SALEM, Mass.—On Nov. 4, 2006, the Peabody Essex Museum opens Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain—an exhibition that focuses on the artist’s 40-year fascination with India’s greatest epic, the Mahabharata. The show runs through June 3, 2007, and is one of the few solo exhibitions held in this country for the painter many consider to be India’s “greatest living artist.”

The Mahabharata’s “captivating narrative, flawed and troubled heroes, philosophical and moral conundrums have been a force in the Indian subcontinent for more than 2,000 years,” writes curator Susan Bean in the exhibition catalogue. Maqbool Fida Husain was 56 years old when he first painted from the Mahabharata in the early seventies, and already enjoyed unrivaled celebrity as an artist in India with numerous awards, government recognition, important exhibitions, and public art commissions. His international stature was established during the previous decade with solo shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo, Rome, Baghdad, Kabul, and New York. In 1971, Husain, published in New York by Harry Abrams, became the first international book on a living Indian artist.

Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain brings together works from projects in 1971, 1983, and 1990 revolving around the rich visual imagery of the Mahabharata. At the center of the exhibition are seven major canvases from Husain’s first Mahabharata project, a series of paintings for the 11th Bienal de São Paulo. A set of 11 lithographs produced 12 years later from his watercolors shows Husain revisiting and reworking his imagery for different eyes, according to Bean. A 16-foot canvas from 1990 completes the installation, reconnecting Husain’s early years as a cinema billboard artist where he established his great skill of painting compelling imagery on large, expansive surfaces.

Wide, energetic brushwork brings to life the stark monochromatic composition of Duryodhana Arjuna Split (Mahabharata 9), Husain’s illustration of the battle between right action and temptation–central to the Mahabharata epic. Prominent in the painting are the broken halves of a circle. Husain represents the complexity of the human condition through these divided parts that nevertheless comprise a single whole. In Ganga Jamuna (Mahabharata 12), he splits the canvas again, accentuating the compositional break of light and dark imagery with a luminous yellow column. Two figures are positioned as the parts of a single being: one holds a ruptured red disk, the other gestures at colliding warriors, a symbol of the terrible destruction to come.

Husain’s distinctive style expresses Indian tradition in the language of artistic modernism. “Bold, vibrant depictions of India’s great guiding narratives, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have been a means for Husain to explore and confirm his Indian identity. His work goes beyond the simply narrative to illustrate the Mahabharata’s larger truths and their relevance today,” says Dan Monroe, director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Works in Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain have been chosen primarily from the museum’s Herwitz collection of contemporary Indian art.

The Peabody Essex Museum is pleased to present this selection of paintings by one of India’s most influential contemporary artists. Visitors will also enjoy Of Gods and Mortals: Traditional Art from India, an ongoing exhibition featured in the museum’s newly expanded Prashant H. Fadia Foundation and Deshpande Foundation Gallery of traditional Indian art. The two exhibitions give viewers the opportunity to experience Indian art from the 1800s to the present.

Artist Bio

Born in 1915, Maqbool Fida Husain overcame humble beginnings to become India’s most famous living artist. He began his career as a painter of cinema billboards, a task that required him to paint vast surfaces with great speed and dexterity. Skills that aided Husain in his commercial work also came to define him as an artist. Husain has executed full-scale canvases before live audiences and, despite his age, continues to paint at a prodigious rate. He commemorated his 88th birthday by painting 88 paintings, proof that the prolific artist has no intention of slowing down.

Husain occupies a unique position on the Indian art scene. In 1947, he joined the Progressive Artists Group, a group of young artists determined to break with tradition and promote a modern, internationally engaged art movement in India. Over half a century later, Husain remains at the forefront of contemporary Indian art. His works are among the most sought after by collectors and museums around the world.

India is a country of diverse regional languages and cultures, an exploding pop culture, and 10,000 years of history and tradition. It is little wonder that Husain turned to his homeland for inspiration. His artwork, whether derived from Sanskrit epics or Bollywood,
seek to interpret Indian identity, to explore the possibilities of cultural unity in a land of more than a billion people.

Husain’s work is highly visible in India, appearing in art galleries and museums, civic buildings and public spaces. In Europe and the United States, he has exhibited at such
venues as the Tate Gallery in London and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.

He has been the recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, prestigious Indian government awards, and was appointed to a term in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. In 1967, his documentary Through the Eyes of a Painter won the Golden Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin.

The Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection

The Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection of contemporary Indian art at the Peabody Essex Museum comprises 1,200 works by more than 70 of India’s leading artists of the second half of the 20th century, including M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza, Manjit Bawa, Tyeb Mehta, Ganesh Pyne, Laxma Goud, Jogen Chowdhury, Nalini Malani, Bhupen Khakhar, Gieve Patel, and Arpita Singh. This groundbreaking collection also includes a major international art library and an archive of letters, papers, and other documents. In 2003, the Peabody Essex Museum opened the Chester and Davida Herwitz Gallery of Contemporary Indian Art, the first gallery dedicated to India’s modern and contemporary art by an American museum and featuring changing installations from the collection.

The Peabody Essex Museum has been a pioneer in the study and presentation of Indian art in the United States. Shortly after its founding in 1799, the museum began collecting contemporary art and culture from India. Today, its holdings include thousands of works from India, from the 18th through the 20th centuries, including paintings and drawings; works in clay, wood, and metal; embroideries; furniture; and a large collection of 19th-century photographs. The collection also contains important logs, journals, and letters recounting 18th- and 19th-century voyages to India.


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