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 the legal battles it inspired lasted for more than a decade. In 2006, Husain went into exile, alternating between apartments in the UK and the Persian Gulf, where his deep-pocketed patrons indulged his weakness for expensive cars. He died in London in 2011 at the age of ninety-five, a gypsy in a foreign land. His obituarists wondered whether India had failed him. It’s hard to argue otherwise.
On the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of India’s independence, an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago features Husain’s final artworks, eight large-scale canvases that he painted at the behest of a leading Indian industrial family. Never seen before in America, these paintings from Husain’s Indian Civilization series provide a kind of greatest hits compilation, or illustrated beginner’s guide, to Indian history. Squeezed into each tableau is an ecstatic pileup of icons and archetypes, faces and places, rendered in loose, hasty brushstrokes. Each painting delivers on its thematic promise quite literally. Indian Dance Forms offers a sketch of three dancing traditions: Kathak, a dance that originated in ancient court life; a modern Indian ballet; and the Kathakali folk dance. Indian Households depicts Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh families at home, doing homey things: sewing, smoking, playing, tending to babies. The works are installed in a gallery devoted to Indian and Southeast Asian art. When I visited this past winter, families, some Indian, shuffled dutifully from one painting to another, amid a sea of sacred statuary—gods, demons, and dancers, frozen in time.
Maqbool Fida Husain was born into a modest family in 1915 in the central Indian city of Pandharpur. His boyhood was spent in Indore, a multireligious city where the authorities patronized the festivals of Hindus and Muslims alike. Poet-dandies would daily offer their recitations to enthralled crowds. The Ramlila brought to life the epic tale of Prince Rama and his quest to rescue his wife from the ogreish demon king. Indore was famous, too, for its annual Muharram procession, a Shia ritual that spectacularly dramatizes the death of the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein.
The city’s Muharram festival was uniquely elaborate, featuring a parade of mourners, some wearing lion masks, ferrying around taziyas—giddily decorated constructions depicting several stories or more, covered in gilt paper and cloth, representing Hussein’s tomb. Giant horses fashioned from papier-mâché were thrust high in the sky, in honor of his loyal equine companion Duldul. Hindus participated, too. Indore’s vibrant, eclectic, and unself-conscious syncretism was to become one of Husain’s most enduring touchstones, one of the primary sources for his idea of India.
In Bombay, the city he came to be identified with, Husain studied briefly at the hallowed Sir JJ School of Art. For a while, he slept on the city’s streets, later renting a room in a shabby lane frequented by prostitutes. Eventually, he married the daughter of a benefactress and moved into a tumbledown tenement where they raised five children. For a time, Husain worked as a painter of cinema billboards. Like a trapeze artist, he would clamber up perilous heights, paint tins hanging from his toes, perched nimbly between sky and earth, making vivid oversize portraits of stars like Raj Kapoor and Suraiya. Not long after, he designed children’s furniture for a company called Fantasy. Husain painted for himself in the evenings. Both fantasy and film became central themes of his art.
In 1947 Husain won a prize from the Bombay Art Society. The following year, the Royal Academy in London organized an exhibition in New Delhi called “Masterpieces of Indian Art,” a survey of work from museums across the newly independent country, brought together for the first time. Husain’s encounter with this show was decisive. He lingered over sculptures of the Gupta period with their smooth egg-shaped heads, the sensuous men and women of the Khajuraho temples, and brightly colored Basohli miniatures, whose subjects have huge lotus petal–shaped eyes. That same year, one of Husain’s canvases caught the eye of the young F.N. Souza, a fellow painter also destined for great fame. “Just tell me, what is this? Have you discovered something new?” Souza was said to have asked him.
Souza had recently launched the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, a coterie of artists who had come together amid the roiling backdrop of partition and independence to fashion a visual language that might harness the upheavals they were living through. The Progressives resisted the romantic nostalgia of the prevailing Bengal School, which aimed to nurture an authentic Indian art by reviving older artistic traditions, like miniature painting. Souza and his compatriots insisted on a break with colonial arts education, too, with its faultless Greek and Roman bodies and its staid academicism. Inspired by their encounters with European modern art—a small community of exiles from wartime Europe became the Progressives’ first promoters and collectors—they engaged with India’s past and present while producing modernist canvases of extraordinary power. Souza, a former Communist whose own violently expressionist work often portrayed bodies in ecstasy and pain, became Husain’s mentor. But Husain, then and later, would shy away from overtly political subject matter.
