Understanding Husain

How the artist’s multi-religious art has been fashioned

‘Gandhi,’ 2004, acrylic on canvas. {{name}}
01 March, 2010

I FIRST MET MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN IN 1967, when a retrospective of his work was organised by Pundole Art Gallery on the premises of Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, then called Bombay. Husain, who first attracted media attention in 1947 when one of his works shown in the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society had won a prize, had become a public icon by 1967. During that brief encounter I couldn’t help noticing that just like the vigorous energy of his work Husain himself was full of life. Over the next 40 years we kept meeting at different forums related to art as well as cinema, which he was also passionate about. At times, we shared a meal at his house in Jangpura or his son Shamsad’s house, in another Delhi neighbourhood. During those meals I noticed another thing: this man with an enormous appetite for life eats very little.

The last time we met was in London, in October 2009; he had invited me over for a meal in an upper-class Chinese restaurant. By this time, I had written a book (Maqbool Fida Husain) that was an overview of his work from 1947 to 2007, and our relationship had become close. There were four of us at the table, including a woman friend of Husain visiting from India. The table was laden with food and while we were gorging ourselves, Husain flirted with the food and a glass of wine. He was telling me how he was creating a remix of various elements that had dominated his work, the horse, the female figure, eternal cities like Benaras, myths both classical and modern. It was then I asked him whether he still wanted to come back to India. For a moment he became somewhat pensive and then asked, “Is the government really serious?”

He was, of course, referring to various recent reports in the media suggesting that the central government was making an effort to bring Husain back. His question was a sad rhetoric because we both knew that the government really didn’t care. Husain has been in exile for nearly four years now. He has built a new life for himself in Dubai, Qatar and London. He has settled one of his sons and several nephews in Dubai, who are all devoted to him. In London, he usually lives in a serviced apartment on an annual rent. Qatar has assigned a separate gallery for his work in its Museum of Islamic Art. Surrounded by luxury and with no need to work for a living, he still wakes up before sunrise and paints for several hours, like a classical musician doing his daily riyaaz. Once this routine is over, he gets ready to face the world, to meet friends or go out for lunch with guests. But despite leading a full life abroad, he wants to come back. If for nothing else, to enjoy the company of his old friends, his grandchildren and perhaps to drink tea at his favourite Irani teashop in Mumbai.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, several criminal cases had been filed against Husain in different parts of India for ‘causing offence to the religious sensibilities’ of Hindus and for depicting obscenity. Some of these cases were combined in a revision petition before the Delhi High Court in 2007. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, in his judgement of May 2008, quashed the criminal proceedings against Husain on both counts. A few other criminal cases against him with similar accusations are still pending in other courts, but there is technically no legal ban on his return.

Husain in London. {{name}}

Yet his return is still risky.  He could be arrested to avoid communal outrage, and there is a real and constant danger of physical assault. Husain’s tormentors have repeatedly issued open threats of serious repercussions to the organisers of art events if they even hinted at showing Husain’s works. Most organisers, such as the annual Art Summit in Delhi, get cowed down because, ultimately, their objective is not to promote or defend artistic freedom of expression but to make money. A few cultural organisations such as Sahmat (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) of Delhi that defy such threats and display Husain’s works on special occasions have come under attack from Hindu fanatics. In 2008, an exhibition organised by Sahmat as a protest against Husain’s exclusion from the Art Summit was targeted by vandals who destroyed at least a dozen artworks, worth millions of rupees. Unfortunately, neither the central government nor the state governments concerned have taken any action against such threats or given assurances that they would protect Husain and his works. Thus, an extremist and fundamentalist section of Hindu community has succeeded in imposing a ban on the return of Husain, and the Government of India has acquiesced.

It therefore becomes important to understand the nature of Husain’s work, the meaning of Husain as a symbol and the changed filters of our time through which he and his works are now viewed. Is there something in his work that can legitimately cause offence to the sensibilities of a Hindu? Has Husain become a symbol of a multi-religious and multicultural India, where the followers of Hindutva consider him a threat to their concept of Hinduism and a Hindu India? Art is supposed to be an autonomous activity. But this is only a half-truth. Art, like literature, is rooted in the mud of its times. A crucial part of an artist’s mental makeup, like that of most people, is formed in the early years of growing up. Education, acquisition of skills, exposure to new ideas and contemplation do play a role in stimulating creative expression but so do lived experiences. It is then relevant to go back to the formative years of Maqbool Fida Husain to gain an insight into his art.

