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M.F. Husain, known for his eccentricities of refusing to wear footwear and going Hermes-suited but bare-footed to the snootiest of institutions much to the discomfiture of the other patrons, and for his controversies over depiction of Hindu deities, lived life king size. It is tragic that this artist who brought international acclaim to Indian contemporary art (he was invited along with Picasso at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971), had to spend his last years exiled from his motherland charged with obscenity by keepers of Hindu morality.
One of my memories of Husain is his three-day show at the Tata Center in Kolkata in the 80's. It was supposed to be a live painting exhibition. Just before the show, my uncle, Shanti Chowdhury, passed away from a heart attack while attending a film festival. Husain was very close to him and his family, and when he heard the news, he turned the show into a tribute to him, painting furiously for two days on nearly 20 canvases, and then "unpainting" them with white paint on the third day, till at the end of the show, all we were left with were blank canvases.
Recognized early in his life as a painter of merit by Souza of the Progressive Artist's Group, Husain went on to become an icon of the Indian art scene, going on to experiment, shock and court controversies. He experimented with all media, including films. Although known for his bold and sweeping lines, unconventional geometry, solid colors, his penchant for commenting real time on current affairs and perhaps a commercialized preoccupation with celebrities with missing eyes and with mythology, his early landscapes and calligraphy work more than sufficiently establish his credentials as a master of technicality and traditional artistry.
Husain was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, a recipient of both the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan. Yet he was attacked by Hindu right wing groups to a point where it was no longer safe for him to live and work in his motherland. It is sad to hear leaders of the same political outfits that chased him out of his homeland in 2006 offer praise in his memory after his death.
His life, almost out of a Thomas Mann novel, from his beginnings as a film billboard and sign painter to dictating his own million dollar price tags for his works, from his hand painted directions to the venue of his son's wedding to his serial muses in Madhuri Dixit, Tabu, Anoushka and Vidya Balan, from the endless fantastic tales of his bizarre habits and behavior to his love for fine food, is an artistic statement by itself. Hounded by the rightist establishment for violating their moral sensibilities, Husain spent the last years of his life as a citizen of Qatar.
The Irani tea shops of Mumbai, the Azad Hind dhabas of Kolkata, and conveyor belt eateries of London will continue to spin tales around his love affair with their establishments for years to come. His death is a loss, not only for the world of art, but for the world of liberal thinking.