Husain at 100: Icon or Iconoclast, Maverick or Maestro?

MF Husain. Credit: Kiran Valipa Venkat/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

MF Husain. Credit: Kiran Valipa Venkat/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1947, a young unknown artist won a prestigious award at the Bombay Art Society’s annual exhibition. His name was Maqbool Fida Husain. Cut to 2015 and M.F. Husain is the poster boy for Google India’s homepage, reminding Netizens of the artists’ 100th birth anniversary. At the time of his death in 2011, no other artist would be as synonymous with contemporary Indian art as he was, no other would be as celebrated and subsequently as vilified.

Born in the pilgrimage town of Pandharpur, he studied briefly at the Indore College of Art before migrating to Bombay, where he eked out a living as a billboard painter. He was soon co-opted as one of the founder members of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) by the rebellious Francis Newton Souza, who was itching to challenge the canons of academic and society painting prevalent at the time.

The ‘progressive’ in PAG was derived from the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), a group of literary artists with communist leanings. Unlike the writers of the PWA who directly intervened in the socio-political debates and discussions of the time, the concerns of the artists in PAG were primarily painterly and revolved around reflecting the mood of a newly independent nation in a visual vocabulary that was both fresh and new.

The PAG metamorphosed into a multicultural organisation that cut across both social and religious lines, despite the horrors that Partition had unleashed only a few months earlier. Husain’s own family never toyed with the idea of migrating to Pakistan, so deeply invested were they in the idea of the newly independent India.

MF Husain, Varanasi III (1973). Credit: cea/Flickr CC BY 2.0

MF Husain, Varanasi III (1973). Credit: cea/Flickr CC BY 2.

Husain’s own commitment to this vision of a modern and syncretic culture found expression in the motifs that he used. He drew from both European Cubist and Expressionist movements as he did from Gupta sculptures and Chola bronzes. He was well versed in Indian mythology and in the late 1960s did a series of works on the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In an attempt to bring his art to the masses, he took the Ramayana paintings by bullock cart to a village near Hyderabad. Recounting the experience to art historian Yashodhara Dalmia he mentioned, “There were these six feet and ten feet high paintings of Hanuman and Ram strewn around and the villagers sat enthralled for about three hours while Borakatha singers sang the epic. No one asked where are Ram’s eyes or why a particular painting was done in a particular manner.” The artist also drew on popular culture and his love of Bollywood manifested itself in his pictures of Madhuri Dixit, who subsequently starred in the film Gaja Gamini, scripted and directed by him.

It was Husain’s uncanny ability to establish a connection with the masses that soon made him a household name. The boom in the Indian art market and the stratospheric prices his canvases commanded also did their bit in popularising his work. But as he garnered fame he also drew the ire of right wing forces ostensibly for his depiction of the Goddess Saraswati in the nude. The painting, which was done in 1976, went unremarked for several decades before suddenly becoming the cynosure of all attention in the 1990s. The Mumbai Police registered cases against him under IPC Sections 295(A) and 153(A) for outraging religious feelings and fostering enmity between religious groups while writ petitions were filed against the painter in several courts in Madhya Pradesh.

In Ahmedabad, Bajrang Dal workers barged into the art gallery of the Husain-Doshi Gufa and burnt several of Husain works’ reproduced in tapestry form. It is indeed ironic that it was not Partition but incidents such as these that forced the artist to flee the country, taking up residence in Qatar, where he finally renounced his Indian citizenship.