MF Husain dies – lauded in exile by India’s artistic fraternity

John Elliott

IMG 4159 trimmed1 300x265 MF Husain dies – lauded in exile by India’s artistic fraternityIt was a sad beginning to Christie’s annual auction of Indian modern and contemporary art in London’s Old Brompton Road this afternoon.

Maqbool Fida Husain, the doyen of that world, was not there to take his usual seat and see how his works were doing. MF, as he was known, died of a heart attack early this morning in a London hospital at the rich old age of 95, robbing the Indian art world of its oldest and most famous and prolific painter.

Obituaries will inevitably focus on Husain’s virtual exile from India in the past five years following his controversial depictions of Hindu deities, which led to death threats from right-wing Hinduvta political groups as well as lawsuits and physical attacks on his paintings.
The contribution to Indian art and to its image abroad of this former movie billboard painter, who was sometimes dubbed the Picasso of India, has however been far greater than that. At the auction, there was a minute’s silence after Hugo Weihe, a Christie’s director and today’s auctioneer, read a tribute that described Husain’s influence as “immeasurable” and said that his leadership and contribution to the art world could not be overstated. “He lives on forever in his art”.

There were two Husain works on sale and one of them – depicting the mythological Sita from the Ramayana was the last item to be offered. This was not a typical work and just exceeded the modest £50,000 low-end estimate to see at a hammer price of £58,000. Three of his works were sold in London last week at a Bonham’s auction for a total of over £300,000 (Rs 2.32 crore) including buyers’ premium. One was of his a favourite subject – a horse and a woman — and it fetched £168,000 (Rs 1.23 crore).

The threats against him in India closed some exhibitions and caused his works to be withdrawn or closely protected at other events. This led MF to live mostly in Dubai. He also had a base in Qatar, where he took nationality last year and was painting a mega series on the Arab civilisation for a new museum.

He spent the summers partly in London, where I interviewed him two years ago (picture above), surrounded by large canvasses that he was painting with great energy, barefoot as usual, and enthusiastically talking about work that still had to be done.

He was producing three series of works, some as large as 12ft x 4ft. A history of Indian civilisation from the Maharabharata to Manmohan Singh would, he said then, take two years to complete. Next was the Arab civilisation series, commissioned by the ruling family of Qatar, plus a history of Indian cinema.

On his absence from India, MF said: “If I was 40, I’d have fought, but at my age I have an urge to create, so let them do what they like……..They have said I am a traitor because I painted the map of India in the shape of a woman”. It was, he said, “purely party political” – not a single religious head had spoken a word against him. “They are extremists who want an agenda”.
He would have liked to return to India, but not with the risk of attacks on his work. “At this age, I’m happy and I’m working. What I plan to do is not possible in India…. “.

He will be buried in the UK near London tomorrow. There have often been criticisms of some of his works, and suggestions that he was too prolific, but no-one will question Husain’s enormous contributions to India’s artistic heritage. It is a condemnation of the influence that politically inspired fanatics have in India that he never returned and that he died, and will be buried, in virtual exile.

A slightly longer version of this article, with more illustrations and details of the Christie’s auction, appears on John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog –

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  • Firozali A.Mulla

    Sad and bad Well we got to go there anyway. I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

  • writeratlarge

    MF Hussain is trending in Twitter and has been since the news of his death broke. The bigots who hounded him are still spewing venom and hatred and justifications for condemning him to an eternal exile. Sensible and rational Indians who have expressed sorrow at his demise and admiration for his work are mocked and targeted. MF was a victim of Hindutva which is now again in full spate in India. 

  • Rit Nanda

    India, the world’s largest democracy, and a secular nation that guarantees freedom of expression, lost much of its credibility and secular credentials in forcing MF in exile.

    MF Hussain, an Indian legend! May He forgive!

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