Maqbool Fida Husain, the celebrated modern painter, died on June 9, of a heart attack in a London hospital at the age of 95. The artist had been suffering from lung congestion.
Husain belonged to the original Progressive Artist Group founded in 1948 by FN Souza. These postcolonial artists sought to develop personal idioms rooted in Indian art practices while also reflecting the fractured reality of a modern nation in the making. Yet, their search for selfhood was conflated with their aspiration for a national identity, flourishing into as many versions of Indian modernism as there were practitioners.
The idiom of Modernism that Husain would arrive at—a colorful, abstract and dramatic figuration—drew on his curiosity about Western art and his experience as a painter of giant film posters painted on fabric or tin sheets, an essential part of Indian urban visual culture. The training of a painter of film posters and billboards is to create tableaux that pull the viewer into its self-absorbed drama and to paint very fast, often in view of passers-by—skills that Husain honed and made the building blocks of his art.
Husain eschewed the received western notions of figurative drawing, introduced by the British and still taught in the Indian art schools that insisted on Grecian attention to musculature and anatomy. He rediscovered for himself the Indian figure and its idiosyncrasies. Husain looked for inspiration at the Gupta period of Indian history (c. 320 to 550 CE), marked by fecund, uninhibited artistic output that reflected a time of prosperity and a sophisticated, urban amorality that still eludes contemporary Indian culture. Husain portrayed the classical tribhangha posture in which the female body is bent at three points, and strove to capture the rhythm of the Indian female posture and walk that he would later celebrate in the film Gajagamini (2000), featuring the famous Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit.
Gajagamini came at the end of Husain’s long obsession with the female form, seen since his earliest paintings, since Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956), a metaphor for women being at the heart of India’s passage from stagnation to enlightenment during its struggle to become a modern nation. Husain would paint Devdasis, the South Indian temple courtesans (a practice that is now banned), tribal women, village belles, strong female characters from the two epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in late-1990s series with the same title. His other obsession was horses. He captured their nobility, grace, speed and strength. In the continuing coverage of his death on Indian television, many news channels have chosen to play a video of Husain holding a long-stemmed brush and painting on a white mare.
Though horses were well suited to his expansive horizontal canvases, nothing would fill their vastness better than epic narratives. Husain would crowd his canvases with his take on broad themes: Man; the Indian epics; the narrative of a people in search of nationhood based on humanity, freedom and justice; the threads of continuity in Indian culture through millennia; a pantheon of Indian icons including Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. With these subjects displayed his eagerness to celebrate this grand civilizational flow about which he often spoke very passionately about its cogency. More than that, Husain wanted to situate himself as an artist at the heart of its sparkling syncretism.
Husain’s populist art, which never estranged critical opinion, appealed to the Indian middle class like no other high-culture practice had. In the 1970s and 1980s, at New Delhi’s prestigious Modern School, Shankar held the On-The-Spot Children’s painting competition, for which Husain was a guest of honor and judge. The playground was full of children trying to find the inner artist. Anxious parents stood waiting at the peripheral barricade when Husain would walk in amidst a buzz. Silver-haired, barefooted, a bevy of women admirers swarming around him, this was Husain on view—the flamboyant flâneur, the mythic lover-boy, the fakir without a care in the world, the agent provocateur, all rolled into one. Husain, through his life and art, was helping them define individual freedom in a newly sovereign nation, and creating leeway that was essential in a pluralistic and fractious society always feeling strains at its fault lines. Husain continued to expand this liberal space he had created for himself, for Indian artists and for Indian art, and consequently for civil society.
Beginning in 2006, Husain lived in a self-imposed exile in Dubai, after being hounded out of the country by the Hindu rightwingers for painting Hindu goddesses in the nude in his “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana” series dating from the 1990s. Following a mention of these allegedly offensive paintings in a Hindu rightwing magazine, a series of court cases was brought against the Muslim artist. The authorities in India being unable to guarantee his safety, Husain left India for Dubai and subsequently accepted Qatari citizenship in 2010 on invitation.
Following these developments, the debate that raged in India, between forces that wanted him to atone for his sacrilegious acts and the majority that just wanted their most beloved artist to continue producing work in his element, unmolested, apparently achieved nothing—Husain, the quintessential Indian artist, died a Qatari citizen. Yet the collective epiphany his death precipitates is that all controversies surrounding Husain, including the one that drove him away from the source of his art, were about the relevance of art in the development of a nation and its people’s lives. With his burial in a distant land, Husain seems to reiterate, from beyond, that this relevance is nonnegotiable.