It began with a fascination for faces. “My favourite models were faces which had something extra on them like glasses, moustaches or beards,” Maqbool Fida Hussain, one of India’s most eclectic painters recollects in an autobiography of his childhood.
He sketched prolifically from the age of five, on every surface he could find. When he was sent to an Islamic boarding school that forbade him from painting, he defied the rules by scribbling on cups, plates and dishes. His images drew the ire of local mullahs – for whom religion discouraged the depiction of faces. But his parents, though orthodox, never stopped him from practicing his art.
My father, strict as he was in many things, never smoking or touching alcohol, would not stop me from painting.
He drew, painted and photographed everything that fascinated him. When travelling shows screened India’s first motion picture ‘Raja Harishchandra’, young Maqbool was enthralled by the magic of cinema. But it was another movie, a Dutch biopic of Rembrandt’s life that most influenced him.
I wanted to have that same magnificent obsession, that same self-transcending commitment. I too longed to be a portrait painter, not to draw pink cheeks and classic profiles, but to lay bare the souls of real people.
He moved to Bombay at the age of seventeen, emboldened by a gold medal he had won in painting at Indore. His first days were magical – painting on the streets when someone offered him the then-princely sum of ten rupees for his work. He travelled door to door, offering his services as a portrait painter. The problem emerged when he started trying to capture their souls, instead of rendering them as perfect beings.
No, no, no!’ they would say. ‘Paint me fair and lovely. I want a glowing skin and a Greek nose!
He decided to follow his dream of becoming a film director – and took up a job as a painter of film hoardings. Sleeping on the sidewalks, he worked mostly Bombay’s red light district near Grant Road.
Like all great artists, his early days were of struggle. In 1941, he was married and needed a job that could pay. So he forayed into toy-making, where his clientele were Parsis and Westernized Indians – for whom he blended Indian folklore into a largely westernized domain of work. But he was not satisfied.
It was only in the year of India’s independence that the painter had his first exhibition.
With an art career that launched him as a maverick on the stage, Maqbool’s time for fame was soon to come. The paintings, photo-series and films he would release in the subsequent years are so numerous that to go over each is a lifetimes work – and material enough for generations of future artists.
The smallest details of his life – from his tendency to walk barefoot into elite museums and institutions (but not when to do so would be to risk frostbite) to his early love for faces, all reflect the ethos of his work – that art had to be encompassing in order to be real.
As he told the Guardian:
To purify things. I’ve wanted to celebrate this composite culture. I once did a series called painting from the nine religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and everything else ism. Those paintings were exhibited in the United Nations building.
From 1986 to 1992, he held the enviable position of being among a quartet of influential artists all nominated to the Rajya Sabha at once – R.K. Narayan, Pt. Ravi Shankar, Amrita Pritham and M.F. Husain. He sat in silence in the Upper House of India’s parliament for six years – only sketching the faces of those who he saw. Released in a book titled “Sanchar Upanishad”, he named no-one, but the faces speak for themselves. L.K. Advani, known for his support of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, was captioned as “a man with an elongated temple.”
The controversy that he is so often remembered for today began in the 1990s when an article emerged in a Hindi newspaper titled “M.F. Husain: Is he a Painter or a Butcher?”. It referred to a painting he had made of the Goddess Saraswati in the nude, from 1976. The painting caught the attention of a Shiv Sena M.L.A. Under political and social pressure, the Mumbai Police filed cases under 295A and 153A – for ‘outraging religious feelings and promoting enmity between religious groups.’ The V.H.P. general secretary in Gujarat, Pravin Togadia, said:
The opposition of Hindus in Husain’s case is fully justified. How dare he depict Hindu goddesses in the nude?
It’s an ironic statement, as Husain’s painting is hardly distinguishable, in nudity terms, from existing temple art – that is arguably more voluptuous than his depiction. Nudity is common to temple constructions, so why was Maqbool’s work from decades back singled out?
It was a controversy that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The trend of artists ‘offending’ the public had begun, and his exhibitions would be attacked, paintings burned and the very mention of his name would become a precursor to communal sentiment. It was the opposite of what his art spoke of – and it cost him his citizenship.
After hundreds of lawsuits, numerous warrants for his arrest and many death threats – he left India in 2006, hopping between Doha and London for the rest of his life. In 2010, India’s greatest painter of the twentieth century renounced his citizenship for a Qatari one. But he never stopped dreaming of returning barefoot to his home country’s soil.
He died in 2011, with his last dream unfulfilled. His works are now the most expensive of any Indian artist, but finding them exhibited can be tricky. A museum built to house his works in Hyderabad, 2005 has been shut after its patron, Parmeshwar Godrej of the Godrej Group, passed away in 2016.
A note he made on his childhood reflects the final tragedy of his life.
When I look back, I realize that the nationalist movement also meant Hindu-Muslim unity. We were brought up on those ideals. That is why, when our country was partitioned into India and Pakistan, our family never thought of emigration. We felt we belonged to the place where we had lived for generations.
The controversy that chased him out of India was inherently unjust. Just as Mughal artists freely painted depictions of Hindu gods, Husain sought a similar freedom in a supposedly more liberal era. In painting Indian goddesses nude, he maintained ancient traditions of nude depiction – that were nonexistent in the case of Islamic art.
Husain may not have found widespread understanding in his lifetime, but the purpose of great art is to outlive the artist. Future generations looking back at his work will see it as yet another addition to the pantheon of the great Indian syncretic tradition.
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