Aged 95 at the time of his death and with a tremendous career in provocative art, MF Husain was one of India’s most celebrated artists and also one of the most hated.
Beginning his career at the age of 19 as a poster artist for Hindi Bollywood movies, Husain quickly rose to popularity in the art world and gained fame as well as notoriety for depicting nude Hindu goddesses.
However, as it often goes with religious fanatics, Husain was hounded by Hindu militants from the Bajrang Dal – the militant wing of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party which once formed the national government in India. They were offended by the nudity of the goddesses, which is contradictory since many Hindu statues depicting divinity are often nude (were the Bajrang offended because Husain was a secular Muslim?). Husain was dragged to court over the paintings, and in 2004 the Court judged in his favour.
Husain nevertheless imposed self-exile and moved to the UAE. He renounced his Indian citizenship after being offered Qatari nationality in 2006. He worked with H.H. Sheikha Moza of Qatar on artwork commissioned by her for Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, meant to be one of the best in the world. He also worked in London and found that even in this country his artwork caused offence among segments of the Hindu community. In 2006 an exhibition of his work in Asia House in London was cancelled for “security reasons” after letters, phone calls and emails were sent complaining that Husain’s work offended the “sentiments of the Hindu community of the UK”.
Husain’s death is a sad loss for the art world. But his work epitomised the need to guarantee free expression regardless of the offence caused. A plurality of cultures and religions exists in India and Britain and both countries are democracies that guarantee freedom of expression and religion (here more so than in India). Yet, even within this country, Husain found himself censored by art houses that are meant to celebrate artistic expression and critique. His artwork is beautiful, and any censure of this is a massive shame.
See yesterday’s obituary in the Telegraph for further details about MF Husain and his lifetime of achievements.