Celebrated Indian painter Maqbool Fida Husain was fascinated with the way in which Indian cinema made its presence felt on the streets with its spectacular show of colour and stardom. Nowhere is this more visible than in Chennai, where the cityscape is often dotted with life-size posters, vivid graffiti and massive hoardings that pay homage to its bustling film industry. Husain went around photographing the streets of Chennai (then Madras), in the 1980s, capturing its popular visual culture as seen in the cinema posters and street graffiti
In an interview published in 2010, the artist, who died of a cardiac arrest in 2011 while in exile, had said: “Film is the most powerful medium to articulate your ideas with force. It has actors, dialogues, songs, music and yes, colours.”
The images, created during his time in Chennai and preserved by Husain’s family, are on display at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi as part of a group show organised by Art Heritage Gallery, curated by theatre director and costume designer Amal Allana, the director of the gallery. The Husain exhibition, titled Culture of the Streets, consists of 17 images signed by the artist and is on display till August 6.
“Husain’s love for cinema is well-known since he got his start as an artist painting hoardings,” said Allana. By the 1980s, though billboards had become a subject of cultural study for him. “He was always interested in popular art, the art of the streets, of the common man and this series of images he captured is a testament to that love.” The photographs on display, printed on silver foil, go back to the Tamil movies, such as the musical blockbuster Sankarabharanam, Sridevi-starrer Guru and the devotional film Mahashakti, that were playing in the theatres at the time.
“We are so used to these hoardings, that no matter how theatrical, dramatic and large scale they are, we accept them without batting an eyelid,” said Allana. “They are overwhelming, so when non-Indians, who are not used to Indian streets, visit us, they are always very shocked by the presence and largeness of these, especially in South India. Husain managed to capture this very unique Indian phenomenon.”
Husain’s photographs are not just about the art and the painted images. The street itself seems to be a character in his works, throbbing with life, constantly being watched over by film stars such as Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan.
British film critic Raymond Durgnat observed in his book Films and Feelings, “The stars are a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself.” Husain too demonstrates this desire in his photographs. We almost never see the billboards without the pedestrians. In one photo he captures a long line of moviegoers waiting to purchase tickets, the film poster for which looms above them. This, Allana feels, is a comment on how a traditional community is forever searching for a modern identity in the fantasy world created onscreen.
The street was Husain’s natural habitat. According to photographer Parthiv Shah, he would often be asked by Husain to join him for a cup of tea at a local tea shop. Shah would find the artist sitting barefoot and reading the newspaper there. Allana too recalls Husain’s habit of walking around barefoot on the streets under the hot, baking sun. This was his way of connecting with the environment. “Those looking at his paintings in art galleries are mostly on the other side of the harshness [we see in] the streets,” she said. “Through these photographs he is reminding them of the reality of our country, bringing it into focus and saying this is India, this is us.”
Husain printed these images on silver foil to add some shimmer to the photos, a reflection of his constant experiments with unorthodox materials. “The silver highlights the fiction of all of it,” said Allana. “The foil gives it that certain kind of artificial shine which is very much a part of our film industry and it’s hyped-up sense of glamour.”
MF Husain’s Culture of the Streets is on display at Triveni Kala Sangam, Tansen Marg, Delhi, as part of the Art Heritage Group Show, till August 6.