In achieving aesthetic and commercial success, MF Husain set new benchmarks for Indian artists.
In the small hours of Thursday, the celebrated artist Maqbool Fida Husain breathed his last in a London hospital. He died far away from India, the land of his birth, whose myths and peoples he brought alive in the thousands of canvases painted in the course of a prolific career.
The ‘Picasso of India’ also died a Qatari national, a citizenship that he had acquired in 2010, after years of raging controversies surrounding his work, whose depiction of Hindu goddesses offended religious groups. The bruised sentiments did not remain limited to angry debates: they erupted all around Husain, vandalising displays in galleries, launching assaults at his Mumbai home, proliferating hundreds of arrest warrants and litigations in police stations and courts across the country.
In 2006, Husain left the country for good, but his legacy on the life and work of Indian artists would remain indelible.
The most endearing legend about Husain’s early life would be of the time when he painted billboards to make a living, before breaking into the Bombay art world and joining the Progressive Artists’ Group on an invitation from FN Souza in 1947.
His breakthrough, however, did not imply a retreat into a select, rarefied world of high art. Husain’s work was not a personal, tortuous struggle between the artistic consciousness and its expression being enacted within the confines of a garret.
He was of the world, responding to the everyday: its disasters and drama, its celluloid heart-throbs or its cricket hero. From Mother Teresa to Bhimsen Joshi to Madhuri Dixit to Tiananmen Square: what moved people, moved Husain. He reveled in life, in all its sheer enervating power and passion. He was its chronicler.
No surprise then that he embraced Mammon, with his canvases fetching millions of dollars in the fiercely competitive global art markets, setting benchmarks that Indian artists before him could not even dream of.
Perhaps, it was Husain’s penchant for performance that was most misunderstood. Whether in his preference to walk barefoot or his insistence on his portrayal of Hindu goddesses, he wanted to shock and provoke people into thought and introspection.
He resurrected the ancient myths, his celebrated Mahabharata paintings for example, not just because they dominated the national consciousness but also to assess the relevance of the wisdom they imparted.
Defenders of the injured ego of Hindu faith could, however, barely be expected to appreciate how Husain was reveling in the formlessness of the figure, conflating classical and modern traditions or expertly combining anatomical details while imbuing the figures with a spirit of humanity.
Without art, George Bernard Shaw once remarked, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. In reactions to his work, Husain held up a mirror to that unbearable, degrading reality of contemporary India, shorn of its pretensions, a land of free-flowing information but not much free thought.