M F Husain – the changing titles of a storyline

In Arts on July 17, 2011 at 4:32 pm

I stumbled upon a great interview of MF Husain.  He had already passed away a Qatari citizen.  It made me wonder, what lead him to abandon his India and become a Qatari citizen.  Let us start with India:

‘Tanjore Paintings of Balaji with Gold leaf and Semi precious stones’

proclaimed the craft store in the neighborhood.  This summarizes to me the middle class understanding of art.  At least it does in good old South India.  The leap from this middle class sensibility to that of an art aficionado is a mighty one and fraught with many misinterpretations.

Often times class gets confused with crass in the eyes of the beholder. The gold leaf and semi precious stones dictates fine taste.  That which had a price has value.  Not the other way around as value simply cannot be judged.  No bragging rights if you cannot convince your audience that the item you posses is of immense value.

MF Husain painted on a very different canvas using strange colors and brush strokes to manifest a new grammar for a new language. His subjects depicted the vibrancy of Indian life.  None of them wore gold leaves or semi precious stones, most wore nothing at all.  The artist himself was a shabby barefoot painter of thoughts.

He loved being barefoot for a couple of reasons.  He mentioned once that he wanted to be assessed for his works and not by the footwear he dons.  He was making a statement by being barefoot. The characters in his artwork were naked for the same reason. They were making a statement and he never once wanted to gild them with gold leaves and lose the message.  Know them not for their heavily ornamented and stylized calendar art depictions.

Among the many colors he dipped his brush into, the red vermillion of controversy was his trademark. He never apologized for it. It’s a color he used often to be rightfully dubbed a repeat offender by his critiques. He went as far as saying ‘if there is no controversy, it’s not art’.  He imagined a purity of form that defied an interpretation based on the saree, dhothi, and denims they could have worn. Or the gold leaves and semi precious stones they could have been gilded with.

He depicted his characters in the nude. Depicting characters in the nude is distinctively different from *exposing* characters in the nude. There is a fine line between depiction and exposure. That controversy is to be expected, encouraged and lastly, let be.  It’s what lends character to his canvas.

It is this borderline interpretation that is controversial in MF Husain’s artwork. He loved it and like a naughty child painted it often. An artist can only hope that the artwork he creates will be talked about.  MF Husain had some passions raging and tongues wagging.  This was the desired effect of controversial art.  He was never apologetic for it, nor did he coerce a different interpretation.

His paintings today truly reflect the ethos of the moment, more so the ethos of a universe caught in a whirlwind of change. The true color of his *message* then is Cosmic Latte.

Cosmic latte is a name assigned to the average color of the universe, given by a team of astronomers from Johns Hopkins University.

India need not feel ashamed for the loss of her son because of a certain outcome of a certain interpretation.  This artist would have it no other way.  As his middle name Fida implies – may he impart the spirit of obsession in all who uphold their personal works of art.

Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art – Pablo Picasso

Husain was the greatest iconographer of Hinduism. The references being to his 150-plus paintings on Ramayana and Mahabharata done at the behest of Ram Manohar Lohia. The paintings were done at the house of Socialist leader and art connoiseur Badrivishal Pittie in Hyderabad where a priest would come every day and read out the epics while Husain would paint. It was done free of charge. 
–  Ashis Nandy, Social Psychologist had this to say –

Ashis’ brother Pritish Nandy noted – Husain being Muslim was only accidental

An Al Jazeera interview An NDTV interview
Has India failed MF Husain? Times Now
Let down by India? BBC interview
NDTV interview Barkha Dutt interviews MF Husain

Barkha Dutt:   What would be your message to Indians who have been watching you?

MF Husain:   Tu kahe to main unwan badal dun, lekin ek umr darkaar hai afsaana badalne ke liye  

 (only titles of paintings are told, the real story takes a lifetime)

My first interpretation:

Whether my paintings are done in India, New York or Qatar, only the title has changed, nothing else. In my small way, I have told my own story through a personal interpretation, which I hope will remain in the hearts of millions of my countrymen.

My second interpretation:

I personally think they got the translation wrong.  Here then is my take on ‘Tu kahe to main unwan badal dun, lekin ek umr darkaar hai afsaana badalne ke liye

If you so desire, I will oblige and change the title of my work. But it may take me a lifetime to change my story.

I believe MF Husain was defining his own conviction against the backdrop of a demand to apologize for his work. He is going a little further than the explicit statement regarding NY and Qatar.  The title can be changed easily. He could have titled a piece ‘Madhuri’ instead of ‘Saraswati with Veena’ and could have instantly blunted the arrows pointed at him but near impossible (a lifetime according to him) to erase the underlying story of Saraswathi with Veena. That canvas will always mean and signify Saraswathi with Veena no matter what title was enforced upon it for frivolous reasons. Another interpretation could also be that irrespective of the depiction (or ‘exposure’), that canvas will always remain Saraswathi with Veena. The inherent intention remains the same while the expressed intent can vary.

My third interpretation:

I think I am converging on a more mature meaning behind his quoted couplet:  MF Husain has obliged to change the ‘title’ but not the story.  A few radical elements found fault with the ‘title’ of his paintings.  MF Husain really believes that by moving his studio’s location from India to Qatar, he has changed the ‘title’ of his story.  He is firm in his conviction that he cannot change the story itself.

He will not stop painting what he loves to paint in the manner he loves to paint it, keeping the storyline intact.

In conclusion, the title he is referring to is not the name of his canvas, but himself.  By relocating his canvas’ geographical location, he believes the titles have been altered to satisfy the elements hounding him.  The censor boards and court houses will have no jurisdiction over depictions or exposures of an artist from Qatar.


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  1. If you so desire, I will oblige and change the title of my Story. But I will have to live a different life to tell you a different story.

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