Muqbool Fida Hussain (1915 – 2011), popularly known as MF, was an Indian modernist painter who is said to have produced over 50,000 works of art in his career. He was known for executing bold and vibrantly coloured narrative paintings in a modified Cubist style. He was one of the most celebrated and internationally recognized Indian artists of the 20th century. His paintings depict a violent understanding of the human condition, which in some cases have led to controversy.
In 1935 Husain moved to Mumbai, where he designed and painted graphic billboard advertisements for Bollywood movies. After his first serious work was exhibited by the Bombay Art Society, he was invited to join five other painters in founding the Progressive Artists Group. Husain, who became known as the “Picasso of India,” created works that could be caustic and funny as well as serious and sombre. One of his most acclaimed works is The Battle of Ganga and Jamuna, an epic diptych that fetched $1.6 million at an auction. This enormous canvas personifies the two holy Indian rivers and underlines the toll of war.
Although he was awarded such national honours as the Padma Bhushan (1973) and the Padma Vibhushan (1991), Husain, a secular Muslim, triggered criticism for his often irreverent treatment of sensitive subject matter, including Hindu goddesses painted as nudes. He treated the gods and goddesses of Hinduism as visual stimuli rather than deities, depicting them unclothed and often in compromising poses. One of his best-known paintings, commonly known as “Bharatmata” or “Mother India,” depicted a bright red nude woman contorted into the shape of the Indian subcontinent. The contemporary take on Hindu legends in his collective works didn’t resonate well with a section of the conservative Indian folk who chastised his art, and succeeded in banishing the ‘barefoot painter’ to Qatar, his adoptive country. Right-wing Hindu activists often vandalized his exhibitions and filed lawsuits against him in courts around the country, accusing him of obscenity and inciting enmity among India’s religious communities—both criminal offenses that can lead to jail time under Indian law.
In 2004, M.F Husain got involved in more controversies with the film Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities, which was declared blasphemous by a Muslim organization. The All-India Ulema Council declared that Noor-un-Ala-Noor (a qawwali from M.F Husain’s film) used words directly taken from the Quran. Words used in praise to Allah had been used by Hussain to describe the beauty of a woman. Following protests the film was immediately pulled out of cinemas. The violence culminated in physical attacks on his home in Mumbai in 2006.
Beyond the controversy, he led a resplendent life. Several of his artworks garnered adulation and riches from festivals and auctions worldwide. His first motion picture, Through the Eyes of a Painter won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival of 1967. The movie is essentially a collection of day-to-day scenes from rural Rajasthan, shot from a surrealist perspective and set to traditional Hindustani music.
In India, the entire gamut of his art is widely considered to be in the same league as Cezanne and Matisse. A bold and reputedly eccentric man, his fierce personality showed in his paintings. Every individual piece suffices to rush in a barrage of emotion – be it grief, longing or wonderment. Years after, he is still remembered as the precursor to the avant-garde league of Asian artists who broke away from tradition and established an eclectic style of their own.