What’s the opposite of turning in one’s grave? Wiggling one’s toes happily, maybe? Maqbool Fida Husain cannot be lying still, so he must be doing one or the other. And since this is a moment of second reckoning for the great artist, it is probably the latter. At the Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, outside London, Husain is far away from the nations he once called home, even as both Qatar and India clamour to celebrate his legacy.
There is an ongoing exhibition MF Husain: Horses of the Sun at the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. This display, open from March through July, has been curated by art critic Ranjit Hoskote, and features 90 of Husain’s works. Then, there is his grand masterpiece on its way to the Venice Biennale to represent the nation at the India Pavilion. Indian art and artists are returning to the prestigious event after eight years. Husain, represented by his famous painting Zameen, is one among the eight artists who will be featured at the Gandhi-themed national pavilion. The exhibition is being organised by the ministry of culture, as well as the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and is curated by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA). His inclusion seems like an afterthought, for initial reports mentioned only seven artists, Husain not being one of them.
A life most extraordinary
None of this is new to Husain. He exhibited at the Venice Biennale as far back as 1953.
The story of this poor Muslim boy from Pandharpur rising to become one of the world’s most celebrated artists is as electric as his art. Without the anchors of a mother and financial stability, Husain spent most of his childhood flitting about the streets, which would impress upon him a lifetime of restlessness. Even as his father tried to ‘settle’ him down with religious studies, Husain found his solace in art. When the cities of Baroda and Indore got too small to contain his expansive spirit, he landed up in Bombay, hoping to join the Sir JJ School of Art. After monetary troubles forced him to opt out, he became a movie poster painter. This ‘school of kitsch’ would continue to influence his work, even after he found his lot among the elite Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. His body of work included rustic landscapes, folk themes, figures from Indian mythology, real-life heroes such as Mother Teresa and Indira Gandhi, and horses!
Husain’s artistic worth was matched by his celebrity, as he hobnobbed with the rich and famous. He was called the Picasso of India not only for the evidently cubist influences in his art but also for his genius and eccentricity. Everything — from his white hair, beard, sunglasses, bare feet, his unpredictability, humour, to his very public painting performances — screamed ‘artist’. Throbbing with energy, he courted as many mediums of art as women, and won a slew of awards. He bagged the Padma Shri in 1966, the Padma Bhushan in 1973, the Padma Vibhushan in 1991, the Lalit Kala Ratna in 2004 and the Raja Ravi Varma Award in 2007, among others. Also a filmmaker, his first motion picture Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) won him a National Award. He went on to make two more films, Gaja Gamini (2000), dedicated to his muse Madhuri Dixit, and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004). But like all artistic greats, Husain’s fame was not untainted.
A round trip
Once LK Advani unleashed the djinn of saffron violence that brought down the Babri Masjid, it was only a matter of time before fragile Hindutva sensibilities would start taking offence at Husain’s work. In 1998, they decided his depictions of Hindu goddesses Durga and Saraswati in the nude were offensive, and attacked his home and vandalised his work. His 2006 creation titled Bharat Mata, depicting India as a nude woman, led to lawsuits. Fearing for personal safety, Husain went on a self-imposed exile and lived in Qatar and other places for the remainder of his life. He surrendered his Indian passport and accepted Qatari citizenship in 2010. He passed away in June 2011 in London at the age of 95.
Though he spent only a year as an official citizen of Qatar, Hoskote tells us the great artist is considered as much a reason for Qatari pride as Indian. Today, as things come a full circle for him, the irony of a Hindutva-espousing government endorsing Husain’s art is not lost on anyone.
(Urmi Chanda-Vaz, a psychologist by training, dabbles in Indian history and culture)
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