Barefoot, painting, horses, goddesses, controversial, genius and mad-about-Madhuri. These are the few tags that describe the eccentric India-born ‘Picasso’, who is no more today.
Maqbool Fida Husain or MF was not the painter of the masses but of the initiated; yet he tried to seek a mass audience by delving in popular media such as film, and in the process rubbed many the wrong way—those whose sense of esthetics revolved round their narrow belief systems. Both Hindu and Muslim faithful and extremists hated him with an equal passion, for challenging their sensitivities, while he remained a god unto himself amongst India’s art and intellectual elite which is avowedly secular.
Recipient of many state decorations, including the coveted Padma Shree, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, and nominated for several others, Husain, with his universal fame, was born into a humble background in the small town of Pandharpur in Maharashtra in 1915. Soon a motherless infant, with his father taking a second wife, he grew up and was schooled in Indore, which is where his sensitive mind and soul, garnished by a sense of rebellion and an eye for beauty, were nurtured. He must have been a good student, for it was not known that an average one could make it to Bombay’s prestigious J.J. School of Art, which he did as a young man at 20.
The 1930s and ‘40s was a time of great upheaval in India, with the freedom movement and its various offshoots raging for public attention amidst shifting sands; the centre of Hindi-Urdu theatre and cinema was moving to Bombay from Calcutta, where a parallel Bengal school was founded by the multifaceted Rabindra Nath Tagore and his painter brother, Abhinendra Nath, to reclaim Bengali heritage; communist idealism too was digging its feet in, giving birth to the Progressive Writers’ Movement in Urdu literature, for instance, which sought to put meaning in all literature as a prerequisite for it to be recognised as such.
The Arya Samaj, the Khalsa Diwan Sabha, the Anjuman-i-Himayat-i-Islam worked on parallel programmes to distinguish themselves by laying the foundations of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim nationalisms, concentrating on education and social welfare without being extremist in their agendas (the later to be anti-Gandhi, extremist Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which would soon raise an entire Parivar, was the only fundamentalist organisation seeking Hindutva ideals then; Islamic fundamentalism’s birth was respectfully deferred to the birth of Pakistan).
In this charged and changing social milieu, Husain began his career by painting film hoardings in Bombay while pursuing his art education and, together with his peer, Francis Newton Souza (d. 2002), founded the Progressive Artists’ Group, whose scions were going to be Shakir Ali, with his group of Punj Piyare (five loved ones) and Ali Imam in latter day Pakistan (both Husain and Souza remained regular visitors to Karachi throughout the 1970s and ‘80s to catch up with friends here like the late Ali Imam, Bashir Mirza and Baseer Ashraf, to name a few; Souza also exhibited his works in Karachi).
The aim of Bombay’s Progressive Artists’ Group, unlike that of the celebrity-cum-intellectual idealist-heavy Progressive Writers’ Movement, was, much like Manto: to dissociate their art from the various ideological moorings and concentrate on making art with a global, secular appeal. This was one contribution of Husain which is little talked about, and which put Indian art on to the global stage only years after independence. The rest is history.
Crowned, celebrated, feasted and exhibited in renowned museums across the world in the years that followed, right until the day he breathed his last, Husain not only achieved his dream of being a universal artist, but he also reclaimed and showcased his Indian cultural roots by painting from religious and epic themes that came to acquire a signature stamp in the outside world. There does is not a museum of world renown with a permanent collection of modern painting today that does not have several of Husain’s paintings on display.
In his late years, his predicament at the hands of Hindu (and Muslim fundamentalists), who disowned him, vandalised his studio, got his films banned and his property confiscated through lawsuits, and eventually made him run away from a country and a people he loved so dearly, are all but sorry sides to an otherwise riveting, successful person and artist that Husain was. So rooted was he in his dear soil, its people and their diverse culture that if he could help it, he would have lived and died in India, and not in self-imposed exile in London as a Qatari, of all nationalities.
Murtaza Razvi is an editor with Dawn.