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The Qatari is dead; long live the Indian

Published Jun 09, 2011 11:13am


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In this photograph taken on January 14, 2004, Indian artist Maqbool Fida (M.F.) Husain stands against one of his paintings titled 'Last Supper' at the inauguration of his exhibition '...and not only 88 of Husain' at the National Art Gallery in Mumbai. – AFP Photo

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.

Comments (44) Closed

deep Jun 09, 2011 04:31pm
Love the historical perspective the writer has given us. As for present-day India, we are country of prudes, it is difficult for us to digest Hussain, never mind if we had no problem with Hussain twenty or thirty years ago.
Chak Jun 09, 2011 04:34pm
for an article on a well known painter, i liked the way the author snidely puts in the " Islamic fundamentalism’s birth was respectfully deferred to the birth of Pakistan" and again put all blame on others. I hope for once people would stop finger pointing and look at themselves and not bring politics into everything.
Aftab Shah Jun 09, 2011 05:14pm
MF was a great artist, world does not see such great human beings in ages. May Allah rest his soul in peace. Ameen! MF shall be greatly missed by art lovers all over world.
Nate Gupta Jun 09, 2011 05:19pm
M.F. Husain was a jewel, a son of India. He should have departed the world as an Indian. He deserved to be buried in his motherland.. India. It is a huge loss to all of his fans, particularly in sub continent. M. F. Husainji, you will always be remembered! - Nate Gupta
Raman Jun 09, 2011 05:22pm
I really do not understand modern art - i feel it is one of the greatest hoaxes of our times. The more bizzare the art is the more value it has.
hyderabadi Jun 09, 2011 05:28pm
Hussain and Picasso ? Ahem.....on what basis? C'mon guyz....while rags to riches story must be applauded, he was a 2nd grade painter by any standards. Late Raja ravi verma is light years ahead anywhich way you look at it.
Amit-Atlanta-USA Jun 09, 2011 05:30pm
Good Riddance!!!!!!!
Amit-Atlanta-USA Jun 09, 2011 05:39pm
Have you ever his pics? Plz. do a google check and see what comes up! If he was fair and was truly concerned about art, he would have treated every religious personality with the SAME amount of respect/disrespect he had for Hindu gods/demi-gods. So in effect, that's what Hindus asked him not to be selective. Most KNOWLEDGEABLE & SELF RESPECTING Hindus don't have an IOTA of respect for this man, and rightly believe that Hindus have been MAGNONIMOUS to this undeserving soul.
Krishan - London Jun 09, 2011 07:34pm
MF Husain was a great artist of immense global stature of whom India was rightly, very proud. A testament of this was the bestowing of the highest honours upon him by the Indian nation. While, some may not have approved of all his works, they should have channelled their criticism in a civilised manner. The attacks on him, then a very elderly man, by a small bigotted section of Indian society, forcing MF to go into exile, was distateful, repugnant and shameful to most of India. It is a great shame that he lived 94 years as an Indian citizen but will have died officially as a Qatari!
Mahendra Jun 09, 2011 10:18pm
Its a pity that even some Indians haven't yet understood the value of such a great artist, whose contribution to arts has been acknowledged throughout the world.
dada.. usa Jun 09, 2011 10:53pm
i think people misunderstood him , i think he was a man of style .... a great man .... will miss him.
fasihul haque Jun 09, 2011 11:40pm
MF hussain was great artist born in india but not be allowed to die as Indian.May Allah rest his soul in peace Aameen.He will be missed by all art lovers
Ishaque Jun 10, 2011 12:09am
It is a very informative article. Husain was a great Indian artist; it is of no consequence if the religious fundamentalists, living in India or outside the country do not give him the credence he deserves.
Pradeep from Boston Jun 10, 2011 01:37am
In a free country, people (especially artistes) should have the freedom to speak and write and paint their mind. That is the sign of a grown up mind and nation. This is the reason why a villager presently residing in Atlanta can badmouth because this country allows him that freedom which he wants to deny others.
ahmed ali shah Jun 10, 2011 06:18am
MF was a great man.its a shame that secular India disowned him in the end but this happens to many great men and women.
ASHOK MALHOTRA Jun 10, 2011 07:17am
M F Hussain, undoubtedly, was a great son of India. Yes he was a great artist and one of the top painters of his times. India is proud of him!
Muthu Kumar Jun 10, 2011 07:20am
I am Proud as an Indian....Ashamed as a Hindu...RIP Hussain Bhai. India Loves You........
