MF Husain: From four annas to a million dollars

MF Husain became famous for both his paintings and the controversies around them. He left India but rarely expressed any bitterness about spending his last days in exile.

FP Editors June 09, 2011 15:33:39 IST
MF Husain: From four annas to a million dollars

Artist Maqbool Fida Husain, born September 17, 1915, died at a London hospital of a heart attack today, June 9. He was 95 years old. Described by Forbes magazine as the Picasso of India, he was widely celebrated as a flamboyant, prolific and prodigiously talented artist in "bare feet and Hermès suits."

Early life

A self-taught artist, Husain was born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. He learned calligraphy and the art of al-khat al-Kufi (Kufi script) from an early age. Left motherless at infancy, he lived with his uncle in a madrasa in Baroda, where he dabbled in poetry and painting, and would often strap "his painting gear to his bicycle and drive out to the surrounding countryside of Indore to paint the landscape."

In 1937, at the age of 20, he arrived in Mumbai, penniless and determined to become a painter. Studying at the J J School of Arts, he "lived in a cheap room in a by-lane inhabited by pimps and prostitutes," and earned his living by painting cinema hoardings. Reminiscing of his early days. Husain said, "We were paid barely four or six annas per square foot. That is, for a 6x10 feet canvas, we earned a few rupees... As soon as I earned a little bit I used to take off for Surat, Baroda and Ahmedabad to paint landscapes."

Rise to fame

MF Husain From four annas to a million dollars

In his early days MF Husain, who made a living by painting cinema hoardings, was paid barely four or six annas. In 2008, his work Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12 fetched $1.6 million, setting a world record at Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Husain caught the eye of experimental artist Francis Newton Souza when he won an award by the Bombay Art society, and soon joined the Progressive Artists’ Group. He never looked back. A well-known painter by 1955, he attained wide international acclaim which culminated in a special invitation to – alongside Pablo Picasso – to the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971.

At the time of his death, he was the highest paid Indian artist. Some of the most often cited sales include his Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, which fetched USD 1.6 million in 2008, setting a world record at Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale. A recent sale this month of three paintings at a Bonham's auction in London sold for Rs 2.32 crore, with an untitled oil work – combining his signature figures of horse and woman -- fetching Rs 1.23 crore.

In India, his talent earned him the Padma Bhushan in 1973, the Padma Vibhushan in 1989, and a nomination to the Rajya Sabha in 1986.

Muse in the movies

Husain's early brush with the film industry as a young man was just the first of a lifelong association with the movies. In 1967, he made his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and then went on to direct experimental movies like Gaja Gamini featuring his actress muse Madhuri Dixit and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities with Tabu.

Husain's name often surfaces in the gossip items touting his rumoured fascination with one female celebrity or the other. His 'favourites' have ranged from the likes of Vidya Balan to Mother Teresa. Shobhaa De tweeted of his reaction to Band Baaja Baraat: "M.F.Husain is in love again! At 101.With Anoushka Sharma!! He called frm Dubai to say he has watched BBB over 10 times thinks she is amazing!"


In 2006, Husain's painting Bharatmata depicting Mother India in the form of a nude woman enraged Hindu groups. But this wasn't Husain's first brush with controversy.

He had courted Hindu ire earlier for portraying Durga and Saraswati in the nude and in the company of animals in 1996. His house was attacked and his studio vandalised. At the time, Husain remained unruffled and optimistic. "Controversies make life more interesting," he told the Times of India, "Such events are minor ripples in the ocean of Indian art and culture. … I prefer to consider it as an 'agnipariksha'. Only time will tell whether modern art survives such tests."

The furore surrounding Bharatmata a decade later would prove him wrong. The painting was withdrawn from the public eye following protests and criminal complaints filed against Husain in Indore and Rajkot courts. Death threats soon followed: The Hindu Personal Law Board announced a Rs 51-crore reward for beheading him; a local leader in Gujarat promised 1 kg of gold to anyone who gouged out his eyes.

But he did not just upset Hindus. Muslim ulemas protested his use of Quranic verses to honor the heroine instead of God in a song in the film Meenaxi.

Worried about his safety, Husain moved to Dubai in 2005, and since then remained mostly in exile. But in various media interviews, he had rarely been either apologetic or bitter. "I have painted my canvases — including those of gods and goddesses— with deep love and conviction, and in celebration. If in doing that, I have hurt anyone’s feelings, I am sorry. That is all. I do not love art less, I love humanity more," he told Tehelka in 2008. "India is a completely unique country. Liberal. Diverse. There is nothing like it in the world. This mood in the country is just a historical process. For me, India means a celebration of life. You cannot find that same quality anywhere in the world."

In January, 2010, he was offered and accepted the citizenship of Qatar and surrendered his Indian passport. At the time, fellow artist, Anjolie Ela Menon observed, "This is not the first time we have thrown away our geniuses. In India, we recognise our national treasures only when they are gone." Words that will likely ring bitterly true to his many fans on this sad day.

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