It was a sad beginning to Christie’s annual auction of Indian modern and contemporary art in London’s Old Brompton Road this afternoon. Maqbool Fida Husain, the doyen of that world, was not there to take his usual seat and see how his works were doing. MF, as he was known, died of a heart attack this morning in a London hospital, at the rich old age of 95, robbing the Indian art world of its oldest and most famous and prolific painter.
Obituaries will inevitably focus on Husain’s virtual exile from India for the past five years, following his controversial depictions of Hindu deities which led to death threats from right-wing Hindutva political groups as well as lawsuits and physical attacks on his paintings.
The contribution to Indian art, and to its image abroad, of this former movie billboard painter, who was sometimes dubbed the Picasso of India has however been far greater than that. At the auction, there was a minute’s silence after Hugo Weihe, a Christie’s director and today’s auctioneer, read a tribute that described Husain’s influence as “immeasurable” and said that his leadership and contribution to the art world could not be overstated. “He lives on forever in his art”.
There were two Husain works in this afternoon’s auction, and one of them – depicting the mythological Sita from the Ramayana (Christie’s image right) was the last item to be offered for sale. This was not a typical work and just exceeded the modest £50,000 low-end estimate to sell at a hammer price of £58,000.
Three of his works were sold in London last week at a Bonham’s auction for a total of over £300,000 (Rs 2.32 crore) including buyers’ premium. One (Bonhams image below right) was of a favourite subject – a horse and a woman – and it fetched £168,000 (Rs 1.23 crore).
The threats against him inIndia closed some exhibitions, and caused his works to be withdrawn or closely protected at other events. This led MF to live mostly in Dubai. He also had a base in Qatar, where he took nationality last year and was painting a mega series on the Arab civilisation for a new museum.
He was producing three series of works, some as large as 12ft x 4ft. A history of “Indian civilisation from the Maharabharata to Manmohan Singh” would, he said then, take two years to complete. Next was the Arab civilisation series commissioned by the ruling family of Qatar, plus a history of Indian cinema.
Amazingly Husain said he could sketch a new work in a few hours and add colouring equally quickly, completing a 6ft x 4ft painting in less than a day – “though not every day”! Explaining the speed, he told me that “after 50 or 60 years experience, my vision is there and I know what I want to paint”.
On his absence from India, MF said: “If I was 40, I’d have fought, but at my age I have an urge to create, so let them do what they like……..They have said I am a traitor because I painted the map of India in the shape of a woman” (left).
It was, he said, “purely party political” – not a single religious head had spoken a word against him. “They are extremists who want an agenda”.
MF said he had been used to opposition and criticism from the time when he and other members of the 1940’s Progressives group such as the late F.N.Souza and Tyeb Mehta “were not allowed to meet students because it was said we were a foreign influence”.
Both artists had works in today’s auction where sales totalled £4.3m. A Tyeb Mehta portrayal of a figure on a rickshaw (Christie’s image left) far exceeded the £800,000-£1.2m estimate to create a record price for the artist of £1.7m ($2.8m, Rs125m) or £1,97m ($3.24m) including the buyer’s premium. Husain’s highest ever price was $1.6m, achieved in New York in 2008 (when it was also an all-India record) for a monumental work, Battle of Ganga and Jamuna.
“The critics had wanted us to paint like the Bengal school” Husain told me, instead of breaking from tradition into new European-influenced after he and others spent time abroad.
Husain would have liked to return to India, but not with the risk of attacks on his work. “At this age, I’m happy and I’m working. What I plan to do is not possible in India…. “.
He will be buried in the UK near London tomorrow. There have often been criticisms of some of his works, and suggestions that he was too prolific, but no-one will question Husain’s enormous contributions to India’s artistic heritage. It is a condemnation of the influence that politically-inspired fanatics have in India that he never returned and that he died, and will be buried, in virtual exile.