DOHA // Indian-born artist MF Husain has been seeking sanctuary for a long time. "Since my wife passed in 1996 I had no home," Husain said during an interview at his West Bay villa in Doha. Barefoot and wearing a loosefitting Arab kandoura, he tapped and twirled an oversized black paintbrush as a servant poured tea. "At this stage of my life, my mission is to work," he said. "And I like to work in maximum peace and comfort."
Realising these are two things he might never find in his homeland, Husain, 94, relinquished his Indian passport this week and accepted Qatari citizenship. In one fell swoop, India lost a national treasure and Qatar gained a living legend. "The arrival of a world-renowned artist like him, it will be a blessing for Qatar," said SAM Bashir, an Indian businessman who has lived in Qatar for 20 years and is the former president of the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre in Doha.
Husain's paintings hang in museums from New York to Shanghai and controversy has mostly brightened his star. Today his works sell for up to US$2 million (Dh7.3m) at auction - as pricey as the work of any living non-western artist. "But it is a national disgrace for India," added Mr Bashir. "I don't know why anyone from the Indian government didn't make any attempt to solve the problem and bring him back to India. It's a total failure of our democracy and secularism."
Born in Pandharpur, near Bombay, in the fall of 1915, Maqbool Fida Husain had a rather progressive upbringing. "Nobody was religious, we were nationalist," he said. "We were very secular right from the beginning." He began painting when he was six years old, and later attended art school. In 1947, the year India gained independence, Husain cofounded a progressive artists' alliance. He had a well-received solo show in Munich a few years later, followed by exhibitions in the United States and Europe. He moved into filmmaking, and his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, won the Golden Bear at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival.
The Indian government honoured him with top civilian awards in 1955, 1973 and 1991. The trouble began just months before Husain's wife died in 1996, when an Indian magazine published images of naked Hindu deities he had painted decades prior. With religious sensitivities running high in the wake of several communal clashes, Hindu nationalist groups responded angrily, filing lawsuits, burning effigies and threatening his life.
Husain left, bouncing between Europe and the Middle East for years. He spent a lot of time in Dubai. He visited Doha and struck up a friendship with the royal family, who bought dozens of his paintings for their new Museum of Islamic Art. New works continued to spark controversy. In 2006 he painted India as a naked woman (Mother India). After the November 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, he depicted that woman being raped (The Rape of India), whipping right-wing Hindu groups into an anti-Husain lather. Returning home seemed out of the question.
Around this time, Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned learnt he was working on a series about Arab civilisation and offered to serve as his patron, promising housing, facilities and creature comforts. "I wanted a sponsor, so I accepted," said Husain. More than 1,200 court cases have been filed against him in India, mainly for impugning religious and nationalist beliefs. Hindu extremists threaten to chop off his hands or gouge out his eyes if he returns.
Husain blames the government's lack of response to the venom of Hindu nationalist groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena, which are linked to India's leading opposition political party, the BJP. "The government was weak, and it's still weak," he said. "The whole thing is political, it has nothing to do with art or religion - they only want to get some votes." The sacred and the profane have mingled in Hindu iconography for centuries. Examples include the erotic carvings at Khajuraho and certain engravings within the Ajanta and Ellora cave complexes not far from Husain's birthplace.
Though he has not set foot in India for five years, the decision to renounce his Indian citizenship was not an easy one. "I still love my country," said Husain, who is working on a series of paintings on Indian civilisation. Like Sheikha Mozah, many Doha residents look forward to his future contributions to the Gulf. "This is the first time a big Indian celebrity is taking a passport from the GCC, from an Arab country, so I think this is very good," said PN Baburajan, an Indian property agent who has been living in Qatar for 25 years. He also works as a correspondent for a Malayalam TV news channel. "Now he loves Qatar and he's going to do some work for Arab culture and civilisation."
Earlier this week, several dozen large, completed works were scattered about Husain's villa, clogging the hallways and leaning against the walls and furniture. Most had never been publicly exhibited. They included a sombre work called Palestine Blue and a large, disjointed painting entitled Yemen. In addition to his thousands of paintings, Husain has six children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Most of his family remains in India, where some observers see the artist's decision as a defeat for free speech.
"A large body of people stood up and spoke for you in the confidence that you are with them in this struggle," analyst Shazi Zaman wrote in open letter to Husain in the Calcutta Telegraph this week. "We thought that a person as privileged, as loved, liked and respected as you would certainly fight. But you took a flight out to Qatar." Sipping tea in Doha, Husain had a different perspective. "I am not a leader, I am a painter," he said. "My job is to paint."