Maqbool Fida Husain, who died in London on Thursday morning, was without doubt the most important Indian painter of the 20th century. Official documents state he was born in 1915 in Pandharpur (Maharashtra), though that date might well be off by a year or two. He was poor, drew exquisitely, made images feverishly. In the years before Independence, he took on a series of jobs to support his art. He designed furniture, crafted puppets and, most famously, painted billboards.
He studied at the JJ School of Art, though the myth of M.F. Husain, as it later developed, excluded this formal training. By the late 1940s, he was widely recognized as one of India’s leading talents. He reached the peak of his creativity in the 1950s and 1960s, crafting seminal canvases such as Man, Zameen, and Between the Spider and the Lamp. Having come to believe that shakti, the female principle, was the essence of Indian culture, he fell under the spell of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and Mother Teresa in the 1980s. By this time, he was, by some margin, India’s most expensive painter. His prolific output was as crucial to the nascent market as Amitabh Bachchan’s films were to the movie industry. Well past his prime as an artist, the complex interaction of figure and colour of his best work increasingly replaced by easy symbolism, Husain became a media star, and enjoyed the attention. His flowing hair and beard, preference for walking barefoot, and humble background as a hoarding painter made a winning combination.
The media attention proved a double-edged sword, however. Art had generally been simultaneously ignored and respected by the public at large. The attitude was: “We don’t comprehend it, but accept it is something worthwhile.” Husain’s Madhuri Dixit phase of the 1990s changed that. Dixit was somebody the public understood, or felt they did. If Husain was obsessed with her, he was like one of them, available to be judged, and to be judged without an understanding of his long association with cinema, or his view of woman as shakti. The first criticisms Husain’s paintings in the press related to sexually suggestive paintings of Dixit. They cast the artist as a dirty old man, a pervert even.
A spare moment: The artist was known for his boundless energy.Photo Courtesy: Continuum/Delhi Art Gallery
More serious charges followed: a delicate drawing of Saraswati from the 1970s was held up as blasphemous. The controversy sparked a decade of abuse, threats and lawsuits from the Hindu Right. Hindu activists spoke of pride in the motherland, but drove out a man who, unlike them, actually gave us something to be proud about; a man who, more than any other Indian artist, paid homage to and exemplified India’s syncretic traditions. Their target fled to the Gulf and London, where he found the ease he deserved.
Husain’s art was celebratory. The tradition of modernism current when he matured relied on anxiety, fear, violence and, occasionally, mysticism. He wasn’t particularly interested in those moods: “Dancing, singing, joy are central to our culture. Sentiments are our strength,” he said when I interviewed him two years ago. His greatest legacy is to have created a modernism with specifically Indian properties: a commitment to the human figure, the posture and gesture guided by Gupta and Chola sculpture, the colour and light influenced by Basohli and Rajasthani miniatures and by the blazing sub-tropical sun. “I use sensuous colour,” he said, “not the palette of Mughal miniatures, which is too refined.” He also rejected the “sophistication of French art”, preferring earthy tones of local folk creations”.
As a man, Husain was utterly unreliable. That is not to say he was ungenerous, for a large extended family lived for decades off his income. But he was incapable of keeping appointments or sticking to his word. A large book could be filled with stories of people left in the lurch by the great painter. Typically, he might tell assembled guests, or a film unit, he’d be back in a minute and then vanish for the whole day. If people forgave him, it was because they needed him, and also because they realized his behaviour did not arise from malice. I suspect it was born out of a desire for perfect freedom, interpreted in a childlike manner, with a child’s inconsiderateness.
Husain succeeded in living life on his terms and painting it on his terms. He may have apologized to whoever chose to be offended by his work, but that was because fighting didn’t interest him. Faced with a blank canvas, he marked it exactly as he wanted. In that gesture lay his freedom, and his courage, as an artist.
Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based art critic.
