A Painter Framed

Article excerpt

Maqbool Fida Husain celebrated India in all its exuberant complexity.

Maqbool Fida Husain, who died on June 8, was India's most prominent painter--but in the last year of his life, he had become a national of Qatar, and he died in London, far from the city he loved, Mumbai. That rootlessness, in essence, captures the poignancy of the artist's life--he became controversial, but didn't choose to be so.

He was born in pre-independence India around 1915 and lived there until the 1990s, when Hindu nationalists launched a vicious campaign against him. They were upset after a magazine found some of his old paintings and sketches, some dating back to the 1970s, which showed Hindu deities in the nude. That wasn't really controversial; in sculptures in many ancient temples, including Khajuraho and Konarak, and in some paintings and manuscripts, Hindu deities have appeared without clothes, or wearing little.

But Husain was born a Muslim, and Hindu activists saw an opportunity to lead a sustained campaign against him. This included vigilantes damaging artworks and art galleries that showed his work in India and abroad; filing lawsuits against him throughout India for offending religious sensibilities; and attacking a television station that ran a poll among viewers asking them if Husain should be given India's highest civilian honor, besides threatening him with violence. Instead of protecting Husain's right of free expression, authorities filed charges under colonial-era Indian laws, which restrict freedom of expression, and judges admitted cases against him. Even after higher courts ruled in his favor, the hounding continued. Husain, who only wanted to paint, lived outside India for most of the past two decades.

Husain's decision to leave a secular, democratic India for Qatar, an authoritarian theocracy in the Middle East, was a blot on India. But these controversies distract from assessing Husain's artistic merit. Husain started out painting billboards for Bollywood films. Creating those garish, larger-than-life, melodramatic images shaped his sense of drama, design, and craft. As an artist, he saw India as a syncretic, inclusive entity, where no single interpretation could explain the complex, hybrid nation. His canvases brim with energy--the strokes always bold, the colors vibrant, the figures sharp, and the narrative simple.

At India's independence in 1947, he was an early member of what came to be known as the Progressive Artists' Group, which included Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza. Together, they lifted Indian art out of the twin legacies of Raja Ravi Varma's bold but realistic iconography, and the window-frame miniaturization of the earlier Rajasthani and Mughal schools. …