MAQBOOL WAS BORN TO FIDA AND ZAINEB HUSAIN, Sulemani Muslims, in the temple town of Pandharpur in 1917, not in 1915 as commonly believed. Famous for Vithobaji Temple and identified with saints like Dyaneshwar, Namdev and Tukaram, Pandharpur is situated in Solapur district of Maharashtra, about 250 kilometres southeast of Pune. At the time of Husain’s birth, the town was predominantly Hindu with a small community of Sulemani Muslims who were craftsmen and small-scale traders. I had visited Pandharpur in February 2006 in the course of research for my book. Since Husain’s birth, a lot of things in Pandharpur had obviously changed, but I found some distant relatives of Husain still living there. The head of the family, a tall, bulky man, wearing white clothes and a skullcap, told me their ancestors came from Yemen to Gujarat about 200 years ago and had gradually drifted to Pandharpur.

‘Marathi Women,’ 1950, oil. {{name}}

At the time of Husain’s birth, the Muslims of Pandharpur were well integrated into the social life of the town. His grandfather, Abdul Husain, had his lamp repair shop on the street leading to Vithobaji Temple. The Muslims of Pandharpur had adopted the local food and clothing. Husain’s mother, as other Muslim women there, wore her sari in the local Marathi style. This early exposure to Hindu culture that continued in his grandfather and father’s households even after the family moved from Pandharpur, was crucial to the young Husain’s multicultural sensibility.

It is not accidental that some of the earliest paintings of Husain like ‘Marathi Women’ of 1950 depict Marathi village women without any indication of their religious identity. In later years, the typical Marathi woman, with her sari crossed through her legs and tucked at the waist, becomes an important motif in Husain’s work. Even in his first feature film Gaja gamini, (2000) it is this Marathi woman that is transformed by Husain into the archetypal Indian woman. In all these images, the religious identity of Husain’s female figure remains ambivalent.

Husain’s mother, Zaineb, died when he was about two years old. It was Husain’s grandfather, Abdul, who took over her responsibilities. It is he who fed Husain. It is with him that Husain slept at night. The figure of the lamp and an old Muslim man were to become recurring motifs in Husain’s work later on. Husain’s mother’s death became an even more important source for Husain’s paintings. Motherhood became an important theme. Husain has no recollection of his mother’s face but he still misses her. In his autobiography, M.F. Husain Ki Kahani Apni Zubani, he writes, “Even today whenever the son finds a Marathi sari, he starts looking for his mother in its thousand folds.” He often sketches or paints a mother figure without a face. From a purely artistic point of view, however, this device also makes this faceless figure universal. Some of these female figures are nude, but nowhere near obscene. During the late 1970s and 80s, when he started painting Mother Teresa, he lifted the image of the icon from her religious moorings and presented it as the ideal of motherhood. Once this liberation from Christian specificity takes place, the image of Mother Teresa and the children around her become symbolic of Yashodha and Bal Krishna that appear in several of his paintings. This is how Husain’s multi-religious art has been fashioned.

From around 1920 onwards, Husain spent several years of his childhood and boyhood in Indore, where his father had taken a job as a timekeeper with Malwa Mills. It was here that he joined his first school. Indore was then a city of composite culture. It had a sizeable Muslim population, and knowledge of Urdu was the ornament of the educated. Indore was ruled by the Holkars, who were liberal and progressive. The rulers patronised not only Dussehra and Ramlila festivals but also sent the tallest tazia to the Muharram processions. Even though Sulemanis do not observe Muharram, as a child, Husain frequently went to see the procession. It is the Dul-Dul horses of the Muharram procession that become the first source of reference behind Husain’s horses. Also, the image of panja, which later becomes a symbol of grace in Husain’s paintings, is derived from the one carried in the Muharram procession and it stands for the Prophet and his daughter Fatimah’s family.

