The Art Institute's Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art are currently home to eight large-scale works from the Indian Civilization series by M. F. Husain (1915–2011)—the final works of the artist's career. These triptychs, characterized by Husain’s bold brushwork, vivid colors, and sculpture-like figures, depict many aspects of Indian culture, showcasing everything from daily life in Indian households to Indian gods, dance forms, and modes of transportation. The exhibition India Modern: The Paintings of M. F. Husain presents these works for the first time in the United States in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.
One of the triptychs, Tale of Three Cities, offers viewers a historical overview of India’s journey to independence—plus, it has an unexpected connection to the Art Institute. The painting’s central panel, inhabited by holy temples and the river Ganges, depicts the holy Kashi, or Varanasi, India’s most ancient city. The scene is dominated by the figure of Swami Vivekananda with his arms crossed—a reference to his appearance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, held on the current site of the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall. Visible in the right panel is the imperial capital Calcutta, a somewhat chaotic scene that features several influential Indian figures, including Mother Teresa. Finally, the capital of independent India, New Delhi, is triumphantly featured in the far left panel. India’s first prime minister stands in front of the national flag, and a sense of pride emanates from the strong and stoic figure. Husain masterfully captured the spirit of each city in this painting, taking the viewer along on a journey through Indian political history, from ancient to imperial to independent.