M.F. Husain defied the traditional idea that an artist can stick to one medium or style, even as his trendsetting artistic accomplishments brought him both fame and controversy.

“Death holds no fear for me...it has a kind of beauty….what I am afraid of is falling ill and not being able to work. That's lost time,” wrote Picasso to a friend in an undated letter. Similarly Maqbool Fida Husain, an irrepressibly prolific artist right up to the end, lost no time…Husain (1915-2011) demonstrated an extraordinary artistic talent in his early years through the decade of the 21st century - from a painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, performer, set designer and, in later years, even a filmmaker — he defied the traditional idea that an artist can stick to one medium or style.

Universal recognition

He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked. His style changed as he experimented with different theories, techniques and ideas; the revolutionary artistic accomplishments brought him universal recognition and immense fortune, making him one of the best-known figures in 21st century Indian art.

In a career that spanned nearly seven decades, Husain virtually inverted the role of the independent artist; ideally a peripatetic scout and intrepid synthesiser of cultural trends; he remained a man of great congeniality and abiding optimism.

Born in 1915, a self-taught artist Husain began gaining international attention in the late 1940s when he joined the Progressive Artists' Group, founded by Francis Newton Souza, in 1947. An artist's collective that explored a new idiom for Indian art by young artists wanting to break away from the nationalist traditions established by the Bengal School of Art to frame a modernist perspective for Indian art. One of Husain's earliest films “Through the Eyes of a Painter” (1967), which won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, was commissioned by the Film Division of India in the 1960s , when Jean Bhownagary engaged Husain, Tyeb Mehta and artist Akbar Padamsee to work on independent film projects based on experimentation, challenging the conventions of narrative portraiture. Lean years followed with films, “Gaja Gamini” and “Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities” through which Husain pursued a series of quixotic endeavours under the rubric of his fascination with his muses (Madhuri Dixit in “Gaja Gamini” and Tabu in “Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities”). These films partly reflected his restless, peripatetic imagination where the idea of movement in art was logically extended through dance, music, set designing and performance.

Husain's has been a quintessential story of a self-taught artist; from painting signboards to filmmaking, he spent increasing time in his later years, after becoming successful and famous on vast international, ambassadorial-like projects and collaborations, creating an iconic journey from pre-independence India to globalisation.

His exhibition, “Shwetambari” at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay, consisted of two halls shrouded in white cloth, whorls of which also shared the floor with torn newspapers. Later, he gave a public performance at the Tata Center in Calcutta, where for several days viewers watched him paint. On the last day he destroyed his paintings by over-painting them white. In the early 1990s, several works of Husain were made accessible to the public in selected exhibitions of permanent galleries. Once such was in the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmadabad, a collaboration between the painter and an architect.

Husain's inspiration stemmed from India in all its diversity, from pre-independence, the Nehruvian decades, post-independence; his work addressed the challenges of building a nation, maintaining a relationship with the peoples' consciousness, national identity, through the shifts in art practice and the constantly changing dynamic of modernity.

The artist's contribution lies in, his reworking the aesthetic idiom of Indian mythological and epic narratives. Sadly, it was this part of his persona that led to a relentless campaign against him by bigoted Hindu fundamentalist groups since 1996 following which the artist went into a self-imposed exile in 2006. In recent years, artists and activists have lamented his inability to live in India because of death threats and legal cases, and the government who has failed to stand against the communal forces.

Open-minded

However, Husain wore his age lightly and adhered to his ideals, he seemed ever animated and open-minded, always pointed toward the next possibility. Recalling one of my last conversations with him earlier this year in Dubai on his own art practice, he said, “It's not about presenting the best there is, but about discovering where the unpredictable path of art will go in the imminent future”

Further into the conversation on the Bhulabhai Desai period, Husain fondly recollected how he had made a portrait of his artist/colleague Gaitonde on a large canvas - making him small in scale and Gaitonde in response painted primer on the canvas.

Husain had a charm and peculiar Delphic felicity with language that masked a complex personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which evolved as his stature did.

Keywords: M.F. Husain

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