It was also in Indore that Husain had his first exposure to the Ramayana; he used to attend the local Ramlila with his Brahmin friend Mankeshwar. He and his friends would often perform scenes from it at home, and Husain would generally play the role of Hanuman. This is how his interest in the Ramayana began. But a serious interest in exploring the themes of the epic tale as an artist was sparked by Dr Ram Manohar Lohia in 1968 when he met Husain in Hyderabad. Dr Lohia advised Husain, “Stop painting for Tatas and Birlas. Start painting for the common man. Paint Ramayana.” Husain then took up a serious study of the Ramayana with the help of a pandit and began his series of Ramayana paintings. Through epics like Ramayana, he wanted to understand the multicultural heritage of India and relate his art to ordinary people. Like any creative artist, he has not illustrated the Ramayana literally, but has responded to its lyricism, its poetic imagery and its relevance to our times. He has taken inevitable artistic liberties but his interpretations are neither irreverent nor obscene. It is in recognition of this fact that in 1980, he was invited by the Ramlila Committee of Delhi to design the cover of its annual diary. Hundreds of copies of this diary were distributed without causing any offense to anyone. Instead, Husain was specially invited by the committee to watch their Ramlila.

From the Ramayana he progressed to the more complex themes of the Mahabharata and to painting other mythological figures such as Krishna, Ganesha, Shiva, Saraswati and Ardhnareshwara. Apart from Hinduism and Islam, several of his paintings have been inspired by other religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Although Husain maintains that he is a believer and a practicing Muslim, his faith has not come in the way of his drawing inspirations from other religions that, to his mind, enshrine the same ideas of humanism and spirituality as Islam.

Every religion has its own conventions of painting iconic images, and Husain, while taking artistic liberties in his unique manner, has generally followed the same rule. Islam does not have the tradition of painting icons at all, let alone in the nude. On the other hand, Hindu religion and culture have celebrated nudity, and even eroticism in art. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul had observed in his May 2008 judgement, “Ancient Indian art has never been devoid of eroticism where sex worship and graphical representation of the union between man and woman has been a recurring feature.” In the mid-1990s, when Husain was under fire for his ‘Saraswati,’ the renowned painter Paritosh Sen had made a drawing showing nude front and back views of ‘Saraswati’ after a famous Vijayanagaram bronze figurine of the 15th century. The purpose of Paritosh Sen’s work was to show the ancient nature of the convention of using nudity to depict goddesses in Indian art.

‘Mother Teresa,’ oil on canvas. {{name}}

Husain’s female figures are generally sensuous, even when they portray mythological characters. The artistic antecedents of his female figure go back to Gupta sculptures to which he was first exposed in 1948 when he saw an exhibition of Indian sculptures and miniatures at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, accompanied by Francis Newton Souza. Another recurring element in his artistic language is the folk art of northern and western India. The native art of these areas has always depicted women as full-bodied and not necessarily fully clothed. Inspired in part from this representation, Husain has created his unique, sensuous female figure by combining classical and folk traditions of Indian art. This is what makes his art immediately accessible while retaining a mysterious and layered quality.

This accessibility is further enhanced by the vast range of his subjects. His art covers a very large and rich universe inhabited by simple rural folk, horses, elephants, maharajas, maharanis, angrez sahibs and memsahibs, iconic personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, cities like Benaras and Calcutta, films from Bollywood to Hollywood and historical characters from European art history to Arab civilisation. This repertoire of varied images create resonances in the minds of a vast variety of people. It is partly for this reason that after Raja Ravi Varma, who entered ordinary people’s homes through the popular reproductions of his paintings in calendars, Husain is the only artist to have become a household name in India.

Apart from the nature of his subjects and the language of his art, which have contributed to his popularity, Husain has also systematically cultivated media attention. He had joined the Progressive Artists’ Group started by FN Souza in 1948 and had thereafter started attracting attention in Bombay art circles. However, it was only in 1955 that he hit the national scene when he won the National Award of the Lalit Kala Akademi for his painting ‘Zameen.’ Husain has since consciously remained in the media’s glare by deliberate moves such as painting in public, painting his car and horses in bright colours, painting on stage while Bhimsen Joshi sang, and painting six goddesses on six canvases and then over-painting them in white in Kolkata.

The popularity of his art and his media image have together turned him into a very powerful symbol. And what does this symbol stand for? Here is a Muslim artist who paints Hindu gods and goddesses. Here is a devout Muslim who offers namaz five times a day but also visits churches, temples and attends Ramlila. Simply put, Husain is a living symbol of India’s multi-religious and multicultural civilisation. In the atmosphere of rising communalism, such a symbol was fated to be deliberately tarnished if not altogether destroyed. Husain had become a threat, or at least a red rag, to the politics of communalism.

RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM and our communally divided society are filters through which Husain and his work are often viewed. It is hence necessary to briefly trace the rise of communalism in post-independence India. Though traditionally India has for centuries been a multi-religious society, this aspect has never been sufficiently strengthened with tolerance or secularism. In ancient times, Hindu-Muslim relations, at best, meant living without friction in separate sections of villages and towns. Trouble was always lurking. It is this fault line that ultimately led to the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the creation of a Muslim Pakistan.

Inevitably, there was a section of Hindu Indians who wanted a Hindu India or at least an India in which the Hindus would have a dominant voice. Fortunately, India adopted a secular Constitution. As long as Jawaharlal Nehru, and later Lal Bahadur Shastri were in power, communal demands were kept in check. But the situation dramatically changed after the 1975 Emergency. As a reaction to the suppression of political dissent, almost all opposition parties came together. When the Janata government was formed in 1977, Jan Sangh, with its aggressive Hindu ideology, tasted political power for the first time. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the direct descendant of Jan Sangh, with its umbilical cord attached to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In the years following the fall of the Janata government, the BJP started a massive campaign for capturing Hindu votes in the name of cultural nationalism, a euphemism for Hindu India. This culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December 1992, a tragic event that created a permanent schism between Hindus and Muslims. Simultaneously, there was a systematic attempt by Hindu organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal to apply the principles of what the scientist James Lovelock calls “triumphant reductionism” to multifaceted Hinduism. Hinduism is not derived from a single book and, therefore, covers in its fold a vast variety of faiths and religious practices. But the abovementioned organisations tried to reduce Hinduism to a rigid one-dimensional faith, the religious texts of which were not open to differing interpretations, and certainly not by a Muslim artist. Unfortunately, a section of the Congress party and Muslim organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami and numerous communal Muslim organisations also contributed to the creation of this atmosphere of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in public discourse.

‘Mother and Child,’ ink on paper. {{name}}

The campaign to discredit Husain’s works began in the years immediately following the demolition of Babri Masjid and became more strident once the BJP, as a dominant part of the ruling coalition, claimed the central government.  The first attack on Husain’s works came in the mid-1990s in Indore, when a local magazine expressed outrage over Husain’s ‘Saraswati’ that had been painted several years before. This was followed by orchestrated attacks and filings of criminal cases against him in different parts of the country. Such events ultimately forced Husain to go into exile. These cases, and the collusion of different governments in the oppression of Husain’s creative freedom are only a part of the communal campaign to sabotage Husain’s identity as a symbol of India’s multiculturalism.

More dangerous is the belief of a fairly significant section of people, including educated Hindus, who have come to think that Husain’s paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses are inherently objectionable. Most of these people have not even seen Husain’s paintings and their opinions are based on propaganda, which include distorted images circulated on the internet. Their objection stems not from anything in Husain’s paintings but from the notion that as a Muslim, Husain has no right to claim Hindu religious texts as a part of his heritage.

‘Saraswati,’ 1996, drawing by Paritosh Sen. {{name}}

It is relevant here to recall that Maqbool Fida Husain had gone to middle school in Darul Tulaba Husamiya Madrasa in Baroda in the late 1920s. This school was headed by Hakeem Abbas Tyebji who was a nationalist, and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. On every 2 October, Gandhi’s birthday, Husain was called to draw the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on the blackboard. It was much later, in 1942, when Gandhi-ji issued the Quit India call from the Gowalia Tank Maidan of Bombay, that Husain saw him for the first time. It is because he identified with Gandhi’s multi-religious India that despite Partition he celebrated the arrival of Independence with his friends on the streets of Bombay. It is because of this identification with India that he refused to migrate to Pakistan in 1947 despite peer pressure. It is, therefore, a tragic irony that after more than 60 years of independence, we have forced Husain into exile.

By the time the Chinese dinner in London was over, it was past 10:30 pm.  It was a weekday, but the restaurant was still full of tourists and locals. Husain called for the bill. His woman friend checked the amount. It was more than 400 pounds, an expensive treat even by London standards. Husain paid with his credit card. He rarely inquires about the political situation back home or comments on it, though he keeps himself fully informed about it through newspapers, television and telephone conversations with friends in India. On this occasion, he merely said, “My return is not a legal issue. If the Congress party really believes in secularism and my secular credentials, it has to take a political stand.”