Born on November 29, 1913 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra in western India, Maqbool Fida Husain was the son of Fida and Zaineb Husain, a Sulemani Muslim family who traced their ancestry to Yemen. After his mother died when he was a year old, his father moved north to Indore in Madhya Pradesh, a town rich with the cultural and religious diversity of both the Hindu and Muslim traditions of India. He began his career as a self-taught artist, exploring his interests in Islamic calligraphy, Urdu poetry, and the Hindu epics. He briefly enrolled at the Indore Art College before moving to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1937. There, he worked as a billboard painter for the popular Indian cinema, and in 1941 was hired as a designer of toys and children's nursery furniture. Subsequently, he joined the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai for one year. In early 1947, he exhibited at the annual exhibition of Bombay Art Society, where his painting Sunhera Sansar received favorable notice from his contemporaries.
The socio-political conditions of the pre- and post-Independence India had a significant influence on Husain's early career as a modernist artist. Art, prior to Independence in 1947, had been either deeply rooted in the colonial past or in service of Indian nationalism. For instance, nationalist Bengal School artists like Abanindranath Tagore (1871 - 1951) and Jamini Roy (1887 - 1972) had deliberately rejected western academic styles and realism in favor of native Indian aesthetics and iconography. The aftermath of India's Independence, however, brought radical changes, with the partition of India into two nations based on their respective religious majorities. Husain chose to stay in India, identifying himself with this newly independent nation, rather than the Islamic state of Pakistan.
In December 1947, a group of young avant-garde Indian artists formed the Bombay's Progressive Artists' Group (PAG), and Husain joined this collective as a founding member, along with F. N. Souza (1924 - 2002), S. H. Raza (b.1922), K. H Ara (1914 - 1985), H.A. Gade (1917 - 2001) and S. Bakre (1920 - 2007). The PAG artists were conscious of their diverse cultural backgrounds—Christian, Hindi, Muslim, and dalit ("untouchable")—as a collective coming together in search of new modernist idioms to represent the "independent India as a democratic, secular, and multi-ethnic nation." Therefore, Husain's career is representative of Indian modernity, focused on pluralism and secularity. Even though he was a Muslim, he identified himself as an Indian artist, basing his visual language on the roots of the rich Indian civilization, including Hindu mythological narratives. In short, Husain represented the ideal of India as a nation-state: modern, secular, and multicultural.
In 1950, Husain held his first exhibition in Bombay, and in 1954, he was nominated to join the prestigious fine arts academy, Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. The following year, his painting Zameen, or" The Land" (1955), which depicted the human condition in the wake of the Bengal famine, won the national Lalit Kala Akademi's prize. Already in these early works from the 1950s and 1960s, Husain defined the trends of modernism in India—a desire to create a new visual metaphor, which combined international modernist conventions with themes that were local and culturally derived. From his iconic paintings such as Man (1950) and Between the Spider and the Lamp (1956), Husain established himself as figurative artist with a modernist twist using a cubist visual language derived from European modernism. In contrast, his subjects of mythology, politics, and history were intimately connected to his Indian roots and his personal interests. Eager to explore the idiom of modernisms in the West, Husain travelled extensively, participating in exhibitions and familiarizing himself with international modernist movements. His first overseas visit was to China in 1952, where he was inspired by the expressionist horse paintings of Xu Beihong. He left for Europe in 1953, where he discovered the modernist artists who would have a significant impact in his own style: Cubists such as Paul Cezanne (1839 - 1906), and Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973); the "Fauve" (1905 - 1907) artists, particularly Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954), and German Expressionists, including Oskar Kokoschka (1886 - 1980), Emile Nolde (1867 - 1956), and Max Beckmann (1884 - 1950). He states: "I saw Picasso, Matisse, but Paul Klee was the big influence, because he was so steeped in Indian philosophy he had made himself almost an Indian painter." His introduction to the Abstract Expressionism was initiated during his visit to America in 1959.
