M.F. Husain, India’s Picasso, Dies in Exile

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It’s a great tragedy that a man whose life’s work seemed such a direct reflection of India’s diversity and vibrancy died far from his homeland, made a pariah by narrow-minded religious bigots. On June 9, Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most famous modern artist, dubbed the South Asian nation’s “Picasso,” succumbed to a heart attack in a hospital in London. He was 95.

Husain, a painter of both prodigious and prolific talent, helped put contemporary Indian art on the map, and some of his works to this day remain the most lucrative money-spinners in India’s hot art market. Yet he perished having forsaken his Indian citizenship, forced to flee India by 2006 after religious zealots took offense to certain paintings that depicted Hindu goddesses in the nude. His exhibitions were picketed and attacked; he faced death threats. The small, militant cadre didn’t seem to see the irony of branding Husain’s work blasphemous in the country that gave the world the Kama Sutra — the preeminent religious tract about sex, anywhere — and the country which is home to so many ancient holy temples that teem with delicate, sensual carvings of deities in the nude.

Husain, a Muslim, was the victim of an altogether more modern curse: India’s politicized religious sectarianism. Yet he himself was comfortably secular. And though his art seems drawn from India’s rich, syncretic traditions — suffused with Hindu iconography and Sufi mysticism — he learned his trade as a painter of flashy, colorful billboards for early Bollywood films, that most modern and glitzy Indian artistic tradition.

In person, Husain seemed altogether larger than life — well into his 90s, he retained a spry, lithe physique, a handsome face framed by a characteristic mop of white hair. He confused many with his penchant for always being barefoot, but obsessed over gadgets like his iPhone. The New York Times caught up with him in self-imposed exile in Dubai in 2008:

[Husain says] he has always been a vagabond, sleeping on the Mumbai streets during his impoverished youth, wandering through Europe to study Rembrandt, or bouncing, as he does now, among several lavish apartments and villas here in Dubai — or rather, cruising among them, in one of his five costly thrill machines, including a lipstick-red Ferrari, his current favorite.

His restless energy in person seems fitting for his work: zesty, spirited pieces that burst with color and form. Husain paintings and tapestries are legion throughout India and elsewhere in the world — he’s said to have produced some 20,000 works, though many were likely the product of an industrious atelier that he set up in his later years. Close friends of Husain claim he yearned to return to India, but didn’t know when that would be possible. A few years back, he adopted Qatari nationality. The Times wrote in 2008:

Mr. Husain calls the current Congress Party-led government too weak-kneed to offer him protection from those who might harm him. Mostly, though, he cautions against making too much of his case. India, he insists, is fundamentally “tolerant.”

For India, it seems, he had a limitless patience and passion. It remains to be seen whether news of his death will shame those who saw him banished from its soil.