Remembering the life and art of MF Husain, one of India’s most influential painters

One of India’s most recognized artists, known for his bold and dynamic imagery, MF Husain was the face of Indian art and remains one of its most influential and revered modernists. A maverick who never deterred from experimenting with medium and theme, he believed in bending the rules through his art and otherwise. On his 107th birthday, Saturday, September 17, we take a look at his lasting legacy and his unorthodox art and life.

The early years of the artist

Born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, to a middle-class Muslim family, Husain was not even two years old when his mother Zainab died. He was extremely close to his grandfather, Abdul, but his interest in art did not initially receive support from his father Fida, who worked at the Indore-Malwa textile factory.

Growing up in Indore, for young Husain, art was a way to express himself. He often cycled to the surrounding Indore countryside to paint landscapes. During one of these trips he met the famous painter NS Bendre, who recognized his talent and suggested to his father that Husain receive formal artistic training.

During his brief stint at the Lalitkala Sansthan School of Art in Indore, Husain realized he could rival those who had gone before him through college. In the 1930s he arrived in Mumbai and spent his early years in the city earning a living as a cinema hoarder painter who was paid four or six annas (about 25–36 paise) per square foot.

After his marriage, the need to support his family led Husain to quit the profession of palisade painter and join a furniture store called Fantasy. He received a stable monthly income of Rs 25 here and designed nursery furniture and wooden toys for children.

The evolution of his work

Although Husain was offered admission to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai in the mid-1930s, he was unable to join the famous institution. He sold works of art directly to collectors for modest amounts, and in 1947 he held his first major public exhibition, when he showed the painting ‘Sunehra Sansar’ at the Bombay Art Society’s annual exhibition. .

That same year, at the request of artist Francis Newton Souza, he became one of the founding members of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, formed with the aim of establishing a distinct artistic vocabulary for independent India. Although several members of the collective went abroad – Souza went to London and Syed Haider Raza to Paris – it remained one of India’s most important groupings of artists.

In the years that followed, Husain became one of the most famous faces of Indian art, with several exhibitions across India, and an exhibition in China in 1951, following which he traveled to Europe and the United States.

Very early on, he succeeded in merging modernity and tradition, drawing inspiration from various sources, from cubism to temple sculptures, miniatures and the colors of Rajasthan, among others. Known for his bold colors and thick brushstrokes, his recurring subjects ranged from horses and lamps to deities and epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In seminal works such as “Between the Spider and the Lamp” (1956) and “Zameen” (1954), he painted the India he saw around him.

The 1970s saw Husain paint a series on the Mahabharata, which was shown at the Sao Paulo Biennale, and a Sufi series which was exhibited at the Pundole Gallery in Mumbai in 1978. The period also saw him produce memorable paintings by Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, and a setting in which famous Urdu poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Muhammad Iqbal shared the space.

The constant pushing of the limits

Described as the “Picasso of India” by the prestigious Forbes magazine for his artistic caliber and his contributions to Indian art, the prolific artist has charted a distinct path for his art. While his subjects constantly changed, so did the mediums. The scope ranged from small works on paper to gigantic murals.

He dabbled in printmaking and photography as well as film, from the experimental ‘Through a Painter’s Eyes’ (1967) to the more commercial Madhuri-Dixit star ‘Gaja Gamini’ (2000). ).

In his personal life, too, he was unpredictable. Although several acquaintances remember how he created an impromptu work with whatever material was available, he also enjoyed interacting with his audience. He was known for his penchant for high-end fast cars like Ferrari, at other times he walked barefoot.

After some of Husain’s works, including depictions of Hindi deities, sparked protests and controversy, the painter went into exile from 2006. In 2010, a year before his death, Husain, then aged 95 years, accepted citizenship of Qatar. .

Dora W. Clawson