What happened to the great artist M.F. Husain who breathed his last in London, reminds me of the saying “history repeats itself.” One only recalls the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who died in Rangoon, yearning to return.
His suffering was summarised in the couplet “Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye do guz zamin bhi mil na saki kuye yaar mein.”
Salman Rushdie, who like Husain has been at the receiving end of religious bigotry, says in his “Step Across This Line”: “The creative spirit, of its very nature, resists frontiers and limiting points, denies the authority of censors and taboos.” This is what pits creative artists against narrow-minded leaders. Husain, with his eclecticism that celebrates the syncretic Indian culture, could not fit into the parochial scheme of some self-styled nationalists who hounded him out of the country. The worldwide adulation Husain received does not underpin his greatness only as an artist. It also proves how wrong his malignantly intolerant persecutors have been.
If an artist's job is to provoke, challenge, agitate, mystify, and occasionally exasperate his audience, Husain did very well indeed. His place in popular culture and mainstream national imagination has more to do with his overall persona than the artistic merit of his work alone.
In many ways, his life is an account of the complex relationship that mainstream India enjoys with the idea of art and underlines the tension that exists between the notion of the artist and the actual content of his art.