Posted by: John Elliott | March 5, 2010

Two icons in their 90s – Michael Foot has died but MF Husain paints on

Michael Foot, one of Britain’s most respected parliamentarians and Labour Party politicians, died this week aged 96. Maqbool Fida Husain, 94, probably India’s most famous modern painter, has opted for citizenship of the Gulf state of Qatar, which means giving up his Indian passport, so that he can continue to paint unfettered by Hindu extremists.  


  It may seem odd to write about these two men together, especially when it is a time to mourn the death of one and celebrate the amazing energy and creativeness of the other. But the world would have been a poorer place without Foot’s (left) parliamentary career, his principles, and his idealism, which touched India as well as Britain, and the world would also be poorer if Husain does not feel free enough from India’s religious bigotry to continue to paint his vast canvases.  

Husain has lived abroad since 2006 because of court cases against him that stem from Hindu chauvinism. The cases allege that he has offended the Hindu religion, public decency and Indian nationhood with nude depictions of goddesses and a map of India. Exhibitions of his work have been closed by fanatics, and there is a risk if he returned to India that he and his paintings would be attacked.  


 I doubt whether many people in India’s commercial capital of Mumbai, where I am this week, will be noticing Foot’s death. I also sense a more cynical approach to Husain’s (right) plight and Qatar citizenship than is apparent in politically-obsessed Delhi, where television chat shows have been treating the painter’s Qatar move as if it were a national crisis, and opposition parties have been criticising the government for failing to provide him with a safe passage home.  

In Mumbai there are suggestions that he has made the decision partly to keep himself in the news, to bolster the price of his paintings, and to upstage his slightly younger peers at a time when there is more quantity than quality to his art. “He’s really now a court painter,” one collector told me yesterday, picking up on Husain’s commission from Qatar’s ruling family to paint a series depicting the history of the Arab civilisation for a new museum in Doha.  

I interviewed Husain for this blog in London (where he also lives) last summer, and I firmly believe that his main motivation in staying abroad, and anchoring himself in Qatar, is to be able to paint the Arab saga and two other large-scale series (depicting Indian history and cinema) without being diverted by the risk of violence and harassment.  

Husain himself said in an NDTV interview this week: “At 40, I’d have fought [the extremists] but at my age I just want to work”. Though the attacks on him undoubtedly hurt emotionally, he denied feeling rejected by India but added: “It’s impossible for me to work there without disturbance”.  

“He surely wants the Qatar citizenship so that he is not just a vagabond travelling from city to city,” another collector told me.
Foot’s relationship with India was also complicated, but in a different way. A strong supporter and admirer of India’s independence movement, he was close to Indira Gandhi and even broke with his political principles to support the State of Emergency that she decreed in 1975. Whether that stemmed from the socialist authoritarian streak that ran through Foot’s Left-wing politics, or whether it was just a case of standing by a friend during a crisis, is not clear.  

Writing yesterday for Tribune, the UK’s left-wing Labour weekly, my old friend and colleague Geoffrey Goodman, who was close to Foot, said: “The great cavalcade of his life was the essence of that word ‘radical’: tempestuous, full of a courageous integrity, which sometimes may have seemed a touch eccentric; unyielding in its moral code and, even in old age, astonishingly vigorous in its execution……..he offered the gift of honest enlightenment to enhance the quality of British political and cultural life.  Goodman also wrote to me, saying that Foot had become “a sort of national treasure”, echoing what he wrote in the Daily Mirror.

I knew Foot when he was Secretary for Employment in the early-1970s Labour Government. He did not take easily to that job, just as he was uncomfortable later as party leader. But his friendliness, sincerity, and allegiance to the cause of strong trade unionism and the protection of workers’ rights, shone through. His oratory sometimes got the better of him – once he was supposed to make an important statement in the House of Commons but got so carried away with his speech that he sat down, forgetting to make the announcement!  

He led his party to a disastrous defeat in 1983 with a manifesto dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by an unkind colleague. Foot insisted on sticking to party conference resolutions (never wise for any party), and the manifesto called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, abolition of the House of Lords, re-nationalisation of key privatised industries, withdrawal from the European Economic Community, an end to council house sales and a five-year national plan.  

Nearly 20 years later, that list doesn’t look quite so suicidal. Nuclear disarmament would still pull a lot of support. The House of Lords is being radically reformed. There is a strong case for renationalising some industries such as the railways, and virtual withdrawal from the Europe is now a right-wing cause.  

What a pity Foot is not 40. Britain’s coming general election would be the richer if he were. But we do still have Husain, painting his historical series at his main homes in London’s Mayfair and Dubai, and now in Qatar.


  1. Mr. John.
    I respect MF Hussain as an artist. But Have you seen any other paintings he drawn about Almighty Mohammed Nabi or anything hurt for Muslims or anything wrong about Christianity?
    If it is happened so this will create a Global Issue.
    What was happened in Deuch Cartoonist? in Arab Nations stop business & stop to importing goods from there. So What Indians understands that Issues related to Hindus are deserves less importance and if Hindus make any minor issues to other communities, it deserves more importance and will get exxagerated coverage to outside India. What MF Hussain thought that Hindus will shut their mouth and keep on request with him? Why he is not drawing his parents nude?

  2. Well as the writer say…….”he can continue to paint unfettered by Hindu extremists”

    I am sure Qatar has no extremists of any kind whatsoever so he is absolutely free to pick whatever subject he chooses including a portrait of Mohammed in the nude. I hope the author is referring to that kind of “unfettered” ability to paint. Or maybe it was just the Hindus extremists who are part of the problem and he has no other problem with any other faiths including his own.

  3. John,

    I agree with the second comment whole heartedly.

    I firmly believe in freedom of expression, even if some people may find that expression distasteful.

    I note Mr. Hussain is Muslim, yet chose to first paint a Hindu god in the nude, and has yet to depict Mohammed or Allah naked.

    Interesting choice.

    I am guessing given that now that he lives in safety, he has firm inspiration for his next controversial piece.

  4. Initially I felt betrayed by Husain after watching his interview on NDTV and felt he has finally caved in under the fascists forces, but I now think when you are 95 you don’t really care anymore and this is all he is telling us. But this cannot hide the fact that we as a country have caved under the pressure of few goons-on-rent used by all political parties. I think next time these hooligans came to attack our art and our way of life for their cheap little political games, we should get the police use laughter gas instead of tear gas on them, this would change the whole context of this debate ;))

    On a different note, I get a feel that UK is heading for a hung parliament as whoever I speak with from labour ‘areas’ I am always told-
    “as we can’t really vote Labour back again after all this mess we-will-be-forced-to-vote-for-Libdem-this-time”. Is something like Lib dem-Tory combo ideologically possible if the numbers add up?

    best way to look at the British election prospect is surely not as a hung parliament but as the Lib-Dems supporting either a Conservative or Labour-led coalition government. That might well be better than either of the two major parties governing on their own, given Labour’s exhaustion and internal troubles and the Conservatives’ lack of government experience and hard rightist views. More on this in the coming weeks! je

  5. While it is unacceptable that Mr Hussain has had to leave India fearing religious backlash, I wonder what response he would have received in Qatar if he had depicted Islam in a similar fashion – what religious freedom is he getting in Qatar then

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