The recent auction of M.F. Husain’s paintings by Pundole’s, Mumbai, gets this writer wondering how such a lightweight artist, whose work is bereft of political meaning and philosophical tension, managed to conquer the public imagination.

The recent auction in Mumbai — on January 17, of M.F.Husain’s works by Pundole’s — was nothing less than extraordinary. It was the first of its kind devoted solely to works by the modernist Indian painter anywhere in the world. The horde of 145 lots amassed over the years by the late Badrivishal Pitti, an art lover and collector from Hyderabad — his family had close ties with the Nizam — realised a whopping Rs. 18.5 crores, according to Dadiba Pundole, the auctioneer, well over the total pre-sale estimate of Rs 8.8 crores, with only four lots left unsold in the end. A spectacular result, as auctions go.

The lots on offer ranged from early sketches on paper measuring as little as 4 x 6 inches, and a series of cartoons for bigger works, hand-painted postcards and wooden toys, to oils, and a gargantuan acrylic on canvass laid on board measuring 70 x 119.5 inches, as advertised in the handsome 300-page auction catalogue. The buyers included those living overseas, and bidding was conducted by phone and registered forms too, filled and submitted prior to the sale. Predictably, members of rightwing Hindu parties threatened to stop the auction, but it was moved to a new location, and went off smoothly.

A look through the catalogue reveals the arc of the painter’s humble beginning and growth through the 1950s and thereafter, ending with works executed in the 1980s, by which time he had become an established brand and was seeing his drawings being block-printed on ladies’ scarves and sold in high street boutiques. The accompanying notes on the works and a ‘select biography’ in the end are revealing. His work as a poster painter is well-known but how many know he was also a furniture designer for six years, until 1947 when he joined the Progressive Artists’ Group.

The little sketches he made wherever he went are revealing of his emerging mastery and the texts by many who knew him are informative and understandably biased. There is not a hint of critical analysis.

In the notes on ‘Lot 30’, an oil on canvas called ‘Camel’, it says: “In the same way as Picasso is influenced by the abstract forms of tribal art, Husain absorbs the colours and forms of the brightly coloured traditional Indian toys.” What it does not say is how deeply influenced Husain was by the Spaniard and other cubists, and expressionists. A cursory look through his works reveals them to be a pastiche of various western styles, including collage and surrealism. The clues leap out in every direction. And in some cases, such as ‘Musician’ painted in acrylic in the 1970s, the similarity to Picasso’s ‘Guitar Player’ (1903), right down to its dark blue dominance and pathos, is blinding!

It is intriguing, however, that in a letter dated October 1953 written in London, and put up for sale in the auction, Husain wrote: “I find confusion in the contemporary works here, except one or two like Bernard Buffet and Zaowuski who are struggling to find the new way out. I was not at all convinced by the great guy Picasso. Historically he is great but Paul Klee’s contribution is much more intense and eternal.”

What is even more puzzling, and requires analysis, is the overall quality of the works and the beguiling phenomenon of Husain’s continuing hold on the Indian psyche and power in the art market. Husain’s popularity is puzzling because most people, outside the art circles, who are familiar with his works, will profess to not “understanding” them and, if pressed, may even betray feelings of distaste for his style of work and manner. A close look at his oeuvre throws up some obvious answers to why this is so.

A quick glance over the bulk of his prodigious output shows its lack of perspective. Like the Cubists did decades earlier, Husain flattened space and scrunched figures. In a word, his paintings are flat. No matter for how long one may stare at them, there is nothing within to draw our gaze in and hold it; engage the mind intellectually or emotionally. The works appear fleeting, without the sensuality or depth of feeling we expect from a major artist. There is no dark introspection as in works by F.N. Souza, Bikash Bhatacharya or Akbar Padamsee; nor political statements as in the case of painters like Sudhir Patwardhan.

Husain’s works seem lightweight in comparison, seemingly in a constant state of disarray, executed with bold angular brushstrokes, leaving fields of blank space in between laden with layers of impasto. There is nothing much to hold on to — the faces are blank, the bodies disjointed, the space evenly spread. In most, there is no foreground and background. All appears as if on a plane, flattened space and scrunched up figures in stiff garments and symbols. Drawing upon the large film poster format, Husain seemed to scatter the elements of story around the canvass, being content in using bare outlines to suggest and entice our imagination, rather than painting scenes whole. So much so that our minds yearn to join the dots to complete the picture and understand it better.

Some years ago, this writer saw a large portrait of Sunil Gavaskar at the crease in the Husain Sankalana in Bangalore and was convinced it was left incomplete, only to be told by the caretaker of the museum that it was indeed a finished work, made to look as it did. “...The work of art is of no use to others when its symbolism is peculiar; then it is of use only to the maker,” wrote Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Mere technique, however good, is never enough. It has to combine with thought and feeling to produce great art. An artist, after all, has got to say something. In Husain’s case, it is apparent that he really had nothing to tell us. The works are bereft of any political meaning or philosophical tension. The rural scenes to be found in his early works are quaint and show a love of the subjects, but leave out the monotony and hardship of peasant life. We are spared close-ups of the heat, dust and hunger; although both of his masterpieces from the 1950s, “Zameen” and “Between the Spider and the Lamp”are set in rural India.

He was a master draughtsman and his sense of scale and proportion, honed during his long apprenticeship as a film poster painter, can be stunning. But his choice of subject matter, from the earliest to the very end, remained mundane and predictable. He did not reach within, but took bits from the world around him and reproduced it as he thought fit. But, in doing so, he made everything glossy and bland enough for the living room. There was nothing to prick the viewers’ conscience or extend the limits of our perception. Of course the toothless critics applauded, and the market lapped it up, paying hefty prices, and everyone spoke in hushed tones of “the Indian Picasso”.

Having met him a few times, I remember there being a nervous twitch about him. He always seemed to be in a hurry, and would often look far and away while speaking. It must be said that he was also quite modest and soft-spoken. A likeable man, although eccentric and very impatient. But his fame and increasing fortune notwithstanding, he was not averse to painting bespoke. This writer was told of two housewives in Bombay back in the 1990s who simply went up to his residence and ordered Ganeshas, which they were able to collect the following week, done to meet their specifications of size and colour. Then there was the murky affair of the famous shoes manufacturer Sadruddin Daya of Mumbai, who advanced him few crores to produce a specified number of paintings in the 1990s. It is not known exactly how many were painted and what happened after the merchant was jailed for tax evasion, and his assets seized. His early phase saw some landscapes and street scenes, and then came the equestrian phase, after his visit to China in 1951, when he painted thousands of galloping horses for many years after. He was an accomplished print-maker too and produced many remarkable lithographs, and had even attended a short course on the subject in London in the 1950s.

He also experimented with film, winning an award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1967 for the experimental short Through the Eyes of a Painter; and with performance art in the mid-1980s when he held Shwetambari best described as an artistic paan-spitting contest in the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, that did not win any awards, only ridicule.

Almost the entire output of his later career was figurative in nature. In choosing his subjects, he played to the gallery, drawing upon icons of popular culture: Madhuri Dixit, Vidya Balan, and other stars and, of course, Mother Teresa, who had also become equally popular with the Indian masses. Beginning with film posters, he had graduated to painting actors.

Even when he tackles a ‘serious’ personality like Teresa, the result is disappointing. He paints her like a Madonna wearing a shroud, a replica in paint of Michelangelo’s marble Pieta and numerous other Renaissance depictions. Teresa was the brand; hence she is the central and dominant figure in the composition, with the cliché of a peace dove flying in the corner. There is not much of the suffering and destitute whom she tended. They do not matter and would have spoiled the composition with their misery, so Husain leaves them out. When Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975 he quickly dashed off a series of puerile portraits of the tyrant depicting her as Kali Mata.

It was as if, having started as a poster painter, the man wanted to go back to his roots in his later stage: from painting film posters, he was now painting everything to look like posters. From early on, he had rooted himself firmly as a figurative painter and claimed that, as an Indian, he could not be otherwise. His love for the country seems to have been genuine, and it is unfortunate that he is now often remembered for the rather crude depictions he made of Hindu goddesses in the 1970s that, when brought to public attention, got him into big trouble and finally exile. It would be absurd to think that he had any malicious intentions of hurting Hindu sentiments. He was knowledgeable of the great epics and had produced a series on both the Ramayana and Mahabharata. (In 2008 one of his paintings influenced by the Mahabharata fetched $1.6m (£999,000) in auction at Christie’s in London.)

One wishes he had stayed on and fought the hardliners like his friend Thawan Duchanee, the modern and equally eccentric Thai painter, who painted a series of erotic Buddhist works in the 1980s that were vandalised by irate mobs. But Duchanee did not run. He still lives and paints in Thailand. Instead, Husain fled and, in the safety and great luxury of a Muslim country, constantly carped about his motherland's neglect and treatment towards him.

When he went into exile in Qatar in 2005, the royal family there wasted no time in commissioning him to execute 99 works devoted to the history of Arab or Islamic civilisation, of which he is believed to have completed about 30.

A shocking revelation came to light some months ago when Parisian police arrested a 32-year-old for selling two Husain fakes for more than €100,000 ($130,000; £79,795). Police believe that the man, identified as Sofiane B, took advantage of Husain’s advanced age to get him to sign paintings done by others, reported Le Parisien. Police suspect he had been selling the Husain fakes around the world since 2004 and has flooded the art market with the forged paintings.

It would be interesting to learn how and under what circumstances the fraudster got old Husain to sign the paintings. And, if any money changed hands. As long back as 1993, this writer was told by one of Husain’s sons based in Chennai that at least three art galleries in the city were caught selling fakes of his father. One can only guess at the number doing so today — now that prices of his works have gone up by more than 50 per cent since his death.

When asked if he could make a rough guess at the total number of Husain's paintings, Dadiba Pundole says, “impossible to guess”. He had set himself a furious pace and was incredibly prolific to the very end. One cannot help thinking that if he had slowed down a bit or stopped painting completely after the 1960s he would have left us a richer legacy.

But be that as it may, Husain casts a long shadow across the Indian art scene, and will continue to do so for many decades to come. Like it or not, he is the best known of all contemporary Indian painters, and also the most overrated of them all. That is the problem with Husain.