Maqbool Fida Husain, a.k.a M.F. Husain, was regularly called India’s Picasso. However, his life and work far transcended an easy comparison to another great artist, as big of a compliment as that may have been. Husain was one of the flag-bearers for modern India's cultural re-emergence in the 21st century. His art evolved alongside India's post-colonial narrative, embodying his country's trials, tribulations and successes along the way. His massive repertoire not only brought the global spotlight on the Indian art scene but it shaped the voice of a nation trying to forge ahead as a rising superpower while fumbling to incorporate its deep-rooted past. In the art world, His work repeatedly broke sales records, eventually being valued at up to $5 million for each piece. Husain was hugely popular beyond the art world too, his work resonating with the Indian mainstream cultural voice.
On June 9, aged 95, Husain passed away in London. He was a national treasure for India yet not welcome in his own homeland. And this became the great irony and tragedy of his incredibly shaky relationship with his country.
Born in 1915 into a Muslim family in Maharashtra, Husain began his artistic journey by moving to Mumbai in 1937 to paint movie billboards. This was also his first tryst with cinema, an art form he returned to much later as a filmmaker. Husain then turned to fine art in the early 1940s, establishing an Indian artistic identity that harmoniously blended Indian and Western styles and ideas. After quickly establishing himself as a prominent artist in India, Husain traveled the world, painting anywhere that inspired him.
In 2000 he produced and directed his first film, Gaja Gamini, an ode to womanhood across cultures featuring his muse and actress Madhuri Dixit. His second (and last) film would be Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004), a semi-autobiographical story about a novelist suffering through writer's block until he meets an enigmatic woman, Meenaxi. The film was his own introspection on his fascination with Dixit in Gaja Gamini and his series of paintings about her. As an artist, photographer, filmmaker and writer, Husain was constantly creating. He also became a nomadic artist, perhaps a state of being that he was destined for until the end of his life.
Husain's work became increasingly controversial over the decades. Or perhaps the religious and nationalist groups became increasingly sensitive. Husain, a non-practicing Muslim, was fascinated by Hindu mythology from a young age. He had read the Hindu holy texts and imbibed their narratives into his art. His many paintings based on Hindu iconography, especially those depicting goddesses in the nude, earned him the ire of particularly sensitive right-wing groups. In an interview with Tehelkain 2008, Husain defended his work stating-
'Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to? I come from the Suleimani community, a sub-sect of the Shias, and we have many affinities with Hindus, including the idea of reincarnation...But it is impossible to discuss all this with those who oppose me. Talk to them about Khajuraho, they will tell you its sculpture was built to encourage population growth and has outgrown its utility!'
Over the years, Husain was slapped with numerous court cases claiming his work was obscene and damaged the cultural traditions of the country. The hypocrisy of these charges, in a country crippled by corruption and vote-bank politics, is another debate entirely. Fortunately for Husain, in 2008 the Supreme Court of India refused to start proceedings against him and his painting 'Bharat Mata' (Mother India, see image above), that was accused of obscenity and disrespecting India. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal, voracious opponents of Husain’s work, refused to step down from their stance even after his death. While the Bajrang Dal opposed any suggestions to bring his body back to India for burial, the VHP spokesperson Prakash Sharma compared Husain to Osama bin Laden, stating, “One was doing jihad by the brush and the other by gun."
It was this resentment against him and fear for his life that forced Husain to leave India in 2006 and live the last few years of his life in self-imposed exile. Even the organizers of the largest Indian contemporary art show held in 2009 in New Delhi refused to feature any of his works for fear of violent reactions. Husain was granted Qatari citizenship and continued to travel extensively, except back to India. He spent his summers in London, the city where he passed away and has now been laid to rest.
The true test of a democracy comes when it must deal with starkly differing views or challenging forms of expression. In that sense, there is no perfect democracy, as every nation that embraces freedom of expression also faces the often awkward dilemma of what to do when a fellow citizen enrages a small but powerful group. In M.F. Husain's case, he picked the short straw and his country did little to support him. Of course, he wasn't a completely innocent victim in his troubles - his paintings were provocative - but he was also practicing the right to freedom of expression. Disagreement was perfectly healthy, even Husain agreed, but resorting to violence and personal attacks was not. And if freedom of expression is something a democracy promises for each of its citizens, then Husain's treatment is truly disappointing. And his being hailed now as a national asset becomes hypocritical. So, the real tragedy of it all? One of the most prominent Indians of our time, the one who brought accolades to his country, couldn’t even die an Indian.