Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most celebrated artist of the 20th century, who passed away on the morning of June 9, left behind a colossal body of work spanning more than six decades and a legendary life story that parallels the grand narrative of independent India. While his epic life and work reflected India’s changing ethos and aspirations from the days of the plough to those of the microchip, the final episode of his forced exile is certainly one of the most regretful chapters of India's secular history.
His was a painterly language that embraced the formal possibilities of European Modernism and deployed it imaginatively to capture the tenor and texture of an emergent India immediately after Independence. His innate ability to grasp the many syncretic traditions of the country and lend them visual form made his work a symbolic embodiment of the project of nation-building; he was soon to become the most fêted modern artist during the Nehruvian decades and thereafter. In more ways than one, he was single-handedly responsible for uploading in the public consciousness the figure of the modern artist in post-Independence India.
Husain’s early and visionary take on the rural and mythological and his unusual blend of a vernacular desi-pop had varied dimensions that critics and historians will continue to reassess in the decades to come. He was clearly the only Indian artist to have a mass following that extended far beyond the fortress of the art world. It could be said that in recent years, the soul-stirring imagery or the throat-grabbing immediacy of some of his early paintings had disappeared. But by applying the yardstick of conventional art-criticism to compute his vision and creative aspirations, one would totally miss the plot of Husain’s life work, which went beyond what he did on canvas or within the corridors of art history.
His creative journey is better read in juxtaposition with the nation’s post-Colonial history and perhaps for that very reason his enforced exile coming after state honours such as the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan seem even more ironic and sad.
Interestingly, Husain never presented himself as an embittered exile. Recently, I saw a senior television journalist with moist eyes dramatising his predicament by asking him to reveal his state of mind while giving up the Indian passport. Husain replied with insightful equanimity, giving the provocative query its due; he humorously questioned the very notion of one’s physical location, doing very little to help boost the channel’s TRP or the sense of fulfillment his perpetrators might feel on seeing a wailing victim.
Husain’s was an eventful life spent nomadically crisscrossing the globe and enjoying his moment in front of the canvas and behind the camera, spinning out paintings, films, books, numerous anecdotes and tons of Husain trivia that both his admirers and detractors will continue to talk about and think about. As one of the key protagonists of the cultural renaissance of the subcontinent, Husain remained neck-deep in creative pursuits, walking tall and barefoot in the quicksand of success, power and celebrity, never quite letting the shifty terrain overtake his passion or simplicity.
His visionary formation of a modern artistic language rooted in our civilisational ethos has to be seen alongside his octogenarian crush on Madhuri Dixit, and we will need to expand our limited perception to fully understand this endearing prophet-prankster who helped shape the cultural imagination of a ‘Modern’ India.
(Artist Jitish Kallat writes frequently on the subject of contemporary art)
BETWEEN THE SPIDER AND THE LAMP, 1956
From MF Husain’s immense body of work, ‘Between the Spider and the Lamp’ is the painting that is most dear to me; it was an enormous inspiration when I first saw it as an art student. In purely painterly terms, it is a very sophisticated picture, with a delicate simplification of form deftly employing the possibilities of Cubism along with a figuration that is achieved from a study of mudras and gestures from Indian folk traditions. Under a kerosene lamp, five women seem to be engaged in a mysterious conversation; one of them seems preoccupied with carefully holding on to a spider hanging by its thread. The painting is marked with an incomprehensible text evoking tribal inscriptions.
One thinks of the many symbolic and proverbial associations in ancient mythology and folklore that are associated with the images of the lamp and the spider. The lamp as a recurring symbol of enlightenment and righteousness and the spider evoking patience and creation myths all come together as one engages with this much-celebrated painting.
- Jitish Kallat