MF Husain, the ‘Picasso of India’, dies in the UK

Relative confirms that renowned Indian painter who spent four years in exile in the UAE died early yesterday morning.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - APRIL 5:  The Indian artist MF Husain, speaking to a National reporter at the Capital Club in the Dubai International Financial Centre, in Dubai on April 5, 2010.  (Randi Sokoloff / The National)  For A&L story by Ed Lake
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MF Husain, the Picasso of India, died early yesterday in London of a heart attack after five years of self-imposed exile.

Maqbool Fida Husain, 95, of Dubai, who was India’s most famous painter and a mentor to artists in the UAE, was admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital several days ago, a relative confirmed.

MF Husain: Picture gallery and articles from The National on MF Husain

Last Updated: June 9, 2011

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“Yes, he passed away at 2.30am in London,” said the relative in Mumbai, who did not wish to be named. “His family is in no state to talk. Shamshad [Husain’s elder son] has not even spoken to his closest friends.”

The snow-haired artist, known for his bold brush strokes and vibrant paintings, sold works for as much as US$1.6 million (Dh5.8m). He was offered Qatari citizenship last year after spending four years in the UAE.

Husain left India in 2006 after he was charged with insulting the Hindu faith. The charges related to his paintings of nude goddesses, and a controversial painting called Bharat Mata, or Mother India, which depicted a nude woman on her knees in the shape of India’s map. He was later acquitted by India’s Supreme Court.

The works provoked death threats in India. Mobs attacked his Mumbai home and exhibitions that displayed his paintings were trashed by right-wing Hindu groups.

Recently, Husain had repeatedly expressed his desire to return home.

“He was craving to go back,” said EM Ashraf, a Dubai-based journalist and author who released a biography of the artist last year.

“He spoke of his dreams of walking without shoes or an umbrella in the Mumbai monsoons,” Mr Ashraf said. “Living the life of an expatriate wounded him. You could remove MF Husain from India but not thoughts of India from him.”

To artists in Dubai, he was a mentor who provided constant inspiration.

“I never looked at him as a legend; to me he was a mentor, a friend,” said Malini Gulrajani, the director of the art gallery 1x1 that displayed Husain’s works.

“I knew him much before he moved here and grew closer to him when he lived here,” Ms Gulrajani said. “India’s loss was our gain. I could spend quality time with him. There was a lot of interaction with other artists and he was an amazing inspiration to us.”

Even before right-wing threats forced him to move to Dubai, Husain was a regular visitor who had relatives in the emirate.

He displayed his paintings in private showings in three Dubai studios, and whipped up paintings in minutes in public events before a spellbound student community. “With Husain every day was new, every day was different,” Ms Gulrajani said. “He worked wherever he was; he was a nomad. He has been in and out of Dubai for 10 to 12 years. He had so much energy even at the age of 95.”

Well known for enjoying barefoot walking, the artist was also passionate about fast cars. A Ferrari and a Bugatti were among his collection.

But the self-taught artist had humble beginnings. He dropped out of school and took to painting cinema billboards on Mumbai’s streets in the 1940s, perched on shaky bamboo scaffolding.

His son, Shamshad, has told reporters in India in earlier interviews that after the day’s work, Husain painted on small canvases under the street light.

He joined the Progressive Artists Group in the late 1940s, an organisation that included some of India’s best known names, including FN Souza, SH Raza and Tyeb Mehta.

His signature paintings of horses are sought after among India’s elite. He also painted several series on British colonial rule. Among them were Mother Teresa and Bollywood actresses Madhuri Dixit and Tabu. He even directed two Bollywood movies as a tribute to both actresses.

He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, in 1989.

To most artists, he was forever bound to India, despite the exile.

“His name is synonymous with the Indian modern art,” said Hetal Pewani, the owner of Dubai’s jamjar art gallery.

“He was a pioneer, a mentor and he lifted India’s contemporary art scene.”

Emiratis and expatriates remembered MF Husain as a great artist and mentor:

DUBAI // MF Husain's death yesterday saddened Emiratis and expatriates alike.

“He is the most prominent artist of this century,” said Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

“This is very sad news. He has done so much to bring cultures together. He was a great human being. The world has lost one of the greatest artists,” he said.

Husain was often invited to conferences hosted by the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), where he painted in front of thousands.

“It became a tradition,” said Dr Tayeb Kamali, the HCT vice chancellor. “He would paint live at the opening ceremonies of the Education without Borders and Festival of Thinkers conferences. It was so inspiring to watch a legend paint and finish in a marvel speed.”

“His style was simply unique,” said Yasmine al Marzouqi, an aspiring Emirati artist and HCT graduate. “Once he put his hand on the canvas, he moved so swiftly and with ease. We were all watching with amazement.”

At least three of his paintings were donated to public colleges in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Those who remembered Husain yesterday said he rose early, went for morning walks, and prayed regularly, even when his health was failing him.

“He never missed this routine,” said Abbas Arsiwala, the supervisor of his studio in Emaar Towers in Deira. He spent most of his time painting, writing poems and meeting people, before leaving for London last month.

“He was always punctual. He spent a lot of time painting in the studio, reading books, writing ghazals,” said Mr Arsiwala, who managed Mr Husain’s affairs. “He said he would come back in July for a few days, before proceeding to Qatar. Little did we know, we’d never see him again.”

Known as Baba, Husain was surrounded by family and friends in Dubai. Two of his sons – Mustapha, a restaurateur, and Owais, a filmmaker – live here.

His painting often moved fans to tears. “I saw this series he had done ... on baby Ganesha [the Indian god of good fortune],” said Gulshan Kavarana, an art teacher at Mawaheb, a Dubai studio that teaches art to students with special needs.

“I started crying because it touched my heart. My students will definitely be doing an ode to MF Husain. He was my ultimate hero, I have loved his work since I was a child. I have never seen something so powerful as his paintings, there was so much power in his strokes.”

* Preeti Kannan

* Ramola Talwar Badam