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If you haven't checked out the newly renovated Pembroke Hall yet, now there is an extra incentive — an exhibit of the works of Maqbool Fida Husain, considered India's most famous living painter.

Born in 1915 in Pandharpur, India, Husain first rose to prominence in the 1950s. His works now hang in museums and galleries around the world, including the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and have sold for up to $2 million.

The works in Pembroke Hall come from the collection of Indian art expert Amrita Jhaveri '91, whose company consults on Indian art sales.

The exhibit runs until March 26 in Pembroke Hall, and Jhaveri will give a lecture on "M.F. Husain and Indian Modernism" on March 22.

The exhibit was curated by Visiting Professor of History of Art and Architecture Mallica Kumbera Landrus and Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the David Winton Bell Gallery, and sponsored by the Year of India, the Cogut Center for Humanities and the Bell Gallery. 

The idea for the exhibit initially arose in September. Professor of Political Science Ashutosh Varshney, the chair of the Year of India, came to the Cogut Center and the Bell Gallery with the idea of incorporating something artistic into Brown's year-long celebration of India's past and present.

According to Conklin, it was Professor of History Michael Steinberg, the director of the Cogut Center, who suggested Husain. It seemed like a good fit, Steinberg said, not only because of Husain's prominence, but also because Husain portrays a "multicultural India," including ancient and modern themes, secular and religious influences and images of daily life on the street.

Jhaveri, whom Conklin has known for several years, shipped the selected works from England to Providence.

Pembroke Hall provides an attractive venue and atmosphere for the exhibit, with its white and glass walls and wood floors. The paintings, distributed between the first and second floors, represent Husain's work from the 1950s to the 1970s, the early years of his prolific career.

Many of these paintings display what the exhibit's introductory plaque, written by Kumbera Landrus, lists as Husain's favorite subjects: "life on the streets, women and horses (together and apart) and mythological and religious personages." These features are well-represented in this exhibit, along with some more atypical works, such as the abstract landscape "Black Hill."

The exhibit's most striking works include "Chariot of the Sun God," a large white horizontal canvas with horses painted in shades of gray. That there are seven of them is not immediately apparent, but the description explains that it depicts the seven horses that carry the Sun God across the sky.

Husain painted this shortly after his visit to China in 1951, though this painting seems most reminiscent of a large-scale Picasso work, such as the famous "Guernica." Husain is often compared to the Spanish painter, along with Picasso's French contemporary Georges Braque, because all three artists emphasize form and color. The exhibit includes the piece "Draupadi," painted for the Sao Paulo Art Biennal in 1971 — for which only Husain and Picasso were requested to exhibit their paintings.

This painting, full of bright colors, browns and female forms, is part of a series depicting the ancient Indian epic "The Maharhabata," a central Hindu text.

Though born Muslim, Husain grew up immersed in Hinduism, and much of his work reflects this. The painting "Durga" depicts the goddess as a brightly colored tiger baring her teeth and hangs on the first floor of the exhibit.

Some of Husain's work has attracted controversy for its depiction of Hindu goddesses, sometimes nude.

Steinberg attributed this reaction to the often-tense relationship among Hindus, Muslims and secular culture in India.

"Important works on sensitive issues can draw controversy," Steinberg said. That Husain is Muslim but paints Hindu images is a crossover "welcomed by some, threatening to others," Steinberg said.

Conklin said that though the local reaction has been very positive, she has received some e-mails protesting the show, mostly from people in India. She explained that "folks that don't like his stuff are very organized" and are likely to have posted the gallery's contact information on an anti-Husain activist Web site.

The somewhat controversial nature of Husain's art did not dissuade the Cogut Center, Bell Gallery and Year of India from bringing it to Brown. "This university welcomes difficult issues being debated — that is not a problem for us," Steinberg said.


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