Most of the Mahabharata works were done by Husain in the medium of acrylic-on-paper in early 1971 for the Eleventh Sao Paulo Biennale, held in September 1971. Some of these were later printed in a limited edition of serigraphs in 2002. In the catalogue for the Sao Paulo Biennale, Husain quoted K.M. Munshi, the distinguished Gujarati scholar of Indian epics, regarding the significance of the Mahabharata: “The Mahabharata is not a mere epic; it is a romance, telling the tales of heroic men and women and of some who were divine: it is a whole literature in itself, containing a code of life, a philosophy of social and ethical thought on human problems that is hard to rival.”
Husain was perhaps conscious that the first major exhibition of these works was to be held for foreign viewers who were not likely to be familiar with the story of the Mahabharata. Therefore, in the beginning of the catalogue, Husain also quoted the legend about the writing of the Mahabharata according to which the epic was conceived of by the sage Vyasa who dictated it to Lord Ganapati or Ganesha.
Husain captures the essence of this legend in his painting ‘Vyasa and Ganapati’ in which the images of Vyasa and Ganapati partly overlap, as if in creating the Mahabharata the two have become one entity, while still retaining their distinct identities. The overall effect of the painting is one of mystic union.
Husain’s overall treatment of the Mahabharata is very different from his treatment of the Ramayana. It is far more abstract in form yet has more narrative and cerebral elements which are not usually a part of Husain’s expression.
A cerebral treatment is given to the image of the dying Bhishma Pitamaha. On the tenth day of the Battle of Kurukshetra, Bhishma is felled by the arrows of Arjuna (see image above), who was using Shikhandi (the princess-reborn-as-warrior) as cover. In the painting, Bhishma, as the epic describes, is lying prostrate on a bed of arrows. Bhishma has a boon that he will die only when he wills his own death.
The prostrate Bhishma is waiting for the sun to reach the direction of Uttarayan (the point of its annual northern journey) because that is the time he has willed to die. The setting sun can be seen in the background symboliszing the approaching time of Bhishma’s death. Husain adds to this drama by creating a screen between the forms of the sun and Bhishma. Husain enhances the somber mood of the scene by predominantly using shades of brown contrasted with orange and squares of green and blue in the screen (I think he’s stating through those colours that this is an Indian national epic and asserting that Indians share it culturally, whatever their official religion. And do note a narrative touch: the screen has ten squares to indicate that Bhishma fell on the tenth day of battle. RN). The squares in the top half of the painting balance the vertical arrows beneath the figure of Bhishma. One can read several meanings in this painting, including the situation of the tortured modern man caught between the pain of living and the desire for life.
Extracted from Maqbool Fida Husain, Rahul&Art, 2008