Painter, provocateur and exile: Who was M F Husain?

We think we know Husain by virtue of familiarity but seldom is one able to grasp the entirety of the phenomenon he was.

Updated 14 May, 2019 05:19pm

South Asia may know few artists as well as it does Maqbool Fida Husain, or M F Husain, as he's popularly known.

We know him as a painter and as a provocateur; we know of his love for the female form and for horses; his fondness for Madhuri; his likeness to Picasso and, not to forget, his penchant for walking barefoot.

We think we know Husain by virtue of familiarity — through personal stories and bits of information collected through our lives. Seldom, though, is one able to grasp the entirety of the phenomenon he was.

"Untitled (Self Portrait)", 1986.—WikiArt.
"Untitled (Self Portrait)", 1986.—WikiArt.

In an interview at a very young age, I mentioned that I loved to paint. My school principal followed this up with a question — who was my favourite artist? I involuntarily replied, "M F Husain".

This was before the time I spent my days trawling the internet for South Asian painters. I knew precious little about art — but I did know of Husain. I possibly read about him in school textbooks or heard of him in the news. How I was introduced to him I can’t recall — an unsurprising detail given that his presence was everywhere, including in my friend Prachi’s life.

Prachi, with whom I’ve researched this article, knew of Husain since a very young age for she saw his painting in her uncle's house — a gift from a collector to her uncle. She remembers it being a dark painting — deep colours and vague, undefined figures.

The most striking thing, she says, was its size. It fit half a wall and had a few bright strokes of yellow. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. With Husain’s work, you simply cannot.

Leaving the room on the day of the interview, I knew I had to look him up and somehow force myself to like his work — as if to make that childish lie a truth. With his graceful palette and bold strokes, it wasn’t hard at all to make him a favourite artist.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever", 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author
"A thing of beauty is a joy forever", 2007. Acrylic on canvas. Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author

Last week on a museum run in Doha, I walked into the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and was struck by a large painting with the words “Quit India movement” and a silhouette of Gandhi.

Immediately, I squealed to my friend that it was a Husain exhibit. I could now recognise his style.

Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, it takes you through Husain’s oeuvre in a guided tour — you see his life, fragments of poetry; you see his spirituality and his search for home beyond physical boundaries.

Qatar was his country of citizenship in his later life — a passport he held alongside a strong Indian identity. With Husain there is so much noise but precious little that we remember — and what we do remember are the many controversies he flared up.

Why, said my friend, did he paint horses and dancing women? And why did he walk barefoot? She had read it somewhere, she said, and I realised I didn’t know. I was curious to discover too.

At Daak, Prachi and I have spent many hours discussing and writing about South Asian art, but somehow never thought to know more about this artist we knew before all others.

We explored some questions we had and answers we sought when it came to Husain, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 95.

"Sprinkling Horses".—Christie's.
"Sprinkling Horses".—Christie's.

Husain’s fondness for horses, as we found out, can be linked to his Sulaimani Bohra roots. During the month of Muharram when Shias commemorate the death of Imam Husain, huge processions are carried out. Glorious taziyas and horses are decorated for it.

As a child, he was attracted to the flurry of colours in this ‘festival’ of mourning. Later, he began incorporating the horses into his paintings.

"Horses", 2010. Limited edition serigraph.—Archer India
"Horses", 2010. Limited edition serigraph.—Archer India

Often, his horses have a feminine grace in their movements — he had said it was the hips of the horses — which is why they look so attractive. A combination of the male and female — aggressive in the front and graceful in the back.

His horses are “charging like a dragon in the front and graceful and elegant from the back.” Very often, these horses are casual strokes of his brush — masterful, powerful and pack a punch.

In his later life, as he took to cinema, he is known to have said:

“Log kaam karne ke baad ghode bech kar sote hain, Main ghode bech kar film banata hoon.”

“People work all their lives and then sleep as if they’ve sold off their horses, I sell off my horses and then make films.”

"Female nude", 1979. Oil on canvas.—ArtNet
"Female nude", 1979. Oil on canvas.—ArtNet

Husain and Madhuri Dixit.—FreePressJournal
Husain and Madhuri Dixit.—FreePressJournal

The feminine form is unmistakably present in each work of his and is often the theme of many. He says it is a manifestation of the search for his mother — whom he lost at a very young age. In the female form, he looked for her. He could not remember her face and painted his women faceless.

