A Controversial Artist Whose Work Will Live On, Husain is India’s Picasso
So much has already been said of the passing of Maqbool Fida Husain (commonly referred to as M.F. Husain), but then again, the uncompromising Indian artist who shares rarified air with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Michealangelo is worthy of all the ink spent since he breathed his last breath on June 9th in a London hospital. An iconic artist who never shied away from immortalizing the most risqué or taboo of subjects on his canvases, Mr. Husain is easily one of the single greatest gifts India has ever given to the world. After all, the Muslim artist who, many times, depicted Hindu goddesses in unique settings provided a global stage for Indian contemporary art.
Of course, it was only fitting that Mr. Husain (b. 1915) made his presence felt internationally as a leading ambassador of India’s art world. After all, he struggled mightily on the domestic front. A man who regularly stated his love for India and Bollywood, the acclaimed artist breathed his final breath in self-imposed exile. His own countrymen -- the ones who refer to India as Hindustan as opposed to Bharat -- kept their most prized possession locked out of the democratic republic as if he were a leper or a plague.
With that, Mr. Husain was not allowed to die with his family -- his heart deprived of beating its last beat in the country he always called home. Mr. Husain was always loyal to Mother India, even though Mother India herself kicked him out of the house and changed the locks, forcing Mr. Husain to ultimately take residence and citizenship in another country, thousands of miles away in Qatar.
Yet, at least Qatar welcomed the man, understood his value, made no shame in paying heed to his beautifully creative and artistically keen mind. That was 2006, when M.F. Husain crossed the threshold into his 90s. The man could count the remaining days he had left on this Earth, in this life. He chose to spend such days appreciating what he had left, not pining over that which was deprived of him.
The proudest son of India was done none the richer by his own kin. What the world considers a gift, Hindustan saw as a burden. It was the most extreme interpretation of “one man’s art is another man’s trash.”
Sure, M.F. Husain was controversial. A Moslem man portraying Hindu goddesses possibly in the nude is sure to draw a fair share of opposition. At what point does appreciating art for art's sake cross the line and become an insensitively offensive attack on a group of people, especially when those very people belong to a group who belongs in the religious majority of the country he lives?
Indeed, many of Mr. Husain's works, while immensely powerful and culturally significant, were perceived by many as too bold, especially when factoring in the gain in political power of the Hindu nationalists in Indian politics during the past three decades.
To be sure, Mr. Husain, who was the highest-earning Indian artist ever, created a lot of enemies in his 95 years of life. However, it is one thing to create enemies. Yet, it is borderline blasphemy to have those same enemies -- many who are dogmatically preachy religious folk who stay near and dear to their given mantras -- hide behind faith as excuse to physically destroy both Mr. Husain the main and some of his most famous works.
Hindu nationalists launched violent campaigns against Mr. Husain, with his house physically attacked in 1998, his art works vandalized. An extremist Hindu group known as Shiv Shena claimed responsibility for the violence, resulting in several arrests. Subsequent violence forced a London venue to shut down an exhibition featuring Mr. Husain’s paintings.
Around the same time, a Hindu monthly magazine, Vichar Mimansa, ran a feature story entitled “M.F. Husain: A Painter or Butcher.” The story actually led to several criminal complaints filed against the artist (which were finally dismissed by a Delhi court in 2004).
The last straw appeared to take place in 2006, just before Mr. Husain’s move to Qatar, when a case was filed by the government (at the behest of various Hindu groups) to commence a probing inquest against the artist because his depiction of nude deities were “hurting sentiments” of certain people.
Just the same, news reports have indicated that nearly 1,000 cases in all have been filed against Mr. Husain, all demanding he not be allowed back into India.
What remains sad -- even in light of Mr. Husain’s death, with the tremendous outpouring of support given to one of the world’s greatest legends -- is a few souls will invariably condone his death, failing to see past rigidly dogmatic faith and pass judgment on Mr. Husain’s work as a travesty and an abomination instead of one of the greatest cultural contributions mankind has ever experienced.
A self-taught painter who gave his heart to Mother India, both as an artist and filmmaker (creating Through the Eyes of a Painter, Gaja Gamini with Madhuri Dixit, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities with Tabu, and The Making of the Painter with Shreyas Talpade), Mr. Husain’s ultimate paintbrush was his heart -- his life lived serving as the canvas.
Like anyone dubbed a living legend during his or her breathing days, the person’s true value to humanity is never fully appreciated until years, if not generations, centuries, or millennia later. Just consider the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, and Michaelangelo, all of whom have far greater human and cultural value in 2011 than each man had in their respective lifetimes many moons ago.
Indeed, many of us alive today who are old enough to appreciate Mr. Husain’s work may never live long enough to genuinely comprehend his place amongst immortals. Sure, despite his controversial work, many of us respectfully recognize he earned a valuable place in the continuum of humanity. We may be able to touch his work, talk about Mr. Husain the man and remember the days he touched us personally. Yet, to fully wrap our heads around what he stood for, why he did the things he did, how he created such controversies, that day may never arrive.
Only one thing is for sure: no one, not even those who most ardently opposed him, can deny the humanistic contributions of Mr. Husain. He touched each and every one of us much more than we will ever realize, even for those who will never realize as much during the rest of their living days.
Men like Mr. Husain do not come around very often. All of us living today may never be around to experience the next great living human being in the flesh. With that, while we might not be able to do the man’s legacy justice, let us at least remember Mr. Husain’s spirit.
He forever changed the art world for the better, but M.F. Husain, a son of Mother India, was, is, and always will be the universe’s gift to mankind. Let us keep our own canvases open and free. Let us never forget M.F. Husain the man.