Atheist, India Jun 10, 2011 09:27am
Hussain was too sophisticated for average people to comprehend. It's a shame that he was forced to die in exile just because some Hindu extremists did not "like" what he painted. Shame on my country.
Vivek M Jun 10, 2011 10:53am
MF painted beautifully. A great artist.
utsav Jun 10, 2011 01:18pm
Hussain saab was more Desi than any of us can ever be. He will remain a Desi in our hearts forever.
poruri rao Jun 10, 2011 01:20pm
hussain is a great painter and a great human being and a pride for hindus.but he should have avoided painting revered hindu godesses least he should have apologised to them.greatness does not give licence to insult others sentiments eventhough his heart and mind are pure
jiten Jun 10, 2011 01:31pm
he may be a great artist but not a great man
Abhishek Upadhyay Jun 10, 2011 01:51pm
MF Hussain was a great painter but that does not give him right to hurt religious sentiments of other people.IF he was a real maverick and genuine artist who painted nude pictures of Indian deities with art perspective I must have rallied behind him.
Shubho Jun 10, 2011 01:52pm
poruri rao: Maybe you should also go back in time to the golden age of ancient India and ask for apologies from the artisans who deified and sculpted the nude human form in both secular and religious forms as evident in the amazing temple architecture all over this land. It's a sad day when narrow individual belief sytems are peddled around as revivalist nationalism, and ignorance of the freedom, timelessness and universality of art is extolled as a virtue. As an Indian who's extremely proud of his country's rich and varied culture and history, I find it demeaning to the collective intelligence of the nation when such talibanistic views are thrown around as if they are the voice of the majority of the country.
Jayesh Jun 10, 2011 02:28pm
For poor, their faith is only a strength in their lives and to MF only a art so he should have balance the faith and art. Can you become nude in the name of art ? its like rich man's fancy and a nightmare to poor. who defines the definitions ?
saheb choudhury Jun 10, 2011 02:47pm
Those stumble upon this, I have a question. whats the point having Freedom of expression in our constitution[Art 19(1)(a)] if you can't really exercise it? Is it really a sheer and absolute pretense? If not then why should greats like M F Hussain have to die outside his own country just because he expressed his ideas through art? oh! Decency and Morality? Down with that.
mihir Jun 10, 2011 03:27pm
Amit-atlanta, I think your myopic views are to be appluaded. Please do not speak for the whole India. MF Hussain was driven out by people who believed in self-policing the rest of the population on the grounds of moral behavior. Most Indian were proud of the heritage he created and acknowledge that he is a part of the cultural footprint of our country. Grow up and look at the world in a broader perspective, or you will end up suffocated in your limited vision.
V. C. Bhutani Jun 10, 2011 03:35pm
Jiten As an Indian I am ashamed to read your comment. You are entitled to your opinion. But here you are talking of an artist. You may have nothing to say about his art but there is a time honoured saying: "Nothing but good should spoken of the dead."
V. C. Bhutani Jun 10, 2011 03:43pm
India and Indians did not cover themselves with glory when they treated MF Hussain with scant consideration in his late years. He fell victim to rabidly communal elements. Some people just could not take the freedom that Hussain claimed in the matter of painting some so-called "Hindu" themes. Whether a painting or a writing, it is a piece of creation and it involves some statement, which may be criticism. We should be able to take criticism. An artist has rather considerable latitude in the matter of expression. It is sad he had to go to Qatar in his old age. I wish India had been magnanimous towards him.
DD Jun 10, 2011 03:55pm
Raja Ravi Verma painted still life. Husain was an abstract painter. You cannot compare the two and say the Verma's paintings were better simply becuase they were more real-life. That is about as usefull as comparing some holy book such as Ramayan , Mahabarat or Quran to the Star Wars Trilogy.
truth Jun 10, 2011 03:55pm
That's fine tell me y did he not drew naked god of qatari people while staying in Qatar here in democracy you abuse the freedom
flight Lt. Resham Si Jun 10, 2011 04:07pm
Surely you cannot expect simple minded Indians to appreciate the true genius and talent of such a man. But then even Galileo suffered a similar faith. Adieu M. F. Hussain you now sit in the pantheon of other artistic greats like Van Gogh and Picasso. I know all of India is proud of you. You were India's prodigal son.
Anthony Jun 10, 2011 04:14pm
Funny to see so many Indians giving positive feedback to MF Hussain, yes he was a good artist, but not a good person.......In a secular country, he insulted majority religion by painting nude pics of demi-gods and goddess, is that justified in the name of arts ?? Pakistan is a country where blasphemy law is a very powerful law, it seems almost entire country support it, its strange to see that same people r calling MF Hussain a great person. Is that because most of the people are biased when it comes to Islam and liberal when its any other religion ? I want to know how will pakistan react if someone who is either muslim or non-muslim and in the name of art , he paints ugly pictures of those whom you love by heart ???? And those who are from India, I want to know......if MF Hussain would have painted ugly pictures of religious figures from other religion, lets say if he had insulted Islam(the second largest religion in India) by his so called art, how would you have all reacted on that matter???? positive feedback in that case too ???? or are we all biased ??
Tauseef Abbas Jun 10, 2011 04:25pm
MF Hussain's life and his work is not hidden. Apart from the meaning less controversy we should just think, can we get the success what he has now.
shiva Jun 10, 2011 04:53pm
A great Indian artist and a brilliant mind. Fully deserving of the high honor of Padma Vibhushan from GOI. He was clever enough to use his "artistic freedoms" selectively - did some paintings of Hindu dieties that hurt the sentiments of many millions of Hindus. He always loved India and understood it very well. May he rest in peace.
Andy Jun 13, 2011 06:39am
You nailed it mate. Applause from Pakistani media is coming because he has not harmed their feelings. Here we are seeing difficult situation from religious harmony perspective and people are praising person called MF Hussain. Indians are as usual, all over without focus.Yes he was great artist no doubt but failed to establish himself as mature human being.
mike Jun 13, 2011 10:22am
Indian democracy is so funny, WHY? Tasleema nasreen a Bangladeshi writer hurt religious sentiments of Muslims across globe and Indian govt.didnt even consider the sentiments of its Muslims and give her protection. M.F Hussain an Indian hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus and is thrown out of country. If this is democracy then china is better.
ajay Jun 13, 2011 03:16pm
if he had done that to all religion god I would have called it artistic. but his selection was purlyvbiased.on the top did not even apologies
mad Jun 13, 2011 10:47pm
It is true, ancient scluptures involved nudity. Art is a reflection of the times and society. So in ancient times, people wore less/none, so the artworks too. Today's art should refelect current ethos.
Chinmay Jun 13, 2011 11:12pm
Check your facts, he was not thrown out of the country, he was in a self imposed exile.
chakraborty Jun 14, 2011 02:23pm
I want to know responses of the both Indians and Pakistanis that how would have appreciated the painter if he had painted a figure who is important to you like your father of the nation with a flag of Pakistan. (He painted Mother India Nude) Please reply, He must have done it in an artistic way for sure.
chakraborty Jun 14, 2011 02:35pm
Mr. Bhutani we are ashamed of you, We are secular but dont hurt emotions of any community. If such thing would have happened to any minority then by now there would have been a riot in India!!!!
SLDUA (Delhi) Jun 15, 2011 02:55pm
Mr. V.C. Bhutani!!! Sustitute 'Danish Cartoons' for 'Hindu themes'and then, read your own comments. How do you feel? I would like to know.
D.Bose Jun 15, 2011 06:05pm
Hussain was not a great painter at all; he just has drawn the attention of Indira Gandhi, who promoted him. Hussain art is boring; but that is not the issue. Hussain got all the honour from India but betrayed India. He has started painting nude Mother of India disregarding the fact it hurts the sentiments of more than 80 percent of the population of India, who are Hindus. For the Hindus it is highly insulting and of course obscene, due to which he was convicted in the High Court and escaped to Qatar. It is just not true nude scuptures of Hindu Deva and Devis exist in any temples; there is none. There are scuptures of others, contemporary kings and queens or other people and those scuptures have a different meaning: you need to conquer the sensual attractions in order to go to the spiritual world, which Hussain never understood. If you put emphasis on this uneducated provocator you only create tensions between Hindus and Muslims, which can explode any time into communal riots. Is this what you want?