Posted by: John Elliott | June 12, 2011

Can India rise to the challenge of celebrating M.F.Husain’s legacy?

While India’s politicians squabbled about the perceived rights and wrongs of M.F.Husain’s virtual exile from India, the country’s most famous and prolific artist was quietly buried in the UK on Friday, and then remembered yesterday at a London teatime memorial meeting – both events attended by relatives, friends and admirers of his work. The family plans more memorial meetings in the next week or two in Delhi, Mumbai and Dubai.

Namaz-e-Janaza (prayers) took place at a modest Idara-e-Jaaferiya mosque off Tooting Broadway in south London on Friday morning, calmly and serenely, far away from the senseless noise in India.

MF, as he was known lay in an open simple coffin on the floor of the Shia mosque, surrounded by nearly 100 mourners – his family, including sons Shamshad, Mustafa and Owais and daughter Raisa, friends and people from the art world. The coffin was then driven to be buried at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking outside London, which has a dedicated area for Muslims.

Yesterday afternoon, at London’s Dorchester Hotel, tributes were paid by his son Owais and by friends who included London-based businessmen Lord (Gulam) Noon and Anwar Siddiqi, former tennis player Naresh Kumar, and N. Ram, editor of The Hindu. MF had suffered at least one recent “silent” heart attack in Dubai before being hospitalised in London, but and just a few hours before he died was telling Owais how he planned a family visit to Venice next March.

He was remembered at the meeting for the vast span of his life through most of the 20th century and into the 21st – from “bullock cart to Bugatti” as one family friend put it (there is a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 in his famous Dubai collection of cars). People noted his energy, which he passed on to those around him, and his general enthusiasm for life.

There has been some doubt about his age, with most reports saying he was 95, but his family tells me that he was 97 because he was born in September 1913 and not 1915 as is shown in his passport. According to the Muslim calendar, he was 100 last year.

Meanwhile people in India could still not make up their minds whether to honour this great painter or leave him forever exiled their minds. Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, who did little if anything during MF’s lifetime to encourage him to return home and defy right-wing Hindu fanatics who were attacking him and his paintings, had the gall to talk about the “national loss” of an “iconic artist….whose genius left a deep imprint on Indian art”.

Too late, the government offered to facilitate the return of the body. Right-wing political leaders, who had helped to keep him in exile while he was alive, also said controversies should now be forgotten and he should be brought back to India, but more fanatical voices continued to attack him on the internet.

An untitled work of a favourite subject – a horse and a woman – sold at Bonham’s last week

Friends of MF tell me that he definitely wanted to return to India – though he acknowledged that his wealth had grown substantially in recent years when news of his exile spread his fame and boosted his prices.

His family momentarily thought, just after he died in London last Thursday morning, of taking his body to Mumbai, but then decided to honour his specific wish to be buried wherever he died. How much better to be surrounded by family and genuine well-wishers in London than be flown into controversy in India!

But what will India do now about the memory and artistic legacy of this legend? There are three partly completed series of works. There is an Indian history – the Indian civilisation from the Maharabharata to Manmohan Singh as MF described it to me in an interview (pictured top) two years ago.

This has been commissioned by Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian-born London-based steel tycoon who was at Brookwood cemetery and at yesterday’s tea meeting. There is also a series on the Arab civilisation, commissioned by the ruling family of Qatar where MF took nationality last year, and a history of Indian cinema.

Can the India now rise above its feeble responses of recent years and recognise India’s most famous modem artist with a museum that will house his work? It gave Anish Kapoor, the Anglicised India-born artist a rousing welcome last year and Sonia Gandhi, leader of the governing coalition, said she hoped that “we may one day see Anish Kapoor’s installation in one of our cities”.

Rather more urgent than a Kapoor sculpture, surely, is an M.F.Husain Museum in Delhi or Mumbai.

June 13: Ideas for a museum are already developing. Mustafa Husain is quoted in the Hindustan Times this morning saying that the family is considering one in Mumbai, as is a local businessman. There are moves in Hyderabad too.


see also MF Husain dies – lauded in exile by India’s artistic fraternity


  1. Is it just me or does majority of hussains paintings contain an undertone of “beastality”?

    Im all in favour of free expression but i think mf hussain is a tainted guy and fighting alongside him will only taint the rest of us.

    I think the people in the pro-hussain camp are just as rigid as the people in the anti-hussain camp. We need a clean guy. We need someone like hazare. Hussain is more like baba ramdev.

  2. MF Husaain has reproduced Indian culture through medium of so called ‘Modern Art’ which is accepted by western world. Hence , his artworks are important national treasure. The prices of his artwork will keep on increasing as he is no more and had lived controversial life. His controversies will be reproduced in form of ‘to be controversial’
    films which will further hike the prices. MF Hussain understood the marketing dynamics of art works very well. So it will be beneficial for anyone to have his art collection. If government can move in this direction early then it will be better. Otherwise some filthy rich investor will definately pick up the opportunity. But above all, it will be pleasure for every indian to watch their culture through simple lines and colours of MF.

  3. I certainly would agree that M F Husain transcended traditional Indian painting and expressed his cultural upbringing through more Western mediums and traditions. However, it is saddening to see that traditional painters, of e.g. Madubhani and Warli traditions, are relegated to craftsmen status and are not given full opportunity to expose their artistic talents to a non-Indian context and express themselves by using their skills with their traditional medium — and being called artists and commanding astronimical fees in the process.

  4. I take this liberty to express my feelings different from the family of geniuses as all of you are.I wish to maintain my minority feeling at the risk of being dubbed a right winger man. I dont know if I m wrong in reading through his mind from his art work. But then what is an Artist? He expresses himself through his art. And I sense many of his pervrsion in his work. A great artist though he was, as was Picaso who married 26 times.

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