We mark the death this year of the celebrated artist, M.F. Husain at the age of 95, with a short account of his life, followed by reflections on his work by the distinguished art critic, K.B. Goel, a longstanding and close friend.
Interspersed are images of some of the signed, limited edition, lithographic prints by Husain that we have been fortunate enough to acquire. More of these can be viewed on our website www.indoislamica.com in the Modern Indian Art section.
Maqbool Fida Husain, often referred to as the Picasso of India, was born into a large, relatively poor family in Maharastra in 1915 . Mainly self-taught, he briefly attended art school, before moving to Mumbai (Bombay) where he supported himself by painting cinema hoardings.
In 1947 together with Souza, Ara, Gade and Raza among others, he founded the influential Progressive Artists Group. Though these artists were diverse in style, their overarching philosophy was described by Souza thus: ‘Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique, almost anarchic, save that we are governed by one or two sound elemental and eternal laws, of aesthetic order, plastic co-ordination and colour composition’.
Husain himself was a master of vibrant colour and dynamic movement. His boldly drawn compositions often featuring horses and women, together with passionate incursions into Hindu mythology and religion, combined western modernism with Indian art traditions.
His last years were spent in exile – in his 90s moving regularly between Dubai, New York and London, following death threats from Hindu fundamentalists. In 2005 he became the first living Indian artist to command US$1million for a painting.
Goel on Husain:
Since the early fifties, Husain has remained a colossal figure: his signature has the Midas touch and his use of the language and of classical dance is an aspect of modernism that is wholly indigenous. (1977)
Husain’s paintings are made for the eye: like fine music for the ear; his art is intended to give joy even when laden with symbolism. It is so well crafted, well-drawn, and delightfully painted that it often looks like a glossy toy. It is a most expensive toy, this Husain rocking-horse of childhood, its brilliance of colour and the alluring nostalgia. Yes, a Husain is always sweet, its sugar content always high; yet no one has accused him of causing nausea. It is this naive appeal which has enabled him to rule the Indian art market like a monarch; and Husain, to be sure, has never starved it.
A Husain painting is also a deeper kind of aesthetic experience… We look at his work in wonder; a work of art wrapped in a myth. Because of this particular quality no amount of critical noise has been able to diminish Husain hero worship; and he is aware of the spell his work has cast on the public, not only the educated urban sophisticates but villagers as well.
A Husain reflects myriad identities and leads us into temples dedicated to sacred myths. It is a complex of riddles, and the techniques of art history would be poor and inadequate tools in the hands of a Husain-admirer for resolving the riddles his art constructs. The admirer succumbs to its spell; he refuses to or cannot see: one would rather have faith in an illusion than have no faith at all. However this does not mean that Husain’s work has not been examined critically.
Yet despite all this, the totality of Husain’s oeuvre remains relatively unexplored. Perhaps it is the presence of an ethnic element that has apparently enabled it to transcend the limits of its historical context. It is this particular way of looking at life, that we find in a Husain painting that has lent his art a higher value….
Husain, in some sense, has become the name of a ‘style’, a ‘manner’, for the time being providing a contemporary focus on our art of the past. For Husain has brought to Indian painting all those innovations that we think are his, though they may in fact have been borrowed from the pictorial language of European art. However, in his work these have been assimilated and metamorphosed into his own style. Of all contemporary artists in the country, he alone seems able to contend with modernity.