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The barefoot, exiled painter

A man of many passions, MF Husain rose from humble beginnings to world renown

education Updated: Jun 28, 2011 17:12 IST

Self-taught painter, persecuted artist, film-maker, India’s Picasso — there are many tags that one can identify Maqbool Fida Husain with. But few know that this celebrated and much-maligned artist had very humble beginnings and made it to the stature for which he is known for, by sheer grit.

Born in Pandharpur in Maharashtra to Zunaib and Fida Husain, Maqbool lost his mother in his infancy. By the time he was 20, Maqbool moved to Mumbai and sought admission to JJ School of Arts.

To get by, Husain painted movie posters of yesteryears, and by his own admission earned a few annas per square foot (translating into a few rupees for the larger-than-life poster). His fascination for films never left him and he would, later in life, go on to make movies himself.

The painter in him would prompt him to flee the city whenever he had enough money. His favourite haunts were Baroda, Ahmedabad and Surat where he would spend time painting landscapes. His die-hard spirit was evident when he worked at various odd jobs to survive, including making toys.

In 1947, he was accepted in the Progressive Artists’ Group, which was headed by another celebrated artist, FN Souza.

Husain quickly gained recognition as a prolific painter with an eye for everything Indian. It is said that he lived life proportional to many of his paintings — king size. These attributes may well have contributed to his paintings regularly fetching more than a million dollars.

As a filmmaker, Husain gained recognition with his 1967 debut, Through the Eyes of a Painter, winning him the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. In 1971, he was honoured with a special invitation, along with Pablo Picasso to the Sao Paulo Biennial. The Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1991. He also had a stint at the Rajya Sabha, after being nominated in 1986.

Earlier though, he had become controversial - starting with a painting of Mother India in the nude, superimposed on a map of India. Though this controversy died an early death, Husain was to come under fire for various other paintings - mostly from fundamentalist groups objecting to his use of nudes to depict Hindu goddesses. These groups also filed cases in court relating to hurting religious sentiments. Husain, though, had said that earlier that he found belief in a single religion restrictive. “To believe in one’s religion is to restrict one’s understanding. One should have a humanist’s passionate search for a human faith which I seek to find in life and in numerous religions.” Objecting to the curtailment of his right of expression, Husain went on a self-imposed exile in 2006. He lived in London and Dubai, finally accepting Qatari citizenship in 2010. He died of a heart attack in London on June 9 this year. His family insisted on Husain being buried there.

Compiled by Pankaj Mullick