PRINT October 2012


M. F. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter

Two stills from M. F. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter, 1967, TK mm, black-and-white, 17 minutes 35 seconds.

IN A RADICAL AND SHORT-LIVED initiative in the 1960s, India’s national Films Division (established as a documentary unit just after independence in 1947) invited artists and filmmakers to develop their own experimental projects. Under the direction of visionary chief advisor Jean Bhownagary, this was a major undertaking for a country with a fledgling infrastructure to support even conventional art forms; ironically, it led to experimental cinema in India emerging with the government’s funding and at its insistence rather than in opposition to it. In 1967, this gave prominent painter Maqbool Fida Husain the opportunity to try his hand at film, resulting in Through the Eyes of a Painter, a fragmentary, black-and-white vision of the landscape of Rajasthan running just under eighteen minutes. The film went on to win a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, one example of the success of the Films Division’s outreach to artists.

Husain’s first job after arriving in Bombay in 1937 was painting film billboards. By the 1960s, he was among the country’s most recognizable art stars; his fame developed equally around his charismatic, eccentric personality—he traveled across the country barefoot, but in perfectly tailored suits—and around his prolific paintings, allegedly some 60,000 works by the time of his death in 2011 at the age of ninety-five. Combining quasi-cubist and folk painting styles, Husain depicted India’s ancient epics as well as figures drawn from contemporary life to develop an image and identity of “Indianness” corresponding to the country’s secular, modernist aspirations. (However, because he was a Muslim, Husain’s representations of Hindu goddesses in the nude led to his censure by right-wing Hindu groups and subsequent self-exile in 2006.)

Seated in front of his own painting of the Hindu god Ganesh, Husain opens Through the Eyes of a Painter with brush in hand, reinforcing the primary artistic identification already suggested by its title. He tells us, “I have tried to tackle the film medium with the feeling of a painter. They are unrelated moving visuals juxtaposed to create a total form, a total poetic form,” hinting at the abstraction of the sequences to follow. We are then launched into a seemingly endless desert, viewed from a moving vehicle along a bumpy road.

The camera is the painter’s eye and our guide, focusing on the variety of textures in the landscape: panning slowly over the roughness of a rock face or crumbling fort, the undulations of sandy dunes and brick walls, and hands fingering rope. The lens also seeks modulations of light, from a painter’s silhouette on a sheet to the deeply shadowed passageways where the camera lingers, waiting for a figure to cross the otherwise empty frame. As if to emphasize these effects, drawings appear constantly—on walls, underwater, lying flat to dry on straw, and even on the side of a cow. And Husain lets natural contours and movement draw an image in the frame too, as when an abstracted line becomes muddy tracks and then the broader view of a thoroughfare.

Such transitory scenes alternate with carefully framed static compositions. Creating a kind of cinematic still life, the camera zooms in and out to reveal Husain’s interjections of three decontextualized, ordinary objects (all of which often feature in his paintings): a lantern resting in a nook of a rock face, an open umbrella dangling from the side of a Rajasthani haveli (mansion), and a traditional khussa shoe perched on the railing of a rooftop. These props are first introduced through Husain’s own sketches in the opening credits; during the film, Husain divorces them from any diegetic setting or use. At the same time, the objects’ recurring appearance in the architecture of a scene becomes whimsically disruptive, as when an umbrella falling slowly from the side of a building directly follows a sequence in which a stick falls from the hand of a boy traveling on the back of a cart. (Adding to this caprice is the film’s soundtrack, scored by legendary composer Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao, which playfully mimics such movements via corresponding leitmotifs.)

The film concludes with another jolting pan from a vehicle, now moving in the opposite direction from the opening sequence. No destination is ever reached, imparting an intentionally detached, touristic view. The glancing brevity of Husain’s film reflects his own peripatetic habits more directly than do any of his paintings. But it may also assess the nationalist mission of the governing body that funded his project. As an extension of the nation-building campaign of Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru, the Films Division had commissioned documentaries on rural India in an earlier initiative called “Know Our Country.” Perhaps Husain alludes to the inevitable shortcomings of this program through the film’s pseudoethnographic scenes of local life: for instance, a bird’s-eye view of women washing their bodies and clothes, or a group of schoolchildren sitting under a tree near a phonograph, who scatter in all directions when a bell rings.

If Husain’s potential critique is ultimately subsumed into visual poetics, Through the Eyes of a Painter marks a pivotal moment of experimentation in India’s rich film history. It also inaugurates Husain’s excursion into a medium that he would eventually return to under a very different pretext, producing two lengthy, Bollywoodesque odes to his actress muse Madhuri Dixit in the 2000s. Yet it was only in his first film that Husain integrated the material and compositional concerns of his painting practice with celluloid’s dynamism, offering something like a total perceptual form.

Beth Citron is an assistant curator at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York.