An Exiled Painter's Death Stirs India's Passions: World View

By Chandrahas Choudhury


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


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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