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M.F. Husain, the bold & prolific artist who started his journey painting movie billboards

ThePrint recalls the life of Maqbool Fida Husain, the controversies he courted, his love for Madhuri Dixit, and more.

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New Delhi: Everybody wants to own a Maqbool Fida Husain — the enviable paintings, of course, not the artist. People bayed for Husain’s blood for his ‘bold’ paintings through most of career, but they remained much sought-after, as they are now.

Husain’s paintings, worth millions of dollars, adorn the walls of art galleries, while copies of his work — in the form of posters, magnets and coasters — still sell in the thousands.

He produced nearly 60,000 works of art in his life of 95 years, covering subjects ranging from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to motifs of urban and rural India, and even British colonisation.

Artist Anjolie Ela Menon, in fact, described Husain as “undoubtedly the megastar whose persona, performance, and productivity all combine to make him the mighty M”.

On his 104th birth anniversary, ThePrint remembers the art maestro’s life, his works, controversies and more.

Introduction to art

Husain was born in 1915 in Pandarpur, Maharashtra, into a traditional Muslim family. A substantial part of his early schooling was dedicated to religious education, in which he took no interest at all.

“I was fond of drawing since childhood. I never threw tantrums for anything else apart from eraser, pencil, paint and brush. I used to draw on every possible empty space. My relatives gave up on me,” he had said in an interview to The Sunday Indian magazine.

In 1935, he moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) to paint and design Hindi movie posters, billboards and various other things for which he would earn only quarter of a rupee.

BBC, in its obituary for Husain, wrote: “Working on billboards and hoardings helped him paint using bold lines and deep colours on large canvases when he turned to painting murals and large works of art. He embraced the street around him, living in bazaar lanes where prostitutes and street vendors peddled their wares.”

This was also the time when Husain’s love for cinema met his love for art. Blending the two would become a lifelong obsession for him.

“Film is the most powerful medium to articulate your ideas with force. It has actors, dialogues, songs, music, and yes, colours,” he had told the The Sunday Indian in the same interview quoted above.

By 1940s, Husain’s distinctive sense of style — linked to cubism — earned him the title ‘Pablo Picasso of India’.

His art

The body of Husain’s work exceeds most other artists’. He painted Indian actresses, Hindu gods and goddesses, besides mundane motifs such as transport, animals and households, among other things.

In 1947, after Partition, Husain founded the Progressive Artists’ Group with other pioneers like F.N. Souza. It was dedicated to bringing contemporary and European styles to Indian art.

“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,” wrote the UAE newspaper The National.

It was this ambition of his — widening both traditional art forms and modern ones to create something truly radical — that brought India on the global art scene.

Also read: Investing in art & making a fortune is not as easy as it sounds

Controversies over Husain’s paintings

In 1996, he drew Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, nude. It drew severe backlash from Hindu outfits such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad.

“We should find a way once and for all to establish what is art and what is obscenity. This is not an attack on me, but on culture and the freedom of expression,” he had told India Today in 1996.

He again courted controversy for his portrayal of Bharat Mata — a nude woman painted in red and in the shape of India. This time, Husain faced death threats and at least seven court cases. His decision to unabashedly paint his subjects the way he wanted to ultimately led him to leave India in 2006, and seek asylum in Dubai.

The same year, several of his contemporaries, including Akbar Padamsee and Krishen Khanna, wrote to then-President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, pleading that Husain be brought back. “Through him, we have learned to address a whole gamut of issues pertaining to the interactive dynamic of modernity with the country’s many-layered art and culture… This is the opportune and crucial time to honour him for his dedication and courage to the cultural renaissance of his beloved country,” the letter read.

The threats and controversy, however, proved too overwhelming for Husain to return. He was granted the nationality of Qatar in 2010, and he split his time between Dubai, Doha and London.

Abroad, praise for Husain continued to mount. The Battle of Ganga and Jamuna — Husain’s interpretation of the story derived from Mahabharata — was auctioned in 2008 for a staggering $1.6 billion.

Madhuri the muse

A notable aspect of Husain’s life that needs special mention was his fascination for Bollywood and its beauties. He was so smitten by actress Madhuri Dixit that he immortalised her beauty in his paintings. He even cast her in his first film Gaja Gamini.

He was enamoured by several other Bollywood actresses — Amrita Rao, Urmila Matondkar, Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma.

His death

Husain died of cardiac arrest in London on 9 June 2011, at the age of 95. A year before he died, Husain had agreed to do a series of 32 paintings on the history of India, commissioned by Usha Mittal. But, he could complete only eight of these.

Husain’s body of work earned him India’s most prestigious awards — the Padma Shri in 1955, the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1991.

After his passing, The Guardian called Husain “faultlessly secular and a great promoter of Indian identity”.

Also read: Dadasaheb Phalke, the painter-photographer who set India on the course to film-making


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  1. “In 1996, he drew Saraswati, the goddess of wealth, nude. ” Whosoever is editor of this news must know the topic in depth. Saraswati is goddess of Knowledge and not wealth. Study every topic in depth before publishing. M F Hussain can’t draw nude paintings of Hazrat Fatima, Mary, Mohammed Paigamber or Jesus. Why he is not free to draw nude paintings there?

  2. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean that one should play with sentiments of other religions….. If freedom of expression is so much dear to the Painter or the writer even, first of all he or she must play/paint/write/display whatever, with his own religion first…… Hinduism is in India and Nepal only and for years it’s our tolerant ways that Pakistan, Bangladesh (recently), even Afghanistan (ancient times) have been carved out from Bharatvarsh….. Have anyone seen that any other Christian or Muslim country has been carved out for other religion….???? Is there any example for this……???? Hussain may be painter par excellence but that doesn’t mean that he will demean other religions by way of his expression…..

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