This search also led to his obsession with beautiful women — most notoriously, Madhuri Dixit. She was his first cinematic muse — he had a series of paintings inspired by her and made a film featuring her titled Gaja Gamini.

He had first watched her in a film in the early 1990s and was mesmerised by her movements and “beautiful hips”. She continued to be his lifelong muse.

Cinema grew to be his passion in later life to the extent that in an interview he is known to have said, “Painting for me is almost dead. Long live cinema.”

Gaja Gamini.—India Today/Suvashis Mullick
Gaja Gamini.—India Today/Suvashis Mullick

Images of him walking barefoot on Mumbai’s streets came to the fore in 1964, after the death of much-admired Hindi poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. Husain was shocked that such a great poet died without managing to get his works published as a book during his lifetime.

On his way back from the funeral in scorching heat, Husain thought to feel the sorrow of Muktibodh’s demise and removed his shoes. He walked barefoot and stayed barefoot since — a cathartic tribute for an artist who did not get his due.

The exhibit at the Mathaf brings forth a different side of Husain. Curator Hoskote describes the show, titled M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun, as “introspective rather than a retrospective.”

A walk-through of the exhibit takes us through Husain’s mind, exploring his idea of home as a habitat remembered from childhood, shaped in the present or discovered through exploration. It has images of his engagement with the world, a wider theme that cuts across boundaries and imaginations.

"World Religions", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Qatar Foundation Collection Doha.—Photo by author
"World Religions", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Qatar Foundation Collection Doha.—Photo by author

"Cross Cultural Dialogue", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art.—Photo by author
"Cross Cultural Dialogue", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Mathaf: Museum of Modern Arab Art.—Photo by author

There is a universality in the spirituality Husain espoused and one that is very evident in this exhibit. There is a pluralistic approach to the divine and cosmic aspects of being, articulated through the myths, symbols, narratives and conversations of and between the world’s religions and philosophies.

"Bilal ibn Rabah", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Qatar Foundation Collection Doha.—Photo by author
"Bilal ibn Rabah", 2008. Acrylic on canvas. Qatar Foundation Collection Doha.—Photo by author

"Hanuman". Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author
"Hanuman". Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author

"Husain on a Horse", 2010. Oil on canvas. Collection of Sheikh Hasan MA Al Thani, Doha.—Photo by author
"Husain on a Horse", 2010. Oil on canvas. Collection of Sheikh Hasan MA Al Thani, Doha.—Photo by author

You see strands drawn from parts of his life, from things he has known and things he has seen — even literature he has read, a dose of calligraphed verses of poetry we assume he lived by.

Just like the India he so loved, his life is a treasure trove of cultures, homes, sentiments, faiths and myths all embodied in his work.

“India is a giant circus and I am its rangeela [colourful] joker!”

"Hayat le ke chalo — Makhdoom Mohiuddin". Mathaf" Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author
"Hayat le ke chalo — Makhdoom Mohiuddin". Mathaf" Arab Museum of Modern Art.—Photo by author

Translation:

hayāt le ke chalo kā.enāt le ke chalo
chalo to saare zamāne ko saath le ke chalo

Take life with you, take creation with you.
If you have to keep moving, take the whole world with you.

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Onaiza Drabu is an anthropologist and works on Kashmiri folklore. She curates Daak (daak.co.in), a weekly newsletter and website. It is a collection of unknown stories, artworks and ideas from women and men who have shaped South Asia's cultural heritage.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (29) Closed

