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March 2002





By Hari Panday


Prime Minister AB Vajpayee receiving an on-the-spot painting 

from noted painter MF Hussain at the "Shraddhanjali" concert


The spectacular ascent in the status of contemporary Indian visual arts can be directly attributed to contributions made by some leading artists from India. Among this group of some fifty names, in a country of a billion-plus people, is Padma Vibhushan Maqbool Fida Hussain.  Hussain is a highly accomplished, inventive and sought-after Indian artist in the world – especially among  American, European, and Non-resident Indian art collectors. This rise in the status of Indian art and the tremendous contribution of Hussain Sahib to the art scene have gone largely unnoticed by the masses in his country.  They see him superficially in an unconventional pose – bare-foot, paint brush in hand, a trendy man wearing leather suits whose art is beyond affordability for the common Indian. This impression in the Indian mind is prevalent not because of the artist or what he creates. Rather, it is due to the pre-occupation of the masses in India with earning their daily bread, shelter and an education.

The support for visual arts still remains the domain of the affluent, now gradually shifting towards the middle class and the new “yuppie.”  Strange as it may sound, in my informal survey among overseas Indians, I am astounded to discover that so few Indians know of Hussain, let alone have a sense of his art. If at all, they know him for his affinity for an Indian actress, and for painting Indian goddesses and this was found offensive some 25 years after its creation, by a few!

My exposure to Hussain Sahib’s works came during a visit in 1985 to Bharat Bhawan in Bhopal.  Bharat Bhawan is a unique national treasure in India that had Hussain originals on display.  Until that stage Indian art for me meant the images of miniature paintings and Hindu icons that were mostly inspired by Raja Ram Varma in pre-independence India.  This exposure supplemented by my passion for classical music subtly extended my appreciation for the visual arts.  Further, my life in Canada, its cultural diversity, and a liking for the native Canadian arts also provided natural progression due to its many parallels with Hussain Sahib’s works: the regard for nature and wildlife, mythology, use of bold colours, icons, tribal life and variety of mediums.

Hussain, now 86 years old, is a real survivor of time. Born a Bohra Muslim in Maharashtra (very Hindu region of India) in adversity, he spent part of his youth in Sidhpur (Gujarat) and Indore (Madhya Pradesh) before starting his working life in 1937 in Mumbai.  In this most cosmopolitan commercial capital swamped with colonial influence, he started painting cinema hoardings without using grids to create the superhuman forms of P.C. Barua’s film Zindagi, the likeness of film stars such as Jamuna, Saigal and Sohrab Modi. Hussain’s involvement in the cinema brought him closer to the mass culture.  I believe that, to this day, his creations are influenced by a multitude of experiences leading up to his arrival in Mumbai. Subsequent enhancement occurred when he started to explore and define the Indian art scene with his peer group (e.g., the Progressive Artists Group) in Mumbai.  Further, the expanded knowledge from his world travels simply added to the diversity in the works of this great Indian.

As a devout Muslim, he appears to draw inspiration from Hindu mythology, Indian philosophy, world religions and writings of the late Octavio Paz.  He has been compared to Andy Warhol for his vision.  Hussain Sahib’s road to success is full of struggle in the early years. It is typical for a Bharatiya of his genre. As is customary in Indian civilization, one must dedicate one’s life before reaping the rewards of accomplishments from fellow Indians.  We seem to recognize such kalakars and their kala posthumously.  Hussain has overcome that historical social tide by earning one of the highest civilian awards from the Government of India within his lifetime. He continues to fill that lifetime with his colours, the stroke of his brush, a variety of mediums and a panorama of subjects - subjects that most would spend a lifetime studying.

His attention to detail and the ability of multi-tasking makes him learn quickly the mythology, politics, and social interaction, character and just about everything around him. Many artists, much younger than him, seem to go into hibernation after a major show or a project.  Many only do one exhibition once a year or once every two years.  But not Hussain. He is so capable of making a smooth transition from one project to another totally unrelated in form and theme.  Hussain did not limit himself to painting; he also designed furniture, toys and later expanded his creativity to make documentaries and feature films, such as Through the Eyes of a Painter in 1967, followed by Gaj Gamini  in 2000.

Gaj Gamini is a full-length feature film which Hussain describes as a “cinematic essay of Indian womanhood” enacted by Madhuri Dixit. A rarity in itself, the script of the film has been published in book form, called Art and Cinema. The 200-page, limited-edition book contains a hand-written script and a visual storyboard with over 70 serigraphs in brilliant colour. The visual storyboard is a painting 110 feet long that mingles the images of Mother Teresa and Madonna, with another talented Indian kalakar Madhuri Dixit.  He described the film as a woman’s journey through time and space - an exploration of illusion and reality. “How do you express this?” he asks. “You should become universal and not focus on local things. At my age, I can go beyond time.”

In 1999 and again in 2000, I commissioned Hussain Sahib on behalf of HSBC Bank, Canada. By that time I had collected some inexpensive but highly admirable Hussain pieces.  First, for a marketing campaign and later, in support of the Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, an exhibition held at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. In both instances my verbal requests were delivered to him third hand. In each case, the outcome was extraordinary. The first request was for creating a comprehensive image to depict the arts and culture scene in India. Concurrently, I requested him to create a piece marking the 300 years of Khalsa; this I did not want as patronizing the Sikh religion but truly to mark the event, hence relying on very subtle symbolism. The complex topics were captured with such ease and covered the secularism, the wild life, performing arts, pomp and pageantry of India, together with Hussain’s symbolic  Picasso horses (see Exhibit 1).

He seeks to capture the quintessence of his subjects - Lord Ganesh, Lord Krishna, Goddesses Durga and Saraswati, and more recently, Mother Teresa.  The harmony of world religions is so aptly captured in Theorama, where M. F. Hussain took up a project that he has made his very own: blending religions to show the spirit of secularism, and the elite with the popular.  His attachment to Hindu icons led to the creation of Ashta Vinayak.  His love for the world led to the creation of Theorama and the Mother Teresa series in the form of portfolios.  The former encapsulates B’ahai, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Vedic religions.

In terms of Hussain being a role model, he has created a bridge between the arts, the artist and mass culture. His most valuable contribution is the credibility he has lent to the promotion of contemporary Indian art in the international market.  Often young artists try to depict some clouded thinking with mixed, unrelated issues creating confusion. The artists of his vintage had this uncanny ability, be it the Bengal School of Art, the Calcutta Group, the Delhi Silpi Chakra, the Baroda Group or the Cholamandal Artists’ Village.  In the last fifty odd years these schools have constantly tried to define and consciously attempted to distil Indianness, breaking away from the European and Islamic influences of the past. 

Today, if Hussain is taken for granted, it is because his art is no longer thought of as belonging to him alone. Unlike many of his contemporaries who, as early as 1949, departed for Europe, particularly Paris, Hussain rejected the idea of leaving his “beloved India.”

What does the future hold?  I believe Hussain will live up to his words that “my art is a living activity.” For me, I will anxiously look forward to gaining greater understanding of this incredible mind - no less than the most famous leaders or scientists of India. I will also look for future creations showing the waves in his mind, a new discovery in mythology, a new world order, and a social or political dimension affecting the masses - a new vision that will bring us closer to peace with ourselves.

(Hari Panday, a senior executive with HSBC Bank in Toronto, is a collector of Native and East Indian art and is an ardent supporter of South Asian art in Toronto. This article first appeared in Kala Arts Quarterly, published from Toronto, Canada.)