It can be debated whether Maqbool Fida Husain was the greatest artist India ever produced. But what’s beyond pale is that he was the most successful one. Not just in the consistent high prices he commanded, but also as a large figure in the imagination of a public that had not much connection with high art. In a country with little institutional support for the arts, Husain made it to the top headlines time and again.
It helped that he reacted to current affairs much more frequently than any of his peers — be it about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, Tienanmen Square massacre, or Mamata Banerjee’s election victory. It also helped that he acknowledged Bollywood actresses such as Madhuri Dixit and Tabu as his muses. And it possibly helped the most that controversies followed him like the scent of wet paint.
In 1966, soon after influential publisher Harry Abrams took out the first monograph on Husain, the artist made an 18-minute documentary on Rajasthan, Through the Eyes of a Painter. New York’s Museum of Modern Art wanted to screen it. When producer Films Division refused to send it because the film had been banned here, Husain became a cause célèbre in the West. Even as late as in 2008, the film caused a stir at the Goa film festival and the screening was deferred. By then, the controversy had changed: Husain had become the flogging horse of Hindutva warriors who wanted cheap publicity.
Then there were controversies Husain himself courted. In 1975, during the Emergency, Husain painted a portrait of Indira Gandhi as Durga, astride a tiger. The powerful imagery resonated in the power corridors but was riled by those who detested the paean to Indira. Just for a comparison, do we see a top artist of today making a similarly powerful artistic statement for, say, Narendra Modi? Unlikely.
The artist as a romantic
“When he was good, he was among the best. But don’t forget the whole romantic aura around him,” says art writer Kishore Singh. “…He started going barefoot fairly early and played to the market — saying it was his mother’s dream for him to step into his father’s shoes and all that.” And the fact that he carried an overlong brush with him at all times, as if he were still the hoarding painter he started started out as.
Those close to him also knew of a classic tale of unrequited love. As an adolescent, Husain was in love with one Suraiya, but could never muster the courage to propose. She married and went off. When, decades later, Husain traced her family in Lahore, Suraiya’s son gifted him a picture of her and handed an envelope she’d left for him. Inside was a note: “All my life I have waited for you, and while waiting, how many I have loved.”
Even as a struggling artist, Husain surrounded himself with the rich set. Artist Ram Kumar, a friend since the early 1950s, remembers he hobnobbed with foreign diplomats at a time no other artist did. Dileep Padgaonkar’s book on Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, Under Her Spell, finds Husain influencing the influential of Bombay at trendy parties in the 1950s. It also helped that when all the leading Modernist painters had gone out to Europe, Husain stayed back to look after his large family. By the time the others came back, he was the most established one at home.
Can there be another one like him, now that we are moving towards a more idea-based field with many more trained artists? Ashish Anand, director of Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) and owner of one of the largest collections of the artist’s works, puts it in a metaphor few would miss: “He’s like Sachin Tendulkar. I mean, can you really believe someone will break all those records?”
Playing to the field
Critic and curator Gayatri Sinha says, “Maybe because he started with getting on a scaffolding to paint large billboards, there was a performative flamboyance about him.” Husain indeed turned some of his painting sessions into public spectacles.
Sitting in Delhi’s Vadehra Gallery, Husain protégé Anjolie Ela Menon had once told this writer, “Once he was painting one of his horses on the wall we are sitting next to. It took some time, and all the while, there was a festive atmosphere.” Whether it’s because of a growing obsession with ‘new media’, which often needs a team of experts to execute, or a studio-bound shyness among today’s artists, there aren’t many who are willing to paint in front of a cheering, chattering public. And there was Husain, who once painted the flank of a white horse in front of a crowd.
Husain was ever so mindful of his billing. Last year, he told DAG’s Anand that with close to 30,000 works, he would have surpassed Picasso in the sheer volume of output. In this, he was not unlike his friend and co-founder of the Bombay Progressive group, Francis Newton Souza, who considered himself “better than Picasso”. Today no artist even wants such a comparison.
“He had the lethal combination of being a great artist and having good business sense,” says Anand. Dadiba Pundole of Mumbai’s Pundole Gallery, which has been selling Husain’s works since 1963, says, “There was also a conviction — about himself and the greatness of Indian art... Some of today’s artists may have a factory behind them, but they must ensure the works don’t look like factory products.” Anyone for a reply?