People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 25

June 19, 2011

Husain: Remembering An Artist of People


Suneet Chopra


MAQBOOD Fida Husain is now no more with us. He died in London before dawn on June 9, at the age of 96.  The one thing one feels most poignantly is the fact that he was not able to return to his homeland and die peacefully. A series of malicious court cases, based on a misunderstanding by those who admitted facetious complaints against him, of what forms of art mean to artists and art lovers, of the representational traditions of our folk and classical art, and most of all, of what contemporary art is about, created a situation where one of India’s most noted artists had to live and die in self-imposed exile. If one learns a lesson from all this, it is that his art did not create the law and order problem that was thrust on him but rather it resulted from the malevolent actions of those right wing fundamentalist groups who vandalised his home, his museum in Ahmedabad, his exhibitions in Delhi, and created terror in the commercial art world, so much so that the art dealers at a couple of the art summits at Delhi imposed a ban on exhibiting his works on themselves! But curiously enough, each one of these attacks only ensured that newer and younger art lovers began to look for his works, and even in an art market in relative depression, his works continued to sell as easily as they did at the height of the boom. At a recent London auction he sold three works for Rs 2.32 crore. So he remained the winner till the end.




The reason for that is primarily because works of good art do not fall and rise in price like stocks and shares even though being a celebrity helps in boosting up the market price marginally. Husain’s works command the heights they do because they reflect a unique vision that is close to the life of the mass of our people who were the life-blood of the national movement and who won the admiration of our artists in the way they sacrificed all they had to free our country from imperial slavery and its local slave-drivers, the native princes.


The Progressive Artists Group, which Husain joined in 1947, represented one such trend. Although the group disbanded after a few years, its perception is powerfully expressed in his Zameen of 1955, which blends the issue of land to the tiller with our narrative tradition of cameos with forms that reflect the colourful vibrancy of our folk art executed with the sculptural quality of our Mauryan and Gupta art, as well as Pablo Picasso. It is interesting how Picasso, a member of the Communist Party, also died in exile rather than live in Franco’s Spain. Husain admired him and many of his works, like his Tribute to Safdar Hashmi, reflect his ongoing concern with democratic struggles.


What picked him out among his peers was the way he could innovate with any given aesthetic basis. He was a master of all forms of art, from making posters to producing engrossing prints, powerful paintings and even toys. The interlinkages he created between popular, classical and contemporary styles brought his imagery of the epics into the context of our modern perspective, rather like Raja Ravi Varma had done for the art of the colonial period. If the chief protagonist of India’s colonial art was of princely descent, actively involved in the intrigues of the Tranvancore court, Husain was the visual bard of the Republic. Nothing escaped his eye as he wandered barefoot among the tea-shops of Nizamuddin, the tea-stall at Lal Darwaza in Ahmedabad, the Café Samovar in Mumbai, and the Azad Hind Dhaba in Kolkata, to name only a few. At the same time, he celebrated a wide range of figures including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Satyajit Ray and a host of Bollywood divas in the same way as he celebrated the street people of India, epic characters, elephants, tigers, horses, doves and spiders all as parts of ongoing life. His broad scope of expression won him the Padma Bhushan in 1973, the Padma Vibhushan in 1991 and a seat in the Rajya Sabha in 1986. In fact, he left behind a powerful album of drawings of his experience in the house, and also tongue-in-cheek emergency paintings of Indira Gandhi as Durga. His politics was broad-base but closest to the vision of DR Ram Manohar Lohia, at whose request he painted the Ramayana and Mahabharata series.




He was in a sense the true voice of his times. Born among the masses, earning a living by his hands, he could enter into the role of an architect for the wealthy, a film-maker for the avant garde, an organiser of events for the glitterati which inappropriately gave him the label of gimmickry and, most of all, he was a generous artist who gifted so many works of his to children and friends that keep cropping up like signboards from all over the world. I mention these because they reflect his true character --- that of reaching out to everyone and earning their love and respect in return, like his close friend Maria who gifted back his works of the 1960s, which he had given her, for the people of India. But his closeness to those in power and the people alike also made him many enemies.


I met him a number of times, but his greatest quality was that he never criticised others. He was concerned with his own expression, its development and its acceptance over as wide a circuit as possible. He was the chief visual protagonist of India’s post-independence mass culture, revelling in crushes on young actresses and the world of Bollywood. What is more important is that behind this positive attitude of his was not a fear of being challenged by others but a knowledge of his own worth. He knew that many of those who were bad-mouthing him were not worth a reply so he left them to their own devices and went ahead of them as he did.


Finally, he was a free-floating spirit, a human being with little respect for borders, just as he had little respect for barriers of class, religion and tradition. All these were nothing if they did not link larger and larger sections of humanity together. So, when he accepted Qatari nationality in 2010 it was because he was there and welcome, while at home he was faced with harassment, threats and, most of all, disruption of his working life. I understand what he meant by “My heart will always be in India” because whether in Qatar or in London, as it was India throbbing inside him like a generator that kept him active and alive. That is why he continued to paint Indian subjects dear to him till his death. The last series he hoped to complete was a hundred-year visual history of Indian cinema.


One can agree with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that his death was “a national loss” but one cannot help feeling that the failure of the government to tackle the facetious cases against him or to ensure he carry on his work undisturbed at home has also contributed to this loss. Husain understood the ephemeral nature of travel documents for a man on the move across the flow of history. But the people who drove him out of his “beloved land” are responsible for lowering our standards of civilisation in front of prejudice. Those who did not defend him fearing their onslaught will only have themselves to blame for it. In his characteristic generosity, Husain stated, “I have never felt betrayed.”


A man who could invent his own birthday, recreate a mother he never really saw, carry the love and affection of thousands of his fellow Indians and return it as he did, despite a Qatari passport and dying in London, continues to reach out to you and me every time we look at his work and see the joy of Pandharpur, the place  where he was born, the Ramayan and Mahabharat series that he did for the Hyderabad collector, Badri Vishal Pitti, that brought the epics alive to so many homes in our cities which had all but forgotten how close these figures are to those we see in life, to the young he gave the glamour of Mumbai, the city he made his name in, and the façade of grandeur of Delhi which patronised him but refused to protect him, can never fade from our memory.




His chronicle of events in history blended with his own perception of myths from the epics, the battle of Karbala, the struggle of the Sikh faith, the last supper of Christ, Munshi Premchand’s Shatranj Ke Khilari set in the events of 1857 around Lucknow, the last years of the British Raj and the fall of Hitler being lampooned in the comedies of Charlie Chaplin. One can never really end the conversation he began over 80 years ago as an artist and which he compressed afresh in every work that he brought to life.


After today the conversational tone of these works will bring him to life before us for years to come with their inclusive vision, love for humanity and a remarkable humility that was both endearing and infectious. It will provide a good guideline for artists of the people to go ahead from his spontaneous positivism to a dialectical vision of the future. At the same time his fate at the hands of those in power should serve as a warning that friends in high places are often more a disadvantage than a help.