The progressive moment did not last long. By the early 1950s, most of its founding members, including Souza, had left India for the West. Husain stayed behind. “People declared me finished as an artist because I was still painting Indian images,” he told an interviewer for ArtAsiaPacific just before he died. He painted assiduously, obsessively, in a spare, expressionistic style that favored figures drawn from everyday life. Soon, Husain was the painter of India’s villages—their colors, customs, myths, and secrets. In embracing such folk subjects, the artist had reclaimed the “primitive,” long the domain of European modernists and nostalgists, as a distinctly postcolonial impulse.
Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956) was an early triumph. Five female figures in five shades of brown, crudely angular in profile, stand stiffly in a vertical composition. One balances a storm lantern on her head, another holds a spider (ingeniously represented by eight crooked lines) on a leash. Another figure is nude, her arms crossed, as if expressing indifference or dismay. Two others hover ambiguously. The viewer feels that a drama is unfolding, a kind of street theater.
Women appear often, and powerfully, in Husain’s work. He was obsessed with female celebrity and harbored dramatic crushes on the dancer Indrani Rahman, the buxom Bollywood icon Madhuri Dixit (around whom he made a whimsical feature film late in life), and even Mother Teresa. Horses too figure in many paintings, often captured mid-gallop. For years, Husain’s horse paintings were his most coveted works. Inspired by the Muharram processions of his youth, they just as easily recall the phallic-necked horses of the Italian sculptor Marino Marini. Husain was channeling the ability to be everywhere and everything. At his best, he dramatized the Nehruvian fantasy of a modern, progressive, universalist India—a synthesis of multiple empires, faiths, and even art histories.
That allegorical India may have been best expressed in Man (1951), a large tableau rendered in earthy reds, greens, ochre, and black, which centers on a robust man in black caught in deep thought, perhaps a riff on Rodin’s The Thinker. This figure, who might well be an artist, holds a canvas or tablet that depicts two women in the manner of traditional Indian sculpture. Elsewhere there is a cow, sacred to Hindus, and three other men—two crudely sketched, one raising a hand in a gesture of warning or possibly benediction. Several set of feet seem to jump out of the canvas. Here and elsewhere, the artist’s interest in dance is apparent. Amid this cubistic jumble of shapes, colors, and instincts is a sense that something monumental is emerging—a nation in its birth pangs, embracing its paradoxes and its ambiguities.
From the beginning, Husain was a devotee of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, serving the cause of creating a pluralist, secular, socialist India. He painted India’s multiplicity with reckless abandon. In this respect the artist was a sort of magician, performing an ideal of unity in a country that had just been violently broken in two along religious lines. Puzzlingly, however, India’s central drama of partition, in which as many as two million people died, is all but absent in Husain’s work. In later years, he was coy, even elusive, about this. By 1963, Husain was invited to produce a portrait of the prime minister. It is a little like Mount Rushmore, offering four different orientations of Nehru’s head. A comment on the duplicitous nature of politicians? Probably not. The divided, psychoanalytical self? It’s impossible to say. What is clear is the artist’s devotion.
In 1967, on an invitation from the state Films Division, Husain made a spirited foray into filmmaking. The result, Through the Eyes of a Painter, is a surreal, fragmentary tableau. “I have tried to tackle the film medium with the feeling of a painter,” he announces at the start of the film, addressing the viewer with a paintbrush theatrically in hand. He goes on to invoke his use of “unrelated moving visuals juxtaposed to create a total form…a total poetic form.” And unrelated they are. Set in a village in Rajasthan, the film alternates between bucolic shots of the residents going about their daily lives, the painter painting, and a series of almost totemic objects—bull, lantern, shoe, umbrella. Husain’s jarring jumps and cuts produce juxtapositions that seem to offer up a set of equivalencies: painting and filmmaking, art-making and manual labor, country and city, animate and inanimate. His liberal detractors have inferred that the film is statist propaganda dressed up as a romantic vision of a society that supposedly has no boundaries. But the opening and closing shots of the film—which feature the artist’s arrival in and departure from the village by automated means—seem to offer subtle acknowledgment of his privileged status. Through the Eyes of a Painter won him a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Around the same time, Husain’s art took another turn. Inspired by a conversation with the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, who had urged him to “stop painting for the Tatas and Birlas”—two of India’s richest families—Husain painted a series of large-scale oil-on-canvas panels depicting stories drawn from the Ramayana that could be affixed to roving oxcarts in a village’s annual Ramlila pageant. The popular mode suited him, and in 1971 he prepared an equally sweeping series for the São Paulo Biennial derived from the Mahabharata, sometimes described as the world’s longest epic poem, which chronicles an ancient war between feuding dynasties. Husain had been invited to exhibit alongside his hero Picasso; his choice of subject, he later admitted, was driven by his appreciation of Guernica.
