What makes M.F. Husain a Great Artist

Prerna SM Jain

Maqbool Fida Husain, one of the most familiar and controversial artists, is known by almost every person in India. Some think of him as a role-model to follow and some just wonder what makes his work so expensive. He was the founding member of Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, and he painted a blend of cubism and classical Indian art styles that still fetches millions of dollars in the international art market. In the recent Southeast Asian auction at Christie’s New York, there was a large display of works by Indian as well as Pakistani artists. I decided to speak to one of their knowledgeable and experienced specialists, Mr. Nishad Avari and this is what he had to say about the mystical artist, the barefoot ‘Picasso of India’-
Let’s consider MF Husain’s work, an average Indian person will always say that my 15-year old can paint better than that, so what makes a Husain, a ‘Husain’?
Well even within Husain’s work there is so much difference, a discerning collector knows the difference between a 1950s Husain and Husain in his later avatar; he was a very prolific artist who painted a lot; he was not trained, but the fact is that he was a great publicist as well. He knew exactly how to leave an impression. Husain went to school in Indore, then when he came to Mumbai he never enrolled in an art school; he painted billboards on the footpaths of Bombay and he knew exactly how to promote himself, how to promote his work, wherever you go in the world, and if somebody knows Husain, they will have an incredible story about him. Husain left an impression on everybody he met.
How so?
Husain he was a character. He would turn up at somebody’s house, and if they weren’t home, he never stuck to a time; if he said a time, there wasn’t one time that he would be there. I’ve heard stories of him painting the front door and leaving, there is a very famous picture of him painting a white horse, he has painted a fiat, and brought it to Jehangir art gallery in Mumbai; he’s done a whole show called Svetambar, where he covered the entire space of Jehangir art gallery with torn pieces of paper and white cloth. He has made films before anyone was thinking about films, you know, in India. So really, he was a pioneer. He had a great presence; he was a showman, and all of this sort of comes together and forms his work, if you look at his works from the 50s, it was really works like Zameen which are now with the National gallery of modern arts collection; these defined what being modern was. Husain was one of the artists who went back in the village, drew from nature painting, drew from classical sculpture; he was very involved with dance and music, he put all these art forms together in his paintings and really showed us real India, so it’s really easy to dismiss his work but once you read about it, one you learn, it wasn’t rewarding to be an artist in the 1950s and 60s, and it certainly wasn’t financially rewarding, so the kind of sacrifices these people made, and the success they won, is a result of a lot of hard work, and decades and decades of not being recognized as ‘Husain’, the Picasso of India. So it was a struggle.
And, what was the highest bid that was received during this auction on a Husain painting?
I think we sold one for 250,000 dollars (approx. 1.6 crore rupees), there were actually two paintings that fetched about the same price, in 200,000s, there is this one which is LOT no. 452, and then LOT 458.
At this auction, some beautiful work by Pakistani artists like Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Anwar Shemza and Sadequain were also auctioned. I asked Nishad about the reception of Pakistani artist’s work by Indian collectors. Here’s what he said:
Yeah absolutely! We had quite a few pieces of Pakistani work in this auction we had a pair of works by Sadequain, by Chughtai, all modernists, we had a Shemza . I think both Sadequain and the Shemza did really well, many multiples of their estimates, and frequently in our auctions, especially in London. We feature works by contemporary Pakistani artists as well, the younger generation that has gone to NCA , people who have studied under Rajendrana, we did an entire lecture on Chughtai, this season, so we are very involved with Pakistani art and artists and Indian collectors are very interested in what’s happening there as well.
Which was your favorite artist in this auction?
I personally really like a sculpture by Davierwalla ; it’s so, so rare to find, in the last 10 years, maybe 5 have come to auction, and this is probably the largest and most interesting story of one of his work I have seen at least, and it was great to be able to bring it to auction. And, it did well, as we all expected it to, because of these reasons. It sold for 187,000 dollars (approx. 1.2 crore rupees), against an estimate of 40-60,000, so three times the highest estimate.
And, who is the audience for contemporary Indian work?
Well, our audience is constantly expanding. At first it was only NRIs, but we are talking about mid 90s, early 2000s, and now, in addition to that, there are several non-Indian collectors both in the west and the east, we see a lot of interest from Mainland China, a lot of interest from America after several institutional shows here, Gaitonde had the retrospective at the Guggenheim, Nasreen Mohamedi show at the Metropolitan Museum, the show at the Tate in London, so our audience for modern and contemporary art is expanding constantly.

—The author can be reached at: raicestea@gmail.com