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By Ranjit Hoskote
Artist M.F. Husain at an exhibition of his paintings of Mother Teresa in Mumbai on Saturday. Photo: Vivek Bendre
MUMBAI, MARCH 19. The celebrated artist M.F. Husain recorded yet another triumph in a career rich in innovation and experiment when he unveiled a series of paintings in homage to Mother Teresa at the historic Afghan Church here today.
The 12 works, which Mr. Husain painted during a period of residence in France last year, are being shown in India for the first time, through the efforts of the Pundole Art Gallery, which has acted on the artist's behalf for four decades. They have already been exhibited by the fashion house, Pierre Cardin, in Paris. Executed in Mr. Husain's signature style, with bold linear strokes and flat colour areas, they accord well with the exquisite stained-glass windows for which the 147-year-old Afghan Church, a Grade-I heritage building, is famous.
Formally known as the Church of St. John the Evangelist, the church was consecrated in 1858 as a memorial to the British and Indian soldiers who died fighting in the Sind campaign and the First Afghan War of 1838-1843.
It stands in Colaba at the southern end of the island-city, its magnificent steeple a guiding landmark to ships seeking Mumbai Harbour.
It is a fine example of the Gothic Revival, an architectural style that swept through the British-dominated world in the late 19th Century and emphasised soaring spires, pointed arches, high-vaulted ceilings and flying buttresses.
Mr. Husain, who turns 90 this year, can look back over a fulfilling career in the course of which he has often turned for inspiration to the world's religions.
In his paintings, especially in the magisterial `Theorama' series of the mid-1990s, he has set their values of peace, self-knowledge and self-restraint against the more sordid human conditions of hatred and violence.
This distinguished pioneer of modern Indian art, who has often been misunderstood and vilified by his detractors, regards the need for sacred images as a legitimate expression of the human desire to transcend its limitations.
To Mr. Husain, gods, saints, martyrs and sages represent the higher degrees of human evolution, possible amplifications of the individual self.
In this context, he has often invoked Mother Teresa as a symbol of the ethical possibilities of compassion and selflessness.
The exhibition venue is ideally suited to the symbolism of the paintings in several senses, not all of which have become apparent to observers of Mumbai's cultural scene.
It has escaped the attention of viewers, for instance, that the decision to host this show marks a significant gesture of theological generosity on the part of Mumbai's Anglican community.
The Afghan Church is an Anglican place of worship, while Mother Teresa, a certain candidate for formal sainthood, was a devout representative of the Roman Catholic Church, with which the Anglican tradition has had irreconcilable ideological differences for well over four centuries.
Thus, while the Afghan Church has readily opened its doors to cultural events in the past, its willingness to host Mr. Husain's exhibition ought to be viewed at a different level of intensity.
Both in form and content, the exhibition symbolises the possibility of dialogue between different persuasions, in recognition of a shared spiritual quest.
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