There’s a lot to hurry through in the art of Maqbool Fida Husain to get to the point.
His early brash works as a cinema sign painter, joining the Bombay Progressives — who copied art trends already decades old in Europe — in 1947, finding his own line through bold woodcuts, rearing horses, the signature look of kohl-like outlines filled in with bright colour, at once a rejection of the western academic style and a finger-snap under the nose of Henri Matisse, arguably the greatest French Impressionist.
Husain was taking it back. ‘Contemporary Indian’ didn’t have to be western. And who could resist that?
But Husain wearied of the adulation too. We hurry now past the raspberries he blew at the credulous public through the early 80s with those pointless collages of Tamil cinema posters and the satirical installation in 1989 at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam, called ‘Shwetambara’ — millions of miles of shredded newspaper hanging in ghostly drifts and trampled underfoot.
“So much for publicity! Look, I’m laughing at you!” was the artistic finger-snap of these years, this time at his own people.
Husain Inc happened: designing wedding cards and homes, making a painting while a musician played, Indira Gandhi as Durga, Pieta-like poses for Mother Teresa, Madhuri Dixit as his ‘muse’, the movie Meenaxi he produced for which he wrote a Sufi song (the film was withdrawn when some mullahs sought publicity by objecting to it).
We arrive at last, at the painter’s third and fateful finger-snap, the one that went horribly wrong. Of course, he should not have made those wholly inappropriate paintings back then of Hindu deities that upset and alienated so many when outed.
“Is this how you trample on the liberal Hindu heart?” was one anguished reaction. Whose heart, snarled Husain. His father had been an imam in Madhya Pradesh and Husain grew up watching the Ram Lila with his best friend, a pundit’s son.
Husain sketched the two little boys on a charpoy, an arm over the other’s shoulder, one with a Muslim cap, the other without.
Raised in the comfortable multi-faith environment that few cultures are able to gift, Husain felt a sense of absolute ownership of the epics. He could have been a Quaker or an Anabaptist. But Rama, Sita and Hanuman belonged to him.
Why did he not take such liberties with Hazrat Khadija? Possibly because nobody was trying to take her away from him?
He did try, at 88, to say “Please, may we start again?” with 88 paintings, a return to slow-drying oils after 40 years of fast acrylic. Their exuberance was a charm-offensive that celebrated his artistic influences, including Le Café des Deux Magots in Paris, once a haunt of Picasso, Camus, Sartre and Hemingway.
But this time a line had been crossed. Husain chose his punishment from the very Ramayana that he loved.
He sent himself into exile and gave up his Indian nationality. One of his last series, themed on the classic film Mughal-e-Azam shows Madhubala kneeling in chains. But her hand is chopped off and floats at her bloodied wrist as if in sign-off.
(Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture)