The late MF Husain being interviewed at his 94th birthday celebration at Tamarind Art Council, New York, 2009. Photo by Peter Hoang for ArtAsiaPacific.

BETWEEN THE SPIDER AND THE LAMP, 1956, oil on board, 228.6 × 124.5 cm. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi/London.

(From left to right) Former Indian prime minister Inder Gujral, Indrani Rahman holding Ram Rahman as a baby, artist Satish Gujral, MF Husain and art critic Charles Fabri, in New Delhi, 1957. Photo by Habib Rahman. Courtesy Ram Rahman.

Artists Ram Kumar, MF Husain, Tyeb and Sakina Mehta sitting outside Husain’s “Let History Cut Across Me Without Me” exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, 1993. Photo by Ram Rahman.

Faced with Promise and Protest

MF Husain

Features from Sep/Oct 2010
India Qatar

Well into his tenth decade, 95-year-old Maqbool Fida Husain is one of the most respected and influential figures of modern Indian art. Yet throughout much of his celebrated career, Husain has been dogged by Hindu nationalists offended by his depictions of Hindu deities in allegedly blasphemous states of undress. What his critics overlook, however, is the resounding message of India’s pluralistic national identity that runs throughout the work he has produced over the past six decades. 

Born in Pandharpur in the western state of Maharashtra in 1915, Husain grew up in a Muslim family; his father worked as an accountant in a textile mill. Less than two years after his birth his mother died. His father remarried and moved the family north to Indore. In a telephone interview with ArtAsiaPacific, Husain tells of an early fascination for Indian tribal and folk art, and how it eclipsed any desire to pursue formal schooling. “By the time I was around 15 years old, I was so absorbed in painting. I was interested in philosophy and language, but I preferred to go to the library and study Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu and Hindi by myself. When I was 19, I told my father I wanted to go to Bombay so that I could grow as a painter. He was out of a job, so he said he wouldn’t be able to support me. I told him not to worry—I’d manage. And without a penny I went to Bombay.”

During that time, Husain made a living painting cinema billboards, as Indian cinema was his other great passion. He spent a year at the Sir JJ School of Art, where he was inspired by the modern innovations in European art—notably the work of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—which contrasted with the iconic status and often ritual function of most Indian art. The introduction of the Western academic style during British rule had had a significant influence on Indian art, as one can see in the works of Raja Ravi Varma, who painted Indian mythological stories in oil. Meanwhile, the Bengal School of Art refuted Western influence and sought to elaborate on more traditional forms of Indian art. Led by Abanindranath Tagore, the Bengal School artists incorporated elements of Indian murals and Mughal miniatures into their work so that both the subject and the style of painting were rooted in Indian history. 

Husain became a part of the Bombay-based movement that emerged in response to the Bengal School’s nostalgic derivations of the past, and was catalyzed by India’s declaration of independence on August 15, 1947. “On that night, I decided I would commit myself to the art world in a big way,” he says. He subsequently won an award in the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society for his painting, Sunehra Sansaar (1947).

FN Souza, the leader of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, saw the work and invited Husain to join the Progressives. Comprised of some of the most radical and determined artists of the time, including Tyeb Mehta and SH Raza, the Progressives searched for a style of painting that was alive and original, something born of and emblematic of independent India, though also inspired by modern European movements such as Cubism and Expressionism. Teachers at the Sir JJ School of Art and other art institutions advised their students to keep their distance from the group. “The academies rejected our work because the two dominant styles of the time were British Academic painting and the Bengali School’s revivalism,” Husain recalls. “The art institutions knew that we had these trends in our sights and they thought we were degrading the purity of Indian culture.”

However, at the end of the decade, Husain’s Progressive peers left India, with Souza moving to London in 1949 and Raza heading to Paris in 1950. “They said you can’t grow as an artist in India, and that I should join them, but luckily I was married, so I think for that reason I couldn’t go!” Husain recalls, laughing. “My main concern was Indian culture, so I took that route. With avant-garde art dominating the early 1960s, people declared me finished as an artist because I was still painting Indian images, but I never budged.”

