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At Home in the World: MF Husain (1915-2011)

Husain's work, his prominent figure, his larger-than-life personality, and the legends that surrounded him touched several lives across the globe.

Minal Vaziraniand Nishad Avari | June 22, 2011 | Updated 13:00 IST

In his ninety-five years, saturated with more experiences and achievements than most people could imagine, let alone aspire to, MF Husain made both a name for himself in his country and for his country in the world. Husain 's work, his prominent figure, his larger-than-life personality, and the legends that surrounded him touched several lives across the globe. Last week, when Husain passed away in London, he left a legacy that almost seems too large to describe in words. Rather, it is to be experienced - through his paintings, his films, his writing, his public art and more.

Minal Vazirani and Nishad Avari
Since the day FN Souza walked under the ladder that Husain was standing on, painting billboards on the streets of Mumbai, and recruited him to co-found the Progressive Artists' Group in 1947, Husain has stood at the forefront of modern Indian art. Of the original members of the group, Husain was key as he continued to reside in Mumbai, leading the movement in India to define a fresh modern vocabulary for Indian art. His ability to rise above artistic and geographic borders allowed him to present a new emergent identity to India and the rest of the world. As he negotiated this undertaking, Husain engaged as much with contemporary trends in Western art as he did with classical Indian art forms. Thanks in great part to a group of Jewish emigres from Europe, including Rudolf von Leyden, Walter Langhammer and E Schlesinger, who settled in India after fleeing Hitler's expanding regime and became patrons of its nascent arts scene during the 1940s, Husain encountered the work of artists like Monet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso and Gauguin for the first time.

Husain had an incredible ability to amalgamate influences and experiences in his life to create his own expression. He incorporated what he identified with from the currents of the American and European modernist movements that this group of European writers and critics exposed him to, alongside the aesthetic principles of traditional Indian art forms. Husain immersed himself in the study of forms of Gupta bronzes, classical Hindustani music and dance that he encountered on his travels around the country along with Indian folk traditions. These seemingly divergent streams of aesthetics allowed Husain to forge a unique artistic idiom that both recognised and transcended national identity.

It is perhaps the artist's iconic horses that most effectively illuminate the amalgamation of personal and public, historic and contemporary, national and international that his body of work will always represent. These unbridled creatures recall mythical horses like Ashwamedh and those of the battle of Karbala, but also incorporate and mirror other influences on the artist's body of work, including traditional Chinese art from the Sung dynasty he encountered on a visit there in the 1950s, the 'Duldul' horse of Muharram processions recalled from his childhood, and the contemporary equestrian bronzes of Italian artist Marino Marini that he saw on his travels through Europe. 

Experimenting with media and genre, scale and surface, Husain quickly established himself as one of India's most versatile, widely recognised and talented artists. Skillfully balancing popularity with critical acclaim, he single-handedly positioned himself as an iconoclast, a performer whose arresting presence and striking work - whether painting, installation or film - constantly broke down existing notions of art and its purview, drawing audiences from all sections of society and all corners of the world.

Since the late 1950s, Husain's presence and legend have extended far beyond India. Long before his emblematic figure became associated with international auction salerooms where some of his finest works were auctioned for record sums, Husain travelled the world exhibiting extensively and adding to his already impressive lists of admirers, patrons, and collectors. In fact, two of the most significant collections of his work, which are now dispersed, were housed in the Czech Republic with one of his first muses, Maria, and in Massachusetts with the collectors Davida and Chester Herwitz. Another important collection was built in Rome, by the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, whom Husain became great friends with and helped introduce Rossellini to Sonali Dasgupta, who became the filmmaker's second wife.

To say that the breadth of the artist's achievements around the world and his list of international honours are remarkable is an understatement. Although modern and contemporary Indian art has occupied a significant level of attention on the international art scene over the last decade, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants like Husain, who has for the last six decades, defined the genre for a global audience. Apart from exhibiting award winning works at art fairs and biennales, including those in Venice and Tokyo as early as the 1950s, a short film he made, titled Through the Eyes of a Painter, was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1967, where it won a Golden Bear award. In 1971, Husain was invited to show his paintings alongside those of Pablo Picasso in a special display at the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil. Around the same time, Harry N. Abrams Inc., a respected New York publishing house, printed a hefty, illustrated volume on his work, one of the first international monographs on an Indian artist, and one of the earliest of several publications on Husain and his oeuvre. 

When recognising Husain for his contributions to Indian art over the last 65 years, it is unfortunate that headlines most recently associated with him, including controversy over a painting that was incorrectly titled (not by Husain), his self-imposed exile from India, and his eventual acceptance of Qatari citizenship in 2010, tend to overshadow these and many other achievements that firmly established him as one of India's most renowned and widely recognised artists. Since 2006, when Husain left India for the last time, several questions have been raised about his domicile, allegiances and nationality. The truth, however, is that although the artist's heart always belonged to India and its people, his spirit was itinerant. Wherever Husain went, he painted, and wherever he painted, he was at home.

(Minal Vazirani is co-founder and president of Saffronart; Nishad Avari is its editor)


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