For the first time, the final nine paintings by the celebrated Indian artist, M.F. Husain (1915- 2011) will go on public display at the V&A this summer. The Indian Civilization series comprises eight monumental triptych paintings, each measuring 12 feet wide by six feet high, which represent Husain’s vision of the richness of Indian culture and history. They capture India’s vibrant cities, colourful Hindu festivals, iconic figures and historic events.
These imposing, large-scale artworks will be presented alongside a single painting of the Hindu god, Ganesha, which serves as the symbolic beginning of the series.
M.F. Husain is regarded as one of the leaders of the modern art movement in Indian painting. Born in Pandharpur, his early years were spent in Indore. Husain began his career as a painter of cinema hoardings after attending art school in Bombay (now Mumbai).
Using freehand drawing and vibrant colour, he depicted Indian subject matter in the style of contemporary European art movements, particularly Cubism.
The Indian Civilization series, also known as Vision of India through Mohenje Daro to Mahatma Gandhi, was commissioned by the Mittal family in 2008 and have never previously been on public display. Mrs Usha Mittal has lent the paintings to the V&A, where the artist completed a residency in 1990, to showcase the final works of this remarkable artist, often dubbed ‘the Picasso of India’.
Mrs Usha Mittal said: “Spanning mythology, architecture and popular culture, the Indian Civilization Series is the final achievement of M.F. Husain, an artist whose work was continually inspired by the traditions of India. I was privileged to see this series as it was created and am delighted that it will be shown at the V&A, a lasting tribute to Husain Sahib and his vision.”
The paintings were made in London, where Husain spent his final years immersing himself in books about Indian history, which fed into the varied themes of the paintings. Each panel explores a different theme, together creating a personal vision of India, which Husain called ‘a museum without walls’. Interweaving religious and symbolic iconography with historic figures and events, the paintings also incorporate memories from the artist’s own life. Indian Civilization is a tribute to the country Husain loved but had to leave after his life was threatened for portraying Hindu deities in the nude. He lived in London and Qatar in self-imposed exile from 2006. The artist’s initial intention was to paint 96 panels exploring the breadth of Indian culture; unfortunately he died before he could achieve this Husain’s handwritten notes, describing his ideas, themes and stories for each painting and explaining the scenes depicted, will be included in the exhibition guide. A short film directed by Husain, Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival, will also be shown.
• M.F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting will be shown in gallery 38A.
The 24 panels which make up the eight triptych paintings portray the following:
Hindu Triad – — Husain depicts the Trimurti, the three principle gods of the Hindu religion.
Brahma is the creator of the universe, Vishnu its protector and preserver and Shiva is its
Three Dynasties – — This triptych celebrates three ruling dynasties from India’s long and tumultuous history. Husain places the ancient Mauryan civilization centrally between two invading rulers, the Muslim Mughal dynasty (1525-1857) and the British Raj (1858-1947).
Tale of Three Cities – — Husain presents three of India’s greatest cities: Delhi represents India’s nationhood, Varanasi its spiritual centre and Kolkata its culture and activism.
Indian Dance forms – — Husain captures the regional diversity of Indian dance forms, an integral part of high culture and festival ritual. Reflecting his love of both dance and the cinema, Husain explores how movement is captured on film.
Traditional Indian festivals – — Husain portrays the colour and spirit of Indian festivals Holi, Tulsi Pooja and Poorima. These ancient celebrations and rituals reflect the passing of time and show the enduring role of religion and tradition in Indian culture.
Language of Stone – — Husain uses the words of the poet Rabindranath Tagore to pay tribute to India’s great sculptural heritage. ‘How the language of stone surpasses the language of man.’
Indian Households – — Husain reflects on the domestic lives of India’s citizens, showing the daily routines of three ordinary urban families.
Modes of Transport – — This triptych presents the multiple journeys of India’s citizens as a metaphor for the journey of life.
A single painting of Ganesha opens the exhibition. Known as the remover of obstacles, Ganesha is a patron of the arts and letters, worshipped at the beginning of any endeavour.