“Dude, he was a fully mediocre painter. I mean, he may have done some good stuff before when he was young, but the crappy paintings totally outnumber the good ones. And he was a publicity whore. Qatar is fully welcome to him.”
“He was a coward and the worst kind of attention seeker.”
“I saw an old news clip, and in it he was standing in front of one of his paintings, and it was an exact copy of that guy, whatsisname, that friend of Picasso’s, the Expressionist. Whatever. The point is, he wasn’t original.”
“He lived in London and died in a comfortable first-world hospital. I don’t understand what the damn tragedy is here.”
In the crowd of suitably sad messages and sound bytes reacting to M.F. Husain’s death on June 9, trust me to know the people who voiced the sentiments quoted above. I don’t have it in me to write a proper post about M.F. Husain. I’m not sure I’m really knowledgeable enough, especially after realising how little I know in the process of writing 2 pieces about him and reading some excellent articles written about him (read this superb obit by Girish Shahane, if you want some idea of why the people quoted at the top of the post are imbeciles). I’m also tired of all the accusations levelled against Husain, that he was greedy about publicity, that his paintings were obscene, that he was a coward, that he had betrayed the country by becoming a citizen of Qatar and giving up his Indian citizenship.
It is amazing to me that these are still considered talking points about Husain. Yes, of course, Husain was a publicity hound. He had been that way for decades. He loved attention and was charismatic enough to command it as well. Did he do things solely for publicity? Hell yes. But really, all this shows is that, along with a talent for art, he was a talented publicity agent.
No, his paintings were not obscene. Next to the classical Hindu art on the temples of Konark and Khajuraho, for example, Husain’s naked goddesses were positively pristine. We Hindus worship the lingam, for fuck’s sake, which is an unabashed penis. And we worship it by pouring milk on it. So really, no, Husain’s naked goddesses weren’t offensive; if anything, they were traditional in their nudity. This man knew and loved stories from the Mahabharat and Ramayana more than many Hindus I know. Enough already. Really. That said, it probably isn’t fair to get annoyed with people over this point when Husain’s paintings aren’t really there for anyone to see, particularly his strongest works. Most Indians in India know Husain from reproductions of his paintings in catalogues and magazines. Most of the Husains I’ve seen have been either in people’s homes or in foreign museums. You can’t expect people to know about an artist’s philosophies or attitudes if their art isn’t accessible. If someone did want to know see Husain’s paintings to see if the right-wing protestors have a point, where does one go?
Anyway, on to the next complaint against Husain. In his 90s, Husain didn’t want to live scared. Agreed that isn’t particularly lion-hearted but surely, it’s understandable. His exhibitions were often vandalized. There was a reward of $11.5 million for his head (I seriously doubt any Hindu right-wing group would have shelled out the cash if someone had killed him but that doesn’t mean some nutter may not have given it a shot). He had 900-odd cases lodged against him, accusing his paintings of being offensive and obscene. Rather than risk being attacked by his haters or arrested as part of an enquiry, Husain stayed outside India. When a rich Qatari man offered him patronage in exchange for becoming a citizen of Qatar, he surrendered his Indian passport. Like I said, it isn’t the most heroic of actions but that doesn’t take away from how India had failed him despite the fact that this man was among the greats of modern Indian art. He shouldn’t have had to live in fear but he did, and neither the government nor the liberal culturati could do anything about it. When the news of Husain’s Qatari citizenship came out, someone had said to me, “Husain is scared, which is understandable in an old man but come on. This is India, not Detroit. People don’t just get bumped off.”
Actually, they do. Jyotirmoy Dey, crime reporter and Special Investigations Editor for the tabloid Mid Day, was shot at about 3pm today, which is as broad daylight as you can get in the monsoons. He was on his bike, near his home. Four men on two bikes came and shot him 9 times, possibly at close range. Dey was taken to the nearby Hiranandani Hospital in Powai where he was declared dead on arrival. Apparently, he was shot from behind (“in a very very cowardly fashion,” a tv news reporter is growling. Because it would somehow have been better if they’d locked eyes with him and shot him in the head.) The more I hear about how Dey died, the sicker I feel. It seems he may have been going towards his parents’ home in Ghatkopar. After the first couple of shots, Dey tried to get away from his killers. He tried to hide behind some bushes (apparently) but the assailants followed him and then pumped the remaining 7-ish bullets into him. They have found bullets embedded in a nearby wall/pavement/something, which may help the crime branch get closer the killers. It also means Dey had no chance of getting away. Dey was shot about 9 times, and not all the bullets they shot at him actually hit him. It’s … frightening.
Dey is well-known among the city’s journalists as one of the best networked people on the city crime beat. He was something of an encyclopaedia when it came to Mumbai’s mafia; he had scoops on all sorts of scams; he seemed to know everybody. The moment news of his death started making rounds, we were all speculating furiously. How could four men pump bullets into a man in a place as busy as Powai and just disappear? (Easily, according to me, particularly because you don’t expect this kind of thing to happen.) How did they know he would be coming out at this time? It was his off day, so he wouldn’t have been following any usual pattern of going to work etc. Where was he going? Was he meeting someone? Was this the result of Dey’s recent investigation of oli scams? Someone said that they’d heard Dawood Ibrahim had not liked Dey snooping around to find out more about the shooting incident that led to Iqbal Kaskar’s bodyguard’s death. I read on Twitter that he’d told someone he’d met recently that he was being followed by “rotten eggs” in the Mumbai police and harassed for investigating the oil mafia. The chances of us finding out who did it any time soon is extremely slim but it’s worth remembering that Dey had been covering the crime beat for some 20-odd years. This was a man who knew how to survive, who knew how to get his stories without getting killed. So what changed?
When Husain became a citizen of Qatar, what stung most Indians was how Husain’s decision made the emirate in the weirdly conservative Middle East seem more liberal and safe than India. I’ve no idea how safe or free Qatar is and have no curiosity about it. All I know is, India, ain’t looking so good. This country is falling apart. The government goes gaga about fasting yoga teachers, vast stretches of the country are in violent mayhem, and a journalist can be gunned down in the middle of a crowded street in a “world city”. Bloody hell.
M.F. Husain and Jyotirmoy Dey, R.I.P..
But aside from the politics do you actually like his paintings?
They’ve always left me cold.
Like I said, I don’t think I know enough to say really. I’ve seen very little of his best years live and up close, which makes a huge difference in paintings. But in the prints and few canvases I’ve seen of his old/early stuff, there’s something really powerful and emotional in them. His more visible later works, on the other hand, I don’t find that … compelling. They seem flat almost, despite all the colour and efforts at symbolism. That said, for the modern Indian style that he came up with and the way he employed it in the 50s and 60s in particular, I think Husain will be remembered as one of Indian art’s greats.