what looks like a blank void, however, leaves none in doubt about the identity. The sari end fluttering in the air, a dove with its wings up on her lap and Mother's hand stretched out to shower love and blessings on a forlorn child contour the most dynamic spirit of love and kindness embodied in Mother Teresa.

Only two or three frames stand out as Husain's facetious comments on what survives in Calcutta from her colonial past traffic chaos in a crowded thoroughfare and the clerk's drudgery in a Government office. In both images Queen Victoria presides over the scene from a sculpted or painted portrait. In idiom and spirit they are not unlike some of the cartoons of Gaganedranath Tagore.

Finally, in his self-portrait, Chhabidas he gives himself a Bengali namestanding tall in dhoti and kurta, a la a Bengali babu, his handsome bearded head looking not unlike the poet Tagore's. Painted in fine cottony white Chhabidas is not a Bengali but a Benglicized Husain who knows how to hold the tip of the front pleat of his dhoti but is unsure of where the pleat comes from. Nevertheless, the portrait exudes his happy lightness of being a dhoti-clad cultured Calcuttan.




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