In the 1950s, Husain began exhibiting internationally, in galleries in Paris, Zurich, and Prague, as well as in all three Venice Biennials. In the 1960s, he had solo shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo, Rome, Baghdad, Kabul, New York, and Ghent. His first exhibition in the United States was in India House, New York in 1964. He received special recognition in major international biennials, including Tokyo, Berlin, and Sao Paolo. In 1971, Husain and Picasso were the two artists especially invited to the Sao Paolo Biennial, where Husain exhibited his figurative works of the Mahabharata series, which even now have never been exhibited in India. He notes his unenthusiastic reception at Sao Paulo: "Critics found too much aggression in my work. The local artists were disinterested…Avant-garde was at its peak. The human image had become an anathema." By this time, Husain had established himself as the most famous living Indian artist, earning the label the "Picasso of India." Nationally, the government of India recognized his significant contributions to the formation of modernism in India, and awarded him the three highest civilian honors: Padma Shree (1968), Padma Bhushan (1971), and Padma Vibhushan (1989). In 1986, he was nominated to the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and received the Aditya Vikram Birla Kala Shikhar Award for lifetime achievement in 1997.
Husain's prolific artistic explorations extended beyond paintings, prints and drawings to a variety of media, including photography, public mural projects and film-making. Husain's interest in film had begun during his early days as a painter of billboards for the Bombay cinema industry. In the late 1960s, Husain's foray into film directing resulted in a critically acclaimed film, Through The Eyes of a Painter (1967). It won the Golden Bear award at Berlin Film Festival. The film was subsequently awarded the National Film Award for Best Experimental Film in 1968. Two subsequent films, Gaja Gamini (2000), Meenaxi: The Tale of Three Cities (2004), received critical acclaim for their cinematic exploration of popular Indian cinema.
Over the years, Husain continued his artistic experimentations in figurative abstraction and cubism, yet his subjects were deeply connected to his Indian roots and his own self-identity as both a Muslim and Indian. He is said to have painted over 30,000 works in a range of media. Husain's pluralism is evident in his range of subject matter, often addressing religious and political themes, from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, his calligraphic Sufi series from the 1970s and 1980s, to his Christian series of the Last Supper, and his later commissions on Arab/Islamic civilization and history, Last Supper in the Desert (2008) or Cross-Cultural Dialogue (2008). He is the pre-eminent Indian modernist artist, whose work Empty Bowl at the Last Supper (2005) sold for $2 million in 2005, setting a world record for any South Asian modern and contemporary artist.
Nevertheless, the mid-1990s also marked the beginning of political controversy and criticism regarding Husain's paintings on Hindu subjects by Hindu and Muslim groups in India. In 1996, his nude figurative paintings of two Hindu goddesses, Saraswati and Durga caused "offence to the religious sensibilities" to Hindu nationalist groups. Public outrage escalated quickly, fueled by the already intense communal tensions and violence during this period, and as a result, his works were burned, the galleries closed or vandalized, and criminal lawsuits ensued. Again in 2006, one of his best-known paintings, commonly referred to as Bharat Mata (Mother India), which depicted the nation-state of India in an allegorical representation of a nude female figure, triggered further protest from nationalist Hindutva activists. Husain was charged with blasphemy. The campaign against Husain, a secular Muslim artist, included acts of vandalism and threats of violence against the artist, as well as legal prosecution. In September 2008, however, the Supreme Court of India dismissed all criminal charges against the artist, declaring: "Husain's 'Bharat Mata' is a work of art."
Following the aftermath of this controversy in 2006, Husain left his native India in a self-imposed exile, traveling between in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and London, finally settling in Doha, Qatar in 2007. This last phase of Husain's life-journey is represented in new work that he began in Doha, when he was commissioned by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, to create a series of 99 paintings, symbolic of the Asmaa' Allah al-Husna ('the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah'), on the theme of Arab/Islamic history and civilization. By 2008, 19 paintings had been completed, and among them, the large-scale painting Cross-Cultural Dialogue (2008), The Last Supper in Red Desert (2008), and Khaa-Meem-Ain-Seen-Qaf (2008) were exhibited at the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar. In an unprecedented move, the State of Qatar offered him Qatari citizenship, which he accepted in 2010. Subsequently Husain lived in Doha, and continued to work on this major undertaking, completing 34-35 paintings of the series before he died. Between 2008 and 2011, he was involved in another major commission, entitled Indian Civilization, for the Indian steel magnate, Lakshmi Mittal. The completed nine paintings of series were exhibited for the first time in Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 2014. This extraordinary figure of Indian modernism, often called the "barefoot artist" due to the fact that he had reportedly not worn shoes since 1964, died in London in 2011, at the age of 98.
