R.I.P. Maqbul Fida Husain, “the Picasso of India”

On 09 June 2011, M.F. Husain – the most famous, and at times the most controversial – modern artist of India passed away at the age of 95. When he was 88 years old, Husain emigrated from India to the Persian Gulf—first Dubai, then Doha, Qatar—after some politically powerful members of the Hindu right brought a case against him over his depictions of women and Hindu goddesses in his paintings. He was accused of corrupting the sensibilities of others!

Last week, M.F. Husain died in London, where he also kept a home and studio for many years. He is said to have produced over 30,000 paintings. And some of his pieces have sold at auction for over $1.5 million.  So, indeed, he’s well know in “art circles.” Yet his work is quite amazing, and has been for the better part of the 20th century and the initial years of the 21st century, and he deserves to be better known around the world by folks who aren’t collectors, South Asianists, or painters as an important contemporary artist, period. Perhaps like so many artists his death will usher in a renewed and greater awareness for his work, artistic innovation, and historical importance.

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5 thoughts on “R.I.P. Maqbul Fida Husain, “the Picasso of India”

  1. wildbillyscircusstory

    What was the basis for the case against him? The works in the slideshow look great. Any idea where the majority of his works are located?

  2. wildbillyscircusstory

    There was a rather substantial story on him in the Chicago papers today. It reported he fled due to backlash from nude paintings of religiously significant figures. I had not realized that India was that volatile. Understandably, feelings were hurt but putting him in a position where his best option is to flee his homeland strikes me as an absurd overreaction. Their loss.

    1. peashoot Post author

      Husain’s artwork is located all over the world. Naturally many of his pieces are held in permanent collections in India — most notably The National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi http://ngmaindia.gov.in/hindi/index.asp But his work has been shown and sold all over the place, e.g., Asia, Europe, and America.

      As for the legal harassment of Husain in India – note also, he was physically threatened repeatedly during his lifetime (esp. from the 1990s on), too – a number of state high courts issued cases against him on obscenity charges. Accusations were brought against him by members of the Hindu right — aka, Hindutva, the “Saffron Brigade” — who’ve enjoyed a lot of political sway in India since the founding of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP – “Indian People’s Party) in 1980. The BJP promotes a Hindu Nationalist platform: India, the BJP says, is a Hindu nation; if you’re not Hindu, then you’re not Indian. The BJP is the political arm of Hindu Nationalism in India, but there are other very powerful groups that raise money and mobilize voters (e.g., VHP) and train the citizenry in militia exercises (e.g., RSS). Members of Hindu Nationalist parties are invariably involved in stirring up antagonism, if not hooliganism and terrorism, against Muslims throughout India. Death threats are common. And for Husain, a Muslim, who painted many pictures of not just nude women, but nude Hindu goddesses (e.g., Lakshmi, Parvati, Durga, etc), the following blurb from a piece in The Hindu last week sums up what is incredibly common in India today:

      “What pained the artist more was the refusal of the complainants to accept his apology. In his petition in the Supreme Court, Husain said that he had already tendered an apology, but despite that, the ‘Hindu Personal Law Board’ had announced a Rs. 51-crore reward for beheading him and a reward of Rs. 11 lakh for chopping off his hands. A local leader in Gujarat had promised to give one kg of gold to anyone who would gouge out his eyes.” http://bit.ly/iM292G

      Husain’s decision to leave was hardly an overreaction. He would have died had he stayed. His kin and associates were also threatened, and his departure spared them.

      The Hindu right frequently reacts in similarly violent and Puritanical fashion against non-Indian academics who critically examine the Hindu religion. For example, in the last 30 years the Saffron Brigade has leveled death threats against a number of American academics of Hinduism, court cases have been brought against American academics by state governments, and some Indian research centres and associates who are mentioned in books the Hindu right adjudges objectionable have been razed and beaten. Here’s a piece from seven years ago that summarizes a few of the better known kerfuffles the Hindu right has raised against scholars of Hinduism and India – http://bit.ly/lyr5vb

      Amazingly, the cases against Courtright and Laine mentioned in this article perdure. Since Doniger’s publication of The Hindus in 2010, there’s been a lawsuit filed in Indian courts against her. And there are other American academics of Hinduism and India who face similar harassment and legal rigamarole.

  3. wildbillyscircusstory

    I did not mean to imply Husain overreacted; that barb was meant for his detractors. I’m ashamed to admit I knew little of the history you cited but it reinforces my support for strong free speech protections. Sounds like India, in spite of being the world’s largest democracy, has precious little of that.

    Again please pardon my ignorance – does India have an official state religion? I know the generalities of the India/Pakistan separation but always assumed India to be a more open and inclusive society (castes aside of course). It appears my assumptions were horribly misplaced.

    Have any of your writings been subjected to this level of objection? Perhaps not as badly as in the linked article, but something above mere criticism?

    1. peashoot

      In 1947 India was established as a secular democracy, pioneered by the Indian National Congress Party’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (PM from 1947-64), who worked with folks before and after Independence, such as M.K. Gandhi, the Feroze Gandhi family, and others. So, no, there’s no state religion of India. The British of course had made a mess of their “jewel in the crown” by 1947 and, unsure about how to leave the subcontinent after they withdrew, they basically partitioned it according to religious populations — e.g., Pakistan was established explicitly as a Muslim state, while it was understood that India would be predominantly Hindu. The Nehru-led Congress Party pressed forth a staunchly secularist agenda, while the first governor general of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, took things in a very different direction.

      Secularism in Indian politics is a quite different concept than it is in American politics. But for all intents and purposes Congress party architects envisioned the Indian government as not entirely separated from Indian religion, but engaged in the religious affairs of the country, while treating all religious groups equally — i.e., giving no privileges to one over another but extending equal rights and opportunities to them all. Many Hindus interpreted the Congress party’s ardent ensurance that Muslims, a “huge minority” in independent India, receive equal access to government representation and social programs as the Hindu community, which comprised apx. 80% of the population, as a blatantly unfair allowance for Muslims and disenfranchisement of Hindus. Well before, but especially since, the official establishment of the BJP in 1980, and then sweepingly during the BJP-led government from 1998-2004, there have been aggressive attempts by Hindu fundamentalists to disenfranchise the Muslim minority (and to a lesser extent Christians) in India. It’s a fascinating and complex history, which is still very much alive and at times “boiling” today (the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 Godhra Train Burning are two high profile examples).


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