Artist nonpareil

Artist nonpareil

In Maqbool Fida Husain’s demise, the world has lost a hugely talented though controversial painter. Husain started off as a billboard painter in the Hindi film industry but so immense was his talent that before long his paintings — and even pencil sketches — were selling for millions of dollars, with art connoisseurs the world over vying with each other to have ‘a Husain’ adorn their walls. It is not just the price tag that his paintings commanded in the international market that set apart Husain’s works from those of other Indian artists.

There was an unconventional energy about his paintings that few other of his contemporaries were able to match. His style was special, unique in not just its themes or how he chose to present it but in its interpretation and also the dramatic way in which he painted. He loved rousing people out of their stupor and nothing captures this part of his personality better than the public performance at the Tata Centre in Calcutta sometime in the 1980s when over a period of several days he painted before a large crowd. And then on the last day of the exhibition, as a shocked crowd watched he destroyed his paintings by overpainting the canvases with white.

Some have pointed out that it was this need to shock and be provocative that made him draw the controversial images depicting Hindu goddesses in the nude. The paintings drew the wrath of Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena activists who issued him death threats, filed cases against him in court and vandalised art exhibitions where his masterpieces were on display. These self-appointed custodians of Hindu culture accused him of vulgarly depicting Hindu goddesses, forgetting that Hinduism has always been comfortable with overt sexuality. Their intolerance forced Husain into self-imposed exile. It is indeed unfortunate that one of independent India’s greatest artists and that too one who was committed to India’s composite culture was prevented from spending his last years in the country of his birth.

The culture of intolerance that suffocated Husain in his final years is very much alive in India today. The bigots who denied him the right to freedom of expression will attack others who do not share their narrow interpretation of the idea of India or their limited understanding of the spirit of Hinduism. If others should not suffer the fate of Husain, this culture of intolerance must be defeated.

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