Select Group and Solo Exhibitions
|M. F. Husain: Horses of the Sun, Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote.|
M. F. Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom
|2012||Modernist Art from India: Approaching Abstraction, Rubin Museum of Art, New York, United States of America|
|____ ||Iconic Processions Sacred Stones to Modern Masterpieces, Icon Gallery, New York, United States of America|
|2009||Signs Taken for Wonders: Recent Art from India and Pakistan, Icon Gallery, New York, United States of America|
|2009 ||Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar|
|2006 ||M. F. Husain: Early Masterpieces 1950s-70s, Asia House, London, United Kingdom|
|____ ||The Moderns Revisited, Grosvenor Vadehra, London, United Kingdom |
|2005||Ashta Nayak: Eight Pioneers of Indian Art, Gallery Arts, India, New York, United Kingdom|
|2000 ||New Works, The Fine Art Resource, Berlin, Germany|
|1995 ||River of Art, Art Today, Inaugural Exhibition; New Delhi, India|
|1991 ||National Exposition of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, India|
|1988 ||Takoka Municipal Museum of Art & Meugro Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan|
|1987||Coups de Coeur, Halles de I'lle, Geneva, Switzerland |
|1986 ||Indian Art Today, The Philips Collection, Washington D.C. United States of America |
|____||Indian Art Today, The Philips Collection, Washington D.C. United States of America|
|____||Contemporary Indian Art, Grey Art Gallery, New York, United States of America |
|1986 ||Sista's Art Gallery, Kala Yatra, Bangalore, India|
|1985||100 Jahre Indische Malerei, Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany |
|1982||Modern Indian Painting, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington,DC., United States of America|
|____ ||Contemporary Indian Art, Festival of India, Royal Academy of Art, London, United Kingdom |
|____||India: Myth and Reality: Aspect of Contemporary Indian Art, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, United Kingdom |
|____ ||Six Indian Painters, Tate Gallery, London, United Kingdom|
|____ ||Indische Kunst Heute, Kunsthalle Darmstadt, Germany|
|1973||Retrospective Exhibition, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, Calcutta, India|
|1971||São Paulo Biennial, Brazil. Special invitee together with Pablo Picasso|
|1970||Art Today -II, Asoka Art Gallery, Calcutta, India|
|1969||21 Years of Painting, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, India|
|1966||Art Now in India, Newcastle, United Kingdom and Ghent, Belgium |
|____||Commonwealth Art Exhibition, London, United Kingdom |
|____ ||Oberoi International Hotel, New Delhi, India|
|1965||Exhibitions in Baghdad, Iraq and Kabul, Afghanistan|
|1960||Tokyo Biennial, Japan |
|1960 ||Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, organized by Hanna Bekker vom Rath|
|____||Exhibition in Rome, Italy |
|1959 ||São Paulo Biennial, Brazil|
|1958||Eight Painters, International Culture Centre, New Delhi, India|
|1956||Zurich, Switzerland and Prague, Czech Republic|
|1955 ||National Exhibition, Rabindra Bhavan, Lalit Kala Akademi |
|____||Venice Biennial, Italy|
|1953||Indische Kunst, Rautenstrauch- Joest –Museum, Cologne |
|____ ||Venice Biennial, Italy|
|1952 ||Solo exhibition, Zurich, Switzerland|
|1951 ||Salon de Mai, Paris, France |
|1950||Bombay Art Society's Salon, Bombay, India|
|1948 - 1956||Group exhibitions with Progressive Artists' Group (PAG)|
|1947||Bombay Art Gallery, India|
Husain, Maqbool Fida. Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities. Directed by M. F. Husain. New York, NY, USA: Yash Raj Films. 2004.
Husain, Maqbool Fida. Gaja Gamini. Directed by M. F. Husain. New York, NY, USA: Yash Raj Films. 2000.
Husain, Maqbool Fida. Through the Eyes of Painter. Directed by M. F. Husain. India: Films Division, 1967.
Awards and Honors
Raja Ravi Varma Award by the Government of Kerala
Lalit Kala Ratna, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi
Padma Vibhushan Award
Nominated to the Rajya Sabha
Padma Bhushan Award
Awarded the Golden Berlin Bear for short film 'Through the Eyes of a Painter' (produced 1966), Berlin International Film Festival, Germany
Padma Shree Award
India, Indian modern art, Indian modernism, Bombay Progressive Artists' Group, art and controversy, film.
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