By Nahla Nainar
“Any identity of a nation is culture. If there is no culture, there is nothing. Money will come and go.” India-born Qatari artist Maqbool Fida Husain has been the subject of cultural commentary himself, after he found himself in what he says is a media-created storm over the reaction to his paintings in his native land that supposedly drove him to “exile”.
Speaking to Gulf Times, Husain, whose acceptance of Qatari citizenship in February this year became a cause célèbre in India, says he has no regrets over his decision to leave his homeland.
“There’s no ban on me,” says the ‘Picasso of India’. “I can go anytime (to India), stay there … The only thing is that I can’t vote. But then I have never voted, (even though I was in the parliament), because I don’t believe in any political party anywhere in the world. I believe in the individual only.
So I have lost nothing (by becoming a Qatari citizen).”
Born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, on September 17, 1915, Husain’s initiation to art was through calligraphy and poetry, learned while staying at a madrassa in Baroda.
Husain went to Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1937, determined to become an artist. Apprenticed to a painter of cinema hoardings, Husain learned to create billboard art, often executed while perched on scaffolding in the midst of peak traffic.
Accolades for Husain started a decade later, after he won an award at the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society. He joined F N Souza’s Progressive Art Society, and by 1955 was among the leading artists of newly-independent India.
Husain was a special invitee along with Pablo Picasso to the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971, and went on to participate in several international art shows. His paintings typically sell in the millions of dollars.
Husain has also experimented with filmmaking (he won a Golden Bear for his documentary Through the Eyes of a Painter at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival).
He has a grasp of subjects that affect the common man, and visualises them using techniques that are almost filmic. The play of shadow and light, the strong lines and the use of a camera-style perspective, all put together on canvas with great speed, bring a unique vitality to his artwork.
Once known as India’s highest-earning contemporary artist, Husain’s autobiography is being made into a film tentatively titled The Making of a Painter. The feted painter was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian parliament, in 1986.
The recognition has not come without controversy, however. His depiction of Hindu idols in the nude, a practice already prevalent in Hindu iconography, has caused much rabble-rousing among nationalist parties in India.
The matter came to a head in 1996, when a magazine printed pictures of naked Hindu deities made by Husain decades ago. Fundamentalist Hindu parties were quick to pick up on the mood of a nation already in the throes of several communal clashes, vilifying Husain and accusing him of offending religious sentiments.
Lawsuits were filed against Husain and Hindu activists made threats on his life. The artist responded by leaving the country, and working out of Dubai and London. If that sounds like a self-imposed exile, Husain demurs.
“In winter I work here, and in summer I work in London, where I am working on the Indian civilisation. So six months I am here, six months I am there. But this I have been doing all my life. It’s not because of these things (the Indian uproar over his paintings) that I have come to Qatar. But at the moment I just want to work in
According to him, leading Hindu leaders “have not spoken a word against my paintings, and they should have been the first ones to have raised their voice. These politicians, who have nothing to do with religion, take out all these rath-yatras (processions), for political reasons only.”
In Qatar as part of the Resident Artists Programme, under Qatar Foundation’s Cultural Development Centre, Husain is at work on three major art projects, covering the Arab and Indian civilisations and a history of Indian cinema.