Maqbool Fida Husain's iconic status lay in his rare ability to develop a unique artistic language that was a complex fusion of the Indian visual idiom and contemporary western norms.
Maqbool Fida Husain was not merely the most recognisable name in Indian contemporary art. His paintings, marked by a signature style and a desire to explore the abstract through the figurative, were also the most easily identifiable.
His iconic status of course was not based on the huge popularity of his works and his legendary prolificacy (it is estimated he did more than 10,000 paintings). It lay in his rare ability to develop a unique artistic language that was a complex fusion of the Indian visual idiom and contemporary western norms.
Born to a Sulaimani Bohra family at Pandhapur in Maharashtra, Husain spent much of his childhood and youth in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. As a child, he was prone to spend much of his time drawing, which let his father to believe he may become a good cutter in a tailor's shop. A gold medal at an art show however persuaded the father to enrol his 17-year-old son in evening classes for a local art school.
Five years later, after having been forced due to the family's economic circumstances to forego his seat at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, Husain returned to the city, where he found cheap lodgings and started painting cinema hoardings.
The influence of cinema would remain with him all his life, resurfacing most conspicuously in his producing and directing two films and the series of paintings he did of film heroine Madhuri Dixit, which he signed Fida (or obsessed).
He then found a full-time job with a furniture maker, painting indefatigably in the free hours. An award in an exhibition in 1947 brought him some notice. Later that year, he became one of the founder-members of the Progressive Artists' Group, largely an initiative of two other giants of contemporary Indian art, Francis Newton Souza and S.H. Raza.
The Group wanted to liberate itself from the Bengal School, which in turn was launched as an indigenous and nationalist movement in the early part of the 20th Century to break free from the colonial aesthetic.
Charged with the idea of individuality and the freedom to paint without restrictions on content or technique, the Progressive Artists' Group threw up painters with their own distinctive styles. Of the three men who would go on to become highly successful – Souza, Raza, Husain – only one chose to remain at home. Souza made his mark in London and Raza earned his reputation in Paris. It was Husain, who stayed rooted to India, his paintings exploring the vast canvas of this country — its people, its animals, its folk traditions, its mythology, and its epics – in a manner that teased out its very civilizational spirit. Ironically, it was Husain who, rather than be treated like the national treasure he was, was hounded out of this country thanks to a campaign of harassment by rank communalists and moral vigilantes and a judicial system that is extraordinarily tolerant in registering criminal cases on the basis of blatantly vexatious complaints.
Husain travelled extensively throughout India between 1948 and 1955, absorbing the influences from the ancient and medieval art he saw. He was already famous by 1955, the year he won the first prize at the National Exhibition of Art in New Delhi and received a Padmashree. In 1973, he was made a Padma Bhushan and in 1989 a Padma Vibhushan. In 1986, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
The slew of awards, recognitions and honorary doctorates however did not prevent a prolonged campaign of rank harassment against the painter. The controversy, over paintings he did of Hindu goddesses. Although the works were created some four decades ago, a raft of criminal complaints was filed against him in the mid-1990s for promoting enmity between different groups. Shortly afterwards, he and his artworks were the subject of attacks. His South Mumbai home was broken into in 1998; earlier, activists of the Bajrang Dal had ransacked a gallery in the Husain-Doshi Gufa art complex and damaged his paintings, including those on Buddha, Hanuman and Ganesha.
His decision to leave the country in 2007 and take Qatari citizenship followed another series of cases relating to his allegedly obscene depiction of Hindu goddesses, resulting in the issue of a non-bailable warrant against the nonagenarian and an attachment notice pasted outside his Cuffe Parade residence.
Although the Centre promised to provide him with adequate security, Husain ruled out returning to India as long as the climate of threat and intimidation remained. He suggested that he was at a stage in his life in which he did not want to live in a security bubble.
The demand for his paintings never flagged during his remarkable career. In 2004, he inked an agreement to sell 100 canvases to a Mumbai industrialist for Rs.100 crore, making it easily the largest deal in the history of Indian art.
His prolific output resulted in carping in certain quarters about the commercial or industrial manner in which he produced them. But those who levelled such complaints seemed to ignore two things. First, that he was naturally quick and could get his mind and hand to work in concord at lightning speed. Second, that he was an astonishingly generous person, one who was free with his art, giving them away as gifts to friends, even obliging the odd-stranger with a quickly drawn sketch.
No other painter has contributed more in making Indian contemporary art known within the country. Or for that matter, even all over the world. His works are invariably a part of international auctions and it is estimated that one out of every five contemporary Indian paintings sold by the world's two leading auction houses is a Husain.
He was the very face of Indian contemporary art.
This article has been corrected for factual errors on June 10, 2011