RIP M. F. Husain
M. F. Husain. Image from The Times of India.
Breaking news: The so-called Picasso of India, M. F. Husain, passed away in London yesterday. The NYT published the following obituary (read the original here).
Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s Most Famous Painter, Dies at 95
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Maqbool Fida Husain, an artist whose modernist reinterpretations of mythic and religious subjects made him India’s most famous painter and, in recent years, a target of right-wing Hindu groups, died on Thursday in London. He was 95.
The cause was a heart attack, The Press Trust of India said, citing family members.
Mr. Husain, who developed his sweeping brushstrokes and bright palette when he painted movie billboards in Bombay (now Mumbai), applied the formal lessons of European modernists like Cézanne and Matisse to scenes from national epics like the Mahabharata and to the Hindu pantheon.
He also painted, obsessively, two women who were, in very different ways, his muses. The first was the 1990s Bollywood sex symbol Madhuri Dixit, also known as the Oomph Girl. The other was Mother Teresa.
Indifferent to both religion and politics, Mr. Husain, a Muslim by upbringing, treated the gods and goddesses of Hinduism as visual stimuli rather than deities, depicting them unclothed and often in sexually suggestive poses. This cavalier treatment earned him the bitter hatred of Hindu nationalist groups, which beginning in the 1990s mounted a campaign of intimidation and violence against him.
In his later years, Mr. Husain spent much of his time defending himself against court actions aimed at the messages in his artwork, and in 2005 he left India and became a citizen of Qatar.
He cut a dashing, highly eccentric figure. Dressed in impeccably tailored suits, he went barefoot and brandished a slim cane that, on closer inspection, turned out to be an extra-long paintbrush. He never maintained a studio. Instead, he spread his canvases out on the floor of whatever hotel room he happened to be staying in and went to work, splashing paint with abandon and paying for damages when he checked out.
“I am like a folk painter,” he told the BBC. “Paint and move ahead.”
He was enormously prolific. He once claimed to have produced some 60,000 paintings. A gifted self-promoter and hard bargainer, he amassed a fortune but maintained, he insisted, a bank balance of zero. Revenue from his sales, including the $2 million that a private collector paid for his painting “The Last Supper” in 2005 — a record for an Indian artist — went to support the four museums he created to showcase his work and to his collection of classic sports cars.
Maqbool Fida Husain was born on Sept. 17, 1915, in Pandharpur, in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, and grew up in Indore in Madhya Pradesh. His father was an accountant. Rather than become a tailor’s apprentice, he decided to try his luck in Bombay, where he found work as a “graphics wallah” painting the vibrant billboards advertising Bollywood films. He also designed toys and children’s furniture.
He remained a film fan throughout his life. After seeing Ms. Dixit in “Who Am I to You?” (1994), one of the most successful Hindi films ever made, he adopted her as his muse, painting hundreds of portraits and directing her in the 2000 film “Gaja Gamini,” which he also produced and in which he invested $2 million. He later directed the Hindi star Tabu in “Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities” (2004). Neither film was a commercial success.
In 1947 he was invited by Francis Newton Souza to join the Progressive Artists’ Group, an organization that encouraged embracing modernism and breaking free of traditional painting styles, especially the classical miniatures favored by the Bengal School.
After winning a prize at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society, he began showing his work throughout India and abroad at international art fairs. In 1971 he was given a major exhibition at the São Paolo Biennale. In 1967 his film “Through the Eyes of a Painter” won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.
Among his best-known paintings are a series based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata and a series of 45 watercolors, completed in 1975, “Passage Through Human Space.” His political troubles stemmed from a group of paintings, made in the early 1970s, that included a depiction of the goddess Durga copulating with a tiger, the goddess Lakshmi perched naked on the elephant head of Ganesh, the god of success, and a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. They were reprinted in 1996 in the Hindi monthly Vichar Mimansa in an article titled “M. F. Husain: A Painter or a Butcher?”
In response to the article, eight lawsuits were filed against him for “promoting enmity between different groups.” Although the Delhi High Court dismissed the complaints in 2004, Mr. Husain became a lightning rod for political and religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims. An angry mob ransacked his gallery in Ahmedabad, and members of the far-right Hindu group Bajrang Dal invaded his house and vandalized paintings.
The lawsuits kept coming. Mr. Husain observed the turmoil with a cool eye. He once invited a panel composed of an art critic, a lawyer and a Hindu nationalist to review his work. If they found any of it offensive, he said, he would throw it into a fire in a traditional Hindu sacrificial rite.
Despite his talent for provocation, Mr. Husain received many official honors. In 1986, as a reward for his status as a national treasure, he was appointed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the upper house of the Indian Parliament. He attended sessions for six years and never spoke a word, preferring instead to make drawings of his fellow legislators, which he published in the satirical “Sansad Upanishad: The Scriptures of Parliament.”
Mr. Husain shrugged off widespread criticism of his performance in government service. “I’m concerned with my country, of course; and to be there inside the corridors of power, I was learning so much,” he told The Daily Telegraph of London. “And I got free public transport, and a lifetime pension. It’s still coming!”
After leaving India, Mr. Husain, whose survivors include six children, divided his time between Dubai and London. “They can put me in a jungle,” he told The New York Times in 2008. “Still, I can create.”