Husain was a star by the 1970s, but he was not without his critics. His work had become inescapable—on public murals, in the Delhi airport, in the lobbies of upscale hotels. In a 1978 essay, the eminent Indian critic Geeta Kapur praised the artist’s early work and the sincerity of his engagement with village life but suggested that his later painting had become increasingly thin, frictionless, an art without much at stake and hence tailor-made for members of the Indian elite. Husain did not help his case when, at the height of the Emergency—one of the darkest and most polarizing periods in modern Indian history, during which Indira Gandhi abrogated civil and political liberties for nearly two years between 1975 and 1977—he painted a portrait of the prime minister as Durga, the Hindu warrior goddess. For many in the left-liberal intelligentsia, this was a shocking betrayal. Husain was never meant to be a court painter.
In 1996, the scandal over Husain’s allegedly indecent drawing of Saraswati erupted. The campaign against the artist unfolded amid the rise of a Hindu right primed to seize any occasion to attack symbols of a secularism that, in their eyes, had pandered to minorities. India, they thought, had lost its way after centuries of occupation—first by Muslims, then by the British, and finally by an out-of-touch secular Nehruvian elite. This was the conviction of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had come to power in the late 1990s promising a renaissance of Hindutva, a puritanical vision of Hindu identity.
The scandal did not wane. Husain exhibitions continued to be vandalized. More court cases were filed. The artist’s work was debated in the Indian Parliament. One extremist group offered $11 million for his head. Another promised gold to whoever gouged out Husain’s eyes and cut off his right thumb. A group of secular artists and critics, including Kapur and led by the photographer Ram Rahman, rallied to his defense. The artist’s name became inextricably linked to debates over freedom of expression, and a generation came to know Husain more as a cause célèbre than as an artist. He was the subject of countless petitions, marches, and solidarity exhibitions. Husain, in his humble artist costume, played the scapegoat. The incidents made concrete the Indian Muslim’s unique burden: he is the ungovernable, the apostate threat to the Hindu way, subject to loyalty tests, forced to suppress his difference.
In 2006, the controversy flared up again when a Husain painting titled Bharat Mata went up for auction at a charity event. A blood-red Mother India was represented as a woman, her naked body contorted in the shape of the nation itself, with the names of its major states tattooed all over. (Gujarat and Bhopal each sat on one breast; Goa and Hyderabad hovered above the pubis.) Like the nude Saraswati, Bharat Mata was more pretty than licentious, its erotic charge null. This hardly mattered. Partisans of Hindutva again charged Husain with blasphemy. The artist, who had just turned ninety, decamped to the Gulf. He was exonerated of the highest-profile charges three years later, but the ruling from the Delhi High Court came with its own ironies. Judge Sanjay Kishan Kaul’s opening statement began with a quote from, of all people, Picasso: “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents.” It is difficult to imagine a sentiment further from Husain’s own.
In his last years, the lion in winter, bedecked in chic sunglasses, hobnobbed with enlightened sheikhs and sheikhas in the Gulf. For Sheikha Mozah, the handsome wife of the former emir of Qatar, he prepared ninety-nine canvases, including a series on Arab civilization. The government of Abu Dhabi commissioned another series on Indian cinema. And then there are the canvases on display in Chicago, commissioned by the Mittals, an Indian family who made their fortune in steel.
