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.