Tuesday, 5 July 2011

India's Picasso M. F. Husain, blended old and new worlds

From: The Australian (Copyright, All Rights Reserved)
June 14, 2011 12:00AM
M. F. Husain
Painter. Born India, September 17, 1915. Died London, June 9, aged 95.
M. F. HUSAIN, described as the Picasso of India, was one of the subcontinent's best known painters. His influence on contemporary South Asian art was enormous.

He started his career painting Bollywood billboards and latterly his vibrant artwork, a blend of modernism and classical Indian styles, sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. However, he outraged some Hindu groups with his portrayals of nude goddesses, some in suggestive poses, and he spent the last years of his life in self-imposed exile from India.

Maqbool Fida Hussain (he later changed the spelling of his last name) was born in 1915 in the last few decades of British rule in India and as a young man witnessed the turmoil and bloodshed of partition, from which India emerged with new borders. He was reared in a large Muslim family in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, central India. His father, Fida Hussain, a timekeeper in a mill who remarried after the early death of the boy's mother, was a strict disciplinarian, but his grandfather, who had been an oil lamp seller, encouraged Husain to paint by buying him sketchpads. He also encouraged Husain's love for horses, which appear in different forms in many of his works.

The family later moved to Indore and Husain was sent to boarding school in Baroda, in his holidays working in the family's general store. He continued to sketch and would sell his work on the streets.

After a successful sale in 1934, he decided to try his luck as an artist in Bombay (now Mumbai). There he began painting colourful billboards for Bollywood films, covering vast swaths of canvas in the heat to earn small amounts and living in a downtrodden area. He also painted toys and furniture and with his savings would make trips across the country to paint landscapes.

In 1947 he joined the avant-garde Progressive Artists' Group, founded in Mumbai by artist Francis Newton Souza, which strove to break away from the traditions of the Bengal school of art and evolve a language for contemporary Indian art, with its roots in the nation's culture but using modern techniques. In the early days the group, whose paintings initially were ignored in Bombay, would go out on to the street and paste posters on the walls.

Husain's first break came a few years later with a show at the Bombay Arts Society Salon where his canvases sold for 50 to 200 rupees. His work began to receive attention in Europe and later the US. However, unlike contemporaries such as Souza, he did not initially settle abroad but remained in India.

With his white hair and beard and a taste for expensive Hermes suits and walking barefoot, Husain cut a distinctive figure, full of energy and humour. He could produce hundreds of pieces of art a year and, always a nomad, would paint anywhere, from the street to hotel rooms, which he left splattered in colour. His work mixed bold colours and shapes, drawing inspiration from Indian history and mythology as well as curvaceous Bollywood actresses. A recent frieze of paintings at London's Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, typically depicted everything from early gods to the colonial era to Mother Teresa, along with his response to the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, Rape of India.

His work became attractive to collectors and his influence on a younger generation of Indian artists was huge, with some calling him abba or grandfather and many considering him responsible for helping to bring modern Indian art to a global audience. During his time in Mumbai the number of art galleries swelled from a dozen to more than 30, while across India four museums were dedicated to his work. In 1955 he was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the Indian government and in the 1980s was nominated to the upper house of the Indian parliament, while in 1971 he was invited, with Pablo Picasso, to the Sao Paulo Biennial in Brazil.

However, even after critical success, he also enjoyed taking a series of 80 paintings portraying the Indian epic the Ramayana, that he had created across eight years, on bullock carts to villages near Hyderabad, where people looked at them spread out on the ground without question.

"In the city, people would have asked: 'Where is the eye?' and so on. In the villages, colour and form have seeped into the blood," he said.

In his search to link modern art with daily life in India, Husain also took on film projects. His first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, won a Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival in 1967.

He also dabbled in making Bollywood films with stars such as Madhuri Dixit, who was also a muse, although these were less successful.

Husain had been painting for decades when in 1996 a Hindi magazine drew attention to his depictions of nude goddesses. Orthodox Hindu groups denounced his work as obscene, accusing him of painting Hindu goddesses in a "derogatory and vulgar" form. Militants attacked his home in Mumbai and sabotaged a showing of his work. A reward was even offered for his murder.

In 2006 he caused further outrage with his painting Bharatmata (Mother India), which depicted the shape of the Indian map as a kneeling, naked woman. He apologised and promised to withdraw the painting from a charity auction. But after death threats and facing criminal charges for offending Hindu religious sentiment, Husain left India in 2006, saying the country had failed to uphold the right of expression. He divided his time between Dubai and London.

The controversy over his paintings touched on a deep-running dispute over the role of Hinduism - and religion in general - in modern, secular India and although Husain had many supporters his critics continued to speak out against his work. In 2008 one Hindu group demanded that the auction house Christie's withdraw Husain's work Battle of Ganga and Jamuna, Mahabharata 12 from its New York sale and threatened to stage a demonstration. Christie's refused and the work went on to break a world auction record for any contemporary Indian painting, selling for $US1,609,000.

In 2008, after many legal cases had been filed against him, India's Supreme Court ruled Husain's paintings were not obscene and that nudity was a common part of Indian iconography. Despite promises from Indian government ministers that they would provide protection for him if he returned to India, last year Husain accepted Qatari citizenship, saying he wished to paint in peace and comfort. "At the age of 40 I would have fought this tooth and nail," he said. "But at this age I just wanted to concentrate on my work. I didn't want any type of disturbance."

He moved between Doha, where he had a studio, and London, where he kept a home in Knightsbridge and often spent time painting and reading in the British Library. He continued to insist that no matter where he lived he would always remain an "Indian-born painter". He was painting until shortly before his death and was visiting London for a sale of three of his paintings when he was taken into hospital. He had recently created 50 giant canvases inspired by the Bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

Husain was predeceased by his wife, Fazila, whom he met in 1940 while painting the billboard for the Bollywood film Zindagi. He is survived by six children. One child predeceased him.

The Times

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