At home, Husain’s auction prices soar. The coffee table hagiographies pile up, too. Owning a work by Husain signals a certain arrivisme; his painting even makes a cameo in the upmarket London home of a South Asian drug dealer in the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette. But for a younger generation of Indian artists and critics, Husain is an antique—their inheritance, and hence a site of Oedipal struggle. His relative mutedness in the midst of the attacks on his honor and his Sufic utterances when asked about politics, delivered in a gnomic murmur (“I know nothing about what is right-wing or what is left-wing,” he once told an interviewer), have led some to dismiss him as little more than a sentimental stylist. Others associate him with the sins of Nehru: the late prime minister’s modernization from the top and his lip service to progressivism abroad but repression at home, particularly in Kashmir. Others invoke the unsavory Indira-as-Durga faux pas.
At the Art Institute, the eight tableaus—triptychs because they are said to be at least partly inspired by the tribhanga pose of Indian dance—jump out amid the ancient figurines with which they are placed. The titles of the paintings have all the verve of placards in a natural history museum: Traditional Indian Festivals, Indian Households, Modes of Transport. The colors are odd, at times garishly fluorescent—a departure from the earthy, even distinctly Indian, tones Husain used to favor. Some of the figures have faces that have not been completed; they seem less archetypal than indefinite, unfinished. There is a familiar, starry cast: Gandhi, Nehru, the mystic Swami Vivekananda, with his crossed hands. Hindu deities are also present. This banal mélange also includes the proud Indian tiger, the rounded top of the Delhi governor’s building, the familiar thrust of India Gate. Elsewhere three dynasties are represented: the Mauryan, known for its pacifist emperor Ashoka, the Mughal, and the British. This is painting as potted history lesson. There is none of the expressionistic brio of the early work, the fulsome ambiguities of a painting like Man, or the subtle excavation of culture one sees in Between the Spider and the Lamp. The themes explode, even as the nuance shrinks. It is as if the artist has conscripted moldering wax figures to move around on a stage set of history. Here is a portrait of the artist as an elderly man.
To be sure, any showing of Husain in America is a fine thing. Despite his reputation at home, he remains largely unknown to Western audiences. For this, we can thank the uneven terrain of modern and contemporary art, which remains largely Western-centric despite the proliferation of biennials and the emphasis major museums have recently put on geographically themed shows. To its credit, Husain’s work offers a case study of a modern art that is polyfocal, fertilized by India’s inestimable cultural richness, but also in dialogue with the world.
Perhaps the biggest scandal of the Chicago show is not the story of the Mohamedan disrobing Hindu deities, but the failure to show work that could inspire an important debate about modern art as a global phenomenon. A recent exhibition on postwar art at Munich’s Haus der Kunst put Husain’s Man alongside a Giacometti, a Francis Bacon, and a rare On Kawara, inviting viewers to consider how different postwar circumstances might have shaped art—how they were strikingly different, but similar, too. It would be nice to see a full-scale Husain retrospective, something no museum outside of India has attempted. (The Peabody Essex in Massachusetts has considerable holdings.) What about showing the billboard work? The children’s furniture? The playful feature films he made in the second half of his life?
Next time, we hope. In India, the sectarian fires that began burning twenty-six years ago, when Hindu extremists destroyed an ancient mosque in Ayodhya, continue to rage. The man who presided over communal riots in Gujarat fifteen years later now bears the title prime minister. So-called beef lynchings of Muslims by vigilante mobs go largely unpunished. In November, a Bollywood epic called Padmavati (later renamed Padmaavat) inspired protests in several Indian states after rumors spread of a scene in which a Muslim king fantasizes about a Hindu queen. That same month, threats of protest shut down an exhibition of Husain’s silkscreen prints in the city of Pune. In such an environment, Husain’s syncretistic work is more of an endangered species than ever.
Husain found his stakes late in life, in a period during which the integrated world of his provincial youth came increasingly undone. He still represents an expansive vision of art as public culture, open-ended, neither chaste nor decadent. “Let History Cut Across Me Without Me” was the title he gave to a 1993 exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi that featured oversized marionettes drawn from Christian, Muslim, and Hindu imagery, traditional and modern, arranged in a series of delirious tableaus. At once playful and mordant, the phrase’s ambiguity speaks volumes.