The iconic portrait of melody queen M.S. Subbulakshmi painted by M. F. Husain has found new home in Bengaluru. The painting has quite a history, says Michael Ludgrove, curator at Navrathans, a Bengaluru-based art gallery which acquired the priceless work recently.
Husain was planning to hold an exhibition of his works at Lakshana Museum of Arts in Chennai in 2004. “He had organised everything and then went back to Dubai where he lived at that time. A few days later, Subbulakshmi passed away. Husain, who so passionately admired Subbulakshmi, was heartbroken. He made this portrait of her, had it sent to Chennai and put it up as the centrepiece of the exhibition, where more than hundred paintings by him were on display,” says Ludgrove.
The 6 feet x 4 feet acrylic work on canvas depicts Subbulakshmi, draped in a red saree, holding her tambura. Husain has captured her in all her grandeur. M.S., as she is popularly known, is seen sporting a big bindi, a diamond studded nose ring and jasmine flowers on her head in this work. “Husain wanted to write her name in Tamil on the top portion of the canvas. The curator of the exhibition wrote it out for him in Tamil and then Husain copied it laboriously onto the canvas. He also signed his own name in Tamil on this portrait, which he has never done before,’’ says Ludgrove who has worked with Christie’s in London, Australia and India before.
Husain was awestruck while listening to Subbulakshmi at a ceremony held by Banaras Hindu University to honour him with a doctorate. The image of Subbulakshmi losing herself in the lyrics remained fresh in his memory even after 30 years. “Unsurprisingly, Husain did this portrait from memory. And he completed it in a day,” says Ludgrove.
Husain sold the work to a private art collector in Chennai, who happened to be a friend of Gautam Chand Bafna, proprietor of Navrathans. When it was put up for sale, Bafna, an ardent fan of Subbulakshmi and Husain, was determined to buy it. “Bengaluru has been a home to several famous artists in the past, and we hope that our gallery will provide a new lease of life to the art scene in Bengaluru, with works like this,’’ says Bafna, who is a jeweller as well.
The painting created quite a stir when it was displayed at Art Bengaluru, the city’s premier annual art event held at U.B. City. Husain’s magical strokes left the art aficionados spell-bound. Ludgrove loves the painting for the message it conveys, more than anything else. “It symbolises the richness of India’s diverse culture. Here you have a Sulaimani Bohra Muslim, who is a great admirer of a singer of Hindu devotional songs to such an extent that, he has painted this huge monumental portrait as homage to her,” says Ludgrove.