‘He was unapologetic’
After living for decades in France, I moved back to my land last year. But Husain was not able to return. I haven’t seen the works that offended the Hindu Right and I can’t comment, but if I were in his place and if any of my works had offended the Hindu community, I would have apologized.
Syed Haider Raza, fellow progressive artist and friend
I’d been aware for a week that he was seriously unwell. I had last met him in London years ago for an exhibition. We fixed an appointment the following day in a gallery. I waited for two hours, but Husain did not turn up. This failure to keep appointments was the only thing that I didn’t like about him.
As told to Mayank Austen Soofi.
‘He really was modern’
At 95, he continued to be very modern, very relevant. He took India to the world, but his references were always very Indian —even during his self-exile. What struck me the most about him was his excitement for the new. And how savvy he was. When I’d first proposed creating a digital animation of his life a few years ago, he didn’t know how it would work. But once he did, he was hands-on.
Kaamna Prasad, biographer and friend
Whenever I was to meet him abroad—in London or Dubai or Qatar— he would ask me to carry Indian newspapers…That’s how much he missed his country.
As told to Anindita Ghose.
‘There was no young Husain or old Husain’
The news of his death is a shock to me. One thought of Husain as eternal, probably because even when you were alongside him, he walked faster than anybody else! I thought he would be okay for 10 to 15 years more. But this is Husain’s style. He was always springing surprises on us and this is his last one. I spoke to him around a month back about an exhibition we were planning together. We finished speaking and he said, “Come over”. I said, “Come over where?” One never knew where he would be at any point of time.
Husain had the most amazing sense of humour. We once held an exhibition together in Delhi. Shyam Lal, the then editor of The Times of India, was a friend. True to his style, Husain didn’t show up at the inauguration. He loved to draw attention to himself— he’d come late often. He knew people would ask, “Where is Husain, where is Husain?” So Lal and I decided not to humour him. Husain arrived an hour late, and we went on conversing as though he had been there all along. He waited a while and then said, “I’m sorry,?I got delayed.” We said:?“What are you saying? Weren’t you here all along?” He was taken aback and tried to convince us he had only just come in. “Husain, you are always here,” I insisted. He burst into laughter when he realized he’d been had. I always told him that: “You are always here.”
Akbar Padamsee, artist and friend
Husain was an excellent friend without being a friend. He was not the sentimental sort of a friend. Ours was a deep connection over our work. We would tell each other the truth. Again, we were in Delhi and he had just completed a small watercolour. He said: “Chalo, let’s get into a taxi and go get this printed.” In the taxi, he asked me: “Why haven’t you reacted to my work?” I said that it was probably because I didn’t like it. He asked: “Why?” I replied: “Anybody could have done it. It was not necessary for you to have done it.” He replied: “But you cannot do this painting. Only I could have done this work. Your art is for sophisticated audiences. My art is for people. The common man must enjoy it, only then it has served its purpose.”
Some said Husain’s flirtation with Bollywood made him less of a serious artist. But all of it added to him. It was his life. He was a man who realized all his dreams. If his dream was Madhuri (Dixit), he would go and realize it. He would meet her, paint her. Last year, he spent more than Rs 1 crore and booked a theatre for 10 days in Dubai and held a festival of her films free to the public.
As an artist, Husain saw a lot of art. He took it all in. But what he eventually created was absolutely his own. There was no young Husain or old Husain in the sense of earlier or later works—Husain was always young. The phase when he used horses, I kept quiet because I did not like it, but his later works are incredible. Those that he has done in the last decade or so are not canvases that would appeal to his favoured common man. They are large canvases, which are a dialogue between artist and artist. To me, they are his most beautiful works.
It was not that exile affected him. The people who opposed him were stupid. They did not know anything about art. They may have succeeded in removing Husain the human being, but Husain the artist was present everywhere—in New York, London and Dubai. The loss was not his. It was ours. I got used to his physical absence over the past 10 years.
As told to Gayatri Jayaraman.