MF Husain – India’s Contemporary Art Face

By | Published on May 1, 2024 | in ,


Maqbool Fida Husain – the prolific artist is known globally for:

  • His astonishing career
  • Unwavering dedication
  • Interesting idiosyncrasies, and
  • Enormously dramatic works.

After 40,000 paintings, Husain died in London on June 9, 2011, forging an image that matched his massive canvasses. The artist remains a source of indignation, a secularist martyr, and the finest modern Indian artist years after his death.

Modest beginnings characterized by individual bereavement

The remarkable life and professional trajectory of MF Husain are closely tied to his modest origins. Husain, born in 1915 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, to a Sulaymani Bohra family, showed a natural inclination for painting from an early age. Husain’s mother died when he was only eighteen months old. In subsequent interviews, Husain has disclosed that his inclination towards painting has always been a means to compensate for the loss of his mother.

In Hindu tradition, the responsibility of caring for us lies with the mother figure, Shakti, who is revered as a divine goddess. In an interview, he once said that his paintings have always been a kind of exploration. In the book “Husain, Portrait of an Artist” written by Ila Pal, the author vividly depicts Husain’s recollection of the profound loss he experienced when his mother passed away. She contemplates if this was the reason he sought comfort in the motherly presence of Mother Teresa in Kolkata, some years later.

Husain’s schooling was minimal, yet he pursued Urdu poetry and attended evening painting workshops. Raised by his father and step-mother, MF Husain experienced an extreme kind of poverty throughout his youth and early years. He often moved from one city to another and received an inconsistent education from a maulvi, an Islamic teacher.

Career Launched with India’s Independence

As a movie hoarding painter, he painted billboards for six annas, an old monetary unit worth ¹⁄₁₆ of a rupee. The artist designed and built toys for a toy manufacturer to make additional money.

Francis Newton Souza asked MF Husain to join the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947, launching his career. Famous Indian painters like Souza and S.H. Raza established the group, which would revolutionize Indian contemporary art by merging Indian art history with modernist forms and departing from conventional painting. The PAG helped Husain build his modernist lexicon. Husain’s Bombay exhibitions led to worldwide prominence by the 1950s. After the PAG disbanded, Souza worked in London and Raza in Paris. Husain remained in India and became a household name for contemporary Indian art. This was an era in which each MF Hussain Painting was selling like a hotcake.

An Indian art superstar is born

MF Husain received several Indian and international prizes. He received:

  • Padma Shri in 1955
  • Padma Bhushan 1973
  • Padma Vibhushan in 1991 in India.
  • In 1967, he received a Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
  • In 1971, he exhibited with Pablo Picasso at the São Paolo Biennale.

Restaurant walls and linens featured Husain’s distinctive drawings as he became known as India’s national artist. One of the main reasons he became a contemporary Indian art superstar was his passion for movies. Even Husain dabbled in cinema, collaborating with Madhuri Dixit on 2000’s “Gaja Gamini” and Tabu on 2004’s “Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities,” both of which showcased his famed adoration for Bollywood performers.

An Appreciation of the Diverse Indian Culture

M.F. Husain’s concept of a diverse, pluralistic, and all-encompassing India was often reflected in his paintings, such as his artworks featuring Hindu mythological goddesses and his representation of the Indian map in the likeness of goddess Durga. The artist faced legal action because of the strong religious offense and intense fury shown by right-wing Hindu organizations against these works. Despite Husain’s apology for his painting ‘Bharat Mata’ (‘Mother India’) and his denial of giving it that name, he regrettably faced life-threatening threats.

A Celebration of the Indian Culture through MF Hussain Painting   

MF Husain always maintained his faith in the forward-thinking India of his early years, meticulously recording India’s contemporary history and capturing its individuals – both renowned figures and ordinary citizens – until his death. In the face of several fundamentalists criticizing his works, he maintained a positive outlook and continued his work with unwavering passion. “The number of people is small.” They have never hindered my work, and they will never do so in the future. “I have no limitations in my actions,” Husain said in a media interview.

Husain’s affinity for liberty is evident in his frequent depiction of courageous equines, typically represented as formidable and magnificent beings galloping forward in his artistic creations. Husain’s boyhood was marked by his deep admiration for horses, which he associated with elegance and liberation, ultimately inspiring his artistic endeavors in painting. During his childhood, Husain saw the elaborately adorned horses that were included in the grand processions held in the month of Muharram. This subsequently influenced all MF Hussain paintings, resulting in the creation of magnificent and radiant figures.

Decades of effort and 40,000 works

MF Husain is known for his enthusiasm before performances. Husain became famous for his production after decades of effort and 40,000 works. He would hide himself in a room and paint all night before a presentation. The artist attributed his strong vitality to not caring about criticism, working every day, and never wearing shoes, which helped his knees and allowed him to paint for hours on the floor.

Concluding Remarks

MF Husain, 95, lived in Qatar (he held Qatari citizenship) and London in 2011. He died of a heart attack in London in 2011 after five years in self-imposed exile. In his last weeks, Husain feverishly planned to travel to India for an afternoon, “perhaps to sit for a while in a tea shop,” according to his son, Owais, an artist and filmmaker. Overall, MF Husain, with his white hair and breezy attitude, will always remain India’s contemporary art face, despite his many years of praise and criticism.

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