The Husain question will linger
The passing of Maqbool Fida Husain on Thursday in a London hospital marks the end of an epoch in Indian art. Husain’s enormously vibrant palette — more devoted in recent times to the Arab civilisation than to subjects Indian, will be laid to rest. With it will also go silent the debates around the status of a minority artist’s engagement with Indian mythology, and the failure of the modern Indian state to protect him.
For Husain had become both, artist and emblem — the single figure that challenged modern India’s claim to secular, artistic freedom.
For art writers in the last decade, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar had become natural destinations. They represented an opportunity to meet Husain. My own experience came because of an interview I had gone to do on Chittrovanu Mazumdar. Malini Gulrajani, a gallerist, had simultaneously held an exhibition of Husain. In the capacious gallery set in Dubai’s beautifully landscaped but sterile streets, Husain’s vibrant works looked strangely forlorn.
It was an auspicious day in the Islamic calendar and Husain’s son Mustafa, who runs a restaurant, had prepared an elaborate, delicious meal. Husain’s daughter Raisa and other members of the family were with him in his regimen of cheerful if somewhat self-conscious exile. After lunch Husain wanted to show me the gallery that he had created of his Maria paintings. Created entirely in red — its drapes, curtains and lights all a deep sanguine, the space was a memorial to some of the finest modern Indian paintings, as to a private passion. In 1948, Husain had wooed his Czech beloved Maria with a number of paintings. These represented what were in a sense Husain’s artistic subjectivity: farmer’s families, the mother and child, myths and musicians — reflections on the values of Nehru’s India, bound together by an inchoate hope. Husain and Maria never married, and nearly six decades later she returned the paintings to him, in pristine condition. In the light of a Dubai afternoon, these works shone like beautiful, bejewelled objects. Husain told me that he wanted to preserve these works in Kolkata, a city he admired for its secular traditions. However, this was before Taslima Nasreen was shown the door by the Left Front government, and after a hiatus, the paintings were sold to a single collector in England — lost to India forever.
Husain’s exile and the focus on his auction prices, fleet of cars and lavish lifestyle in Qatar shifted attention from the man and the essential painter. Husain was the supreme witness and chronicler of modern India. If music had Bismillah Khan, painting had Husain. For at least seven decades Husain painted India as an avid witness and participant, alternating between private biographies, grand narratives and Urdu poetry with fluid ease.
In a sense, Husain’s subjectivity and the nation as subject matter became interchangeable: he narrated his own biography of a boyhood in Pandharpur, his grandfather’s occupation as a seller of lamps, the death of his mother in his infancy and his early beginnings as a poster painter entirely through paintings. Husain’s canvas was a crisscross of history, myth and the morning news. The spirituality in Benaras, the colonial legacy, music and dance, Mother Teresa and Bollywood, all became part of Husain’s metanarrative of the nation. His monumental output marked every important milestone of the nation: the making of Bangladesh, the death of Safdar Hashmi, the great gold rush of Arab oil and 21st century globalism. Husain’s unerring brushstrokes were justly famous for their speed, and often translated into a performative spectacular style, of painting before the public. In 1985, under a commission, he marked the centenary of the Congress party with 22 paintings — each a massive work, all executed in five days, in Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium. Famously, he had painted a series of works on Indira Gandhi, as well as portraits of Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi.
Born in Pandharpur, Madhya Pradesh, in 1915, M.F. Husain developed an iconic style that drew on classical Indian sculpture and the brilliance of Indian miniature painting as well as abstract expressionism and cubism. From humble beginnings as a poster painter, he received early recognition for the cryptic brilliance of works such as Zameen, Between the Spider and the Lamp and Farmer’s Family. As a founder member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, he gave Indian art a distinct direction.
Husain’s presence as a household name draws from his mass-based popularity. No other Indian artist with the exception of Ravi Varma made his works available to ordinary people as did Husain, through lithographs and serigraphs. As a filmmaker he received awards for his works, Through the Eyes of a Painter and Gaja Gamini. From the mid 1990s, the narrative of Husain became synonymous with censorship in the arts. When Husain became a subject of attack, museums and exhibitions carrying his work became extremely vulnerable. Through the 1990s, the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, the Cinema Ghar in Hyderabad and the Husain Sankalana in Bengaluru were shut down. At the last India Art Summit, Husain’s work was removed from the display area. With every such gesture, India further distanced itself from the Husain question of artistic freedom and the modern Indian state.
Buried as he will be in London, even the mourning will be distanced and deferred, until another Husain question arises. In death as in life, Husain will continue to hold up a mirror to our times.
Gayatri Sinha is a well-known art critic and curator