Thursday, February 9, 2012

Maqbool Fida Hussain - India's Poster Artist

"I always dreamed of making a film, but it's an expensive medium, so I started painting as a sideline."

The poster artist Maqbool Fida Hussain said acknowledging for himself that it's not a bad sideline.  He was one of the few contemporary Indian painters to have achieved the celebrity of a film star.  His art pieces have sold for crores of rupees and is well known internationally.  The Indian artist got noticed more because of his nude paintings of Hindu Gods and the controversy that followed.

His signature look garnered him plenty of attention for his simplicity in manner of dressing:  an impeccable shirt and thin cotton trousers in white that matched his mane of hair and beard.  Draped around his neck he usually wore a crinkled silk black scarf that looked like a whimsical brushstroke, an artist's signature.  His only other accessory was a pair of tinted spectacles with round frames that gave him an owlish expression.  As always, he was barefoot.  It was one of his trademarks, whether he was traveling abroad, entering the lobby of a five-star hotel, or working in a studio.  Gracefully, he walked with a slim cane that on close inspection, turned out to be an extra-long paint brush.  

His larger-than-life murals of Indira Gandhi dominate the walls of Delhi's international airport.  Indifferent to both religion and politics, Mr. Husain, a muslim by upbringing, treated the gods and goddesses of Hinduism as visual stimuli rather than deities, depicting them unclothed and often in sexually suggestive poses. This cavalier treatment earned him the bitter hatred of Hindu nationalist groups, which beginning in the 1990s mounted a campaign of intimidation and violence against him.  The right-wing zealots criticized all of his art and was tagged too controversial for conservative India. 

At the same time, the big screen was always a part of his imagination.  In the 1930's, M. F. Hussain arrived in Mumbai (then it was called Bombay), as an unknown artist and began his work painting film posters for a total of four annas per square foot.  (Four annas was equal to one-fourth of a rupee way below a US dollar.)  Sadly, none of Hussain's film posters have survived, though he had a photograph of one of the giant billboards he painted at the Minerva Cinema, advertising P. C. Barua's film Zindagi (Life).  Poster artists are still hired by producers, distributers, and cinema owners to paint billboards and posters to advertise their films.  

The artist claimed he was greatly influenced in his later work by the film posters he painted at an early age.  He made three films himself, beginning with a black and white short film commissioned by the government in 1966.  It was called, Through the Eyes of a Painter.  When he first screened the film for the film board, they rejected it, claiming it was juvenile, and that it made no sense.  Soon after, he screened the film for the Berlin Film Festival and it was well received and was awarded a Golden Bear. 

In 2000, Hussain made the film Gaja Gamini.  The title is taken from a Sanskrit expression that describes a woman whose walk is as beautiful as an elephant's gait.  The film is mostly a tribute to the actress Madhuri Dixit.  Hussain admitted being infatuated with her and most of the film revolves around her dancing form. The film failed to attract an audience, though it had a large cast of stars, including Madhuri Dixit, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shah Rukh Khan.  Hussain appears in the film at several points, sketching the image of a horse on a brick wall and painting a tiger on the flank of a live elephant.  

His third film was one in which he directed the Hindi star Tabu in Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, which was released in 2004.  The film was criticized as being a self indulgent and narcissistic story about the artist himself.  It did not accomplish commercial success and was quickly shelved and forgotten. 

Hussain was a great admirer of filmmakers Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Roberto Rossellini, whom he met years ago when the Italian director visited India.  When he was asked about the films Salvador Dalí made with spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel, Hussain shook his head:

"Dalí was a painter who started with ideas rather than images," he said.  "I prefer images to ideas.  I don't want people to read my paintings.  I want them to look at them.  People always want to know the meaning..."

He applied the formal lessons of European modernists like Picasso, Cézanne, and Matisse to scenes from national epics like the Mahabharata and to the Hindu pantheon.  For which he was dubbed the Picasso of India.  
Among his best-known paintings are a series based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata and a series of 45 watercolors, completed in 1975, “Passage Through Human Space.” Although they're considered his best works, his political troubles stemmed from this body of paintings, made in the early 1970s.  

Because of his controversial artwork, Mr, Hussain was blamed for sparking political and religious tension between hindus and muslims.  An angry mob ransacked his gallery in Ahmedabad, and members of the far-right Hindu group Bajrang Dal invaded his house and vandalized paintings.

Even though he had a knack for provocation, Mr. Husain received many official honors. In 1986, as a reward for his status as a national treasure, he was appointed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to the upper house of the Indian Parliament.  In his later years, Mr. Husain spent much of his time defending himself against court actions aimed at the messages in his artwork, and in 2005 he left India and became a citizen of Qatar.  After leaving India, Mr. Husain, divided his time between Dubai and London. “They can put me in a jungle, yet still I can create."  He often said of himself having imposed a voluntary exile by choice.  Maqbool Fida Husain was born on Sept. 17, 1915, in Pandharpur, in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, and grew up in Indore in Madhya Pradesh.  He enjoyed a life in art and a bohemian life style earning him the admiration of many and parting this world on June 9, 2011 as the highest paid artist in India.  He was 95.  

Written by Leticia Alaniz © 2012