The Arts

A New Chapter in the Story of Husain's 'Indrani'

A portrait repeated by M.F. Husain 42 years after the original was lost will be up for auction at the Christie’s in New York next month.

M.F. Husain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

M.F. Husain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Apart from the composition, medium or the genre of a painting, many a times it is the story behind it that adds to the aura of a work of art. A painting that will go under the hammer at Christie’s in New York this September has one such story.

M.F. Husain’s ‘Indrani’ is a reinterpreted version of a lost portrait from the early period of his artistic journey. So what made the renowned artist repeat one of his paintings?

While narrating the story behind ‘Indrani’, which was painted by Husain in 1998 in a hotel in New York, the Delhi-based photographer, Ram Rahman talks of the personal emotions that might have propelled one of India’s most well known artists to pick up his brush and recreate a portrait he first made in 1956.

Husain created ‘Indrani’ for Ram’s mother and well-known Indian classical dancer Indrani Rahman, who is often acknowledged by the art fraternity as one of Husain’s muses from his early years.

 The portrait "Indrani" painted by Husain in 1998, going for auction at the Christie's on September 14. Credit: Ram Rahman

The portrait ‘Indrani’ painted by M.F. Husain in 1998, will be up for auction at the Christie’s in New York on September 14. Credit: Ram Rahman

One of the three letters written in Devanagari – ‘M’, ‘E’ and ‘S’ – in his painting from the early period titled, ‘Between the Spider and the Lamp’, was once admitted by Husain as written after Indrani (E in Hindi).

The portrait of Indrani that Husain first made in 1956 was gifted to her. Ram was barely a year old at the time.

“Those days Husain used to stay with my parents during his visits to Delhi. I later learnt that it was through them that he met fellow painter Satish Gujral for the first time,” he says, showing a black and white photograph of him from when he was a baby and was held by Indrani, who was standing alongside Husain, Gujral and Charles Fabre.

That 1956 portrait, however, got damaged and was thereafter lost in the 1960s.

Later, when he learnt about the existence of such a painting, Ram says he began gathering information about it in bits and pieces over the years.

“I learnt that the portrait was shown at an exhibition in 1956 in Delhi. I then managed to get a review of it published in December that year,” he relates.

That exhibition review noted some of Husain’s images that were drawn from real life, such as ‘Debby’, ‘Sona’ and ‘Indrani’ and went on to note, ‘These are not his best or most successful paintings: they fall in the category of exercises and are not half as good as the self portraits, which is a telling recreation. But, in the compositions proper, there is a plastic necessity, a selected moment of disclosure, which is intellectually stimulating, suggesting exploration. Without becoming a portraitist, Husain has successfully portrayed character.”

In 1995, while clearing the things belonging to his late father, Habibur Rahman, Ram discovered a negative of a photograph of his mother in front of the lost portrait.

A photograph clicked in 1956 shows Indrani Rahman sitting by the Husain's original portrait. Credit: Ram Rahman

A photograph clicked in 1956 shows Indrani Rahman sitting by M.F. Husain’s original portrait. Credit: Ram Rahman

“Besides being a well known architect, my father was also an excellent photographer. I took prints of it in my darkroom in New York and saw the original portrait in it for the first time. I gave a copy to my mother, who was by then teaching and living in New York. I also gave a copy to Husain, as it was the only record of the lost painting,” he says.

In 1998 and just a year before Indrani passed away, to her pleasant surprise, Husain redid the portrait for her at the Lexington Hotel in New York.

“He visited her flat all of a sudden one day to give her the painting along with another painting of a dancing Ganesha – her favourite deity,” Ram says.

The reinterpreted version, which is also called ‘Indrani’, has an extra hand in it. Husain wrote at the bottom of it in pencil: “An appropriation of Indrani’s portrait of 1956.”

Ram also points out, “This is the only portrait Husain wrote about in a chapter titled ‘Indra Ki Rani’, in his handwritten autobiography in Hindi, M.F. Husain Ki Kahani Apani Zubani. He ended it with the words: Long live Indrani.”

The 1998 painting, along with the black and white photograph of the original, now hangs at Ram’s loft in Fulton Fish Market in New York. It has certainly been a prized possession of the Rahman family all these years.

The family has now, however, decided to auction it at the Christie’s on September 14. “It is a joint decision of me and my sister triggered by a financial necessity,” says Ram.

He, however, adds, “Much as we have to sell it, we also hope that it is acquired by an Indian gallery, not any individual, as it will then help the Indian public access it easily. After all, it is an important part of Husain’s oeuvre.”

It looks like a new chapter to the story will soon be written.