The final paintings of the Indian modernist master Maqbool Fida Husain, on show for the first time at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from Wednesday, are anything but elegiac in tone. The painter, known universally as MF Husain, was 95 when he died in London in 2011, and had spent the end of his life in exile from the country he had depicted with such distinction.
But there is not a trace of bitterness or regret in these large, vividly coloured canvases, painted between 2008 and the time of his death. They are not even commemorating his final years; they are instead the ultimate celebration of his subject matter.
Tasked by his patron Usha Mittal, wife of steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, to take on the monumental task of putting the history of Indian civilisation on canvas, he took on his duties with relish and characteristic ambition. The artist committed to paint 96 panels, in brightly garnished triptychs, showing the breadth of Indian history and culture.
Husain had completed only 24 of these when he died suddenly. The Mittals visited him in hospital the day before he died. “He had a respiratory problem, and of course we didn’t know it was going to be his last day,” Usha Mittal recalls. “He was talking about what he was going to paint next, and I could see the enthusiasm and happiness as he was thinking about it.”
The eight triptychs on show at the V&A are a testament to Husain’s vision. They mix traditional mythological stories with scenes of everyday life, as if they were inseparable. The paintings’ flatness of plane, a technique he had acquired early in his life from the study of European modernism, serves his subjects well. Deities and citizens alike float in the air, in a sprawling carnival that refuses to distinguish between the tribulations of daily survival and the fantastical flights of the make-believe.
It was his fast-moving, free-form style of painting, though (he produced tens of thousands of works over his lifetime), that made an impression. “Once, he worked on a canvas horizontally, and I couldn’t work out what he was doing, and then when it was complete, he said can you put it up – vertically! I asked him how he’d done it, and he said he’d had the whole picture in his mind, and just copied it.”
Husain’s speed and facility came from his early career, after attending art school in Mumbai, as a painter of cinema hoardings. He was one of the few, says Divia Patel, the show’s co-curator, who did not need to use a grid system to design the giant posters; he was able to draw freely in perfect proportions.
He came to prominence in the late 1940s, when he and some fellow artists formed the Mumbai Progressive Artists’ Group as a response to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. He and his mentor Francis Newton Souza were determined that Indian art should follow the developments of the international avant-garde, rather than remain in thrall to the romantic and protectivist legacy of the dominant Bengal School of Art.
He always declined to see the formation of that group as a subsuming of Indian art into western ways. “The west claims modern art as its own,” he told Frontline magazine in 1997. “This is wrong. It is eastern, they took it from Japan and from Africa. Because their media are strong, they have dominated the art scene.”
Husain was a Muslim by upbringing but the themes of his paintings remained determinedly related to every community in his country, and gained him a steadily rising influence in international circles. His name became notorious throughout India, however, when his works were denounced by Hindu extremists for their portrayal of deities in the nude. After years of living with the controversy, and serious death threats against himself and his family, he was forced into exile in 2006, spending the rest of his life in Doha and London.
Mittal says Husain never talked to her about the causes and consequences of his exile. “It was too sensitive a subject. But it did hurt him. He first asked my husband for advice in 1997, and he told [Husain] to lie low until things quietened down. But then they suddenly sparked up again. From what I could learn he had a great desire to go back. He loved his country.”
Husain’s strong secularist beliefs can be seen all over his final works. In “Three Dynasties”, for example, a triptych depicting India’s ancient Mauryan civilisation, in between the rulers of the Mughal dynasty and the British Raj, Ganesh stands next to a Muslim prayer mat. “The works are respectful of all religions,” says Patel.
The paintings on show are accompanied by the artist’s brief notes on each subject, breathless in their breadth of vision: “Rolls-Royce to Railroads to Air India. Age of urgency and speed” reads the handwritten scrawl that describes the triptych on “Modes of Transport”. Husain is popularly known as “the Picasso of India”, which may not be the most accurate of descriptions, but does convey the busy restlessness of his work (the two painters met when they were guests of the São Paulo Biennial in 1971).
Mittal says she sees it as something of a mission to make Husain’s work better-known to a global audience (although prices of his best work have already risen steadily, in line with interest in contemporary Asian art). She says she would be “more than happy” to send the works for show in India too; a final reconciliation, perhaps, between a country and one of its most vibrant cultural figures.
‘MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, May 28-July 27. vam.ac.uk