M F Husain - Born Indian, 1915, Died Qatari, 2011

There are any number of viewpoints and loads of stories, both real & imagined about M F Husain. Some considered him a delightful rogue whereas there are others who felt that he was a money-grabbing shark who would do anything for publicity and to be in the limelight. Here's my personal take on MFH.
I am no connoisseur of paintings so I just can't comment on the artistic merit of his works. I guess that is up to the experts to evaluate & pronounce judgment on and I mean experts who are objective about the whole issue rather than hagiographers.

MFH who was a slum dweller during the early years of his life & made a living painting billboards for Bollywood films in Bombay underwent formal training as a painter sometime during the 1940s. He assiduously used to cultivate celebrities and film personalities during the 60s who first started buying his paintings in the fond hope of acquiring a dash of 'culture' after having built up their name, fame and bank balances. Soon the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses syndrome took over. MFH really struck paydirt during the 70s when Indian businessmen & industrialists got on to the 'culture' bandwagon. Since the Monets & Degases auctioned at international shows were far too expensive for most of them & also unattainable owing to the foreign exchange restrictions at the time, Husain became the default choice for many of them. He assiduously cultivated the celebrity and the wealthy circuits, tried every trick in the book to keep himself in the limelight and licked asses assiduously for commissions from many of these folks. In the quest for visibility & publicity the fads followed in quick succession viz., flowing beard, flowing robes, going around barefoot, rolling in the nude with two nubile women on either side to create 'works of art' and several others. 

When I was based in Delhi in the early 90s, I used to see him off & on at movie theatres, art galleries, hotel lobbies etc., surrounded by acolytes, hangers-on, celebrities & bejewelled wealthy dames. Most of those times I noticed him peering around & focussing intently on attractive, young, sexy females in the crowd when he was not busy patting, hugging or kissing one of his admirers or hangers-on. As part of his stunts & possibly a somewhat warped sense of eroticism he ran after many Bollywood actresses with proposals to draw them in the nude. He was rebuffed by all excepting possibly Madhuri Dixit who indulged him to an extent and even starred in a film he produced.

Let me narrate a little incident here which exemplifies the kind of guy MFH was. Sometime during the late eighties, ITC commissioned him to do a series of paintings for their corporate HQ in Kolkata. On the 1st day MFH rolled up to the ITC office entrance in a limo sent by them. The security guard at the gate, an old veteran, asked him to enter his name in the register & mention whom he had come to meet. MFH very haughtily told him that he was meeting the Chairman & to get out of the way. The security guard then told him that people weren't allowed barefoot into the Chairman's office & offered to get him some slippers at least. MFH, without further ado slapped & kicked the security guard and possibly would have been hit back by the guard had not some ITC people, seeing the incident, rushed out & averted an escalation of this incident before ushering him in. The incident was perfunctorily reported in the media but then ITC used their clout with the media to hush it up quickly.

I used to visit the ITC corporate office occasionally during those days for business purposes and knew that particular security guard rather well. He was an upright kind of fellow, pleasant but firm in carrying out his assigned tasks & duties conscientiously & scrupulously.

I am providing the link below to a discussion on an e-group that some of us had over a year back re: some of MFH's controversial paintings. The participants included people of some eminence with pretty good academic backgrounds. Among them are a top bureaucrat, a recognized poet, a person who heads a reasonably large organization & another who runs a specialized consultancy outfit. While I have removed most of the names for reasons of privacy while consolidating the thread, the contents are self-explanatory. Do browse the links provided internally too for a lot of relevant details & insights.

A social media discussion on the occasion of M F Husain opting to take up Qatari citizenship.

Website of a prominent religious group about M F Husain & some of his paintings

I would like to add that even someone like me who maintains a healthy distance from all religious affairs find his repeated insistence on painting Hindu goddesses in the nude to be in poor taste & provocative. Please note that despite such repeated & grave provocations no one issued a fatwa against him, or chased him down & kicked his ass literally to express their displeasure. The courts were in the process of consolidating the cases filed against him all over India and would have dismissed virtually all of them sooner rather than later when he chose to publicly exit the scenario after negotiating a citizenship deal with Qatar.
MFH wasn't booted out of the country as some people, including certain sections of the media, seem to imply. He chose to 'migrate'. In fact, as a celebrity and a very wealthy man he had both the means & the sphere of influence to surround himself with adequate protection, to the extent that it was warranted.

On another plane, artistic license & freedom can only go so far when it comes to sensitive or volatile issues. When matters come to a boil, one has to step back, whether one likes it or not. Salman Rushdie hasn't written another book where he makes innuendoes about the Prophet and his harem after the uproar over Satanic verses. In fact whether he meant it or not he 'apologized' for having done so in an attempt to close the issue & move on. The guys in Denmark who came up with a series of cartoons about the Prophet had to stop and retract similarly over the resultant uproar. How then can one expect MFH to be allowed to carry on with the 'nudes' and the 'goddesses engaged in unnatural sex acts' when he knew jolly well that every time he did so there were howls of protests from large sections of the Hindu community? As a guy who grew up in the backstreets of Bombay and definitely witnessed the many riots in the country including the several ones in Bombay between the majority and the largest minority religious communities, he would have been acutely aware of the sensitivity of religious issues. In fact, if he was such a fearless artist, what prevented him from doing a series on the Prophet and his harem while he was enjoying the solitude & the munificence of Qatari authorities? But then again he was as shrewd as they come and knew jolly well which boundaries he could transcend relatively safely for notoriety, publicity & enhancing the market value of his paintings & which he could not.

In any case out of a full life stretching across 95 years that MFH lived, over 90 of them were lived in India as a citizen of the country so the migration to Qatar in the sunset years of his life and career need only be treated as a minor episode in the overall story of his life.

It is of course a related fact that around the time it all happened he had ceased to be India's pre-eminent painter on the international circuit, the value of his works were stagnating or even slipping in many cases (which for collectors, investors and art dealers is like the kiss of death) and he was desperate to boost his market value and the value of his paintings any which way he could. While he used to be the man whose paintings used to fetch the highest value once upon a time, it can be safely said that for close to a decade now that was certainly not the case and he had become a relative has-been as far as relative market valuations went.

So that's Husain for you. While history & experts will judge his relative place in the pantheon of painters based on the critical evaluation of his output, as a human being he was a canny, worldly-wise, shrewd man who was a publicity hound and a sensation-seeker and flawed in some ways.  More than anyone else though he did his bit in putting Indian contemporary art on the world map.

A cross-section of viewpoints about M.F. Husain (Links)

    Popular Posts