Husain’s ‘Mahabharata’ record - irony for India

March 21st, 2008 - 1:36 pm ICT by admin  

By Uma Nair
M.F. Husain’s epic work “Mahabharata: The Battle of Ganga and Jamuna” fetching a world record of $1.6 million at the Christie’s sale is the best example of situational irony in a nation that has virtually exiled its finest living artist. The world record can perhaps silence the factions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu groups. Particularly in the backdrop of the auction world, an art boom in which an artist’s inspiration has more to do with bankability rather than art, this work, painted in 1971-72, dealing with the cosmic civil war between right and wrong, highlights the importance of morality at its very core.

Using gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology was something Husain, who now lives in Dubai, began doing decades ago. It had nothing to do with the prejudice of religion; nothing to do with a Muslim artist exploiting Hindu symbolism - it had everything to do with the universality of Hinduism’s symbol and structure.

The overall impression that one gets while seeing this work is one of fluency - of an artist in comfortable command of certain prevalent ideas of the moment.

Foremost among these ideas is the conviction that artists should cross-fertilise their work; they should mix and match elements of high and low culture, juggle historical periods, and combine different forms, genres and technologies.

Unlike many artists today, Husain’s lens is wide-angle and robust; he has always relished a vintage vitality.

For example, his gods and goddesses (of various ethnicities) live in poses that evoke many sources, from the Upanishads to the Gita and the Mahabharata. He also makes symbols that can stretch the perspective of a familiar story - but transforms it to a daily-lived reality so that it resembles a work of high-modern abstraction.

Never has he been a derivative landscape artist. Husain’s “landscape” is not mountains, valleys and towns but the connection between history, civilisation and religion, devoid of decorative additions.

Those who decry his images are only reflecting a disgusting and outrageous ignorance. In search of confrontational gender-bending and disturbing explorations of sexual nuances in the figure of Sita, the global furious political attacks on his works are a shame to the ideology of Hinduism, which is more a way of life rather than a single symbol.

Sadder still is the power structure of India, which presents arcane meditations on the analysis of right and wrong. Not allowing Husain to come back to the land of his birth and muse reflects the general lowering of art’s temperature by the vandals of propaganda.

Sometimes art holds up a mirror to the fashionable subjects, approaches, and crass attitudes of its day. Attaining $.1.6 million for Husain’s “Mahabharata” is an example of the persistence of irony in the face of political vandalism.

In an age of Internet art, where you can create anything with mouse-play, Husain’s early works like the “Mahabharata” stand alone, only to reaffirm the brilliance of Husain as India’s patriarch of the palette.

“A work of art must live beyond its age; it must never go out of fashion,” Husain had said two decades ago. “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna” lives up to that testimony.

It also tells the world about waking up to the phenomenon of Maqbool Fida Husain. Kudos to Christie’s for artistic courage! Time perhaps for the Indian government to quell the super-villains in command.

(Uma Nair is an art critic and an English teacher at Don Bosco School, Delhi. She can be contacted at

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