The painter and philosopher: remembering MF Husain on his ninth death anniversary

A documentary by Aicon Contemporary explores the origins of 'The Attenborough Panels', one of the seminal works of modern Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain.

by Darshana Ramdev Published on : Jun 08, 2020

It is wonderfully apt that I would sit down, on Buddha Purnima, to write about Maqbool Fida Husain. In the 1960s, when independent India was coming into its own as a nation, the 1500th birthday of Gautama Buddha was to be celebrated with great pomp and show. And MF Husain had found a muse.

Whether or not one is drawn to Husain the man, or even Husain the artist, it cannot be denied that the master painter’s genius lay, in some measure, in his astuteness – he had an almost uncanny knack for spotting the ‘next big thing’, from the Nehru family to Mother Teresa and Madhuri Dixit. One of his most important muses, however, closely connected with the diverse India he loved so much, was Mahatma Gandhi. The Attenborough Panels, a documentary by New York's Aicon Contemporary, is the story of one of Husain's most important works on the Mahatma.

Modern Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain | The Attenborough Panels | MF Husain’s death anniversary | Aicon Contemporary | STIRworld
Modern Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain Image Credit: Courtesy of Aicon Contemporary

Curiously little has been said about this work, until now, through M.F. Husain | The Attenborough Panels. Produced by Aicon Contemporary, the six-minute film goes straight to the point. The usual loquaciousness of artist biopics is absent, replaced by a pacey narrative and a gripping soundtrack. This is a relief in some ways, to be sure, but the subject itself is intriguing and I, for one, would like to know more. 

In 1982, Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi took the world by storm. One of the highest grossing films of all time in the UK and in India, Attenborough's accolades knew no bounds. Husain, who was a part of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group watched as Gandhi swept the Oscars that year. It resulted in the creation of The Attenborough Panels. "It is possible," according to the film, "that Husain made this work with Sir Richard Attenborough to see or collect, in mind”. Neither of those things would come to pass. Still, the work itself would come to be regarded as one of Husain’s most important.

The first panel is an ode to Gandhi’s goat Nirmala and to life in his ashrams. The second appears to depict the start of a journey, perhaps the beginning of the Dandi March | The Attenborough Panels | MF Husain’s death anniversary | Aicon Contemporary | STIRworld
The first panel is an ode to Gandhi’s goat Nirmala and to life in his ashrams. The second appears to depict the start of a journey, perhaps the beginning of the Dandi March Image Credit: Sebastian Bach

The first panel hints at domesticity, perhaps reminiscent of Gandhi's ashrams, Tolstoy Farm and Sabarmati. A story lies in the goat that stands beside him, too. Gandhi was, in today's parlance, a vegan, strictly avoiding cow and buffalo milk to avoid any form of cruelty to animals. In his later years, heeding his doctor's advice, he began drinking goat's milk. His she-goat, Nirmala, went everywhere with him - even accompanying him to the Second Round Table Conference in London, in 1931. There, according to a story in TIME Magazine that year, she stole the spotlight at the Dairy Show, during that same trip, on October 24, 1931.

The second panel appears to depict the start of a journey, perhaps the beginning of the Dandi March. This panel finds mention in The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, by the art historian and independent curator Yashodhara Dalmia. About it she writes, "To be a staunch nationalist was to join the march towards modernity and many of Husain's paintings are directed towards this”. The third panel shows Gandhi in a seating posture, an unusual one, for he sits in a chair, possibly another nod to modernity, for he is usually shown sitting cross-legged on a mattress on the floor.

In the fourth panel, a reclining Gandhi fasts to protest against the deadly Noakhali riots of 1946 | The Attenborough Panels | MF Husain’s death anniversary | Aicon Contemporary | STIRWorld
In the fourth panel, a reclining Gandhi fasts to protest against the deadly Noakhali riots of 1946 Image Credit: Courtesy of Aicon Contemporary

Things take a darker turn in the fourth panel, which, according to the film, could be a reference to the deadly Noakhali Riots of 1946. A semi-organised pogrom against Hindus in Bengal, where thousands were massacred, raped, abducted and forcibly converted to Islam, troubled Gandhi greatly. He arrived in Noakhali shortly after and proceeded to walk, barefoot, for 100 miles. This panel I found particularly thought-provoking, for Gandhi appears to be reclining, with what looks like a newspaper covering his face. According to historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, the Government of Bengal had passed an ordinance prohibiting the press from publishing information regarding the whole affair, apparently to prevent any further communal disturbance. Husain may have thought the world of his muses, but painted with an acerbic hand - he missed very little.

In the penultimate frame, he is falling backwards, arms flailing - the moment of his assassination and the opening scene of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. In the final panel, a many-limbed, faceless figure stands, fingers arranged in mudras, much like an inscription stone. Here in South India, the veeragallus are inscriptions dedicated to those martyred in battle, usually shown being escorted heavenwards by apsaras. Husain's take is, of course, far more minimalist, but there is, undoubtedly, an aura of transcendence, a 'not-of-this-world' quality that is difficult to miss.

In the penultimate panel, Gandhi is falling backwards, presumably after being shot. In the final panel Gandhi transcends, becomes the Mahatma | The Attenborough Panels | MF Husain’s death anniversary | Aicon Contemporary | STIRworld
In the penultimate panel, Gandhi is falling backwards, presumably after being shot. In the final panel Gandhi transcends, becomes the Mahatma Image Credit: Sebastian Bach

In all these panels, the film points out, Gandhi's feet are never fully placed upon the earth. Maybe he remembered, the film suggests, Albert Einstein's words on Gandhi: "Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

Painted with the restraint that only a master can achieve, as Dalmia puts it, “It brought out in a few economical strokes, the very essence of Gandhi”. It is this very spartan quality that truly captures the essence of Gandhi, whose own desires were whittled down also, to the bare minimum, making for the ultimate portrait of the Mahatma.    

06 mins watch M.F. Husain | The Attenborough Panels, a trailer | MF Husain’s death anniversary | Aicon Contemporary | STIRworld
M.F. Husain | The Attenborough Panels, a trailer Video Credit: Courtesy of Aicon Contemporary

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About Author

Darshana Ramdev

Darshana Ramdev

She has been a journalist for over a decade and has written about science and technology, urban policy, theatre, music and art. She loves yoga, politics, literature, history, architecture, and writing songs with her guitar. In 2020, she intends to spend more time at her estate in the Western Ghats, and acquaint herself with the magnificent biodiversity that makes up the Indian subcontinent.

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