Husain explains that his work is his attempt to communicate with the people of India. “I knew all the theories and all the different isms, and I appreciated them. I didn’t reject them, but I wanted the basis of my work to be folk. I was very conscious of the question, ‘What is Indian culture?’ I painted images that were relevant to our time.” His paintings juxtapose the diverse elements that make up the Indian nation and its identity: disparate religions, poverty and wealth, past mythologies and present political issues. In Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956), he depicts five women in a tight vertical composition against a red background. The figure on the left, painted in gray, is shown in profile, her head covered by her sari and her right hand raised. Carrying a lamp on her head, she appears to be speaking to the dark-skinned woman in the center of the image, who is looking down at the spider she is spearing to death with a long stick or wire. This woman has thick, prominent lips and wears a tribal-like dress and a wide armband. The third principal figure is shown with her arms crossed and facing the viewer. Her skin is bright yellow and her facial features seem Asiatic. Though she and the dark-skinned woman are utterly unengaged with each other, the two women behind them are deep in conversation. 

Above these figures is a string of indecipherable Indic hieroglyphics of Husain’s making, which places these women in their own particular, abstracted context. Their portrayal is ambiguous enough to allow for numerous readings. The three principal women might represent the goddesses of the three ancient rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Alternatively, they may refer to a now-outdated classification of human races (Negroid, Mongoloid and Caucasoid), defined in American anthropologist Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of Races (1962). When considered as a group of five, the figures may represent the castes of Indian society: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra and Untouchables. Ultimately, however, whether there is a “correct” interpretation of these figures is of less importance than the characteristic ambiguity of the work. Premised on the racial diversity of India, Between the Spider and the Lamp initiates a dialogue that remains unfinished.  

Many of Husain’s works show the artist’s concern for the suffering of India’s people, both articulating their plight and courage, and offering a message of hope and the possibility of redemption. In 1977, a cyclone ravaged the state of Andhra Pradesh, killing nearly 10,000 people. In response to this tragedy, Husain painted Cyclonic Silence (1977), now housed in the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. In the work, a lamb in a barren landscape peers inquisitively at a still, prostrate human figure. An emblem of spiritual purity, particularly in Christianity, a large minority religion in Andhra Pradesh, the lamb is also a symbol of hope. Cyclonic Silence is Husain’s gentle yet resolute vision of survival for those affected by the disaster and those in mourning. 

As is evident in this work, Husain manages to transform both lived and mythic tragedy into powerful contemporary statements. The ancient Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, details a great war between two rival factions of the Kuru clan, the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Laden with images of immorality and shady dealings, this saga is deeply familiar to Indians across the country, regardless of creed. Husain first painted the Mahabharata in 1971, when he was invited to the São Paulo Biennial to which he and Picasso were the only artists offered exclusive exhibition space. Husain unveiled paintings based on the epic’s portrayal of the horrors of war, inspired in part by Picasso’s Guernica (1937).

He revisited the theme in 1983 when, as a commission for his friend, the American collector Chester Herwitz, he created the “Mahabharata” series. The set of 11 lithographs opens with a black-and-white study featuring the wise teacher and archer, Bhishma, who fought on the side of the Kauravas, held aloft from the ground by the arrows that have pierced his body. As the grandfather of the two warring families, he represents dignity of character, power and yet also unbelievable suffering, and he courageously faces the karma of his own actions. In this moment of self-sacrifice, he is suspended between life and death while the feuding brothers decide the fate of the world. “Two quotations appear on the print: the first, in Sanskrit and from the Rig Veda, translates to “Let noble thoughts come to us from every side”; the second, from lawyer, politician and scholar Chakravati Rajagopalachari, is “. . . The Mahabharata / discloses a rich civilization and highly evolved society which, / though of an older world, strangely resembles the India of our time . . .” Husain’s use of these quotes with this particular scene explicitly demonstrates his intention to call on the people of India to reflect on the past and become aware of its relevance to the country’s development today. 


MAHABHARATA,1990, oil on canvas, 129.5 × 477.5 cm. Courtesy the Chester and Davida Herwitz Collection, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

MF Husain painting a canvas from the “Knight Watch” series at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi/London.

MF Husain painting at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, from the late 1990s to early 2000s. Courtesy Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi/London. 

Though the ambiguity of Husain’s visual language allows for pluralistic readings, it has also invited controversy. He has been the focus of significant negative criticism, primarily for his representation of Hindu subjects. In 1996, the widely read Hindu magazine Vichar Mimansa published an article with the headline, “MF Husain: A Painter or Butcher,” reproducing works by Husain that show topless Hindu goddesses. Created in the 1970s, the works in question had never before been discussed in this partisan context, perhaps because of the undeniable abundance and celebration of nudity in early Indian art. Husain attempted to communicate the essence and energy of the goddesses in simplistic compositions devoid of the ornamentation found in popular representations. Hard-line nationalist organizations such as Hindu Jagruti Samiti and Vishva Hindu Parishad, however, responded with threats on his life, attacks on his home and more than 1,200 suits filed against him, though most have since been withdrawn or resolved. Since then, galleries in India exhibiting his work have been ransacked, an exhibition at Asia House in London in 2006 was canceled due to concerns about security and his works have been banned from being displayed at the prestigious Indian Art Summit in Delhi since its inception in 2008.

