Maqbool Fida Hussain, popularly known as M.F. Hussain, is one of India’s best known artists. He has been called the “Picasso of India.” Hussain comes from a Muslim Indian family. His mother died when he was one and a half years old and his father remarried and moved to Indore, where Hussain went to school. He moved to Mumbai in 1935 and attended the Sir J.J. School of Art. He started off by painting cinema hoardings. He is commonly known as a painter fan of Madhuri Dixit and has openly admitted his great admiration for her at numerous occasions since the 90s.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Hussain first became well known as an artist in the late 1940s. In 1947, he joined the Progressive Artists’ Group, that was founded by Francis Newton Souza. This clique of young artists wished to break with the national traditions established by the Bengal School of Art and to encourage an Indian avant-garde, engaged at an international level. In 1952, his first solo exhibition was held in Zurich and over the next few years, his work was widely seen in Europe and the U.S. In 1955, he was awared the Padma Shri prize by the Government of India.
In 1967, he made his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter. It was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and won a Golden Bear. Along with Pablo Picasso, M.F. Hussain was a special invitee at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and was nominated the Rajya Sabha in 1986. In 1991, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. In the 1990s Hussain went on to become the highest paid painter in India. His single canvases have been auctioned at up to $2 million at Christie’s. In addition to his paintings, he has also produced and directed a few movies such as Gaja Gamini, with his muse Madhuri Dixit and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, with Tabu. His autobiography is also being made into a movie that is tentatively titled The Making of the Painter, starring Shreyas Talpade as the young Hussain. Several collections of his paintings were made accessible to the public in exhibitions of permanent galleries, in the early 90’s. The most interesting of these is the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmadabad. It is a collaboration between the painter and an architect in the construction of a gallery. During this period, Hussain also began to develop an interest in the leading movie actress Madhuri Dixit.
In 1996, after a long and successful career, his work suddenly became controversial, when he was 81 years old, following the publication of an article about nude images of Hindu deities painted in the 1970s. When the paintings were printed in Vichar Mimansa, a Hindi monthly magazine, eight criminal complaints were filed in response against Hussain. In 2004, the Delhi High Court dismissed these complaints. The controversy escalated to the extent that in 1998 Hussain’s house was attacked by Hindu groups like Bajrang Dal and his art works were vandalised. The leadership of Shiv Sena endorsed the attack. The police arrested twenty six Bajrang Dal activists. Protests also led to the closure of an exhibition in London. Hussain’s film Meenaxi was pulled out of theatres a day after some Muslim organisations raised objections to one of the songs in it. The All India Ulema Council complained that it was blasphemous because it contained words taken directly from the Quran.
CASE AGAINST HUSSAIN
In February 2006, Hussain was charged with “hurting sentiments of people” because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. A series of cases were brought against him and a court case related to the alleged depiction of Hindu goddesses in his paintings resulted in issuing a non-bailable warrant against Hussain after he failed to respond to summons. There were also reportedly death threats. The artist left the country saying “matters are so legally complicated that I have been advised not to return home.” He now lives in Dubai and London and continues to stay away from India. However, he has expressed a strong desire to return, despite fears that he may be arrested and tortured in connection with these cases. Recently a Supreme Court order has suspended an arrest warrant for Hussain. According to the law ministry, prosecutors would have a strong case against him if they sued him for deliberately hurting religous feelings.
An advertisement titled “Art for Mission Kashmir” was published in the February 6, 2006 issue of India Today, a national English weekly. It contained a painting of Bharatmata (Mother India) as a nude woman posed across a map of India with the names of Indian states on various parts of her body. The exhibition was organised by Nafisa Ali of Action India, an NGO, and Apparao Art Gallery. Organisations like Hindu Jagruti Samiti and VHP have protested persistently against Hussain displaying the painting on websites and even in exhibitions across nothern Europe. As a result of this, Hussain apologised the next day and promised to withdraw the painting from an auction. However, the painting later appeared on his official website.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts showed a solo exhibition from November 4, 2006 to June 3, 2007 that exhibited Hussain’s paintings inspired by the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. Hussain was to be given the prestigious Raja Ravi Varma award by the government of Kerala, at the age of 92. The announcement led to controversy in Kerala and some Sangh Parivar organisations campaigned against the granting of the award and petitioned the Kerala courts. The Kerala High Court granted an interim order to stop the granting of the award until the petition had been disposed of. In early 2008, Hussain’s Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, a large diptych from the Hindu epic, fetched $1.6 million, setting a world record at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale.
RESPONSES TO CONTROVERSIES
The artistic community has been supportive as well as critical. One of Hussain’s contemporaries, Krishan Khanna, stated that “It’s not just Hussain’s but the entire artist community’s lives which are at state. Anybody and everybody can file a case against us now. Anyone can infringe upon our lives.” Filmmaker Saeed Mirza, social activist Nafisa Ali, theatre personality M.K. Raina, and other artists, art critics, and art gallery owners have expressed anger at the “vicious campaigns” against Hussain. According to Salil Tripathi, Hindu goddesses have been regularly portrayed in the nude by Hindu artists.
In response to the controversies, Hussain’s admirers have petitioned the government to grant Hussain the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest award. According to Shashi Tharoor, who supports the petition, it praises Hussain because his “life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India-and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many of us. This is the opportune and crucial time to honor him for his dedication and courage to the cultural renaissance of his beloved country.”
[As seen in July 2008 of Rivaaj]