The current and exceptional work from 1966, Shiva Parvati, is a profound example of Maqbool Fida Husain’s unique amalgam of Post-Independence and Post-Impressionist painting: powerfully evocative of classical Indian symbology and traditions yet distinctly Modern at the same time.
‘In the late 60s, Husain embarked upon a series of paintings based on the two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata…Husain came from a strictly religious Muslim family but his closest friend was a Hindu boy, who studied the Bhagvad Gita and the Puranas. The boys worked together for a while and built up a friendship over fifty years’ (R. Dean and A. Jhaveri, M. F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s – 1970s, AMart India Pvt. Ltd., London, 2006, unpaginated) Husain himself has admitted to the influence of this friendship on his series of paintings about the epics, which he revisited throughout his artistic career.
Illustrated in Husain, the celebrated 1972 monograph by Richard Bartholomew and Shiv Kapur and published by Harry N. Abrams, this painting depicts one of the most divine couples in Indian folklore. Locked in a tender embrace, with his left hand cupping her breast, here the classical concept of Mithuna is brought to fruition. This representation of an intertwined couple ranges in interpretations, from the celebration of life and rapturous joy to the metaphorical longing of the soul for unification with the divine. This iconography is centuries old and a recurrent presence on many classical temples in both Hindu and Buddhist religions. Often viewed as a propitious sign of fertility, these couples often grace both sides of the entrances to a shrine.
In 1948, Husain visited the India Independence Exhibition in Delhi with Francis Newton Souza where he saw Gupta sculptures and other temple relief work. ‘It was humbling. I came back to Bombay and in 1948 I came out with five paintings, which was the turning point in my life. I deliberately picked up two or three periods of Indian history. One was the classical period of the Guptas. The very sensuous form of the female body. Next, was the Basholi period. The strong colours of the Basholi miniatures. The last was the folk element. With these three combined, and using colors very boldly as I did with cinema hoardings ... I went to town ... That was the breaking point ... To come out of the influence of British academic painting and the Bengal revivalist school...’ Husain also states ‘One reason why I went back to the Gupta period of sculpture was to study the human form ... when the British ruled we were taught to draw a figure with the proportions from Greek and Roman sculpture ... in the East the human form is an entirely different structure ... the way a woman walks in the village there are three breaks ... from the feet, the hips and the shoulder ... they move in rhythm ... the walk of a European is erect and archaic.’ (Maqbool Fida Husain in an interview with Pritish Nandy, The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 4-10, 1983). It is clear that these influences continued to appear in Husain’s paintings over the decades and Shiva Parvati is an exceptional example of his interpretations.
Akbar Padamsee also painted Shiva and Parvati in the same embrace years earlier in 1952, in a work titled The Lovers. Executed in Padamsee’s signature style with dark colors, bold outlines, flat patches of color and cubist planes, it was also a striking example of the interplay between the traditional and the modern. Husain went to Europe for the first time in 1953, a year after Padamsee's own painting, and met Padamsee in Paris. He was able to witness Padamsee's new stylistic developments. Padamsee, in the meantime showed his version of Shiva and Parvati in India, running afoul of censors and conservative mores.
What sets Husain’s work apart from other modernists who were inspired by traditional Indian art, is that he did not merely copy these classical forms and themes but reworked them into his own inimitable combination of line and form. This seemed to be a crystallizing moment in his career, acting as the catalyst for the evolution of his visual vocabulary that combines the palette of the Indian miniature tradition with the voluptuous curves and fluid postures of Indian classical sculpture. ‘Indian sculpture, as we know, echoes dance movements and it is these that begin to get reflected in Husain’s paintings of the sixties and seventies. Thus the animated movement of dance sometimes exists as a palimpsest of images creating multiplicities. Often the rotating gyrations seem to swirl down a chamber of echoes resounding with flashbacks and fantasies. And yet surprisingly the central motif is angular and wooden, like the toys he used to fashion as an apprentice to a nursery furniture shop soon after he gave up his job as a billboard painter.’ (Y. Dalmia, ‘M.F. Husain: Re-inventing India’, M. F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s – 1970s, AMart India Pvt. Ltd., London, 2006, unpaginated) This observation can be witnessed in Shiva Parvati as well, whereby the earthy palette of blue, grey and brown oil paints with expressionistic brushstrokes creates a certain textural dynamism mostly in the background however the two central figures are stoic and poised. Brilliantly rendered in the artist’s characteristic painterly style, the stillness in the painting is startlingly pierced with dramatic blending and warping of angular shapes and moody tones surrounding the entangled couple. The intermingling of predation and seduction, violence and desire, power and vulnerability, reality and mystery forges a heavy dialogue that aptly expresses the climactic emotions that Husain wished to portray here.
Husain’s works, even at its earliest period contains an understanding of Indian aesthetics at a fundamental level; the triple axial postures of his figures draws upon the tribhanga poses in Indian sculpture and his tight overlapping forms are clearly reminiscent of the frieze panels of north Indian temples. These tensile figures became emblematic of Husain’s women and men. By using the God Shiva and Goddess Parvati as his protagonists and then placing them in this instantly recognizable milieu, this painting is a natural successor to classical Indian imagery. Husain’s genius has been best described by Ebrahim Alkazi, 'He has been unique in his ability to forge a pictorial language, which is indisputably of the contemporary Indian situation but surcharged with all the energies, the rhythms of his art heritage.' (E. Alkazi, M. F. Husain: The Modern Artist and Tradition, Art Heritage, New Delhi, 1978, p. 3)
‘Husain wields a quick nervous line of great sensitiveness and energy. It is a versatile line, capable of both power and poetry. It divides his forms in firm definition, broods amongst his grouped figures... It lurks in women’s faces in tender almost tentative hint, or threads sharply across his compositions like a scalpel, separating one figure, one face from the other in subtly differentiated tones of colour, as though he sculpted his figures from paint.’ (S. Kapur, Husain, Lalit Kala Akademi, 1961, p. iv).