By Prachi Mahima
It has been seven years since Maqbool Fida Husain, the revolutionary painter who brought about a new era in modern Indian art, died. Born on September 17, 1915 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, to a Sulaymani Bohra family, Husain became an active member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, which included artists like F.N. Souza, R.H. Raza, K.H. Ara, H.A. Gade and S.K. Bakre, soon after Partition. A man of revolutionary ideas, Hussain’s aesthetics were inspired by the new freedom from the shackles of English dominance after two complete centuries.
But Hussain’s talent wasn’t restricted to just paintings; he took a keen interest in other art forms as well, including film-making and photography.
Husain was conferred the Padma Sri in 1966, which was followed by the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian honour, in 1991.
Ever the artist
Husain realised his “life’s purpose” quite early in life and dedicated his days to modifying and perfecting his art. Husain hailed from a period when India was bereft of freedom, and over the years he witnessed Mother India’s
plight. And it was these ideas that were formed in his youth that became the subject of most of his paintings. Husain is said to have taken interest in aesthetics when, as a young boy, he learned calligraphy while at a madrasa in Baroda. He began his career painting film billboards and he also worked in a toy company.
The theme of his paintings was diverse, ranging from Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and even British rule. Husain also included motifs of typical Indian rural and urban life. His paintings were a curious combination of the Cubist style mixed with the classical Indian style.
Among the most interesting aspects of his work was the theme of womanhood that he explored in a many of his paintings in the form of depicting Hindu goddesses or the traditional Indian woman. When asked about the motive behind such a theme, Husain revealed that he lost his mother at a very young age and he endeavored to give form to his lifelong search of the womanly figure using his brush strokes. Husain also famously painted horses, which may be assumed to be an expression to his free spirit.
Besides establishing his mastery over the art of painting, Husain also worked considerably hard in film-making. He admitted that film is in fact the best medium of expression to the pioneering ideas of the human mind, as it is a concoction of a number of art forms including music, cinematography and visual arts. Husain made a few out-of-the-box movies, which were critically acclaimed and won several awards.
His first film Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) earned him a Golden Bear short film award. Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004) courted controversy, with many taking offence at the alleged use of certain holy words from the Quran. Husain produced and directed a number of other movies, including many starring his muse Madhuri Dixit, who he saw as the perfect manifestation of womanhood.
The Supreme Court once said ‘art is dangerous’. Husain cited the same statement when asked his views on the controversy associated with some of his paintings in the latter part of his career.
Husain’s work often drew the ire of Hindu nationalist groups for depicting Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude and in sexually provocative poses. In the 1990s, the groups began to intimidate and instigate violence against Husain for paintings created in the 1970s. A number of lawsuits were filed against Husain in the local courts, and he spent many years fighting these. Husain was eventually forced into self-exile given the vitriol, and spent the last years of his life shuttling between Dubai and London.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Husain once responded: “I do not wish to be remembered just as a painter but as a Man of Renaissance.” And that is who he truly was.
Prachi Mahima is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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