India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 10, 2010

India’s treasured painter Maqbool Fida Hussain officially handed over his Indian passport and became a Qatari citizen yesterday. He is never returning home and Indians should not have let him go. Forced into exile five years ago due to death threats from Hindu hardliners, Hussain told interviewers that Qatar is his home now. While he loves India, the 94-year-old artist said, the country didn’t need him or want him. All overBharatmata, the Mother India painting.

I wonder if the Hindu fundamentalists who made death threats and lodged criminal complaints against Hussain had actually seen the painting in question. It is a stunning piece of art that does everything a great work should – it inspires and provokes; offers a point of view and forces you to question yours; it offers a window to the painter’s psyche; most of all, it is quite beautiful. The right-wing rebellion against Hussain boils down to a single and tragically polarising factor: MF Hussain is a Muslim painter portraying nude Hindu goddesses. How dare he?

As it turns out, the Mother India painting has nothing to do with Hindu goddesses. It portrays a distraught kneeling woman who is artfully drawn in the shape of the Indian map. Her hair becomes the Himalayan mountains while her knees portray the southern tip of India. In its geometry, it looks like a Picasso, whom Hussain is frequently likened to; in its emotion, it resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting; in its use of bright but tranquil colours, it is akin to a Rothko. The names of Indian states are scratched out and the woman is nude, yes, but not in a tawdry way. The painting is more tasteful than most of the Bollywood dance sequences, none of which, I might add, evoke such ire from the religious radicals.

The reason that this painting is targeted is because a Muslim man has dared to depict Bharat Mata, who is traditionally viewed as a Hindu woman, thus reflecting the majority of Indians. But Mother India is beyond religion and region. Hussain has as much claim on her as Lal Krishna Advani, the former leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP. In portraying her as a distraught woman, Hussain is reflecting the sentiments of many a secular Indian. That he has done so beautifully is an added bonus. He should be lauded, not reviled, for this painting is one of his strongest.

Hussain doesn’t make it easy, I admit. He has painted nude Hindu goddesses in the past, and continued to do so in spite of widespread protests. Unlike his more reclusive contemporaries, he has allowed his eccentricities to flower to the point of caricature. The white beard, the bare feet, the flowing clothes, the cloth bag, are all portraits of this artist as a young (at heart) man. In his courtship of Bollywood beauties like Madhuri Dixit and Tabu, in his willingness to let the world into his heart and home, Hussain is perhaps more innocent than the other painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Mumbai. And unlike other Indian art luminaries, he took a chance on India. While his contemporaries such as Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza exiled themselves to Paris and New York respectively, Hussain remained determinedly Indian. He loved India and it loved him back.

Hussain has said in interviews that even when political parties sent mobs to destroy his home, the young men who invaded his home never touched his paintings, in spite of orders from the parties’ top brass. Such is the power of a Hussain. While the general public only remembers his controversial paintings, these are a small fraction of his body of work, which comprised other, less-controversial but equally inspiring Sufi paintings, his paintings of horses and chariots and of nameless Indians and shrouded women.

Hussain has said that he will visit India if invited. Several political parties and the home minister P Chidambaram have already asked him to return home. His son, Owais Hussain, told Arab News: “You can take him to any part of the world, but he would still remain an Indian personality.” Asked whether his father could change his mind about his citizenship, the son didn’t know. Meanwhile, masses of Indians have brought a petition that Hussain be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. But these are mere palliatives to what is essentially India’s national shame: it has lost its greatest painter.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India


In reference to Shoba Narayan’s opinion article India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad (March 10), it takes courage to speak out as boldly, and forthrightly, as Ms Narayan has done about Maqbool Fida Husain, a modern-day Picasso, a prophet without honour in the home of his birth. What a shame! Vernon Ram, Hong Kong

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