M F Husain: an artist par excellence

Maqbool Fida (M F) Husain, born in 1915, was one of India’s greatest modern artists. He was celebrated the world over for his contemporary art. Last week, the world mourned his loss when Husain passed away at the age of 95. M F Husain’s paintings and drawings were full of life and colour, just like the man who made them. A tall, lanky man, Husain was a prolific artist. While he was respected both by Indians and the international community for his work, he was forced to live in self-imposed exile since 2006. The controversy started when some of his paintings of Hindu deities in the nude were made into a religious issue in 1996. The fact that he painted them back in the 1970s was completely ignored. There was a motivated campaign by Hindu fundamentalists against Husain. His house was attacked and so were places where his art was being exhibited. “I have not intended to denigrate or hurt the beliefs of anyone through my art. I only give expression to the instincts from my soul. India is my motherland. But the political leadership, artists and intellectuals kept silent when Sangh Parivar forces attacked me. How can I live there in such a situation?” was how Husain explained why he had to abandon his homeland. Husain’s family declined the Indian government’s offer to bury him in India and instead opted to perform his last rites in Britain.

Many Indians termed it a national shame that a country with a secular constitution had to give in to the demands of religious zealots and could not ensure M F Husain’s security. It was a blot on India’s secular face. Extremism is not limited to one religion; we can find black sheep of all hues and colours in various religions. In the past, there have been some incidents when freedom of expression has been challenged in the face of religious bigots in India, be they Hindus or Muslims. “If I were 40 I would have fought them tooth and nail,” said Husain to me, “still saare jahan se acha Hindustan hamara,” tweeted renowned Indian journalist Barkha Dutt on the day M F Husain passed away. Husain was undoubtedly a proud Indian but in his death he has posed a challenge to the future of secularism in India. The deep fissures of religiosity do not just challenge the existence of Pakistan, a country based on the Two-Nation Theory, but our neighbour India too is a victim – albeit on a lesser scale – of this malaise. The Indian subcontinent was once a land of secular virtues but slowly and gradually the very same notions are eroding because of a handful of bigots.

(my editorial in Daily Times)

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