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.