The World Was His Canvas: The Legacy of M.F. Husain

Maqbul Fida Husain, known as M.F. Husain, was India’s most famous, and its most infamous, contemporary painter. Often labeled the Picasso of India, his life and work spanned the 20th century and inched into the 21st. He produced over 30,000 paintings, some of which have sold at auction for over $1.5 million.

I organized a conference to celebrate his 95th birthday in Doha last September. It was titled (as Husain himself had requested) “The World is My Canvas.” Husain came back from London, where he also has a home and studio, but as an active participant, not a mere observer. He talked, he doodled, he joked, he even posed for a group photo.

M.F. Husain remained a dynamic, ceaseless explorer of art, life, and beauty until a couple of weeks before his death in London on Thursday June 9. In 2003, to celebrate his 88th birthday, he produced 88 oils across four Indian cities. “After open-heart surgery they said: ‘take it easy, and only paint miniatures,’” he scoffed, referring to an operation he had in 1988.

Yet controversy embroiled him from the mid-’90s because he loved, and painted from, India. Politically-minded Hindu partisans objected to his portrayal of women. He painted not just women but Hindu goddesses, and he painted them as they have been painted for centuries: unclad. But secular Indian courts allowed advocates for the Hindu right to bring a case against Husain. He was accused of causing harm to the sensibilities of others. He faced not one case but multiple cases, along with vandalism of his art and threats against both himself and those close to him. Soon after his victorious 88th birthday, he moved from India to the Gulf; first to Dubai, and then after 2007 to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

It was Her Highness Sheikha Mozah, wife of the Amir and fervent patron of art and education in Qatar, who offered him a home in the tiny but wealthy Gulf state. Husain agreed to do a series of 99 paintings on Arab/Islamic art, to be housed in one of the several new museums being constructed in Doha. When I first met him, at the opening of the new I.M. Pei Museum of Islamic Art in November 2008, he had completed just 19 for the Doha project. (By the time of his death, he had added another 14-16 paintings, bringing the total to 33-35, in what will remain one of several incomplete thematic projects that mark his extraordinary productivity.) For students of Abrahamic religion, there are few modern paintings as evocative as M.F. Husain’s enormous acrylic triptych which appeared at the entrance to the gallery at the MIA opening in November 2008: 


Labeled Cross-Cultural Dialogue, it is a painting I describe at length in my essay that appears in the only academic study of Husain, a book edited by my Duke colleague and dedicated to the artist: Sumathi Ramaswamy, Barefoot across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India (Routledge 2010). The holy book looms large, in three different forms or versions, as do three figures of religious agency, and then there is the faceless woman. In a sidebar, M.F. Husain refers to her as “the Queen of Qatar, forging ahead riding a red horse” but elsewhere a faceless woman can be, and often is, Mother Theresa. The intention is, in the artist’s words, “to see in that empty face all the faces of those whom she has assisted.” And so the empty space is not the lack of space but the encompassing of a greater space, and the same could be said for the empty face in Cross-Cultural Dialogue, alluding to future alliances, options, and convergences to be initiated by Sheikha Mozah but not yet imagined or planned.       

Ironically with his expected but still untimely death at age 95, Husain has now fulfilled another of his enigmatic dicta. Back in 1993, before the Hindu right had attempted to harass and revile him, Husain, then a mere 78, had presided over a retrospective at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. “Let history cut across me without me,” he declared. And now it has. First with his exile from India and then with his death in London, one of the most brilliant modern-day artists—at once experimental and affable, philosophical and playful, religious and secular—has passed to another realm, leaving others to ‘cut across him,’ to enjoy and also to contest his piebald legacy. He will be sorely missed, but remembered fondly by those who knew him with a wistful smile and, yes, bare feet: