Quiet end in London hospital after recent heart attack; burial to take place today

M.F. Husain, India's foremost modern painter and an internationally recognised artist, passed away here early on Thursday. He was 97.

Husain was reported to have suffered a “silent” heart attack in Dubai recently but had recovered. He reached London, and was admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital, where he died at 1 a.m. He was said to have been in good spirits.

The burial will take place at a private ceremony here on Friday. The decision not to take the body elsewhere was taken in deference to his wishes: he had wanted to be laid to rest in whichever country he died.

He is survived by six children: four sons and two daughters.

Life in exile

Husain lived in Dubai and London after being forced to leave India in 2006. He left in the face of a vicious campaign of harassment and intimidation, including death threats, by right-wing Hindutva groups, citing his artistic depiction of Hindu deities. His exhibitions were vandalised. A number of legal cases based on the charge of hurting religious sentiments were slapped on him. When he could not respond to a summons from a district court in Haridwar, his immovable properties in India were attached. An arrest warrant was also issued.

In Qatar

Last year, in a rare gesture the state of Qatar offered him nationality. Faced with the prospect of arrest and further harassment if he returned to India, Husain accepted it, describing it as an honour. But he insisted that India would always remain his “home,” regardless of where he lived physically.

There has been widespread criticism that successive Indian governments, including the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance administration, failed to protect his right to artistic freedom.

“It is an indictment of those in power in India that the country's greatest artist died in exile. It is like Picasso dying in exile. For all their claim to secularism, it is a shame that they couldn't defend him against a mob of right-wing fanatics,” economist Lord Meghnad Desai, an admirer and personal friend of Husain, told The Hindu.

The famously bohemian and flamboyant artist, whose refusal to wear footwear became his signature trademark, was credited with putting Indian art on the world map. His own work routinely fetched millions of dollars in the international market. Only recently one of his paintings fetched the equivalent of Rs 2.32 crore at an auction at Bonham's in London.

Born in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, Husain lost his mother when he was one and a half. His father remarried and moved to Indore, where he went to school. In 1935, he moved to what was then Bombay and joined the Sir J.J. School of Art. As a young, struggling artist he painted cinema hoardings. He later came to the limelight in the 1940s. He quickly made his mark as one of the pioneering spirits behind India's fledgling avante garde movement and joined the Progressive Artists' Group led by F.N. Souza.

Husain made his international debut in 1952 with a solo exhibition at Zurich and soon established a worldwide reputation. He soon became one of India's highest-paid painters. Owning a work of his became a mark of social status. The first state recognition came in 1955 when he was awarded the Padma Shri. In 1973, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and in 1991 the Padma Vibhushan. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1986.

Forays into cinema

Reputed for his free and creative spirit and sense of adventure, Husain experimented with cinema. He made his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, in 1967: it won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. He made two Hindi films, Gaja Gamini, with Madhuri Dixit who he described as his muse; and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities. He also did a series of paintings inspired by the Bollywood actor, signing off as ‘Fida,' an Urdu word for ‘devoted.'

Industrialist Lord Paul of Marylebone described him as a “great Indian and a great human being.” The Labour peer added: “He made India proud and in his death the country has lost a great soul.''