M.F. Husain was the visual bard of the Republic in the way he portrayed the famous and the masses alike.
THE one thing one feels most poignantly about M.F. Husain is that he was not able to return to his homeland and die there peacefully. A series of malicious court cases on the basis of a misunderstanding, by those who made facetious complaints against him, of what forms of art mean to artists and art lovers, of the representational traditions of Indian folk and classical art, and most of all, of what contemporary art is about created a situation where one of India's most noted artists had to live and die in self-imposed exile.
If one learns a lesson from all this, it is that his art did not create the law and order problem but rather it resulted from the malevolent actions of those right-wing fundamentalist groups who vandalised his home, his museum in Ahmedabad, his exhibitions in Delhi and created terror in the commercial art world, so much so that the art dealers at a couple of the art summits in Delhi imposed a ban on themselves against exhibiting his works. But, curiously enough, each one of these attacks only ensured that newer and younger art lovers began to look for his works and even in an art market that was in relative depression. His works continued to sell as easily as they did at the height of the boom. Even at a recent London auction, three of his works were sold for Rs.2.32 crore. So he remained the winner till the end.
This is because prices of works of good art do not fall and rise like those of stocks and shares, even though being a celebrity helps in boosting up their market prices marginally. Husain's works command the heights they do because they reflect a unique vision that is close to the life of the Indian masses, who were the lifeblood of the national movement and who won the admiration of our artists in the way they sacrificed all they had to free the country from imperial slavery and its local slave-drivers, the native princes. The Progressive Artists Group which Husain joined in 1947 represented one such trend.
This perception is powerfully expressed in his Zameen' of 1955, which blends the Indian narrative tradition of cameos with forms that reflect the colourful vibrancy of Indian folk art executed with the sculptural quality of the art of the Mauryan and Gupta eras, as well as that of Pablo Picasso, another artist who died in exile and whom Husain admired. The many influences he was able to assimilate at the same time and yet evolve his own style by transforming them completely reflects the essence of his greatness. Underpinning this was the remarkable capacity to build up images with brushstrokes that carried a throbbing life force like in the canvases of Dutch artist Van Gogh, the powerful linearity we find in our own contemporary art and the celebratory colours India abounds in.
What picked him out among his peers was the way he could innovate with any given aesthetic basis. He was a master of all forms of art, from making posters to producing engrossing prints, powerful paintings and even toys. And somehow, the interlinkages he created between popular, classical and contemporary styles brought his imagery of the epics into the context of our modern perspective rather like Raja Ravi Varma had done for the art of the colonial period. If the chief protagonist of India's colonial art was of princely descent, involved in the intrigues of the Travancore court, Husain was the visual bard of the Republic. Nothing escaped his eye as he wandered barefoot amidst the tea shops of Nizamuddin (Delhi), the tea stall at Lal Darwaja in Ahmedabad, Caf Samovar in Mumbai, and Azad Hind Dhaba in Kolkata, to name a few. At the same time, he celebrated Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Satyajit Ray and a host of Bollywood divas in the same way he celebrated the street people of India, epic characters, elephants, tigers and horses, all as part of the ongoing life.
His broad scope of expression won him the Padma Bhushan in 1973, the Padma Vibhushan in 1991 and a seat in the Rajya Sabha in 1986. In fact, he left behind a powerful, if tongue-in-cheek, album of drawings of his experience in the Upper House.
He was in a sense the true voice of his times. Born among the masses, earning a living by his hands, he could enter into the role of an architect for the wealthy, a film-maker for the avant garde, an organiser of events for the glitterati, which inappropriately gave him a name for indulging in gimmickry and, most of all, a generous artist who gifted to children and friends so many of his works that keep cropping up like signboards from all over the world. These facts reflect his true character, that of reaching out to everyone and earning their love and respect in return. But his closeness to those in power and ordinary people alike earned him many enemies.
I met him a number of times, but his greatest quality was that he never criticised others. He was concerned with his own expression, its development and its acceptance over as wide a circuit as possible. He was the chief visual protagonist of India's post-Independence mass culture, revelling in crushes on young actresses and the world of Bollywood. Behind this positive attitude of his was not a fear of being challenged by others but a knowledge of his own worth. He knew that many of those who were bad-mouthing him were not worthy of a reply and so he left them to their own devices and went ahead of them.
Finally, he was a free-floating spirit, a human being with little respect for borders, just as he had little respect for barriers of class, religion and tradition. All these were nothing if they did not link larger and larger sections of humanity together. So, when he accepted Qatari nationality in 2010, it was because he was there and welcome, while at home he had to endure harassment, threats and, most of all, a disruption of his working life. I understand what he meant by My heart will always be in India because whether in Qatar or in London, it was India that was throbbing inside him like a generator that kept him active and alive. That is why he continued to paint Indian subjects dear to him until his death.
One can agree with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that his death was a national loss but one cannot help but feel that the Indian government's failure to tackle the facetious cases against him or to ensure that he carried on his work undisturbed at home has contributed to this loss. For a man on the move across the flow of history, Husain understood the ephemeral nature of travel documents. But the people who drove him out of his beloved land are responsible for lowering our standards of civilisation with prejudice. Those who did not defend him fearing their onslaught will only have themselves to blame for it.
Husain, in his characteristic generosity, had stated: I have never felt betrayed. A man who could invent his own birthday, recreate a mother he never really saw, carry the love and affection of thousands of his fellow Indians and return it as he did, despite possessing a Qatari passport and dying in London, continues to reach out to you and me every time we look at his work and see the joy of Pandharpur, the place where he was born, the glamour of Mumbai, the city where he made his name, and the facade of grandeur of Delhi, which patronised him but refused to protect him. These images can never fade from our memories. His chronicle of events in history blended with his own perception of myths, from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the battle of Karbala (in Iraq), the struggle of the Sikh faith, the Last Supper of Christ, to the last years of the British Raj and the fall of Hitler being lampooned in the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, can never really end the conversation he began over 80 years ago as an artist and which he compressed afresh in every work he brought to life.
These works will bring him to life before us for years to come with their inclusive vision, love for humanity and a remarkable humility that was both endearing and infectious, and will provide a good guideline for artists of the people to proceed from. At the same time, his fate at the hands of those in power should serve as a warning that friends in high places are often more a disadvantage than a help.