Umar
May 14, 2019 04:18pm
Would love to see some articles on some Pakistani artists
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Bitter_truth
May 14, 2019 04:33pm
Nice paintings by mf hussain..as a medical student,i have great admiration for art,culture etc.
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Difusal
May 14, 2019 05:08pm
I am fond of his work, I am writing this comment from MF Hussain's hometown in Maharashtra
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Feroz
May 14, 2019 05:20pm
Husain is the Picasso of modern Indian Art and must get full credit in building awareness and popularizing it. A man without any Art education he had started his life as a hoarding painter on the streets of Bombay. A characteristic of his works is that in the human figure the face would be blank. His use of colour and the way he captured movement, whether of a dancer or musician was very captivating. I am fortunate to have met him many times as my late father was a patron of Art and my home was a mini Gallery / Museum having artists from around India dropping in frequently whenever visiting our city. Still holding a large canvas valued around a million Dollars by Auction houses, my siblings having sold theirs some time ago.
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ABCD
May 14, 2019 05:52pm
Great article in memory of a great artist of the world. Thank you.
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Banerjee
May 14, 2019 07:02pm
Long before Madhuri, Husain painted other Indian stars, including Leela Desai and Devika Rani.
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JAGDEEP S KANG
May 14, 2019 07:02pm
Husian's life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many of Indians. India needs to honour him for his dedication and courage to the cultural renaissance of the country.
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wasim
May 14, 2019 07:27pm
A throbbing vein of Art and Love...MF Hussain.
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Zaku
May 14, 2019 08:22pm
Good paintings. Wish he had stayed away from religious stuff. It just makes people behave in crazy ways.
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Maya
May 14, 2019 09:51pm
@Umar, art has no nationality
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Colaking
May 14, 2019 10:42pm
I can only add that I have met M.F. in person in a hotel. He was a great artist and painter.
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Shakil Khan
May 14, 2019 10:48pm
Never heard of Hussain in Europe. By chance happened to see some of his paintings and was stuck by it as by a mural by a Pakistani Artist in lobby entrance of Pearl Continental Hotel in Karachi.
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AK
May 14, 2019 10:51pm
A great highly creative world class painter from India.
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Un-Zak
May 15, 2019 12:49am
I love you for that Onaiza. Where was that research carried out ?
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Ijaz
May 15, 2019 01:31am
Where can I buy some of his work
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Akram
May 15, 2019 02:01am
@JAGDEEP S KANG, "India needs to honour him for his dedication and courage to the cultural renaissance of the country." Under Modi you can forget about any renaissance.
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Antidote
May 15, 2019 02:23am
I lived in the same building where he used to live in Bombay.
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Arjun Singh
May 15, 2019 10:01am
@Umar, Art has no borders. You must have heard that.
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Ehtisham Kazmi
May 15, 2019 01:16pm
Thanks. Informative and absorbing. I have not seen his paintings exhibited here in New York
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vinod sharma
May 15, 2019 02:33pm
He was an Indian painter, but unfortunately, after death he was not buried in India. He used to enter bare-footed even five-star hotels.
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Ednan
May 15, 2019 02:42pm
Thanks for write-up. It's good.
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Patriotic Pakistani
May 15, 2019 06:21pm
Umar a day ago Would love to see some articles on some Pakistani artists, if there are any...
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Pervez
May 15, 2019 09:46pm
It’s sad that Hussain could not exhibit his work in Mumbai due to threats from Shiv Sena.
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Sameer Ahmed
May 16, 2019 10:39am
@Difusal, please note he is from Hyderabad India
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Rav
May 16, 2019 11:50am
Thanks Ms Drabu. Ver nicely written without any religious or political overtones. Thanks for describing the art in it's pure form. You earned a new fan in me.
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Mumtaz Shah
May 16, 2019 04:36pm
very nice
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Secularist
May 16, 2019 11:13pm
While my wife and I worked in Mumbai, we often met at Samovar, a great meeting place. It was a restaurant in a verandah of Jehangir Art Gallery. It was a watering hole for the young, the restless, artists, poets, and performing celebrities. MFH was a very frequent visitor, holding court with friends and admirers. All we could afford were reprints available for sale in the stores upstairs. The restaurant is gone. So is the great MFH. Unfortunately, he died away from home, thanks to the threats from fundamentalists. The only fundamentalism I support is that which neutralizes all forms of fundamentalists, making fundamentalism unnecessary for human development..
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Akash
May 17, 2019 07:58am
@Akram, do you honor the French guy who drew some cartoon? Respect and you will be respected
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Aban Usmani
May 17, 2019 03:32pm
A very nice write up. Thanks. It was more about Hussain and less about you. You were though present everywhere Keep writing
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