MF Hussain: An Artist Misunderstood. Here’s Why!

Posted on June 16, 2011 in Culture-Vulture

By Devika Mittal:

M.F Hussain passed away at the age of 95. Within minutes of the announcement, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with condolences for the most famous and also one of the most controversial artist in Indian history. The news had come as a shock for many. I, myself, took some time to digest this news. I wasn’t his particular fan but his struggle which continued till his last breath earned him deep reverence from thousands like me. I am not a student of art nor have I ever made serious attempts to study art, so for me Hussain Sahab was the ‘man of great controversies’.

The first time I heard of M. F. Hussain was when he was barred from entering a hotel as he was barefoot. I was fascinated by his sense of ‘style’. Then he became for the little girl, the ‘notorious’ artist. But not that I cared about it! Last year, following a lecture by an eminent Historian, M.F. Hussain re-entered the domain of my mind. I, then, got a different version of him. When I heard of his demise, I was remorseful but what added to my grief were some tweets and comments. Some continued to label him as “Anti-hindu”, “obscene” and “anti-Indian” and many abuses were hurled. I found that disgusting. But more than that, I thought that M.F. Hussain died without receiving justice.

M.F. Hussain was a proverbial figure in the Indian contemporary modernist art. He had bagged the highest National awards in India and was also nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Being an ‘Art illiterate’, I don’t think I can discuss his contributions but the title of “Picasso of India” accorded to him suffices, doesn’t it? So then what had gone wrong?

Hussain’s controversial paintings revolve around nude Hindu deities, naked picture of Mother Goddess and caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. Religious fanatic groups had opposed these paintings and had threatened the life of the artist. Hindu fanatic organisations accused him of hurting the sentiments of the Hindu community and labeled him as “Anti-Hindu” and “Anti-Indian”. Seeing the extremism grow, M. F. Hussain went into a self-imposed exile.

But was the hurt he supposedly inflicted – intentional? Had he really degraded Hinduism and Hindu deities? The art community has a ‘different’ take. The celebration of nudity explicit in Hussain’s art was not new, they argue. The Ancient and Medieval past is full of it. One bicycle round around Khajuraho will be enough to prove his innocence.

Hussain, any art student will tell you, in these controversial paintings had only combined mythical imagery with modernist techniques. It was his visual translations of Ramayana and Mahabharata. And I said “translations” not interpretations! Hussain’s “Mother India” is another unlucky painting. This painting depicts a naked woman representing India. Art Historians like Sumathi Ramaswamy have pointed out historical parallels for this iconography. So again, Hussain was just following the history’s legacy. But yes, she was portrayed naked, hence sparking a more fierce protest. Nudity in Art is seen as a symbol of purity and has a long history. Besides, Hussain’s “Mother India” cannot hurt the Hindu sentiments as she was a national deity and thus doesn’t fall in their jurisdiction.

The artist community sees the transformation of Hussain as a symbol of secularism into “a muslim sexual predator who’s act of painting nude is seen as an act tantamount to rape” (Art Historian Tapati G. Thakurta), in the background of emerging fascist forces. The paintings were released in 1970s but the petitions began post-Babri in 1996.

He is seen as a post-colonial, nationalist artist. His work has been seen as national in content and international in form. His gesture of being barefoot is dubbed as “nationalist”. Through this, he sympathized with the impoverished masses that were also barefoot. His act is also seen as symbolizing him being in direct contact with the “soil” of India. Historians such as David Gilmartin and Barbara Metcalfe refer to him as the “civilizational” artist. He considered the Hindu deities to be Indian deities. M.F. Hussain could not have hurt “Hindu” sentiments intentionally since he himself was agnostic. He was, thus, not under any “religious” obligation to proclaim the superiority of Islam.

He is described as a “simple and great man” by his contemporaries. His only misfortune was being born in a particular religion and not being tagged “secular” at birth, something that he was his entire life. It made him a good target. He became the victim of the dirty communal politics in this country. It’s a shame that he died as he lived, gravely misunderstood.