Friday, June 10, 2011

Maqbool Fida Husain, the man from Pandharpur

Through his long life of celebrity-hood and controversy, he remained the rooted small town guy

Maqbool Fida Husain came from the temple town of Pandharpur and there is a lot to be said for this simple fact because M.F.Husain as we have known, heard and seen over the last few decades has always been in the limelight of celebrity-hood and controversy. Perhaps there would have been no controversy about his apparently controversial nudes of goddess Saraswati and Bharat Mata had he not been the celebrated barefoot artist going to a five-star hotel in Mumbao or to a club in Kolkata enslaved to a British dress code.

Irascible Nobel laureate V.S.Naipaul showed a glimpse of his dark humour when he described the death threat issued by the Iranian ayatollahs in the form of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the author of the unreadable and unread 'Satanic Verses', as literary criticism of an extreme kind. Perhaps, we can say that Husian's so-called objectionable paintings from the hundreds and thousands of paintings and drawings he had made had made even the lumpen elements from among the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and the Shiva Sena aware of the importance of modern art and that it had to be fought, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

Husain did not mind the controversy and he defended himself in the straight manner he was capable of. “I did not mean to offend,” is all that he said and there is every reason to believe what he said. He was that kind of a man and he painted with a simple passion and a certain flair. There must have lurked at the back of his mind the nude paintings of goddess Kali of the Kalighat painters of the 19th century in Kolkata. He did not anticipate or calculate the response of the communal mischief-makers. He was not a man who courted contorversy and used iconoclasm as an intellectual declaration.

Those who defended Husain did not do so in the name of his art but for that vague thing called secularism. There was some talk about liberal values and artistic freedom but that was marginal. The secular crowd was as much philistine as the mob on the other side. It was a pitched battle between secularism and communalism. Husain did not have anything to do with it.

Husain was quite immersed in the legends of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and that of Husain of the Shia tradition, and his paintings were overflowing with the images flowing from these traditions. The Husain admirers choose to maintain a conspicuous silence about the mythological figures in his paintings because they are not merely aesthetic renditions stripped of their mythical and folk, which in turn was always religious, symbolism.

Then in his last few years, he turned to the commercial, mainstream Hindi cinema's images of glamour and melodrama which he wanted to etch on his canvases because those were the things he understood so easily. It was a familiar world for him and he knew that he could do many things with this familiar stuff. Perhaps it would take take a decade or more for people to turn to Husain and understand the demotic aspect of his art. It parrallels what Charlie Chaplin grea achievements through low-brow, slapstick rendering of common humanity in his short and feature films. Husain, like Chaplin, eluded the high-brow and intellectual tag. He negotiated his status of a prominent artist on his own terms.

The mob would have better appreciated them if they had not been ordered to indulge in mere arson. Here is a tale of an artist not understood by his ostensible admirers as to what his work really meant, and misunderstood by those ordinary folk who would have identified much better with his work. Husain was a common man in his sensibility but his artistic intelligence took him in a different direction.

The question of Husain's artistic greatness will remain an open question for quite some time to come and there is nothing strange about it. There will be time for revlauation of his work and that of Indian contemporary art. But the story of Husain, the man from Pandharpur, the man who painted cinema posters in the dream city of Bombay in the days of balck-and-white films, the celebrated artist who loved his riches and fame with the simplicity of an odrinary man remains riveting.

The danger is that the controversy surrounding his work and the celebrity status he attained because of the economic and social dynamics of an uncertain and delirious urban world would rob Husain of his simple humanity which is rooted in his native Pandharpur and which hung to him like a shade through his long life, whether he was in Mumbai or Kolkata, Dubai or London.

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