In fact, controversies always galloped behind him in his long artistic journey.
Husain was born in 1915 in a Bohra Muslim family at the famous temple town of Pandharpur, Solapur district of Maharashtra. His formative boyhood days might have experienced ample occasions of the religious planarity of India. He grew up in a poor family in a Muslim ‘mohalla’ in the noted temple town. There could have been shifting conflicts in his mind between the religious theological teachings he got from the ‘Maulavis’ and Hindu temple surroundings. As an artist in his early formative years, he did not shut his mind to the religious plurality around. He was well versed in the epics of both Semitic Islam and Hinduism.
In family life, he had chosen meaningful Islamic names for his children. Most of his artistic work were inspired by the temple environment of his childhood and had titles derived from Hindu mythology and Sanskrit. In fact, the artist in him rose above the sectarian sentiments we witness in most parts of the country.
Husain always considered himself an artist first. He decisively moved away from conservative religious concepts when he joined the Bombay Progressive Artists Group led by mentor artist F.N. D’souza in 1947. He and his more famous fellow artist Mr Syed Ahmed Raza were heavily influenced by Hindu mythology and scriptures. (Raza who is the more successful and pricey Indian artist after a long sejour in Paris, France, is back in Delhi). After joining the group, he also became a style icon by sporting western clothes and a film world bigwig.
Husain was gripped by the Hindu concept of ‘Shakti’ (power), often represented in his paintings by female figures and galloping horses. His female figures were often nude and blind, but that cannot be called ‘obscene’ or ‘vulgar’. He had no problems with the so called defenders of the Hindu ethos and public morality till In 1996 when a Hindi magazine carried an article critical of an old painting, done over 25 years ago, in which Goddess Saraswati was depicted by nude figure. That unleashed problems for the artist.
Some like fellow artist Satish Gujral also criticised Hussain. He has gone on record to ask him whether he will be bold enough to treat icons of Islam in the same manner. Senior artist and former president, Bombay Art Society, Gopal Adivrekar has also said, “nothing is bad in being creative but artistes should not go for such artwork, which hurts sentiments of a segment of society.”
Husain earned the wrath of Muslim conservatives also. The All-India Ulema Council complained that the qawwali ‘Noor-un-Ala-Noor’ in a Husain made film was blasphemous as it contained words from the Quran. The council was supported by the Milli Council, and Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind and Jamat-e-Islami. Husain insisted that the words referred to divine beauty and were being sung by the central character. When his appeals that there was no intention to offend did not see the protests stop, he himself got the movie pulled out of theatres.
An advertisement titled “Art for Mssion Kashmir” he drew in the February 6, 2006 issue of India Today was a last straw in the campaign against the artist. This advertisement had a painting of a nude ‘Bharatmata’ (Mother India) posing across a map of India with the names of Indian states across her body. The exhibition was organised by Nafisa Ali of Action India (NGO) and Apparao Art Gallery. Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS) and VHP protested against Husain displaying this painting on websites and in an exhibition. As a result, on February 7, 2006 he apologized and promised to withdraw it from an auction. This would not pacify the so called ‘cultural guardians’.
Series of court cases and related ‘non-bailable’ arrest warrant against Husain forced him out of the country, first to Dubai, then to Quatar and London. As if to spite the ‘cultural guardians’ he accepted a citizenship offer extended by the ruler of Quatar who had commissioned Husain to decorate a newly built palace.
Well-known journalist-commentator Nick Cohen, commented in January 2011 issue of the British cultural magazine ‘Standpoint’ that Husain is “the grand old man of art”, and suggested that “he may be the world’s greatest living artist.” “Husain embodies the spirit of his country. The struggles, the optimism and glories of India flow through his work,” he added.
M.F. Husain was always full of excitement and ever on the move, reminisces Madhuri Dixit, the celebrated painter’s first Bollywood muse with whom he had planned an ambitious project on Indian cinema.
“Whenever we spoke he was so charged. He would get sad only when he talked about not being home in India. Husain Saab was one of the more liberal people I knew. He believed in all religions and he experienced life to the fullest” says Madhuri.
JAYA RAJ is a senior journalist and art lover.