M.F. Husain: 'The Picasso of India'

Artist M.

F. Husain, who died in self-imposed exile on Thursday aged 95, was often referred to as "The Picasso of India" and was the most recognisable figure of the post-independence Indian art scene.

But his vast body of work was overshadowed by controversy over his depiction of nude Hindu goddesses, which enraged ultra-nationalists, saw an $11.5-million bounty put on his head and forced him to flee India.

The dispute was evidence that religious sentiments could still be easily inflamed - often for political ends - in modern India, clashing with its desired image as a secular, multi-cultural and progressive state.

Maqbool Fida Husain was born into a Muslim family on September 17, 1915 in Pandharpur near Bombay (now Mumbai) in western India and trained at the city's famous Sir J.J. School of Art.

He first began by hand-painting Bollywood film posters but began to attract attention with the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group in the late 1940s after Indian independence from Britain.

They tried to create a new art for a new country, combining Indian traditions with modern Western avant-garde styles.

With an appealing style combining high and popular culture - film stars regularly featured in his paintings alongside Hindu gods and goddesses - Husain exhibited in galleries across Europe and from New York to Tokyo.

In 1967, his first film, "Through the Eyes of a Painter", won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Four years later, he met the Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso at the Sao Paolo Art Biennial.

Husain, who was awarded some of India's highest civilian honours and even sat at one time in the upper house of parliament, became India's best-paid painter.

His works sold for more than $1 million and were sought after by leading European art collectors, Bollywood stars and rich industrialists.

Nick Cohen, writing in the January-February 2011 edition of the British cultural magazine Standpoint called him "the grand old man of art", even suggesting that "he may be the world's greatest living artist".

"Husain embodies the spirit of his country. The struggles, the optimism and glories of India flow through his work," he added.

By then, Husain was more famous for controversy after a series of paintings from the 1970s depicting revered goddesses in the nude were published in a Hindi-language magazine in 1996.

The publication - even so many years after they were created - caused a furore among Hindu nationalists. Criminal cases were filed, ultra-right wing political groups vandalised his house and galleries showing his work.

At one point, there were hundreds of court cases against him and death threats, including the bounty for his murder. Police were put on high alert for fear it could cause sectarian violence.

Further controversy came in 2006 over Husain's "Bharatmata" or Mother India, depicting a nude woman posing across a map of the country with the names of various states on her body.

Husain fled the country, spending his time in the Gulf and in London, where he had a studio.

Husain, who saw nudity as a sign of purity, was unrepentant, as major names in the Indian art world rushed to his defence, accusing Hindu groups of hypocrisy as depictions of nude goddesses had been part of the religion since antiquity.

He told the Hindustan Times newspaper in November that year that he was homesick and longed to return to Mumbai, calling himself an "international gypsy".

But returning was out of the question as the attacks and threats continued.

In March 2010, he accepted Qatari citizenship, resigned that his advancing years made it impossible for him to challenge his opponents, who decried his work as pornographic or blasphemous.

He shrugged off the loss of his Indian citizenship but vowed to the television news channel NDTV that he would remain "an Indian-origin painter... to my last breath".

In a chat on the web site rediff.com in February 2005, the often barefoot Husain said he wanted to die painting "like a soldier with the boots on" but never set out to be deliberately controversial.

"I think you don't do work for controversy alone, and whenever you do new work which people don't understand and they say it is done to create controversy," he said.

"I kept on trying to use so many media and ideas in my work because our horizon is so vast and Indian culture is so rich that I think what we are today, culturally, we have a unique position and I don't think one lifetime is enough to encompass it."

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