In 2006, his painting Bharat Mata (“Mother India”) (2005) reinfuriated right-wing Hindu groups. Commonly depicted as a generic goddess wearing a sari, Mother India—a personification of the country originating from the independence movement of the late 19th century—appears in Husain’s image as a nude woman whose body is rendered in the shape of the Subcontinent. Her hair forms the Himalayas and follows the course of the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Unable to see the reverential tone of the work, however, fanatics reacted with more death threats, forcing Husain to remain abroad, living primarily in London and Dubai. His detractors questioned whether he would ever paint his own mother in the nude as he had painted India. “Their reactions are purely political,” Husain tells AAP.“These are political parties that do it to garner support. I never responded. Later, they became more violent, and that led me to move to the United Arab Emirates, but I continue making my work.”

Most recently, conservatives were angered by his work Rape of India(2008), a large-scale acrylic painting made up of two disjointed canvases, which was unveiled at the Serpentine Gallery in London in December 2008 in the group exhibition, “Indian Highway.” Marked with the English words “Rape of India” and one of the dates of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the scene depicts two cows fighting, with a woman and child caught up in the conflict. Falling backward, the female figure is dismembered by the division between the canvases. The traditionally gentle and sacred cow of India has turned on itself, gnawing at the neck of its own kin. 

The prominent red mark on the female figure’s lower forehead could be perceived either as an oversized bindi or as a stain of blood that covers her eyes. The figure of a woman with covered eyes evokes another legendary mother of Indian lore—Gandhari of theMahabharata. She is the wife of the blind king, Dhritarashtra, who chooses to blindfold herself instead of leaving her husband alone in darkness. She is also the mother of the 100 Kauravas, who are all slaughtered in their battle with the Pandavas. Husain has depicted Gandhari in numerous paintings, rendering her in almost hieroglyphic abstract form. She is a devoted and powerful woman who makes an immense sacrifice, a mother who chooses not to see the evil of her children. If there is a representation of rape in this painting, it takes place between the two animals, and the woman and child merely are caught in the struggle. The suffering of the cow is further emphasized in the large wound on its side. The cow is a national (and Hindu) symbol of respect for life, and in the context of this painting it can be read as a symbol for India as much as the female figure. In this interpretation, India is depicted as being attacked from all sides. 

The crux of the problem, many of Husain’s defenders believe, is that his critics view him more as a Muslim than as an Indian. This becomes particularly problematic when the figures he depicts are claimed by a particular religious group. For example, some conservative Hindus who criticize Husain’s Mother India and Rape of India consider “Mother India” as belonging exclusively to themselves rather than to all Indians. Out of basic misunderstanding and misinterpretation, many see hatred, disrespect and hooliganism on the part of the artist. What they miss in the work are the statements of heroism, service, unity and diversity.  

Earlier this year, Husain announced that he was taking Qatari citizenship, a decision that upset many of his strongest supporters. Some feel he has abandoned them or given up the fight for artistic freedom. But for Husain it is perhaps a matter of practicality, as he stated in an interview for NDTV (New Delhi Television) in March: “At the age of 40 I would have fought them tooth and nail, but . . . I just wanted to concentrate on my work . . . It is immaterial where you stay. I am an original Indian artist and will remain so till my last breath.” 

In Qatar, he continues to work on three major series—on the history of Arab civilization, the history of Indian civilization and a celebration of the 100th year of Bollywood cinema in 2011—and he is steadfast about both establishing his creative independence and maximizing the commercial potential of his work. “I don’t want to work with galleries, because once you have created your work, it is subject to the whims of dealers. I look for sponsors,” he says, as he undertakes a series of 99 paintings on the history of Arab civilization, based on the 99 names of God. “At first I didn’t want to tell anyone, I wanted the paintings to speak for themselves. In 2008, an article about the project appeared in the press; the wife of the Emir of Qatar, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, saw it, and she invited me to Qatar to make the paintings for the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.” Meanwhile, Husain’s 40-odd panels on the history of Indian civilization are sponsored by the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal in London, and his set of cinema hoardings celebrating Bollywood cinema are supported by the government of Abu Dhabi. Outside of India he has found sponsorship, hospitality and all the creature comforts he could hope for, with no sign that censorship will impede his creativity. 


MF Husain (1915–2011). Photo by Peter Hoang for ArtAsiaPacific.