In classical Indian mythology, seven horses draw the chariot of the Sun God Surya; they are symbols of the sun itself, of time and of knowledge. In certain Puranic myths, horses are said to have emerged from the sea and during the early Vedic period, the sacrifice of horses was widely prevalent. For Maqbool Fida Husain, they are symbols of life sustaining forces. Riderless, his horses look out across timeless landscapes or back towards an unseen audience. The images are metaphorical and at times powerfully evocative.
Husain's fascination with horses began at an early age; as a young boy his grandfather would take him to the local farrier where he would see horses of all breeds and was impressed by their power and grace. Husain's grandfather also introduced him to stories and myths about horses including the tazias of the martyrdom of Iman Husain and the Vedic horse ritual of aswamedha. R. Bartholomew and S. Kapur have noted that in Husain's horses 'Their nature is not intellectualized: it is rendered as sensation or as abstract movement, with a capacity to stir up vague premonitions and passions, in a mixture of ritualistic fear and exultant anguish.' (R. Bartholomew and S. Kapur, Husain, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1972, p. 43) Husain, it seems, has adopted the horse as his own vahan, or vehicle and is one of his most enduring subjects. In the words of art critic, Roshan Shahani, 'The relationship of the body to the stallion is a paradox of frenzy and unhurried movement. An elegant dissection of space with line and angle. There is a measure of squared off posture and high leaping which hints at the ecstasy that is enclosed by the flashing lines of Bernini sculptural composition ... Husain's horses become a vehicle for multiple utterances - aggression, power and protection ... the brute strength of horses born and released from fabulous regions mutate into thunderbolt energies, phallic and omnipotent.' (R. Shahani, Let History Cut Across Me Without Me, Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1993, p. 8)
In 1952, Husain visited China where he studied the Sung dynasty's depiction of horses in pottery and met with the painter Chi' Pai-Shih. Chi' Pai-Shih was known for his monochromatic paintings of animals with their minimalistic use of line to achieve form and movement. This condensing of form is what inspired Husain. The artist admitted that he felt that challenge in art remained in creating forms in the simplest manner possible and undoubtedly the style of the current work appears to be very strongly influenced by ink scroll paintings in both the calligraphic brushwork and in the vertical format.
Husain arguably India's finest draughtsman was known to finish a work in one sitting. Like ink scroll paintings, the lines were drawn directly with a paintbrush making no room for error as once applied, the stark black paint could not then be easily removed. This painting serves as a fine example of his mastery and the extreme confidence with which he applied his brushstrokes.
What sets this painting apart from other renditions is its monumental size and the unique break in the vertical scroll-like canvas, depicting two distinct themes in this expertly monochromatic palette. The combination of the horse and the nude have fascinated Husain since his formative years and when they are compositionally joined, two of the artist’s most powerful symbols come together in harmony. The identities of his early nudes tend to be inspired by classical Indian sculpture but have also been compared to the figures of Matisse. Indeed in this painting the female form is majestically captured, defiantly elegant yet poised. Brilliantly rendered in the artist’s immediately recognizable calligraphic style, this painting is an exemplary work within Husain’s corpus.
'Art has to evolve from your very being, like my horses... I see them as ageless and immortal. They draw chariots in the great epics, they stand proudly in the poorest stables, they are embodiments of strength like the dragons of China.' (M.F. Husain with Khalid Mohammed, Where Art Thou, MF Husain Foundation, Mumbai, 2002, p. xxii).