M.F. Husain exposed the moral dilemmas of the nation through a pictorial eclecticism that makes him the contemporary symbolist and fabulist of the nation.

Ultimately, it is India's shame. All sorts of criminals and cheats and frauds tend to get celebrated as the ‘sons of India'. But history will have to record that one of its greatest contemporary artists was victimised by virulent abuse, hate-speech and assault to such a degree that he was forced into a self-imposed exile at the age of 90 and no law, ordinance, parliament, court, civil society organisation or artists' guild could create sufficient safe passage to enable him a dignified return to his homeland.

In a landmark judgment of the Delhi High Court in 2008, while throwing out a slew of malicious and motivated cases against Maqbool Fida Husain, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul had evocatively concluded: “An artist at 90 should be at home painting.” But even the Indian artistic community proved spineless and incapable of celebrating that judgment. It blanched from inviting Husain back and daring the loony fringes, the newly crowned ‘art critics' of the nation, to do their worst.

There is no doubt that the last almost 20 years of this prolific and versatile artist's life will occupy a special position in all future discourses on the freedom of artistic expression as well as the threats it faces, equally, from the attacks of ‘national culture' as well as from ‘cultural nationalism'. Even if the sangh parivar and its hydra-headed manifestations don't do any more harm, what they did to vilify and hound Husain is enough to put them in the pantheon of among the most obscurantist political formations in contemporary history.

Even a few hours after Husain passed away in London, the internet as well as the over 148 websites exclusively created to slander him on a daily basis, were spewing vitriol and abuse on a scale that can only be called frightening — even as it is dismaying. There is hardly a website or an artists' organisation (barring SAHMAT, Delhi) that stands up for him and defends him. Unprintable drivel has taken over the space reserved for both, artistic evaluation and an honourable expression of grief.

Maqbool's father was a watchmaker. From a young age this made Maqbool imagine he had a hold on time. An early apprenticeship with an uncle tilted him towards religious calligraphy, the Kufic khat, and the huge, religiously determined, geometric tughras which formed his hand and skill for formal patterning within massive scale. It was a rigid formality that left him arrested in space. In his over 70 years' innings as an artist, Husain has always stolen runs between these two wickets of ‘open time' and ‘fixed space' — between ‘freedom' and ‘conformity'.

The past couple of decades, though, have been Husain's most turbulent and dramatic years — a period through which he has been literally having a ‘brush with the nation' — often without doing anything much himself to provoke it. It is simultaneously a period through which his market soared to true international proportions with knock-out sales figures at the first auctions of Indian contemporary art at Sotheby's and Christies. Husain's major buyers, like the Herewitzes, capitalised on their large and consistent investments in his works. Obliquely, this reopened the old vexed debate around art and commerce. Yet, Husain's market success put a seal of approval here on art as a stock option. It led, in the late 1990s, to an overnight boom in galleries, auctions, curated shows, art consultants and corporate sponsored art events. While his artist colleagues fretted about Husain behind his back, they also showed a new business savvy in cashing in on the new context.

It was the period when Husain got museumized in the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad and in his own holding and display centres in Hyderabad and Delhi. These museums are distinguished by their inability or indifference to questions of art history and how to locate the artist within it. They existed merely as adjuncts to Husain's celebrity status.

It was the period when, as commercially and critically the most successful artist of his time, Husain chose to adopt a self-mocking attitude to his own art and, by extension, to art practices and art establishments in general. His exhibition events like ‘Shwetambari' and ‘Visarjan', besides being critical boo-boos, earned him the wrath of fellow artists who saw it as manipulated and as cynical attention-grabbing exercises. They, however, ignored the detail that, increasingly, art and artists were being constructed in the minds of the public by their degree of iconosisation in the media — something Husain had always suspected.

It was a period when quite out of keeping with his character, he chose to make public his obsession with Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, through a series of ‘Gajagamini' paintings and a high-budget film of the same name which merely reified some sort of idealised ‘Indian womanhood,' without interrogating the image in the manner that, say, Andy Warhol did with Marilyn Monroe. What was active was, perhaps, his comic muse. “Madhuri's body language is so Indian,” he told some of us after a screening — connecting her effortlessly with the woman figurine from Mohenjodaro, the women from the frescos and friezes in Ajanta and Khajuraho, the tribal and peasant women from his own native village of Pandharpur in Maharashtra, and the screen goddesses he lovingly drew during the years he worked as a painter of hoardings. Through these he created the gender stereotype of a “nationalised female body,” quite out of sync with the refined complexities of modern art.

That period would, of course, also be most infamously remembered for the violent and fascistic attacks on Husian and his art by fatuous fundamentalist organisations, for imaginary provocations. They were targeting him more for being a Muslim. They missed the point that Husain's representations of characters out of Hindu liturgy and mythology (and pure fantasy) — like Durga, Sita, Sarasawati or Bharat Mata — were entirely ‘safe', conformist and folksy, quite unlike the daring reinterpretations of ‘traditional' material by a filmmaker like Ritwick Ghatak, a sculptor like Meera Mukherjee or a choreographer like Chandralekha. These artists displayed an artistic daring which helped release the content of old iconography and symbols to be enriched with a new poetry, a new disturbance.


It was ironic, then, that Husain was targeted by the RSS-Bajrang Dal-Shiv Sena stormtroopers and even more ironic that he became the mascot for the movement for ‘artists against communalism.' Husain himself quietly chose to tender a public apology. He had earlier displayed his ‘statist' tendencies when he had chosen to paint a triptych of Indira Gandhi as ‘Durga riding Lion' during the Emergency. However, the ‘little men' of the sangh parivar were on to his tail and relentlessly persecuted him with disruption of exhibitions, attacks on his residence, serial filing of cases against him for ‘obscenity' and ‘provoking communal hatred' and sheer filibustering. Husain's sense of being under siege was perhaps only matched by the abysmal sense of ignorance of his persecutors.

The past some 15 years have thus been a period when Husain displayed immense energy, was constantly on the move, shifted gears with rapid reflexes and slipped into a dizzy variety of public manifestations of his work — from painting in public to mass audiences, to doing jugalbandis with musicians, to making ‘collective canvases' with fellow artists, to painting flamboyant portraits of his tormentors like Bal Thackeray, to putting good bits of his money into obsessive film projects around Madhuri, Tabu and so on, all of which sank soundlessly into that nether world where good intentions go.

However, through all this, what he has amplified is his own public persona as an artist who stands alone and has to be reckoned with. His brush with the nation has foregrounded many serious issues in art — responsibility, relevance, rebellion, censorship, lumpen fanaticism, artistic vulnerability to the mob-as-critic, limits and borders of the ‘permissible,' and strategies for consolidating art practice as a platform for open debates and radical defiance.

Throughout his career, Husain exposed the moral dilemmas of the nation through a pictorial eclecticism that makes him the contemporary symbolist and fabulist of the nation. The nation though, at the end, painted itself out of his canvas.

More In: Lead | Opinion