In the annals of contemporary Indian art, India has lost one of its most notable practitioners—MF Hussain. In death as in his long and chequered life, Hussain remains a controversial figure.
A look at what made him whatever his is:
His craft: There is no disputing the fact that along with Francis Newton Souza, SH Raza, SK Bakre, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, MF Hussain represented the best of the post impressionist, cubist, burlesque and expressionistic styles of Indian Art.
If he was called the ‘Picasso of India’ it wasn’t without reason. His stroke play, deftness of strokes, the crystallizing of complex thoughts in one seamless expression on the canvas, his ability to recreate drama on the canvas is reminiscent of Picasso.
What he possibly lacked the moral courage to go the whole hog for his convictions. After all, they don’t make a Gandhi every other day, do they?
Obsession with horses: One of MF Hussain’s pet metaphors was the horse. It symbolised masculine vigour and energy to him. He painted them in all colours–white, black, yellow, purple; horse with open jaws or mouth shut, galloping or standing still.
Nude paintings of Hindu Gods & Goddesses: Some time in mid 1990s, an article appeared in a Hindi monthly magazine, Vichar Mimansa, which profiled a collection of paintings, a series on Hindu Gods and Goddesses, in sexually suggestive poses painted way back in the 1970s. The article was called ‘MF Hussein: Painter or Butcher’.
Many Hindu organizations agitated on the issue and there was a series of violence and hatred campaign launched against the painter. Eight criminal complaints were filed against him. In 2004, Delhi High Court dismissed these complaints of ‘promoting enmity between different groups… by painting Hindu Goddesses – Durga and Saraswati that was later compromised by Hindus.”
Saraswati: For most Hindus, we have grown up with an image of Saraswati created by Raja Ravi Varma, painted in realistic tones, an image of a fully clad comely woman in a white saree playing a Veena with a peacock for company.
Compared that with an avant garde image of a faceless naked woman with hair wild in the wind, seated in a rather suggestive pose with legs spread apart and hands raised, lotus, in one hand. Spread across her naked thigh is a Veena and a peacock in the background.
This in a country where Saraswati is the Goddess of learning; a mother-central figure…
Sita, Ravan & Hanuman: In a series on Ramayana, Hussain gives his own interpretation to the abduction of Sita by Raavan. Without exception both the images show its characters naked. One painting has a nude Sita (with her buff and a hint of her breast clearly visible) delicately balanced on Raavan’s left thigh. The private parts of both Raavan and Hanuman are clearly visible as they battle for Sita. Nowhere in the vicinity is Rama, her husband…
This is strikingly different from Valmiki’s interpretation of Sita; a woman with a mind of her own who remained committed to her wedded vows even in exile but dumps her husband who suspects her chastity on return.
The second image shows Hanuman escaping with a hapless Sita. Needless to say both are naked with Sita clinging on to Hanuman’s tail, almost suggesting a sexual urgency…
In Hindu world view, Hanuman is a celibate, committed in his devotion to Rama and Sita.
Durga: He paints Durga astride her lion as a union of the male and female energies. A ferocious lion and a naked Durga look united in the groin; much against the Hindu interpretation where the aggressive male energy submits willingly to an enraged purity of the female energy.
Mother India: In the February 2006 issue of India Today, an advertisement titled “Art For Mission Kashmir” appeared. It showed Mother India a nude woman as the map of India.
Hindu Jagruti Samiti and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) protested aggressively against Hussain displaying the painting on any public fora. Hussain apologised but that didn’t assuage inflamed passions but the painting did go on to collect Rs 80 lakhs in auctions.
In 2004, Hussain stoked the hornet’s nest yet again. This time with his film, Meenaxi… which had a qawwali, Noor-un-Ala-Noor. A Muslim organization All-India Ulema Council declared that the song was blasphemous as it words directly taken from the Quran, words used in praise to Allah but used by Hussain to describe the beauty of a woman. It was supported by Milli Council, All-India Muslim Council, Raza Academy, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind and Jamat-e-Islami. However, his son said the verse was used to describe divine beauty. Following protests the film was immediately pulled out of cinemas.
The violent which for most was orchestrated culminated in physical attacks on his home in Mumbai in 2006. He was charged of hurting sentiments of Hindus by painting Gods and Goddesses in the nude. Finally, he left India for good the same year and accepted Qatar citizenship in 2008 before kicking the bucket in 2011 in forlorn London.