Midnight’s Child

India Modern: The Paintings of M.F. Husain

an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, July 14, 2017—March 4, 2018
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
M.F. Husain: Indian Dance Forms, 2008–2011

With his lean stick-like frame and luxurious halo of thick white hair, the Indian artist M.F. Husain was a figure of romance. A consummate showman, he was known to wake at the crack of dawn to paint with his two-foot-long brush, shirtless, always barefoot, in his down-and-out studio—a conspicuous choice—in front of Delhi’s overcrowded Jama Masjid. When a canvas was not available, he would paint on anything at hand: floors, walls, hotel room furniture, automobiles, a horse. By the end of the 1960s, the artist in dervish drag had become Mr. India, a human mascot and a stand-in for the nation. Even Andy Warhol, roughly his contemporary, another artist-celebrity, never managed that. Husain’s art appeared on postage stamps and recently inspired a Google Doodle. People called him the Picasso of India, an inexact comparison that nonetheless captured the place he held in the national imagination. For many, he was Indian art.

In his youth, Husain would play the part of the monkey god Hanuman during the local Ramlila pageant—the popular reenactment of the Ramayana. Like Hanuman, who once mistook the sun for a piece of fruit and leapt up to bite it, Husain was renowned for his optimism, his impeccable manners, and his shape-shifting. He was anything you wanted him to be: equally at home in Bombay or Paris, dashing in bespoke suits, friends with Roberto Rossellini. An à la carte Muslim, he prayed five times a day, but was also a well-known Casanova. In his art and in his person, he straddled divergent worlds: urban and rural, Muslim and Hindu, modern and indigenous, East and West.

But by the mid-1990s, the mild-mannered artist was embroiled in a national controversy. In 1996 a small Hindi-language magazine reproduced a delicate pen-and-ink drawing Husain had made in the 1970s of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts. Her face is featureless, without eyes or a nose. She holds a lotus flower in one hand, and a comely triad of fish, peacock, and veena, a string instrument, float around her. She is also naked. “Is he an artist or a butcher?” screeched the article’s headline. The image was blasphemous, the author insisted, an assault on the goddess’s honor and by implication on the sanctity of Hinduism itself. In rendering the goddess as a modernist nude, it was alleged, Husain had besmirched her. But Hindu painting had a centuries-long tradition of depicting gods and goddesses in the nude: the real implication was that Husain, a Muslim, had no right to make use of Hinduism’s rich store of imagery. Comparisons to that other scandalous Indian Muslim, Salman Rushdie, soon followed.

The Mumbai police swiftly pressed charges against the artist for promoting enmity between religious groups. In an art gallery in Ahmedabad, sixteen Husain paintings were destroyed. The brouhaha and…

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