Several tenets of modernism inform this painting, including the clever distortion of the figures and abstraction of the background. Through the combination of form and line, his gestural brushstrokes create a sense of fluidity and movement. Unlike his peers who were influenced by western art history and western subject matter, Husain chose to paint classical Indian themes and subject matter, reworking them into his own unique modernist style.
In the 1960s, Husain was preoccupied by the human condition and his paintings became very emotive. This was catalyzed by a trip to Banaras with Ram Kumar in 1960. They spent time painting by its ghats. Deeply affected by the temples, mystics and pilgrims that marks the everyday life of Benares (now Varanasi) both Husain and Ram Kumar went on to create multiple works inspired by the rhythms of this ancient city. In the words of Husain, "Twenty years since Ram Kumar and myself sailed silently close to the ghats of Varanasi, my fascination for that eternal city is ever growing... Every morning, the proverbial Morn of Benares (Subah-e-Benares) would glow in gold and we pass (sic) by many ghats without a word. Only later we break our silence at a roadside Bengali coffee house…!" (D. Nadkarni, Husain: Riding the Lightning, Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., Bombay, 1996, p. 110)
The holy city indeed held a special significance for Husain. Art historian Daniel Herwitz notes: "Benares, the holy city on the Ganges where the cremated ashes of the dead are thrown into the [river] to return to God, is a place of the beginning and end of all things...Husain's lifelong aim has been to find a voice... with which to acknowledge the richness and throes of contemporary Indian life in a way that also seeks to preserve India traditional. His art aims for the condition of Benares, in which creative innovation, although destructive, will also recycle or otherwise preserve India's roots." (D. Herwitz, Husain, Tata Steel Publications Co. Ltd., Bombay, 1988, p. 17)
Banaras I is a powerful image of bathers in the holy waters. The artist paints this devout ritual using his customary modern panache. The river is denoted by a thick single line, the earthen colors are reminiscent of the ashes of the dead bodies and the tradition of bathing in the Ganges to continue the cycle of death and rebirth. ‘On the Ghats of Banaras his bathers bathe in ancient lava, so thick and gray are the encrustations of his impasto, so acute his sense of the timelessness of the ritual he saw preformed on those hoary steps on the river’s edge.’ (R. Bartholomew, and S. Kapur, Husain, Harry N. Abrams Inc. Publishers, New York, 1971, p. 41) Here, this holy ritual is portrayed through subtle tones of yellow, green, white and brown and thick gestural brushstrokes nestle amongst flat planes. The compositional structures of the bathers and the cow are rendered geometrically. ‘Husain’s nudes of this period are abstractions, occasionally tender but for the most part curiously aloof and impersonal.’ (ibid., p.42)
This work is particularly compelling; a mesmerizing representation of the spectacle of the old age rituals on and along the Ganges.
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