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A Work from the Raj Series

A Work from the Raj Series

Item Description:


Ink, watercolour and pastel on paper


59 5/8 x 47 1/2 in. (151.5 x 120.8 cm.)
Signed, dated and inscribed 'Husain / 5 / VII / 86 / London' and further signed in Urdu lower right


Acquired directly from the artist.

Husain grew up in Indore towards the end of British Colonial rule in India and was inevitably witness to the rising tide of nationalism that swept the country, pre-Independence. Unlike artists of the Bengal School who become closely allied to the nationalist movement, Husain's early art is not overtly political. His early paintings, created at the moment of Independence, may provide a vision of an idealised India, which celebrates the life and culture of pre-colonial times, or looks to a great independent future, but it does not claim to provide any great social critique. Instead, it is only forty years later that the artist finally chooses to create a body of work that focuses on the Raj, providing a visual commentary on the oddities of the colonial world that he had witnessed as a child. In keeping with his own personality, the body of work that evolved into Images of the Raj, was for the most part whimsical, almost playful, yet seen as a whole, the series carries a more serious message.

The artist recalls, 'Even as a young boy I used to make caricatures of viceroys, residents general, and commissioners. But our Indian rulers were a laughable lot too. I remember how I used to feel ashamed reading about the sycophancy of the Maharajas ... The impressions I gathered over the years have filtered through and remained etched in my mind, as if I was actually there, observing, ridiculing the English, but more than that our own servility.' (Ila Pal, Beyond the Canvas: An Unfinished Portrait of M F Husain, New Delhi, 1994, p. 178)

The current composition, which he repeated with slight variations, depicts a British couple seated precariously atop an Indian elephant, and may be based upon a photograph of Lord and Lady Curzon attributed to Bourne and Shepherd from 1902. Certainly, the man who is dressed in the formal attire associated with the pomp and ceremony of the Empire must have been reminiscent of the viceroys that Husain recalled from his youth. The viceroy's attire is intentionally comical, highlighting, that the clothes, like their owner, were not fit for life in the tropics. The woman's summer dress, although more suited to the climate, likewise, overlooks the more conservative norms of Indian society, and, therefore, reveals how indifferent she is to the diplomatic requirements of her role. The Indian elephant looks back, seemingly alarmed by the presence of its riders, and tramples underfoot a lion, the symbol of the British Empire. Behind the elephant, a bare-chested Indian supports another similarly dressed figure above his head, who holds a staff in his hand. In other versions of this composition, the figure holds an umbrella to shade the British rulers from the sun, a symbol of the servility that Husain so despised. Here, it is possible that the striding figure may be an oblique reference to Gandhi on his salt march. Thus, symbolically, the people of India are seen supporting their leader, who is about to topple the British vice-regal envoy from his precarious position of control. Whatever the precise symbolism of the overall composition, Husain's satirical message is clear.

Despite the traumatic events and indignities that Indians suffered at the hands of the British, Husain chooses to ridicule the British, rather than offering an outright attack. If there is condemnation of the British, his condemnation lies equally with the Indian rulers, who so willingly supported the systems of colonial rule. In Sunil Agnani's words, Husain's paintings teach us how to 'hate the empire properly'; his paintings reveal the internal contradictions of Empire, allowing both an antagonistic relationship to it, whilst being immersed in it. 'To hate properly, in these readings is to cultivate a disposition that requires "experience, a historical memory, a fastidious intellect and above all an ample measure of total immersion." In Husain's ludic return to his Raj days to lay bare its conceits and absurdities, we are witness to such a disposition, as he offered a playful but nonetheless edgy postcolonial lesson in how one might hate and disavow empire in the right way, even while learning to live with it, mock it and laugh at it properly.' (Sumathi Ramaswamy, Husain's Raj, Visions of Empire and Nation, Mumbai, 2016, p. 139)

# Import duty at 11% will be charged on the hammer price and GST will be applicable on the total amount of the hammer price plus the import duty.


The colours of the original are slightly brighter than the catalogue illustration. Small vertical crease at left upper edge, lower left edge and one more faint crease below elephant's backfoot.

Not examined out of frame. Overall good condition.

About The Artist:


₹ 4,000,000.00 ( Low est. )
Lot 43# in The Fine Art Sale including Classical Paintings (M0029)
AUCTION DATE: Jan 21, 2021 at 6:30pm IST



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