Asia Society Remembers Pre-Eminent Indian Painter M.F. Husain, 1915-2011

M.F. Husain (1915-2011) in March 1999, seated in front of his 40-foot (13-meter) canvas VIOLENCE at Gallery 7 in Mumbai, India. (Sebastian D'Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

M.F. Husain's passing at 96 years of age signals the end of an era. Among the last of the great modernists who came to prominence during India's post-Independence period, he was one of the country's most famous and important artists.

A self-taught artist who was once a billboard painter for the Bollywood film industry, he was invited to join the Progressive Artists' Group, a Mumbai-based avant-garde group whose members included Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), Syed Haider Raza (b.1922) and Tyeb Mehta (1925-2009), many of whom sought to fashion a fresh cultural self-image by combining nationalistic subject matter and sentiments with modernist styles.

In recent years his works had attracted controversy, drawing criticism from both Hindu and Muslim groups in India. The publication of an article in 1996 about nude images of Hindu deities he painted in the 1970s led to death threats by Hindu nationalists, charges of blasphemy and obscenity, and eventually a series of warrants for his arrest. He lived the last years of his life in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.

Husain enjoyed a positive re-appraisal of his work in recent years, both critically and commercially. In 2005, he became the first living Indian artist to command $1 million for a painting. In 2008, he was included in Indian Highway, a major exhibition of Indian contemporary art at London's Serpentine Gallery.

He produced and directed several films, including Through the Eyes of a Painter, for which he received the Golden Bear at the International Film Festival in Berlin (1967). Among numerous awards and honorary degrees, Husain received the prestigious Indian national awards Padma Shri (1955), Padma Bhushan (1973), and the Padma Vibhushan (1989). In 1986, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament), and, in 1997, he received the Aditya Vikram Birla Kala Shikhar Award for life-time achievement.

M.F. Husain's art will be remembered as much for the controversy that prevented him from living in his home country as for his ground-breaking works that broached a modern, almost expressionistic style with classical Indian motifs.  

Melissa Chiu is Director of the Asia Society Museum in New York and Vice President of the Society's Global Arts Programming.

Related coverage:
Christian Science Monitor
New York Times
The Times of India
The Telegraph (UK)

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