The death of 97-year-old Maqbool Fida Husain represents the passing of many things – of the country's most celebrated artist, of a genius who created a unique visual language by combining the grammar of European modernism with the idiom of India's cultural syncretism, of a man of the world who was as comfortable in his red Ferrari as he was walking barefoot through a city's streets, of a free spirit whose humility and generosity never failed to touch anyone who knew him. His remarkable journey from humble origins to become a name virtually synonymous with Indian contemporary art has only added to the legend that he was. Although he was tutored briefly by N. S. Bendre in Indore and mentored by Francis Newton Souza as a co-founder of the Progressive Artists' Group in Mumbai, his real apprenticeship was with poverty. He was largely self-taught and his success as an artist owed in no small measure to his determination to find the free time to pursue his passion while making ends meet as a cinema billboard painter in Mumbai. He had a natural flair as well as an instinctive liking for the country's folk and mythological traditions, for the patterns of its everyday life, and for the varied manifestations of its syncretism – all of which found expression in a dizzying range of canvases. He lived in and for his art, which he repeatedly showed would not bow down before the dictates of narrow-minded, petty men.

It is a tragedy that someone so rooted to this land, who at the time of his death was working on a major project on the history of Indian civilisation, was hounded out of this country. It is a national shame that he was subject to an orchestrated and mischievous controversy over some of his paintings, violent and communally inspired attacks on his residence, exhibitions and museum, and harassed by a string of vexatious criminal court cases; and that the legal and political system failed to protect him. It is doubtful that those who vilified him for certain paintings of Hindu goddesses knew or cared half as much about Hindu mythology, iconography, and folklore as Husain did. Their bigoted campaign was not merely an attack against a great artist; it was an assault, to use Sunil Khilnani's evocative phrase, on the idea of India. Although Husain was obliged to make Dubai and London his home during the last five years of his life and died in London as a Qatar national, nobody could take his Indianness away from him. He was a citizen of the world who was proud of his roots – of the land and people he loved best.

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