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Paying homage to Husain
“MF Husain’s modernist reinterpretations of both mythic and religious subjects made him India’s most famous painter. Enormously prolific, he once claimed to have painted almost 60,000 works. The maverick artist developed his bright palette and sweeping brushstrokes whilst painting Hindi movie billboards. He skillfully applied the formal lessons of renowned European modernists like Matisse and Cézanne to scenes from the Mahabharata and to the vast Hindu pantheon. Madhuri Dixit and Mother Teresa were, in very different ways, his painterly muses.”

The above lines make for an apt portrayal of legendary late Maqbool Fida Husain’s astounding greatness, as described by The New York Times writer William Grimes, who noted: “A dashing, highly eccentric figure in impeccably tailored suits, the barefoot artist brandished a slim cane that turned out to be actually an extra-long paintbrush, on closer inspection. He never maintained a formal studio instead, spreading his canvases out on the floor of whatever room he stayed in, splashing paint with gay abandon, paying for any damage caused when he checked out.”

The Reuters mentioned: “Husain's work was a blend of cubism and classical Indian styles that helped put modern Indian art on the global arena. His canvasses sold for millions of dollars.” Applauding the most recognized and representative contemporary Indian artist’s achievements, his creative genius and boundless energy belying his age, an obituary in The Khaleej Times pointed out that his creative life spanned well over seven decades and thousands of paintings. “Despite the controversies, which dogged him, he was a torchbearer of creative freedom. Husain was working till his death, dividing his time between Qatar, London and Dubai where he had his home, a studio and a museum.”

The BBC News termed him ‘India's most prized artist’, whose work fetched millions of dollars. Often known as the ‘Picasso of India’, he influenced a whole generation of Indian artists. Anjolie Ela Menon quipped that his ‘enormous body of work was matched by that of artist Pablo Picasso. MF Husain remained young at heart. He retained his verve, sense of humor, passion for life and also his amazing capacity to paint. He was a nomad, a gypsy! When he was struggling he never complained, nor did Husain flaunt his wealth after becoming famous. He had a habit of wandering around, remembered Krishen Khanna.

Paying a rich tribute to him, art connoisseur-collector Harsh Goenka stated (quoting The TOI essay): “Husain had his feet firmly on the ground, literally! A familiar figure seen at local 'chai' shops, he was equally at ease eating at Bhendi Bazaar’s (a central Mumbai locality) roadside stalls as at five-star restaurants, absorbing their sights & sounds and smells seamlessly, which went a long way in ensuring market penetration of ‘Brand Husain’ to cut across a broad social spectrum. Echoing this shade of his personality, The ET columnist Ashoke Nag, mentioned: “MF Husain had very strong links with Kolkata and its art world. In his early days of struggle, the artist is believed to have painted banners at movie halls of the city. And, many years later, when he became famous, the barefoot maestro would not only frequent five-star hotels, he would also visit his favorite dhaba, Azad Hind, in south Kolkata.”

Artist Ganesh Pyne recounted that he worked at tremendous speed. More importantly, Husain was forward-looking and never looked back, he added. Jogen Chowdhury termed the great artist’s life ‘a rags to riches story’, remembering he signed many of his paintings related to Bengal in Bengali. Akabar Padamsee came across Husain in the late 1940s when Raza, Souza and Tyeb Mehta were also at the Sir JJ School of Art. Underlining his role and legacy, Padamsee remarked that Husain was chiefly responsible for the art prices going up. When Bal Chhabra launched Gallery One in Mumbai in 1959, Husain was not happy that Raza’s works were priced at Rs 2,000 whereas he had put them up for Rs 700, at the inaugural group show.

Amy Kazmin of the UK Financial Times moaned that beacon of India’s modern art scene was no more, and added: “Husain’s distinctive works were often characterized by a rather unusual juxtaposition of colors and their bold forms. Famously prolific, he had a reputation for his ability to complete a painting just in the time it took for playing a record album. Mr Husain, with his peculiar white hair & beard, paintbrushes tucked into his pockets, was renowned for his qualities of exuberance and joie de vivre. Always walking barefoot, he sometimes though conceded to the vagaries of weather by wearing socks.”

Indifferent to both politics and religion, he treated the gods and goddesses as visual stimuli. His cavalier treatment of them earned him the hatred of hardcore Hindu nationalist groups, which mounted a campaign against him in the 1990s. His deities painted in the nude, first in the 1970s, invited charge of obscenity. Husain then spent much of his time trying to defend himself against legal actions, and finally left his home country, pained by a spate of notices, cases and threats to his life. He inflicted a self-imposed exile, later becoming a citizen of Qatar. In 2008, the Supreme Court set aside a plea to prosecute him. In spite of assurances of security from the Government of India, he did not come back. He had revealed: “I would have fought this tooth & nail, at the age of 40. But I just wished to focus on my work at this age. For the creator, these boundaries are merely political in nature. We belong to the whole world. And whatever I’ve done is so with conviction. If someone has felt hurt, I regret. However, my conscience is clear.”

His bewildering brand power and presence made him the phenomenon he was, defining Indian art and artists on the world arena for decades far away from the land he loved. What made Brand Husain a lasting one? It was as much about bold strategizing, great marketing and business sense as it was about art; about living life to the fullest, with a zest and energy that he brought to his art; it was his indomitable spirit that drove him to continuously experiment with new idioms and mediums. Husain was never concerned about controversies. He just did what he knew best, till his last breath – painting…