Undying art

Print edition : February 06, 2015

M.F. Husain. Photo: Sebastian D'SOouza/AFP

In Husain's paintings, horses were a recurring motif.. Photo: M. KARUNAKARAN

July 1, 2011

MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN was a hero for those who believe that not only must an artist create beauty but his life must also be the subject of romance. Husain, at work and in life, was romance personified. Everything about him was larger than life. That he was driven away from the land of his birth by intellectual pygmies tainted by bigotry was only to be expected. What was at first surprising, then acutely disappointing, and then downright unforgiveable  was the desire on the part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to appease the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its support organisations rather than vigorously enforce the rule of law and restore the dignity of the ordinary citizen.

Husain’s alleged crime was that he had painted Hindu gods, and, worse, goddesses, in the nude sometime in the 1970s. No use pointing out that there are numerous examples of Hindu deities depicted in the nude in exquisite ancient temple sculptures. The Hindu Right decided to hound him out of India, and the simplest way to do so was by slapping hundreds of fake cases on him in different parts of the country. Husain suddenly became the bogey man for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS and its allies. The equally benighted Muslim fundamentalist organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and others had washed their hands of him long ago. The so-called civil society was too ineffectual to be civil or civic. A splendidly gifted man with style and flair, in his late eighties, left the shores of India for good.

To set the record straight, Maqbool Fida Husain was born on September 17, 1915, in a poor household in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. The First World War had begun the year before. By the time he reached boyhood, the family had moved to Indore, Madhya Pradesh. His father was a timekeeper in a small mill and had the additional responsibility of bringing up his motherless son. Maqbool Fida had lost his mother when he was an infant. He remained a devotee of women and womanhood for the rest of his life. It is interesting to note that his telling and moving portraits of Mother Teresa have no facial details, but the outer contours are so accurately drawn that there is no mistaking her for anyone else. He saw Mother Teresa as a great nurturing mother. To think that Husain’s devotion to the all-encompassing aspects of womanhood would land him in enormous trouble is ironic.

Husain’s biography is fairly well documented. He went to study at V.D. Devlalikar’s art school in Indore while in his teens. The family’s finances were strained, but it somehow managed to send him to the school of Devlalikar because he was a respected artist and teacher who painted in the Indian style.

The necessity of earning a living took young Husain to Bombay, as Mumbai was known then. He certainly had photogenic looks and wanted to become an actor but could not. Instead, he became a painter of huge film banners. The money, which was not much, was nevertheless welcome. He also studied for a while at the Sir JJ School of Art. Husain also came into contact with the Austrian expressionist Langheimer and the art critic Rudy Von Leydon, both refugees from Hitler’s Nazi Germany. These two men played a seminal role in introducing 20th century Western art in Bombay. Husain became a co-founder, along with Francis Newton Souza, of the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1948. Other members to distinguish themselves in the coming years were K.H. Ara, V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, and S.H. Raza.

Husain’s training in painting big film hoardings gave his lines power and suppleness. Husain’s art, for all its eclecticism, was from the beginning rooted in Indian soil. One look at any of his works will tell you that he knew the Indian artistic and cultural tradition really well and was indeed an organic part of it.

In the late 1960s, the Films Division of India commissioned him to do a short film. The result was Through The Eyes of A Painter, which won the Golden Bear in its category at the Berlin Film Festival. Before the film won the award, Information and Broadcasting Ministry officials at home were puzzled by it. They could not understand, for instance, why images of a bicycle, a lantern and an umbrella were repeated through the film in juxtaposition with other images. It was abstract without being abstruse. The subaltern visual tradition, if you like, of Rajasthan had been uncannily captured in black and white. The umbrella, lantern and bicycle began to appear as recurring motifs in his paintings of that period. Not one to get bogged down in a formula, Husain, restless as ever, moved on. He had by then painted one of his most famous paintings, “Between The Spider And The Lamp”.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, he painted horses bursting with energy, depicted in a completely integrated version of cubism. The horses stayed with him as a part of his artistic psyche. He had a way of using recurring motifs and placing them in a fresh, different context each time. “Between The Spider And The Lamp” was painted in 1956 after he had made a pen-and-ink drawing of it. The lantern featuring in the painting turned up as a real one in the film Through The Eyes of A Painter 11 years later. The horse as a subject had first made its appearance in Husain’s work in 1952. His physical and psychical being appeared to be charged with and inspired by equine energy. In life and in his work Husain gave the impression of a galloping steed.

Contrary to what his detractors thought, he had read both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the original and had become a fan of these epics for life. Their elemental qualities made a lasting impression on his mind. The late Shanti Choudhury, a well-known documentary film-maker of the 1960s and 1970s, made a documentary on Husain for Films Division. There is a scene in the film of Husain, wearing his reading glasses, reading from the Mahabharata and discussing a narrative detail with a local pandit (pujari). Husain did major paintings based on the Mahabharata and other themes from Hindu mythology. His approach to religion, in essence, was cultural. He was fascinated by the impact of religion on the minds of ordinary people and how it made them better people.

In 2000, when he was a young man of 85, Gaja Gamini, a feature film directed by him and starring Madhuri Dixit was released. It was a lovely, intriguing film about the myriad hues that constitute the feminine psyche. Madhuri Dixit, under Husain’s guidance, did full justice in multiple roles and proved what a talented and versatile actress she is. This was a truly experimental film accessible to a large audience. An ardent film-lover all his life, he knew that communicating with an audience was imperative. Gaja Gamini did just that, effortlessly.

All his life Husain remained a man of simple tastes. He would enjoy a cup of tea at a wayside dhaba as much as he would a sumptuous meal in opulent surroundings. Neither luxury nor austerity affected him. He knew nothing was forever. His apparent detachment completely flummoxed his detractors, more so because they did not know what to do with him. When they finally drove him into exile, the retrogrades thought that Husain would be finished. But that did not happen. Husain flourished as never before. His paintings sold at consistently high prices and he worked at his art as regularly as always.

As a nonagenarian of enormous courage, he went from artistic adventure to artistic adventure. He was planning to make an autobiographical film and had decided upon Shreyas Talpade, an interesting young actor, to play him as a young man. He had received a hugely lucrative commission to do very large sculptures in glass and had flown to Italy to consult with experts before formally embarking on the project. He bought expensive cars, the latest being a Bugatti, to amuse himself.

When he finally realised that the Congress party was going to do nothing to bring him back to India with dignity, his place of birth and homeland, he surrendered his passport to the Indian Consulate in Doha. He became an international refugee. His admirers and patrons, the Sheikh and Sheikha of Qatar, came forward to offer him citizenship of their country, which he accepted. The Sheikh and his gracious wife, both connoisseurs of art, have a marvellous large art museum. It was only natural that they offered sanctuary to a true artist.