September 17, 2020 marks the 105th birth anniversary of legendary Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain. While colours and canvas caressed his early days, controversy tried to chafe the later ages of his life and well into the twilight of his life. Then again, a lifetime of dedication to expression - that survived through the partition, poverty and a macedoine of perils, MF Husain was a man of renaissance.
Sic Parvis Magna - Greatness from humble beginnings
Born in September 17, 1915, in India's Maharastra state, when the world was a very different place, Maqbool Fida Husain witnessed more change than most people of his time and after. He picked up a taste for art through studying calligraphy while he stayed at a Madrasa in Baroda.
Husain attended the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai. Early in his career, Husain painted cinema posters in Mumbai. When he first came to the city, Husain had to sleep on the pavements.
Husain developed his painting skills in the 1930s, painting billboards for the growing Bollywood film industry. This was a clique of young artists who wished to break with the nationalist traditions established by the Bengal school of art and to encourage an Indian avant-garde, engaged at an international level. Husain would come be known for his use of the modified cubist style of painting.
Maqbool Fida Husain's first solo art exhibition was in 1952 in Zurich. He was a special invitee along with Pablo Picasso at the Sao Paulo Biennial, Brazil in 1971.
An individual inquisition through emptiness and onto emotions
Maqbool Fida Husain, as any artist is ought to - was keen on politics, religion and philosophy; taking inspiration from those. Husain said that he used to listen to the speeches of Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill as a young man.
"I loved oratory. Because there is so much power. I tried it myself," Husain said in an interview.
Maqbool Fida's mother died when he was one and half years old. Husain described it as the greatest loss of his life. He said that the whole search of the "female form" in his art, has been his mother and the silhouette of womanhood. He very distinctly described his father's second wedding, when Maqbool was six. He described his step-mother to be educated and loving, as was his father, but there was always an emptiness in him.
Canvas to screen
In 1967, he made his first film - "Through the Eyes of a Painter", it was a self-financed project. Maqbool Fida would paint on the set of the film, sell them and raise money. He has produced and directed several other movies, centered on the essence of a woman, including Gaja Gamini (2000) with Madhuri Dixit, who was the subject of a series of his paintings which he signed "Fida". In 2004, Maqbool Fida went on to make Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, with Tabu. The film was pulled out of cinemas a day after the All-India Ulema Council complained that a Qawwali in the film, "Noor-un-Ala-Noor" was blasphemous. It argued that the song contained words directly taken from the Quran.
Canvas, colours...and controversy
Maqbool Fida Husain's paintings allegedly hurt the religious sentiments of Hindu nationalist groups. They mounted a campaign of protest against him in the 90s.
Eight criminal complaints were filed against Maqbool Fida Husain in response to that. In 1998 Husain's house was attacked by Hindu fundamentalist groups like Bajrang Dal and art works were vandalised. The Shiv Sena endorsed the attack. There were even death threats against the artist.
In 2004, Delhi High Court dismissed the complaints of "promoting enmity between different groups ... by painting Hindu goddesses – Durga and Sarswati.
In 2010, in what was perhaps his last public interview - at Al Jazeera's One on One, hosted by Riz Khan, Husain said: "I have been painting for the last forty years. All these god and goddesses - Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesha...there are thousands of those across the homes in Calcutta, in the Malbari houses. I didn't suddenly decided I should do this. I wanted to communicate. I thought my metaphor, my images should connect...with the greatest - The Mahabharata, The Ramayana; which is a folklore of the country. It had always been part of the Indian culture. "
Painter with a zeal for panache
By the time he passed away - a nonagenarian, MF Husain had become more than a painter and more an icon for being a man of myriads. He would often go bare foot - saying how it helped the nerves and which in turn helped him channel his expressions, referring to the sages from bygone eras.
The tainted round glasses, white locks of hair and facial hair paired with his simple yet debonair ensembles earned him a verisimilitude of a modern sage even.
MF Husain didn't have a studio of his own. He painted wherever he felt like it, often painting in hotel rooms - scattering paint all over the place - also paying for the damages.
A long life and larger legacy
MF Husain has been one of the most successful, celebrated, controversial and wealthiest of artists in modern times. Even though his now iconic paintings fetch up to millions of dollars each, he said that they are just 10 percent of what defines him. Husain became the best-paid painter in India, his highest-selling piece fetching $1.6 million at a 2008 Christie's auction.
The arist lived in self-imposed exile from 2006 until his death. He generally lived in Doha and summered in London. In 2008, he accepted Qatari citizenship. Eminent historian, politician and author Shashi Tharoor, once supporting a petition to give Husain the Bharat Ratna, said Husain deserved it because his "life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India – and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many of us. "
Husain had such a vast amount of work that spanned almost 10 decades producing roughly 40,000 paintings by the end of his lifetime. MF Husain died, aged 95, on June 9, 2011 - following a heart attack. He had been unwell for several months. He died at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery.