"When I begin to paint, hold the sky in your hands as the stretch of my canvas is unknown to me."
Maqbool Fida Husain was his name. Born on September 17, 1915, in Pandharpur, a small town in the interiors of Maharashtra, M.F. Husain came to be known as the Picasso of India. He received both acclaim and wrath for his art works. But not even those who condemned him could refuse the fact that his death meant a loss to the art community. He has been one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, known for more things than one. His barefooted walking, the long paintbrush he carried as his cane, his dressing sense, his personality, were more than an indication of his creativity and his eccentricity. His creativity was probably less understood and eccentricity was what it was interpreted to be. MF was too candid in his expression, both pictorial and verbal; too candid to amass 'pure popularity'. He earned millions but strangely, never had a big bank balance. He made the world his canvas, but died in exile. MF was large-hearted; his works were larger than life; he was the receiver of great accolades and of anguish of his countrymen. He was hated as much as he was loved; he was abandoned by the country he was born in, and one day, he was gone.
M.F. Husain - The Artist
In the initial years of his career, M.F. Husain took up odd jobs like painting movie hoardings, landscape painting, and even designing and building toys. He was born with an extraordinary talent and creativity. He based his works on ideals that refuted old school of thought and broke the convention. He was a modernist and an active member of the Progressive Artists' Group that believed in taking the less trodden paths in life and art. His spark as an artist was first seen when one of his paintings won him an award at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society.
No one would have then believed that this hoarding painter would one day, go on to become the highest paid painter in the country. No one would have imagined that his humble beginnings would take a magnanimous shape later in time, and that his artworks would be auctioned and sold for millions of dollars. But that happened.
MF was not only acclaimed as a painter but also recognized as a printmaker, photographer, and filmmaker. Through the Eyes of a Painter, his first film made in 1967, won him a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. He also made Gaja Gamini, starring Madhuri Dixit, which didn't do well at the box office, but did earn considerable critical acclaim. He also made Meenaksi: A tale of three cities. He was a movie aficionado, which is evident from accounts stating that he had watched some of the greatest hits of Hindi cinema multiple times. It was his fascination for films and for film actresses like Madhuri Dixit, which he does not shy away from accepting. His 'love' for Madhuri Dixit, he used to say, is the 'love' a son has for his mother.
He received the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1973 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1991. He was given the Raja Ravi Verma Award by the Kerala Government. He was among the top 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World. He was happy and successful, but for the controversies that kept eclipsing his happiness, all his life.
M.F. Husain's depiction of Hindu Goddesses as nude, raised fury in the Indians' minds. He portrayed them in sensuous poses, disregarding their position as deities. This hurt the sentiments of Indians, making him the target of wrath and criticism. Another work which created great unrest in the country was the depiction of India (Bharatmata) in a nude pose, with all the Indian states spread across her body. It was natural for the people of India to feel insulted on seeing that hideous portrayal of their motherland. Were these paintings, a depiction of his absurd creativity? Was his freedom of expression misinterpreted? Or should he have maintained a little more decency in his painting so as to ensure not hurting the sentiments of common people? Perhaps, his portrayals were in their most basic, crude form - nude; perhaps many oddball individuals picture them in that crude form, and it was MF who showed the audacity to bring them on the canvas.
Many a time, he apologized for his 'crooked' depictions. Was it because he really felt guilty? Or was it because he knew, no one would understand his creativity? He accepted the responsibility of each controversy he had to face, bore the brunt of all the hatred he received; he owned his decisions, right or wrong. He stood for them. But his people disowned him, and did not let him 'stand' on his own land.
M.F. Husain - The Person
M.F. Husain came from a small city, Pandharpur in Maharashtra. He spent some of his initial years with his uncle in Baroda, after which he decided to shift to Mumbai, in pursuit of art. He joined the J. J. School of Arts in Mumbai and took up varied jobs to earn his daily bread. A self-taught artist that MF was, he was also a self-made man. With no godfather in the field, he rose to be one of the most inspiring artists of the century. Back in 1934, when MF was just 19, two of his landscape paintings were sold for Rs. 10 each. Though the amount looks meager today, it meant good money back then. Throughout his career, MF had to face severe criticism for his non-conformist artworks. But strangely, those were some of his works which were highly priced in auctions and exhibitions. He never set up his own studio; wherever he went, he used to spread his canvas on the floor and start painting. He painted, crazily, wherever he could, whatever he thought of, and that speaks so much of M.F. Husain as a person. "He was prolific, painting even in the evenings and on weekends", says artist Krishen Khanna, one of MF's close friends. He has about 60,000 paintings in his name. His critics were as many as his admirers; his enemies, as many as his friends.
MF was a brilliant artist and also an appreciator of art. The world knew about his fascination for movies. His friends knew his love for poetry, as also for food and cooking. MF was deeply interested in Urdu poetry and had collections of the likes of Galib and Jigar. He even quoted them in daily conversations. Krishen Khanna maintains that even Husain's enemies can't say, he didn't count. Such was the contribution of this artist to modern-day art.
Following the controversy about the nude portrayals of Hindu deities and India, M. F. Husain had to face verbal assault and threats of physical harm. There were a number of court cases against him, after which he decided to leave India. Qatar nationality was conferred upon M. F. Husain, making him an Indian-no-longer.
Rafeeq Ellias had photographed Husain. He, like some of the other close friends of Husain, would call him a maverick. They say, MF was unpredictable and had a very different sense of creativity. That's what made him stand out. Farzana Contractor, wife of Behram Contractor, Husain's close friend, writes (in TOI Crest) about one of her most memorable meetings with Husain, following her husband's death. M.F. Husain, after watching her for some time, took a sheet of paper, drew on it, a hand and a horse with a rose in its mouth. The hand symbolized Behram and the horse depicted Husain. Such was his expression; eccentric, unpredictable, yet heart-warming. Be it any emotion, art was his means of portraying it. According to his near ones, M.F. Husain was a great artist and an equally great human being. Unfortunately though, both the artist and the human being in Husain were largely misunderstood. Ellias says, "Just when we were beginning to get used to the idea of his being immortal, he decided to do a last vanishing act".
And here's something about M. F. Husain, not many know of - his yearning to meet his mother. In a speech he delivered when in Pandharpur, his birthplace, he spoke about his mother. Husain lost her when she was just 20. He remembered her placing his foot in his father's shoe and expressing her wish to see him that big. Husain was a kid that time, who probably didn't know what his mother meant. He grew up missing his mother. He longed to see her, he wanted to meet her, just once, probably to tell her how 'big' her little boy had become. She was never to be found. The search for his mother ended with him. The day it ended was June 9, 2011.