An Exiled Painter's Death Stirs India's Passions: World View
June 15 (Bloomberg) -- Maqbool Fida Husain, the most famous and flamboyant and most marketable Indian painter of the 20th Century, and, in the eyes of many, the greatest, passed away June 9 at the ripe age of 95.
What was especially tragic about his demise was that this versatile and vigorous interpreter of Indian history and mythology, whose work also gave voice to many of the great currents and tumultuous developments in the past century of Indian life, was at the time of his death a reluctant, if resigned, Qatari national. In 2006, Husain fled India after repeated harassment from Hindu right-wing groups, which used antiquated libel laws to attack what they considered a Muslim's insolence in depicting Hindu gods and goddesses.
Husain's decision to leave his beloved homeland was probably prudent, given the many demonstrations in the last decade of the Indian state's insufficient commitment to defending freedom of expression in art and dissenting or controversial opinion in scholarship. The advance of history doesn't always signal progress: Husain passed away in a decade more censorious and hostile to artistic freedom than any other in his working life.
If I don't immediately cut to the widely discussed political and social reverberations of Husain's demise, it is only to respect the fact that his name and reputation deserve to be associated with many things beyond the sorry spectacle of his closing years. One of the best assessments of his career was provided by the art critic Girish Shahane, who wrote in the newspaper Mint:
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.
Shahane observed that Husain's greatest legacy was "to have created a modernism with specifically Indian properties"; this was echoed by C Uday Bhaskar in The Economic Times:
As a founder member of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in Bombay in 1947, Husain along with his peers was trying to grapple with modernity and the weight of 'western' art that colonial rule had imposed. In one of his more reflective comments (1997), he noted of the PAG: "Our concern was to evolve not only art as a profession to make a living, but to do serious research to evolve a language for Indian contemporary art. It had to be rooted in our culture and all the points of reference had to be ours, but it had to use modern techniques as well. There was no point in painting like Indian miniatures, or like Ajanta and Ellora.
For long, Husain's irreverence, joie de vivre, ability to mix with both high and low (one commentator wrote of how he favored both "bare feet and Bugattis") and embrace of Indian narratives and popular culture found a hospitable home in India. He painted whole series of paintings on the epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, while also publicly declaring several Bollywood actresses as his muses, most famously Madhuri Dixit. As Siddharth Bhatia wrote in DNA:
He painted while Bhimsen Joshi sang and went gaga over Madhuri Dixit after she made Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, which he saw repeatedly. It all sounded like a stunt and certainly no one can deny its publicity value, but Husain was canny enough to know the pulse of Middle India and how it was changing. He was the only artist who comfortably straddled the two worlds of high art and mass recognition with film star-like popularity.
But as the Hindu right wing grew politically more powerful and publicly more strident in the 1990s and into the new century, complex figures like Husain, at home in several traditions, became sitting ducks for the politics of identity and chauvinism. Right-wing groups repeatedly vandalized Husain exhibitions and filed cases in court against him. Balasaheb Thackeray, the belligerent leader of the Shiv Sena, a right-wing party that has considerable support in Maharashtra, famously asked in 1998, equating art's crossing of boundaries with dissenters' invasion of physical space, "If Husain can enter Hindustan [India] why can't we enter his house?"
In 2006, Husain was attacked by a right-wing cultural organization called the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (loosely, the Association For The Mass Revival of Hinduism) for a painting he had made of a nude woman in the shape of the map of India. He was forced to apologize. Shortly afterward, he left the country for Dubai, where the journalist Shoma Chaudhury found him in good spirits in 2008 in an excellent essay called "The Master In His Absurd Exile."
India's liberal press unanimously decried Husain's death in forced exile. But the truth was that a substantial section of Indian opinion, and not just the right-wing fringe, held that Husain has crossed the boundaries of artistic license. The idea that art should respect religious sensitivities, that nudity is much the same as obscenity, and that the meaning of an artist's work may be extrapolated from his religious or ethnic identity carries a surprising degree of currency in Indian public opinion. In a perceptive piece called "The artist, not the art," the cultural commentator Santosh Desai remarked:
In many ways, [Husain's] life is an account of the complex relationship that mainstream India enjoys with the idea of art and underlines the tension that exists between the notion of the artist and the actual content of his art. [...] The relative ease with which successive governments allowed attacks on him to continue, point to the shallowness of the commitment to the idea of artistic freedom, and the general air of mild incomprehension that surround the idea of art in popular Indian life.
MSN India reported that in an Internet poll:
Out of a total of 27,540 respondents, 65 percentage [sic], ie. 18,127 voters, have not forgiven the man branded 'India's Picasso' for his controversial paintings of Hindu gods. Only 29 percentage [sic] or 7,868 voters, believe he was highly misunderstood as an artist and not properly appreciated in his lifetime.
And the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, which hounded Husain in 2006, posted a reaction on its website that was fairly typical of a certain kind of response, and ended with a loaded question that launched an opinion poll of its own:
Many politicians including Prime Minister, Vice President and many ministers and other so-called 'eminent' personalities from various fields have termed death of Anti-Hindu M F Husain as 'National loss', 'loss to the art and creativity and Loss of a noble soul'. Hindu-hater Husain took the citizenship of Qatar, leaving India, then how it can be a National loss. He has also drawn nude paintings of Hindu Deities and Bharatmata then how it can be a loss of noble soul ?
Does anti-Hindu & anti-Bharat late M F Husain deserve any respect?
And Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, himself once upon a time a political cartoonist, was similarly churlish. The Hindu reported:
Sena chief Bal Thackeray said: “M.F. Husain was as strong-willed as he was fantastic. There are differences over his art, but he did not give up his obstinacy. But he left the country. I do not agree with this form called modern art. In an interview to Time magazine, Picasso has said, ‘I fool the people.' An artist has his peculiar style, and Husain pursued his modern style willfully. He only slipped up on the depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses. Otherwise, he was happy and content in his field. If his demise is a loss for modern art, then so be it. May his Allah give him peace!”
That last "may his Allah" is revealing, and shows in its own way how an emphasis on religion can be used to fuel resentment and division in India today. As Salman Rushdie pointed out only a few months ago at a conclave in New Delhi,
Husain's plight is a distress. It is scurrilous, shameful. He is a loss to India. And ugliest is the language being used against him. He is even being jeered at for being old. This is a proud face of a philistine India. The worst thing is that artists are soft targets...we do not have armies protecting us. Violence and its ugly sisters, both Hindu and Islamic, have to be resisted. They must be rebuffed. To appease it is the best way to ensure their growth. I am afraid India is going that way.
In one of the best accounts on Husain's checkered life and career and the milieu in which he worked, Sadanand Menon in the Hindu concluded by saying:
[Husain's] brush with the nation has foregrounded many serious issues in art -- responsibility, relevance, rebellion, censorship, lumpen fanaticism, artistic vulnerability to the mob-as-critic, limits and borders of the ‘permissible,' and strategies for consolidating art practice as a platform for open debates and radical defiance.
Throughout his career, Husain exposed the moral dilemmas of the nation through a pictorial eclecticism that makes him the contemporary symbolist and fabulist of the nation. The nation though, at the end, painted itself out of his canvas.
(Chandrahas Choudhury is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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