Maqbool Fida Husain Moves On (1915 - 2011)

My earliest exposure to the art of M.F. Husain (17 September 1915 – 9 June 2011) was in the form of a limited edition box set of his drawings and poetry in my father's collection. He had worked with the artist on his Haryana based film, Green, White, Brown, his second film after Through the Eyes of a Painter in 1966, which went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival the next year. Sadly this film is now confined to the DVDs released by Husain himself, and cannot be found even in the IMDB pages. I grew up seeing his art on our walls, at exhibitions and in articles and news stories as he went from one pinnacle of success to the next.

[Image - Business Review India]

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.

2 comments:

  1. It would have been better if Mr. Hussain had come up with the reason behind those paintings....for example a naked "Sita" clinging to Hanuman's tail, "Rama N Sita" having sex watched by Hanuman...Right wingers may have hounded him out, but his paintings did "outrage" normal thinking human beings too (some one like me)....

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  2. Thanks for the obituary, or rather I should say, appreciation on the great artist. I didn't really follow his life or art too closely and quite missed out on all the brouhaha that compelled him to exit India given that I was stationed out of the country myself for many years.
    I have wondered though - how were his last few years in exile? Was he a broken man or did he take that in his stead? Was he painting during those years? I think I need to read up a bit more.

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