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In 1975, then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was convicted of electoral corruption, leading to protests across the country. To curb the resulting civil unrest, Gandhi declared a state of emergency across the nation-state while citing security issues to the political establishment as a reason for this radical political move. The 21-month period saw her government subdue several civil liberties and censor news agencies. Even so, in her 11 years as the Prime Minister of India, from 1966 until she lost the general elections in 1977, she was championed by the people for her domestic policies supporting the poor and minorities, as she established her political supremacy via victory in the 1971 war against Pakistan. In such tumultuous times of political intransigency and war, Indian modern artists exercised a critical power — their art could epitomize political leaders as gods. “Lightning” (1975) by one of India’s most renowned — yet also most controversial — artists, the late Maqbool Fida Husain, lauds Gandhi as a leader who was once considered an embodiment of Durgaa, the great Hindu goddess herself.
Art and the Nation, on view at the Asia Society in New York, focuses on Husain’s 12-panel painting. The panels are centrally displayed on the front wall of the gallery and are accompanied by two other works by Husain, as well as a photograph of the artist with the painting and a work depicting ancient sculptures of horses from which he drew inspiration. In relation to the overwhelming impact of “Lightning,” with its rich colors and symbolism, the additional works seem like unnecessary afterthoughts.
The exhibition succeeds Asia Society’s show The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, which was on display until January of 2019. Art and the Nation’s timing could not have been better: India’s general elections will take place on May 19 of this year and the nation will see a Prime Minister either from the right-wing BJP or the historical Congress. In February, BJP’s candidate and current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew massive support (and some criticism) from the Indian people for his almost pro-war stance against Pakistan, during a border security crisis. It is here that Husain’s “Lightning” reminds us of not only social history but contemporary politics, where democratic leaders of the country exercise massive agency that can either elevate their status as saviors of the land or forever malign them as war-mongers.
Husain has been associated with India’s Progressive Artists Group (PAG), founded in 1947. PAG’s visual lexicon drew from European art genres such as Cubism and Expressionism. Husain had his first solo show in 1950; soon after, his career took off to an unparalleled degree. In the first two decades of his artistic journey, he was fervently inspired by modern art forms, introducing abstraction in his work, as heavily stylized characters and motifs evoking India’s rural areas, villages, and folk art informed his themes. His paintings, such as “Zameen” (“Land,” 1955) and “Arjuna with Chariot (Mahabharta 15)” (1971), and his film, Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967), earned him local praise and international acclaim for his personal interpretation of the “beloved motherland” of India and representation of the common Indian man. Husain’s dynamically charged works fused modernist abstraction with a romanticized vision of traditional rural landscapes, winning him several important art prizes and awards, and making him the leading modern artist of his time in India.
“Lightning” was painted for Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party rally of 1975. The painting includes plenty of symbols that refer to India’s history and modern strength. On the left, a yellow atomic symbol within a red semi-circle refers to India’s power as an atomic nation. While heavily stylized images of women and children hint at the country’s female population and family planning policies, the long horizontal picture plane is dominated by white horses painted with thick black outlines. The horses consume the panels, set against a minimal backdrop of blue sky and green land, that symbolize the nation’s booming progress after the 1947 Partition. Such symbols reflect Husain’s modernist works from the 1950s and ’60s, when he first became known for art that “represented the homeland.” Ultimately, though, the painting is a massive homage to Indira Gandhi, who was known for her monumental centralization of power, as the country grappled with political challenges in the 1970s.
After Gandhi’s 1975 conviction, the “artist of the nation” fell out of favor with certain political leaders in India who were deeply critical of Gandhi’s tenure. Years later, in 2006, Husain exiled himself from India as his paintings of Hindu goddesses in erotic poses earned him much notoriety. Yet M.F. Husain continues to be an artist of his nation, eight years after his death, and his paintings continue to invigorate and interest us. “Lightning” is steeped so deeply in social history that it is hard to dissociate the painting from its historical context, even 34 years after its creation. As the country prepares for general elections this year, the painting reminds us of India’s tremendous political history, post-colonial legacies, and waxing and waning relationships with its neighbors.
While “Lightning” might be making a hero out of a leader who was both revered by the people and deplored by her political rivals, today the painting remains relevant, with all its symbolism, historical, and contemporary complexities.
M.F. Husain: Art and the Nation continues at the Asia Society (725 Park Avenue, Manhattan) through August 4.