Friday, June 10, 2011

Picasso of India dies

"Picasso of India" dies
MUMBAI - India's most famous modern artist, M.F. Husain, who fled the country in 2006 after death threats from Hindu extremists, died in London on Thursday at the age of 95.

President Prathiba Patil's office in New Delhi said that Husain, often called "The Picasso of India", passed away in hospital in the British capital during the early hours of the morning.

Indian media cited family members saying that he had suffered a heart attack and lung failure after being in "indifferent health" for several weeks.

The painter's death brought to an end a controversial chapter in modern India, which showed how religious sentiments could still be easily aroused -- often for political ends -- and how artistic self-expression was limited.

Hindu conservatives may have denounced his works as pornographic and blasphemous when he was alive, but in death he was remembered countrywide as the artist who put modern Indian art on the map.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his death was a "national loss", while Patil said he was a "world-renowned artist whose extraordinary style made him a celebrity on his own right in the arena of contemporary paintings".

"A man of multi-dimensional talent, his death would create a deep void in the world of art and creativity," she said in a statement.

But there was anger, too, as artists, friends and cultural figures regretted that he had to die in self-imposed exile to evade violent Hindu fanatics angered by his depictions of naked Hindu gods.

"India didn't have the privilege of seeing him in his last moments, that is a huge loss for this country," Jitish Kallat, one of India's leading young artists, told the television news channel NDTV.

"As an artist several decades younger than him, I feel like a part of the canopy has blown off. He evolved the public notion of what it meant to be an artist in this country."

Mumbai socialite and novelist Shobhaa De said she had been at Husain's bedside in London's Royal Brompton Hospital two days ago -- and criticised the government for its belated praise.

"Anything it chooses to do now in retrospect is really an insult to his memory," she told NDTV.

"He was a staggeringly tall figure in the world of art. He put India on the global map. He will remain an icon and a legend.

"Why couldn't he be allowed to come back to his own country as a proud Indian?"

Maqbool Fida Husain, a former Bollywood poster artist whose career took off after Indian independence in 1947, had been in London where three of his paintings were sold in recent days at the auction house Bonhams.

The Press Trust of India news agency said one untitled oil work of a horse and woman fetched US$515,000.

Husain left India in 2006 after Hindu hardliners accused him of insulting their faith by portraying revered goddesses in the nude in some of his paintings. He always insisted that nudity symbolised purity.

A radical Hindu group sent him death threats and a US$11.5 million reward was offered for his murder. His home was attacked and galleries showing his work were vandalised.

Controversy failed to dampen the enthusiasm of overseas collectors: in 2008, one of his paintings, influenced by Hindu epic The Mahabharata, fetched US$1.6 million at Christie's in London.

Husain, who often went barefoot and was once thrown out of a Mumbai private members' club for not wearing shoes, accepted Qatari citizenship in 2010, admitting that his advancing years made it impossible to fight his detractors.

Senior art figures and even India's Supreme Court supported his view that depicting naked goddesses was a long-established part of the country's iconography, dating back to antiquity.

Husain, who said in 2008 he was homesick and longed to return to Mumbai, where he trained at the Sir J.J. School of Art, criticised the government for not providing him the protection he needed in his native country.

Others saw him as a victim of the fierce communalism that gripped India in the 1990s and early 2000s and of the socially conservative country's tough censorship laws.

The Indian government had recently tried unsuccessfully to tempt him home.


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