Maqbool Fida Husain, arguably India’s best known artist, was born on 17 September 1915 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. He died, in self-imposed exile from his country, on 9 June 2011.
A self-taught artist, M.F. Husain took to drawing from an early age. Usually not prone to throwing tantrums as a child he would, however, get annoyed if denied his eraser, pencil, brush and paint. Whatever empty space he found, he would draw on it. While growing up in Indore, he was fascinated by two large portraits of Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar and his wife, made by the French painter Brancusi. He would look at them animatedly for hours and tell himself: I can do better than this!
He learnt calligraphy and practised the geometric forms of the kufic khat, one of the oldest Arabic script types. He also started writing poetry. Some of his fondest memories of childhood were taking his bicycle to the countryside and attempting landscape paintings.
Husain came to Bombay in 1937 with little money. He worked as an apprentice with a painter of Hindi film hoardings. This sparked in him a lifelong love for cinema. To supplement his income he worked in a toy company and furniture shop.
In 1947 Husain won a prize at the annual Bombay Art Society exhibition. The same year Francis Newton Souza invited him to join the Progressive Artists’ Group. The aim of this group was to break from the shackles of the more traditional styles of painting predominant in the pre-Independence era. The group — whose founding members were Souza, Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Krishna Hawlaji Ara, Hari Amba Das Gade and S. Bakre — largely succeeded in its mission, giving a new energy and purpose to Indian art.
“Of the original members of the group, Husain was key as he continued to reside in Mumbai, leading the movement in India to define a fresh modern vocabulary for Indian art. His ability to rise above artistic and geographic borders allowed him to present a new emergent identity to India and the rest of the world. As he negotiated this undertaking, Husain engaged as much with contemporary trends in Western art as he did with classical Indian art forms,” Minal Vazirani and Nishad Avari wrote in Business Today in June 2011.
Experimenting with forms and themes was the Progressive Artists’ Group’s credo, and Husain was at the forefront of experimentation. By the mid 1950s he had established himself as one of India’s leading artists and was awarded the Padma Shri as early as 1955. Later he went on to win the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.
His short film Through the Eyes of a Painter won him a Golden Bear award at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival. In 1971 his work was showcased together with Pablo Picasso’s at the São Paolo Biennale. Husain had several solo exhibitions and major retrospectives in his career in India and abroad. His work has been shown in prestigious venues like the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Tate Gallery, London; Hirschhom Museum, Washington; and Grey Art Gallery, New York.
Inspirations and muses
Husain took inspiration from a variety of sources including the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and his subjects included political and cultural icons such as prime minister Indira Gandhi, Nobel laureate Mother Teresa and the Hindi film star Madhuri Dixit.
His sketches and drawings adorned walls of restaurants. Later in his career, he made two films — Gaja Gamini with Madhuri Dixit and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities with the actress Tabu. The films are indulgent works of cinema and did not do well commercially. But they are a tribute to an artist’s idiosyncratic and deeply personal vision. Husain was particularly fascinated by Madhuri Dixit and painted her multiple times.
Husain was known as the “barefoot artist” as he seldom wore footwear. He loved horses and fast cars, and both found an expression through his palette. Horses, especially, were a running theme in his paintings. He got attracted to horses as a child when he saw people decorating the animals during Muharram. He would visit Imambaras to see horses. Later he saw many different breeds of horses and incorporated them in this artistic imagination. He said that the horses in his paintings had feminine hips — and that appealed to him.
Once in Delhi he made several paintings sitting on the roads. He later said in an interview to Sunday:The Indian: “Actually, I wanted to prove that solitude is not a prerogative for any type of creation. It just requires the right mood. The notion that you require solitude for painting is elitist….People used to gather around me. There was a lot of noise. But I used to be too engrossed in my work to notice that….The concentration that you talk about comes from within. It has nothing to do with the surroundings.”
By the turn of the millennium his paintings were selling for millions of dollars. He was, however, practically forced into exile after some right wing groups carried out a systematic and violent campaign against him, alleging that his paintings of certain Hindu goddesses were offensive.
In 2005, as a result, he took the citizenship of Qatar.
A very prolific artist and active well into his nineties, Maqbool Fida Husain died on 9 June 2011 at the age of 95 in London. A remarkable chapter in Indian art had come to an end. But thanks to the thousands of paintings he left behind, the life and work of this iconic Indian artist will find new admirers for generations to come.
Also on this day:
1716 — Banda Singh Bahadur, legendary Sikh military commander, died
1949 — Kiran Bedi, first woman police officer in the IPS, was born
1976 — Ameesha Patel, Hindi film actress, was born
1985 — Sonam Kapoor, Indian film actress and model, was born