Maqbool Fida Husain died in London on Thursday. He was 95. Nice, tame headline, this. But who was he really?
Was he the artist who courted controversy because he had painted Hindu deities in the nude in the 1970s and was hounded out of his home, hearth and country over 20 years later by bigots who claimed allegiance to the Hindu faith when their government came briefly and ignominiously to power?
Or was he a conjurer of images, especially from his most fecund period in the 60s, 70s and 80s that stayed in the memory?
Was he the great lover whom the narrow-minded shunned but secretly envied, even more so because he was also a loving patriarch?
Husain was a mass of endearing contradictions.
The trouble was that far too many people wanted to be like him; to have his flowing sense of draughtsmanship and apt sense of colour, his nonchalant manner, haunting good looks, and, of course, his generosity at work and play. Everything was play for him.
His colleagues in India — the raffish, gifted Francis Newton Souza, excepted — were staid middle-class folk with social values to match. They talked about creativity but it was Husain who was creative. There was no dichotomy between his work and life.
If he walked about barefoot, rest assured, there was a sound reason for it — apart from comfort. He used to say that since all the nerve ends found their way to the soles of the feet, it was necessary to keep them active through making constant contact with the earth.
It was not only his outward manner that caused a lot of trouble for him, but his quiet acceptance of worldly success that rattled his rivals. He was, in today’s parlance, the ‘ultimate cool cat’.
It was fashionable in the 70s, when one was growing up as an impressionable young man among artists in Delhi, to find fault with Husain, his persona and his work. It took quite some time to realise that people less talented and with less equipoise resented him because they wanted to be like him and couldn’t.
His restlessness led him to indulge in what appeared to be gimmicks.
His Fiat 1100 car had horses painted on it — on either door. The superb blend of line and colour in the image was conveniently ignored and his critics called him an exhibitionist.
He was after a fashion but he really had child-like fun being one. He went ahead and painted Bhimsen Joshi, the famous Hindustani music exponent, as he sang on stage. He, being a child of the movies, having painted huge hoardings advertising Hindi films during his years of struggle, was perhaps subconsciously trying to do in his own medium what Alfred Hitchcock did with Rope — make a film in real time.
If he had a few blind spots, the Nehru family was one of them. Jawaharlal Nehru gave him his first major break and even posed for some striking, unconventional portraits for Husain. His gratitude carried over to Indira Gandhi. Husain, a political naïf, portrayed her as goddess Durga, the destroyer of evil.
He took the brickbats with equanimity and carried on with his work.
Husain had struggled hard in life.
The son of a humble time-keeper in a small mill in Indore, he had received some formal instruction from VD Devlalikar, a respected painter in the traditional Indian style, who ran an art school in the city. He wanted to become an actor but ended up painting huge film banners that gave his line in later years great power and clarity.
He also learnt to keep his central theme in sharp focus by painting expendable advertisements for films. He was admitted to the JJ School of Art in Bombay. He did not stay there long. The compulsions of earning a living and raising a family were too strong.
He also became a co-founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group that had among its members FN Souza, PN Gaitonde, SH Raza, KH Ara and Akbar Padamsee. Very soon, Husain was striking out on his own.
His success was hard-earned. His paintings began to fetch high prices abroad. In the late 1970s, a Husain sold for “a handsome $60,000” to quote Time magazine. He had a large family to support but with regular success, the money kept rolling in. It was then that the tides of history went against him.
The BJP came to power and its ‘cultural arm’, the RSS went after him through its satellite organisation, the Bajrang Dal. Suddenly the ‘anti-Hindu’ paintings were dug up and hundreds of false cases were slapped against Husain in various parts of the country for allegedly showing disrespect to the Hindu religion, or rather a monolithic version of it.
A campaign of calumny had begun and it rapidly gained momentum till Husain was forced to go into exile. But the most shameful act of all was the cowardice of the Congress-led UPA government, which could not bring him back to the land of his birth and ensure that he spent his last years in peace and dignity.
He prospered in exile.
Husain remained the nattily dressed, elegant man who had triumphed over adverse fate and continued to create lovely images. He even received a very lucrative commission to do huge glass sculptures and went to Italy to discuss details with expert glass workers.
He wanted to give back to art the pleasure it had given him.
(Partha Chatterjee is a critic and filmmaker. The views expressed by the author are personal)