M F Husain’s death stokes anger and regret back home


NEW DELHI: M F Husain’s death in a Londonhospital at 2.30 in the morning on Thursday brings the 95-year-old painter, political philosopher and passionate admirer of beauteousBollywood actresses startlingly to life. The passing of India’s most famous contemporary artist in self-imposed exile under a foreign sky resurrects the fractious debate over freedom of expression and the state’s failure to protect it.

Husain, an Expressionist who gloried in the elegant rendering of his trademark subjects – horse and woman – died a Qatari, after 94 years as an Indian national. Almost till the end, he insisted he wanted to return to India.

But a non-bailable warrant for his arrest forced the painter who famously favoured bare feet and Bugattis to leave India in 2006 with the soberly hurt explanation that “matters are so legally complicated I have been advised not to return home”.

This caused him to be dubbed India’s Picasso though he was originally influenced by the German Emil Nolde and Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, both Expressionists rather than the commie Pablo Picasso, who founded Cubism and exiled himself from fascist dictator General Franco’s Spain.

Husain breathed his last at Royal Brompton hospital in south London and sources said his death was caused by a heart attack triggered by accumulation of water in his lungs.

As with Picasso, politics was to remain a recurring, if sometimes unpainted motif in Husain’s artistic life. His 1970s nudes of deities would set the Hindu right aquiver with indignation when they came to light some 20 years later. So would his 2006 portrayal of Bharat Mata as a naked woman. His film, ‘Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities’, had Muslim organizations complaining it contained a song that blasphemed the Quran. Within weeks of 26/11, he was controversially displaying the blood-spattered Rape of India at the Serpentine Gallery in London and expressing optimism “that (India’s) youth will rise and throw the old fogies away”.

But Husain, who was nothing if not an equal opportunities offender angering Hindus and Muslims alike, remained unfazed and unflaggingly energetic about his youthful vision of the motherland. Despite a heart bypass operation in 1990, he remained the quintessential man-about-town, complete with a red Ferrari, many Hermes suits and a shifting but always updated interest in Bollywood lovelies such as Madhuri Dixit, Tabu, Amrita Rao and recently Anushka Sharma.

Husain’s interest in India Inclusive started early. At Independence, Husain, 32, elected not to go to Pakistan, joining five others instead to form the Progressive Artists’ Group in Mumbai. It would set the tone for modern art in India, eventually taking it to the zenith of multi-million dollar purchase prices in the world’s auction rooms.

Husain, who rejoiced in experimentation in his early years by blending disparate ethnic and mythological themes, set out to capture and portray India’s mood in the next six decades. Some described him as the artistic equivalent of a poet laureate, celebrating India’s triumphs and weeping over its tragedies.

Husain started out in trade, not high art, as a Bollywood signboard painter, earning, in his own words barely four or six annas per square foot. “That is, for a 6×10 feet canvas, we earned a few rupees.”

But, like a latter-day Van Gogh, he furiously took every opportunity to paint landscapes. His breakthrough exhibition was the 1947 Sunehra Sansaar.

Modern religious ire or not, all along, he consciously celebrated India’s diversity, embodying its inclusive spirit, its indigenous pop culture (he was famously sold on Bollywood), inherent resilience and inner spiritual beliefs, notably the transience of all things material. An 80s exhibition in Mumbai consisted of two halls shrouded in white cloth while torn newspapers littered the floor. In Kolkata, he put on a performance-art exhibition unusual for 1980s India, allowing a crowd to watch him paint six Hindu goddesses and then casually destroying his work by overpainting with white.