MF Husain  Horse Blue Black D-65 (1969)  Oil  on canvas  60" x 30"
Wild horses

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 52, Autumn 2017

Page 53

He was India's most significant modern painter, but he died in exile. Alastair Smart explores the life of M.F. Husain, a rock-star artist who captured the spirit of a new nation

One of India's most important artists of the 20th century, M.F. Husain was also undeniably its most flamboyant. With his mane of white hair, fondness for sports cars and Hermès suits, and habit of going barefoot with a cane-length paintbrush in hand, Husain was something of an artist rock-star. On his many travels, he would turn hotel suites into an artist's studio, splatter them with paint – and then settle the bill for redecoration on check-out.

In 2008, one of Husain's diptychs inspired by The Mahabharata fetched $1.6 million, the highest price ever paid for a work by an Indian artist. Other accolades that came his way included three of the four highest civilian awards offered by the Indian state (the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan). In the 1980s, he was even invited by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to take a seat in the upper house of India's parliament.

What was it that made Husain so special? And how on earth did he end up spending his final years in exile, fearing for his life and renouncing his Indian citizenship?

Maqbool Fida Husain was born in 1915 into a lower-middle-class family in Pandharpur in the western state of Maharashtra. His love of art manifested itself early, and as a youth he contributed to his town's annual procession marking the death of Husayn ibn Ali, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, by designing the equine effigies (or tazia) that represented ibn Ali's beloved horse. Horses would become the most significant of the recurrent motifs in his work – one example of which, Untitled (Blue Black Horse), is offered at Bonhams' Indian & Islamic Art October sale in London.

Husain's father pushed his son towards an apprenticeship with a local tailor, but Maqbool dreamed of becoming an artist. Aged 20, he moved to Mumbai. He studied at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art, taking jobs as a toy designer and a painter of cinema billboards to make ends meet.

The most crucial year of Husain's career was 1947, when – together with artists such as Francis Newton Souza and S.H. Raza – he co-founded the Progressive Artists' Group (P.A.G.), India's first movement to engage seriously with European modernism. Rejecting the British colonial influence of academic realism and the Bengal School tradition of miniature painting, these artists created a bold, new art that aimed to reflect the bold, new India. (Indeed, the P.A.G. was formed only months after Independence.) Broadly speaking, P.A.G. painters combined modernist style (Fauvist colours, Cubist forms and/or Expressionist brushwork) with Indian subject-matter.

The trouble with avant-garde groups is that, by definition and for all the reverence they gain from posterity, they aren't widely popular in their own time. Raza and Souza emigrated to Europe in the early 1950s, marking the P.A.G.'s official end. Another now-famous member, V.S.

Gaitonde, soon turned to abstraction. Husain moved tentatively and very briefly in that direction, but never with commitment – he argued that in a land with a population of more than 500 million, it seemed preposterous not to paint the human form. He and the unassuming Gaitonde might be considered polar opposites. The latter was a keen advocate of Zen Buddhism, with a slow, meditative approach to painting that resulted in, on average, just five canvases a year. Husain, by contrast, was impetuous and quick-fire, painting by instinct and trusting on instinct enough never to re-do a section. He completed some 20,000 paintings in his career.

In the 1950s, Husain travelled extensively across India – from evergreen Kerala to the deserts of Rajasthan. In the Himalayan foothills, he encountered the blazing colours of late 17th-century Basholi paintings, and in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, saw the ancient stone sculptures of Yakshi – female figures with pneumatic breasts.

All the while, he was gaining a richer understanding of his nation. This certainly helped when it came to his series based on the two epic Hindu poems of old India: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. By this time, Husain had become, in a number of ways, the quintessential Indian artist of the 20th century: aware of his country's vast history and geography, yet capturing it in a contemporary idiom.

But of his many subjects, it seemed to be horses that most captured his imagination. He painted hundreds in his career – including Untitled (Horse), which sold at Bonhams in 2015. Usually they're galloping beasts of wonder, with swaying manes and dilated nostrils, with Husain's rapid, expressive brushwork reinforcing the sense of movement. Otherwise – as is the case for Untitled (Horse) – they prance on their hind legs, full of zest and vigour.

The work about to come to auction is rather different. The brushwork is still aggressive, the impasto impressive, but the animal seems restrained, subdued, perhaps even coming to rest. It looks utterly penned in by the edges of the canvas. Husain's choice of a cool blue as his predominant colour merely increases the painting's sense of restraint.

Much has been made of what horses meant to Husain. He himself attributed his fondness for them, in part, to those tazia of his youth – though he also said, more enigmatically, that "my horses, like lightning, cut across many horizons".

One wonders if the animal was a shorthand symbol for the artist himself – as the bull was, say, for Picasso. Certainly Husain's horses are generally as theatrical as he was. The year that Untitled (Blue Black Horse) was painted, 1969, is also perhaps important. It was a time of considerable uncertainty and anxiety in the subcontinent, between the two Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971. Might this explain why Husain's horse suddenly looks impotent? Has the animal come to represent India itself?

As a Bohra Muslim in a Hindu-majority nation, Husain was as conscious as anyone of the religious complexity of domestic politics. But we shouldn't try to reduce any one painting to a single interpretation.

Husain was an artist so worldly he soaked up influences from all sides, and let's not forget either that horses have inspired artists since the Lascaux cave paintings of the Ice Age.

However, it wasn't horses, but two seemingly innocuous depictions of nude Hindu goddesses – Durga and Saraswati – that caused Husain's downfall. Although completed in the 1970s, these works came back to haunt him in the politically charged 1990s, as Hindu extremists accused him of besmirching their faith. They ransacked his home, destroyed his canvases nationwide, and put a £7m bounty on his head.

In 2006, having faced multiple charges in court for offending religious sentiments, he left India. He acquired Qatari citizenship and thereafter split his time between the U.A.E. and London, never to return home.

Speaking from exile, he said "I don't feel betrayed. This is about a few people who've not understood the language of modern art. Art is always ahead of time. Tomorrow, they will understand it." Husain died in 2011, aged 95 – and, sadly, that 'tomorrow' has not yet arrived, certainly if the reaction to the Google Doodle honouring the centenary of his birth in 2015 was anything to go by. Hindu hardline group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh demanded that Google take down the webpage on the grounds of having "insulted a nation".

Husain had kept painting till the end, his reputation among the vast majority of observers intact – and, if anything, enhanced for his equanimity. The final hurrah was to be a 32-work series called Indian Civilisation, capturing his homeland's rich mythology, history and festivals. In the end, he completed just eight canvases, which were shown posthumously at an acclaimed 2014 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were proof that you could take the artist out of India, but never India out of the artist.

Alastair Smart is a freelance art critic and journalist.

Sale: Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art London
Wednesday 18 October at 10am
Enquiries: Tahmina Ghaffar
+44 (0) 20 7468 8382

  1. Tahmina Ghaffar
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
    Work +44 20 7468 8382

Related auctions