Why Husain is in search of controversy

Essential qualifications to enter the golden gates of immortality: a mistress called controversy and a life in exile, preferably under royal patronage


P P Balachandran | May 3, 2010

I have not been able to figure out why an artist’s personal choice, as a citizen or as an artist, should cause a deep political divide. If M F Husain decided to barter his nationality for whatever reasons – lofty existentialist or base commercial – it should have been  ideally treated as his own business; especially when the artist himself, while taking the decision, did not appear to be bleeding on the horns of any Hamletean dilemma. True, until he handed over his passport to the Indian embassy in Doha last month, Husain was vacillating while explaining the reasons for his decision. At best, he sounded ambivalent, at worst evasive. But back home, it led to a left-right standoff with both sides firing their clichéd arguments at each other, not knowing that the truth, as always, is buried between the two burning ends.

Let us begin with a consensus. Maqbool Fida Husain is a splendid artist, the likes of who rarely walked, barefoot or otherwise, upon this planet. He is blessed not just with a long and productive life but also with a fairytale career that pitch-forked a street painter from a wooden scaffold to the gilded palaces of emirs and pashas.

Husain is also one of the richest painters who set fire to the Christie’s and Sotheby’s with his sirens and stallions that fetched him dollars in millions. And yet, he walks barefoot because, he once told a fan, he wanted to feel the pulse of the earth.

Even without any of these superlatives, though, Husain must remain an icon for generations of artists, thanks to the sheer tenacity with which he celebrates his life and worships his art at the awesome age of 95. As Frida Kahlo Rivera, the Mexican painter, said about her muralist husband Diego Rivera, his capacity for work breaks clocks and calendars.

But even so perfect an artist like Husain lacked, until late in his career, one or two essential qualifications, sine qua non, if you prefer, to enable him to enter the golden gates of immortality - a mistress called controversy, and a life in exile, preferably under royal patronage.

A genius without controversy is like Apollo drained of testosterone. All those glitzy salons and auction houses of Europe and the Middle Eastern sheikhdoms may have given Husain the coziness his money could buy. But that still wouldn’t fetch him a ticket to the pantheon of immortals where he could be in the company of some of God’s own painters, sculptors and architects. And Husain whom his fans, understandably given to hyperbole, call India’s Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, should have a ringside seat in the divine hall. But Husain has to qualify for that, not just in terms of talent or fame, money or makeover. He has to have what Voltaire called the ‘devil’ in him to succeed as an artist. He has to be a creative odd-ball – controversial, anti-establishmentarian and yet gifted. 

Classically defined, a genius should go against the majority flow of the society. A ‘tormented soul’, he should be maligned and misunderstood, and eventually forced, prophet-like, into exile where he would die a distant legend, a real Carlylean hero.

Voltaire’s devil found manifestation in most wicked ways in some of the most gifted men. Thus ‘divine’ Michelangelo stole the Pope’s money to lend lustre to his ‘divinity’; Van Gogh cut his ear to add darkness to his insanity, Gauguin contracted syphilis to burnish his otherwise deprived life, Picasso had his women to give him, Eros Fatigue apart, a dash of chutzpah to a boringly opulent life…

But Husain invoked the devil in him in his own inexplicable way. For a strange reason, he went for the right wing Hindu’s soft underbelly. He went for his gods and goddesses and did a Rembrandt on him. The Dutch maestro painted Danae, the mother of the Greek God Perseus and the mistress of Zeus; but unlike Husain, he escaped persecution, primarily because the modern Greeks had lost interest in their ancient gods.

Hussein, on the other hand, provoked the Hindu zealots who, unlike the Greeks, have still not given up on their gods, or, as their detractors would say, are still milking their deities for political ends.  But who cares, as long as, in the event, Husain earns his controversy and his exile.

But four years of a golden-cage existence in an intellectually vacuous city like Dubai was not taking the painter, he realised, any closer to the kingdom of immortality. The city may have given him a few more zeroes to his bank balance, but no grain of grandeur.

Qatar is no Medician Florence, either; but the tiny carbon emirate is immeasurably rich, and it’s ‘queen’, Sheikha Mousa, is an accidental patron of fine arts and culture. A commoner married into the ruling Al Thani family, Mousa is smart enough, unlike the other begums in the Gulf, to seize the advantages of cultural co-habitation with the rest of the world.

To her goes the credit for bringing in some of the fancied universities of the UK and the US to Qatar, as also for launching the much maligned Al Jazeera channel. She also played a major role in ushering her hitherto ‘timid’ country into international politics.

Mousa spotted Husain, wilting in spirit, in the neighbouring Dubai and decided to add him to her collection of jewels. She offered him a multimillion dollar, open-deadline project to paint the whole span of Islamic history.

It was not an offer from one of India’s corporate lalas; it’s the kind of offer the Middle Age monarchs and the Popes made to da Vinci and Michelangelo. Hussein had to take it even if it meant shifting base to Qatar.

Money, certainly, would smell good even at 95. But to be fair to the artist, there is more than money to this. It’s a royal patronage that would let him travel the same hallowed road his masters took to the kingdom of immortals. Husain could not have let it slip. And this is the crucial point the hectoring political class seems to have missed in the whole debate.

In his last years, Leonardo da Vinci left his beloved Florence for France where he died in the arms of his patron king, Francis the First. Husain, likewise, might want to spend the remains of his day under the patronage of Qatar’s Al Thani family. Why not let him realise his autumnal dream of sharing the heavenly pantheon with his masters? Why confine a Davos Man within the mindless borders of nationalism?



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