Exploring MF Husain’s secret legacy in children’s furniture design

If there ever existed an artist who left a truly indelible mark on the Indian art landscape, it is MF Husain. Even those far removed from the art world can spot one of his famed horses or vibrant depictions of Ganesha and identify them as Husains. His name is synonymous with modern Indian art yet there exists a lesser-known, almost secret facet of Husain’s artistic repertoire—his foray into designing children’s furniture. This intriguing chapter in Husain’s career, distinctly different from his usual oeuvre, has been a hidden treasure known to few.

In the 1940s, a young (and relatively unknown) Husain assumed the role of chief artist at Fantasy, a furniture studio in South Bombay established by Ilyas and Sakina Moizuddin. Here, he embarked on an endeavour wholly different from the grand, sometimes politically charged canvases he would later be known for. At Fantasy, Husain designed nursery furniture, creating whimsical pieces for children. The Lotus and Green Cherry Blossom suites, commissioned by Rani Savita Kumari Devi of Katesar for her family home in Mussoorie, are stand-out examples of this work, embodying the historical significance and unique aesthetic of the period in which it was made.

mf husain

Nursery furniture with hand-painted details and wooden cutouts designed by MF Husain in the 1940s for Fantasy, a children’s furniture studio.

These suites reveal a side of the artist that contrasts sharply with his later works. “The studio created custom-made wooden furniture and accessories for children’s nurseries for prominent and affluent clients in Bombay and across India,” recalls Dinesh Vazirani, cofounder of SaffronArt, which showcased Husain’s Lotus suite at Art Mumbai in November 2023. Adorning these pieces were Husain’s illustrations, a blend of various influences ranging from Disney characters to nursery rhymes. Vazirani notes, “Though the images were derived from popular culture, the Fantasy versions were never identical to their source. Husain often altered designs and compositions, lending his illustrations a distinct identity of their own.”

Husain’s designs transcended mere aesthetic appeal; the artist was subtly weaving in a narrative of cultural identity and critique. “Eager to create imagery that was geographically and culturally more relevant to India, Husain also began to incorporate characters like Aladdin and Sinbad from The Arabian Nights,” Vazirani says. The artist also shifted towards a more indigenous aesthetic and included imagery drawn from rural Indian life and mythology. This change reflected the broader artistic movement of the time, where Indian artists sought to define a modern Indian identity in the post-independence era. Fantasy’s Ilyas Moizuddin, seeing Husain’s potential, once remarked: “We hope his artistic ability will be properly appreciated in this country and that he will be recognized as one of the great artists of our time someday in the near future.”

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