x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

MF Husain's life in art

After the death of MF Husain, a reflection on the career of an artist whose reputation often threatened to overshadow his body of work.

The Indian-born painter Maqbool (M) fida (F) Hussain speaking to The National at his Doha residence.
The Indian-born painter Maqbool (M) fida (F) Hussain speaking to The National at his Doha residence.

"RIP, M F Husain, son, lover and nemesis of India." An early morning Twitter post by the Bollywood star Ranvir Shorey, in honour of an artist known to stare nonchalantly at conservative India. "Apologies for the lack of understanding your home country showed you," wrote the composer Vishal Dadlani, also via Twitter.

MF Husain: Picture gallery and articles from The National on MF Husain

Maqbool Fida Husain died in London on Thursday at the age of 95. Well into his later years, Husain maintained a wry glint in his eye, lips pursed as if he were suppressing laughter. His shock of white hair and wild beard gave him a look of sage vitality.

It is a similar vitality that has charged the artist's career. Primarily as a painter, though with forays into film and sculpture, Husain could conjure very clear and exacting statements in his paintings without drifting into the dry world of symbolism.

As someone who had watched India transition from British rule to partition to stagnation to the emerging superpower it is today, Husain painted his country with the eye of a man who knew his subject uncomfortably well. He knew India's blemishes, its insecurities, its inner turmoil.

But the story of how Husain became the so-called "nemesis of India", has become a little too familiar, and often overshadows any discussion of his career. Beyond the controversy that would lead him to die in exile, Husain was above all a figure who radically changed contemporary painting in India. He was unafraid to probe the issues that were boiling up as his country underwent its various transformations.

Husain started out painting Bollywood posters on the streets of Mumbai, after moving there from his then-rural home near Indore. This background in billboards, we can surmise, instilled two vital things in Husain: first, an understanding of how to communicate visually with the everyman of India, and second, an unshakable adoration for the high drama of Bollywood.

He joined Bombay's Progressive Artists Group in the 1940s, a movement that sought to revolutionise the way that art in India was being produced. Essentially, it was about moving on - breaking with the Bengal School of Art that had become increasingly bogged down in nationalism on the road to independence, and also the British Royal Academy, a prevalent system at odds with the inner aesthetics of India that the group hoped to pursue. Husain, along with the likes of Francis Newton Souza and Manishi Dey, were attempting to create an Indian avant-garde, a mode of expression that was new - part of a continuity, perhaps, but the true opposite of reviving old practices. This irreverence ignited Husain's career.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the artist became known for a visceral use of lines that stripped his images of the inessential. He was also a master of radiant, sun-soaked colours. With an earthen palette, Husain's use of colours became a distinguishing element of a style he was steadily etching out.

In 1966, Husain made Through the Eyes of a Painter, an impressionistic film shot in Rajasthan. Here, he attempted to express the aesthetic that he worked into his paintings: glances of nature, an emphasis on sound and observing how animals express joy of being in their movement. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival the following year, and served to raise Husain's international profile further.

At the same time, his attempts to reach the most direct and elemental in his paintings found him accomplices in Europe, particularly with the dying embers of the cubist movement, and the artist was invited to exhibit alongside Pablo Picasso in the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971. While cubism was certainly an influence on the artist's style, there is more to Husain's vision than the often repeated pronouncement by Forbes magazine that he is the "Picasso of India". His style was equally developed in Hindu temples, marvelling at the narratives that could be created with static, abstractly depicted figures painted on to the walls or etched from stone.

By the time he was invited to Sao Paulo, Husain's national fame was cemented, and he had become recognised widely outside of India. In the late 1970s, he began work on a series depicting Hindu deities.

Nobody really took too much notice of this series at the time. After all, it was the 1970s and there were other things to pay attention to - India was at regular violent loggerheads with Pakistan. The Indian Emergency was on its way.

And there was also a growing Indian middle class to deal with. Husain's paintings were going for big bucks, and popular not just with this newly moneyed, home-grown elite but also with NRIs (non-resident Indians) dotted around the world. He got into the big auction houses and became something of a must-have for those who could afford his escalating prices.

It was almost two decades later that the series of deities turned up in a Hindi magazine in India, under the headline "MF Husain: A Painter or Butcher?" This set the ball rolling on a controversy that seemed to encapsulate some of the changing attitudes of that key time in India's modern history. Hindu nationalists accused Husain of blasphemy. His Muslim background - at a time of heightened tensions on the border with Pakistan - only added fuel to the flames. His house in Mumbai was attacked and vandalised regularly. This led to a High Court ruling stating that Husain was creating art, not insults.

Matters were further inflamed in 2006 after a publication of Husain's most controversial piece, Bharat Mata - a map of India represented by a nude woman's body. Husain jumped ship to Dubai, where he lived for a number of years and became a well-known figure in the art scene. Eventually offered Qatari citizenship in 2010, Husain began to settle into life in Doha, working on a project about Arab civilisation's contribution to astronomy and science.

Today, it's questionable how much direct influence Husain has had on the latest generation of Indian artists. Scanning the Indian dailies in the wake of his death, one is left with the sense that he was increasingly viewed as part of an old guard in Indian art. That's not to diminish Husain's importance, but art in India is certainly changing. The optimism of his wild colours and the search for a more intuitive painterly form no longer sits with the concerns that have come to typify the best of India's most contemporary artists.

Still, Husain was important for his boldness. He didn't shy away from expressing modern India, or offering critique, and this perhaps laid the foundations for the iconoclasm that defines much Indian art now. Figures such as the photographer Vivek Valasini, who can use the Kathakali dancers of his native Kerala to question the place of old cultural signifiers in modern life. Or even Subodh Gupta, whose work also pins itself on the objects and drama that are familiar to anyone on the streets of India. Neither may cite Husain as a direct influence, but they are both part of a continuity, a line of enquiry, into the very nature of the country, which the Progressive Artists Group of the 1940s was instrumental in igniting.

As Husain explained to Frontline magazine in 1997, he viewed his complex relationship with India wryly: "Fellini has a movie titled And the Ship Sails On," Husain said. "That describes our country. And the ship sails on."