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M.F. Husain

Indian Modern Artist
Born 1915, Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India
Died 2011, London
Lived and worked between India, Dubai and London

Although highly prized and revered, M. F. Husain’s life was submerged in controversy. His depictions of Hindu deities invited the wrath of Hindu religious groups and for which he was publicly targeted and forced into self-exile. A founding member of the Bombay Progressive Group in the 1940’s, Husain’s contribution to modern art is immeasurable. His penchant for filmmaking also resulted in a few productions.



Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai


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One Man, Many Methods

M.F. Husain took on many avatars in an illustrious life of 95 years. He never considered himself merely to be a painter. Sometimes a poet, sometimes an installation artist, sometimes a photographer, and towards the end of his career, a filmmaker, Husain was one of the few artists who never allowed the brush and the canvas to imprison him. His style remained figurative for all his life, though he liked to experiment with various themes and images, and usually worked in series. According to him, a series gave him the “opportunity to transform, recycling the themes and pictorial details from medium to medium. He learnt the art of calligraphy at a very early age, which later transformed into the “Sufi Series” in his oeuvre. Starting his career as a billboard painter in 1936, never having any formal training in art, Husain grew up to be one of the most well-known Indian artists of our times.

M. F. Husain, "Sufi Series - Ya Haiyyo Ya Qaium", watercolour and pencil on paper, 14 x 11"

Political concerns implicit in his art

The “British Raj” series of the late 1980s reflected Husain’s opinion towards the colonial period of India. He faced the entire period not with anger, but as if with a sting. The subjects included both Indians and British, each subtly absorbing the identity of the other and simultaneously trying to resist the same. However, in his later works with political themes, Husain’s attitude increasingly took a turn towards grief, anger and also to some level, mockery. This phase is exemplified by his works like “The rape of India” and “Bharat Mata”.

M. F. Husain, From the British Raj Series, 2009

M. F. Husain, Untitled (Bharat Mata)oil on board

M. F. Husain, Rape of India, 2008, acrylic on canvas

Use of symbolic imagery and common motifs

Husain consistently used symbols and motifs to give meaning to varied ideas in a very traditional and innately Indian fashion. Motifs like the chakra, the lotus, the spider, the lamp and the umbrella continuously occur in his works, to give various meanings in various contexts. The use of animal imagery, especially the horses to depict virility and strength, have become so popular in the art world, that the term “Hussain’s Horses” is synonymous with his style now. Similarly, he composed many women portraits in his lifetime, probably because he was orphaned at a very young age and never felt the love of a mother.

M. F. Husain, Fifth ayaraibhyala (Horses)

Some of his works are autobiographical

Due to a tormented childhood, growing up an orphan and being brought up by his grandfather, Husain’s works deal with the feelings of loss and love for a mother. Autobiographical works, depicting this sense of loss can be seen in series like “Mother Teresa” and “Mother”. As he put it, When you miss the lap of a mother, there is no place called home”.As for his extensive work on the image of Mother Teresa, he said, “I call her the eternal figure. She was the modern Madonna, who embraced the poor and the destitute as her own, for me she is a timeless figure; I will never get tired of painting her.”

M. F. Husain, Mother, acrylic on paper

M. F. Husain, From the Mother Teresa Series, oil on canvas

Re-visiting history through the narrative of series

Husain’s career long concern was to make history and the ancient epics speak again in a contemporary light. When he created the Mahabharata Series, he tried to explain that the game of fate and power that was exemplified in the great epic holds true for the modern world as well, and could be re-enacted on the modern Indian canvas. The series projects the epic’s monumentality in cinematic terms, and the conflict isn’t just on the social level, but on a psychosocial level as well. Along with this came his great output of divine personas from different faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity – sometimes blurring the boundaries between the mythical and the real.

M. F. Husain, MAHABHARATA, 1990, oil on canvas, 129.5 × 477.5 cm

M. F. Hussain, Last Supper in the red desert, acrylic on canvas