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M.F. Husain: "India's Picasso" has been forced to flee his homeland due to Hindu extremism and state censorship 

On December 7, a large circle of family, friends and admirers gathered in Dubai to celebrate the 97th birthday of M. F. Husain. They thought it was going to be his 95th birthday. So did he. But a diligent archivist had unearthed a birth certificate a few months before, and discovered that grand old man of Indian art was older by two years.

No one doubts that Maqbool Fida Husain is India's grand old man of art. Western conceptual art is now so formulaic, so lost in mannerism and ironic self-reference, he may be the world's greatest living artist, although writers tempt ridicule when they make such ostentatious claims. I would defy any critic, however, to deny that Husain embodies the spirit of his country. The struggles, optimism and glories of India flow through his work. Intelligent European collectors know it and buy him when they can afford to — the demand from Indian industrialists and Bollywood stars is so high you need to be very wealthy to bid and hope to succeed. 

For at least half the year, he is in London. If you pass him in Mayfair, you will find him hard to ignore. He strides out from his studio to Shepherd Market in bare feet or socks — he does not wear shoes, whatever the weather. Often he carries an oversized paintbrush, just to make sure that the curious can guess his trade correctly. Yet I would guess in turn that most people in Britain who think of themselves as cultured know nothing of him. In part, the ignorance is the result of the parochialism of intellectual journalism in this country. 

But our shallowness is not the only reason for Husain's obscurity. He is a marked man. Any gallery that shows his work runs a risk. London's Serpentine Gallery included a selection of his paintings in a wider exhibition of contemporary Indian art in 2008. Strange though it once would have seemed, its staff deserved praise for their bravery as well as their good taste. 

In 2006, the Asia House cultural centre in Marylebone tried to give the British public the first major solo exhibition of Husain's work. Threats from protesters closed it within days. Even though the Indian High Commissioner opened the show, they denounced Husain as an enemy of the Indian nation. Husain offended all Hindus, they cried. His work was pornographic and blasphemous. "The defamation of our Dharma in such a manner cannot carry on." A vandal sprayed paint on his works. The possibility of violence terrified the exhibition organisers, and they backed away from a necessary confrontation with censorious extremism. 

In India, Husain's position is worse. Hindu militants have attacked his home and galleries showing his work. For almost a decade, India's censorship laws, which allow the prosecution of anyone who threatens communal harmony, aided and abetted them. Far from promoting a happily diverse multicultural society, the laws of what is nominally the world's largest democracy have allowed extremist Hindus to compete with extremist Muslims in tit-for-tat censorship campaigns. Unwittingly, the old man has become a player in the modern game of manufacturing offence. Sectarian politicians have used him to keep their supporters in a useful state of religious fury, a splenetic condition that delivers many votes to unscrupulous operators at election time.

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September 17th, 2015
1:09 PM
I have only two questions to all those people who support husain's controversial part of life, who doesnt bother about how insanely he hurted genuine feelings of crores of peoples... those questions are >How would you feel if someone ever publishes your mother's nude image in public? >How would you behave if someone represents your ideal personalities, your inspirations, you gods in a very inhuman and disrespectful way?? Husain did the same.He may be the Greatest artist ever lived. He may be next to picaso. but his contravercial art is a product of pure shame. you will ignore this comment or otherwise you will argue with me because you are as like so many other people who are not victim of Husain's irresponsible act.But before doing so ask both questions to your soul. Even if these questions doesnt disturbs you, Then I would love to hear from you.

Rajan Naidu
June 10th, 2011
11:06 AM
The most disgusting and despicable thing about M F Husain was the alliance of shameless, small-minded rabblerousers and thugs that gathered to threaten and relentlessly torment him, a person who harmed no one, human or divine.

Tim Footman
June 10th, 2011
10:06 AM
@Isha Agrawal: Allowing a man to live to 97 as a lauded, successful artist is a pretty feeble manifestation of divine punishment. What next, the comfy chair?

Isha Agrawal
June 9th, 2011
6:06 AM
Good news, God has punished the man at last who was guilty of hurting the sentiments of Hindus. Hindus across the world were demanding action against this man, but the impotant and so called secular indian govt did nothing to console the Hindus. Freedom of expression does not mean to hurt the sentiments of any community.

January 21st, 2011
3:01 PM
The Indian Art Summit (India's version of London's Frieze) is on in Delhi right now and for the first time in three years, M F Husain's paintings are being exhibited on a public platform. Despite threats, the organisers are going ahead on reassurance from the Delhi police that the paintings will be protected, no matter what. This just proves that if the law wants to stand up and protect life, limb and property, it can. The police's sudden willingness to play protector is no doubt the result of political direction from the top. If politicians hadn't winked at the vandalisation of Husain's works down the years, things would not have come to this pass. They're as bad as the Hindutva goons.

December 31st, 2010
6:12 AM
The Shiv Sena is more than a "thuggish bunch of religious rabble-rousers". It is a neo-fascist organization in the truest sense of the word. Its founder Bal Thackeray famously kept a portrait of Adolf Hitler on his desk and has refered to him repeatedly as his 'inspiration'. His part in the Bombay riots and his talk of 'cleansing India of foreign Muslim influences' puts him very much in the Nick Griffin school of polity

December 22nd, 2010
7:12 PM
Excellent piece. The hounding of Husain is a blot on modern, mulitcultural India. I am glad, however, that you quoted the enlightened judgement of the Delhi high court. The two redeeming features in this pathetic story have been the progressive rulings from India's higher courts and the support from fellow artists, who have spoken out quite plainly about the injustice of the charges against Husain. At least two of them (Paritosh Sen and A Ramachandran)have made the point in the Indian press that Cohen also makes, that Husain is being hounded for being Muslim. One small clarification: there are five cases against Husain (all of which have been clubbed) and not "hundreds of criminal complaints" as is commonly believed.

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