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M.F. Husain's death robs Indian art of tallest hero

Thursday June 09, 2011 03:30:59 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

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New Delhi: The passing away of Maqbool Fida Husain, India's leading international face in contemporary 20th century art, marks the end of a golden era in India's tryst with new-age art in an Indian idiom.

The man who loved Madhuri Dikshit, the darling of Bollywood, and galloping stallions in his eclectic colourscapes that exploded on the viewers' face with its blitz of vibrant colours died in a London hospital of a heart attack in the wee hours of Thursday, just three months short of his 96th birthday.

Billed as one of the most expensive artists in the subcontinent and in Asia, Husain leaves behind six children and a fleet of 13 swanky sports cars that included a trademark red Ferrari and the latest model of a Bugatti that he acquired year before last on his birthday. And of course a vast legacy of art - unparalleled.

His canvases notched up to $2 million, a sale record for an Indian artist, at international auctions. And he was the staple of art world controversies. The India Art Summit - India's official art fair - virtually subsisted on the controversies that exhibiting the works of Husain ratcheted up in the form of media headlines.

At the time of his death, the bearded artist who loved to pad around barefoot, towered over his peers, both in his vocation and in his regal good looks, was a citizen of Qatar, patronised by the Sheikha (the sultan's wife) of Doha, who commissioned several art works by him.

On his last birthday in 2010, he set the emirate ablaze with his life size installations of horses in Italian Murano glass that were placed atop his cars on the high streets.

For old family friend and admirer, photographer and activist Ram Rahman, "It is an irreparable loss that will never be redressed."

"The fact that India's most famous artist could not return home before his death is unfortunate," the photographer told IANS.

Husain, known for his cubist and abstract depiction of figures and animals in Indian art, brought to the canvas a freedom which very few artists had the courage to replicate. His motto was art could not be shackled by the narrow confines of religions, caste, creed and colour - a philosophy that eventually led to his exile to Dubai in 2006.

His painting of the Bharat Mata and Indian goddesses in the nude earned him the wrath of Hindu rightwing activists who had moved court against the artist, forcing him to leave the country.

In 2010, he became a citizen of Doha and spent his time between the Arab world and London, where he had a studio.

A secular man, Husain was inspired by every faith - from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gajagamini, an essentially Hindu concept, to Mughal-e-Azam, the Bollywood blockbuster, in his art. A movie, "Gajagamini", which he made in the late 1990s as his tribute to Bollywood ladies, starred his muse Madhuri Dikshit.

It was followed by "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities" starring Tabu. In 1967, Husain made his first movie, "Through the Eyes of a Painter", which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

At the time of his death, his autobiography was being made into a movie tentatively titled "The Making of the Painter" starring Shreyas Talpade as the young Husain.

Husain changed the destiny and colour of Indian contemporary canvas with his ethnic sensibilities culled from everyday life, nature, epics, myths and rural India.

He was one of the prominent members of the Mumbai Progressive Artists Group founded by F.N. Souza in the 1940s. Husain freed art from the domination most 19th European expressionism and impressionist influences to create a distinctive Indian metaphor.

Born Sep 17, 1915 in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, he was popularly known as MF. But some of his old time associates remember him as "Fida." According to Forbes magazine, he was the "Picasso of India".

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1986. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1991. He was also honoured with the prestigious Raja Ravi Varma award by the government of Kerala.

One of his sons, Delhi-based Shamshad Husain, recalls, "I have heard so much about my grandparents and how they relocated from Pandharpur to Indore."

"My mother's mother was born in Hyderabad and my father's mother was from Pandharpur," Shamshad had told IANS.

"My father was a year and a half when my grandmother shifted to Indore with my grandfather. My father's grandfather was alive then. My grandfather was an accountant in the mill - but as he was a Muslim, he was kicked out," he said.

M.F. Husain earned his father's displeasure because he was not interested in studies in school and just wanted to paint. "But my great-grandfather supported my father."

Around 1935, the family shifted to Mumbai. "My father did not finish school and took to painting cinema hoardings to support the family of six children," Shamshad said. According to Husain junior, his father proved to be a pillar of strength.

"I remember sitting next to him, watching him paint cinema hoardings in the 50s. Life was very tough and he made only six to eight annas (half a rupee) a day in the beginning. After the day's work, he used to paint by the lamp post," Shamshad said.

The family lived in a single room on Grant Road for which M.F. Husain had to pay a rent of Rs.16. The children slept outside.

In 1947, M.F. Husain's first exhibition was held in Bombay Art Society where his painting "Sunhera Sansaar" was exhibited to acclaim.

Between a period of 1948 to 1950, a series of exhibitions of M.F. Husain's paintings travelled all over India. In 1956, his paintings were exhibited in the art galleries of Prague and Zurich.

After that, there was no looking back for M.F. Husain.


(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at )




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