Lightning : When M.F Husain painted India of the 1970s

Think M.F Husain and the words that come to your mind are : horses, umbrellas, barefoot, Madhuri Dixit, Picasso, Bombay. Think deeper, and there are couple of more – like Nationalism, Secular, Indira Gandhi – and well, exile. Did you know, he once created a huge canvas for the 1975 Congress rally in Bombay?

Husain at work on ‘Lightning’ which was literally created at ‘lightning speed’ without a break!

In this post, we take a deeper look at one of Husain’s two monumental works; ‘Lightning’


‘ Lightning’ is a 12 panel artwork, featuring 10 speeding horses over a 60ft wide landscape. It is currently on display as the focus of ‘Art and the Nation’ at the Asia Society, New York

This artwork featured as a backdrop for the Congress rally of 1975 in Bombay’s Shivaji Park. Husain later lent it to a theatre group to use as a stage backdrop (sometime in the 1980s). Since then, this is the second time the work is on view, and the first time it is displayed in sequence.

A jumbled up sequence!

Lightning is considered a masterpiece. It highlights Husain’s unique way of articulating political events through symbols.

Through his bold brush strokes, Husain draws attention to a developing India. He highlights the achievements of Indira Gandhi – India’s first woman Prime Minister and India of the 1970s – without visually showing her! The canvas became part of his series of Indira Gandhi. Here’s one of the paintings:

The important thing to note is, this was NOT a commissioned work. This was Husain’s contribution to the rally – also an indication of the support the political party garnered from different industries, including art.

However, when it comes to the Congress, 1975 has hardly evoked positive emotion. 1975 was the year of ‘Emergency’. Civil liberties were put off till 1977, and Gandhi’s popularity amidst masses took a major hit.

Here’s a closer look at Lightning by M.F Husain

Very rarely, we come across art that sparks discussion and debate. This is one of them!


The Wheat Stalk


The canvas highlights India’s growth and achievements in the post-Independence period. In the second panel, a large stalk of wheat symbolises the Green Revolution – an effort to boost India’s agricultural production. Under the Congress regime, new hybrids of wheat had been introduced, which grew faster than the earlier ones. You can spot the symbol of wheat-stalks on coins too, indicating abundance & prosperity.

Defence Artillery


Then there’s the bright red tank and some other defence artillery. Probably a celebration of India’s victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan – but definitely a strong indication of India’s military strength.

Industrial Growth


Moving left, you can spot a worker with his tools – reminding us of the industrial revolution brewing in India. But wait – wasn’t it this revolution that was heavily criticized for literally killing the cottage industry?



Then comes the controversial red triangle : an inverted version of the original logo of the Family Planning program. While the triangle represents fertility – perhaps here, it signalled the development of maternal health facilities (especially in rural areas) that were becoming a priority for India in the 1970s. While some lauded the population-control measures, there was much debate over this program.

Nuclear Energy

India remains to be the only developing nation to have indigenously developed scientific capabilities and technology in the civilian realm of nuclear science. While the intention was to use it for peaceful purposes only (generating electrical energy for example), a 1974 testing of a nuclear weapon brought world-attention to India as an emerging power. Husain depicted this moment as a glorious turn in history in the red circle, literally “spotlighting” it.

The Hand raised in Blessing

The symbolism of mudras and hand-gestures is not lost on the lovers of Indian art. From Buddha sculptures to the Open-Hand logo of India’s first modern city, Chandigarh – various mudras depict different things. In this one though, Husain uses a Christian-motif of the blessing sign often used by priests; (perhaps) exalting Indira’s status to a divine one or just indicating a ‘blessed’ time for India under her leadership.

If you observe, the painting reads right to left, just like Urdu. For more on Husain, and his inspirations, take a look at this short Instagram video:

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Husain, the ‘artist of the nation’ who’s works speak of a secular India found himself amidst controversy in his later years. He left India on a self-imposed exile, never to return; his artworks though, continue to speak of his love for India and the spirit of nationhood.

Catch the exhibit at Asia Society New York:

M.F. Husain: Art and the Nation
March 20, 2019 – August 4, 2019
725 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Hours: Monday – Sunday 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
Friday 11:00 am – 9:00 pm (mid-September – June)
Closed Mondays and major holidays.

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