M. F. Husain — art of free, creative, generous living

Vidya Ram London | Updated on November 12, 2017 Published on June 09, 2011

M. F. Husain — 1915-2011

M. F. Husain, India's most famous artist, died in the early hours of Thursday morning at London's Royal Brompton hospital. His funeral will take place in London on Friday, in keeping with his request to be buried wherever he died.

Husain, who had previously told friends he wanted to keep “painting and painting” and like Picasso to always be free and creative, remained resilient to the end. He had had a “silent heart attack” in Dubai and had come to London for treatment, though there were no complications, he told a close friend two days before his death. With a mane of white hair eclipsing part of his face, a propensity to travel shoe-less and always accompanied by a long wooden paintbrush, Husain was a distinctive figure wherever he went.

Mentally, he lived much of his life in the world of the masterpieces he created, but friends remember a person wonderfully generous, lavishing paintings on friends and acquaintances and never loath to sketch a quick drawing for the fans he encountered — whether it was on the back of a paper bill or a restaurant napkin. An art collector and former art gallery owner who knew him as a young artist remembers him stomping up Rs 1,500 to help her buy her first Maruti car when she was slightly short many years ago. “The front mudguard is my present to you,” he told her cheerfully.

Legal battles

He would joke that his generosity stopped with lawyers — a reflection of the inordinate amount of money, time and energy he was forced to spend battling legal cases in India. Husain left India for Dubai and London in 2006, and took up Qatari citizenship last year as the vociferous attacks on him by the Hindu right over his portrayal of deities showed no sign of abating, and court case after court case was filed. It was a painful decision for Husain, who had always been determined to return to his beloved India.

Indeed after he was forced to leave the country after a previous bout of vitriol from the right, he decided to return once again in the late 1990s — resolute that he would die in India, not abroad. He arrived in Mumbai airport in the best disguise he could muster — a set of Italian leather boots and an alpine hat. That is not to say he wasn't fearful — despite being provided with security ahead of a court appearance in Indore, he insisted on driving around for the hours before the case for fear of attacks.


Husain was born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, losing his mother at a young age, and then moving to Indore with his father. He never knew the exact date of his birth for most of his life — his actual age was only confirmed when a local of his village dug up the birth certificate. He was proud to discover that last year he had crossed a hundred years by the Islamic calendar, or 97 years old by the Western one.

After moving to Mumbai in pursuit of his art, he made ends meet painting billboards for around 4 annas (16 annas made a rupee) a square foot. He quickly shot to fame, with his fresh, novel approach. In 1947, he joined the Progressive Artists Group, which sought to break Indian art free of the prevailing schools of the Revivalists and the Royal Academy and evolve a new “language” for contemporary Indian work. He gained international recognition with his first solo exhibition in Zurich in 1952 and by 1971 so great was his fame that he was invited to the Sao Paolo Biennial alongside Pablo Picasso.

Love for films

He loved film too, with his Through the Eyes of a Painter winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1967.

Over the years his detractors' criticisms made barely a dent in his appeal, and throughout his life his work commanded prices the likes of which Indian art had never seen before. With the exception of posh cars (including a beloved Rolls-Royce that carried him round London) and the odd electronic gadget, material things held little appeal for him, and he travelled simply with few belongings, favouring Chinese restaurants wherever he went. His flat in the London borough of Knightsbridge is piled high with books, art work — he rarely parted with his favourite pieces — and models of his choicest cars. He loved observing life too: During the six years he spent as a member of the Rajya Sabha beginning in 1987, he made no speeches, but sketched what he saw, collating them into a collection, the acclaimed Sansad Upanishad.

At the time of his death he was working on three big projects, covering the history of Arab and Indian civilisation, and Indian cinema. Despite Husain's sorrow at having to abandon India, Qatari citizenship and life in Britain and Dubai had afforded him the space and quiet he craved. As he had always hoped, he was able to emulate Picasso's example, and keep creating to the very end.

Published on June 09, 2011
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