MF Husain: Simple Yet Oedipusly Complex

I find Husain’s art pleasing to the eye but “grating” on the mind. I’ll elaborate the “pleasing” part first and then go on to the “grating” section.

At the outset, I must tell you that I am no “trained” art critic. But I do not believe that one needs to have a master’s degree in Fine Arts to be able to appreciate or interpret art.  If you think otherwise, you’re better off quitting reading this blog post at this point, for it saves your time and probably mine as well.

I saw Husain’s work in the original in a gallery once, and in print and on the net several times.  A bank I frequent hangs a paiting of his on the wall, and I believe I also saw his original paintings in a hotel.

I see an awesome simplicity in his lines, shapes and color schemes. I do not think this simplicity is easily imitable. It is the kind of simplicty that takes a gifted artist to conceive and give life to. Simplicity does not happen by accident. It takes the ability to see through and camouflage layers of complexity to achieve it. I believe this is true not only of engineering and science (check out Google or your iPhone) but also of art and literature.

On a “visual” plane, then, Husain appeals to me because of pleasing simplicity. The effect of his art on my “mental” plane is quite a different story though. Before we embark on it, a few points are in order.

Husain’s art is protected by right to freedom of expression. Yes, some of it is of the nature that may give offence to Hindus. Those offended are entitled to take offence and entitled to protest; however, they cannot stop Husain or anyone else from creating such art.

Articulating such a position on the issue of freedom of expression  immediately brings up the question of Dansih cartoons, Da Vinci Code and Indian liberals’ endorsement of curbs on free expression when it  (purportedly) offends Muslims or Christians. That our liberals are pontificating humbugs, that they make a virtue of their cowardly necessity to kiss extremist butt, that they will not be able to recognize Freedom of Expression if it bit them on the scrotum, is no excuse for demanding, just like them, a right of veto on free speech. Remember: it is because of America’s first amendment to its constitution that forbids legislature from making any curbs on free speech, that the nation has not yet sunk to the insane multi-culti depths that Europe has.

Having said that though, I find Husain’s Hindu deity series “grating” on the mind, not because it offends me but because it troubles me. Looking at it, pleasing thought it is to the eye, I do not experience the aesthetic pleasure that one is supposed to feel when contemplating great art.  Far from it, I feel unease, as if I am listening to the anguished cries of a tortured soul!

Husain’s vocal admirers tend to interpret his Hindu deity art mainly in two ways. Many of them react defensively to Hindu anger, and deny that there is any sexual symbolism at all in his work. Nudity is explained away as being routine in art. Any suggestion of sexual contact between naked goddesses and the subjects in their proximity is stoutly denied. This is being disingenuous, kind of like a middle-aged guy caught with a copy of Playboy claiming sheepishly that he buys the magazine for its journalism, not centerfolds. Understated or symbolic eroticism is as common in art as is portrayal of nudity. Not surprisingly, often both go hand in hand. This is as true of high-brow art as it is of street graffitti. I recall being baffled reading a book long ago, by illustrations in it that the author claimed were pornogrpahic. They were apparently reproductions of drawings actually found on the walls of public rest rooms. I only saw some circles, triangles and straight lines, and couldn’t fathom on my own how they added up to obscenity. I needed to read the author’s reading of the “artist’s” mind to understand the point he was making. Sexual symbolism in art need not be in-your-face; in fact in sophisticated art it is a clever, partially disguised insinuation.

The second set of Husain’s vocal defenders take the opposite position to that of the first. Perhaps intent on baiting enraged Hindus, they assert unapologetically that there indeed is suggestion of copulation in Husain’s art, and demand to know aggressively: why not, isn’t there freedom of expression? etc. A few of them take a seemingly less cantakerous position, spout some mumbo jumbo as to why such sexual symbolim elevates — rather than demean — Hindu deities, and conclude the lecture with a smirk.

Needless to add, my interpretation of Husain’s goddesses takes a different approach than the above schools of thought.

Let us contemplate the larger social context in which Husain grew up to be an artist. By the standards of the sexually-liberated parts of the world, Indians are a repressed lot.  Let alone sexual contact, mere contact itself between unrelated men and women is frowned upon. In Husain’s Islamic culture, women’s faces are not even to be seen in public, they must be veiled. The only women then one is famailiar with growing up must be women of the household. It is not unthinkable therefore that sexual awakening and early fantasy may involve some form of incest. The family member is loved as mother or sister, of course. But in the sexual subconscious, she is also eroticized. Compounding the problem further, in male-dominant, sexually repressed cultures, the woman of desire is  considered ‘dirty’; it is her fault to be desired by men. (Hence honor killings). I speculate that incestuous thought entails conflicting, tortured emotions. I also conjecture that the mother or sister, as the case maybe,  is loved as mother or sister during the day, is yearned sexually falling asleep at night, and is hated in dream or the subconscious for being ‘dirty’. Most men tormented by these emotions come to terms with them perhaps at some point in their lives, bury the demons, and get on with their lives in relative peace. But a man gifted with the talent for abstract representation of thought has the opportunity to exorcise his ghosts in a “creative” manner.

Note that Husain cannot be unaware that in Hindu tradition goddesses are considered mothers. His Muslim tradition forbids depicting humans, let alone female subjects, let alone of the scripture, let alone in the nude, let alone in a sexually suggestive manner. He must have felt doubly repressed. On the contrary, the goddess of Hindu art, ‘mother’ at any rate for Hindus, may have suggested to himself as a close-enough approximation for the mother-figure.  Did he blame this mother-figure then, for robbing him of the sense of normal filial affection that other  young men may have experienced for their mothers? Did he condemn her to a union with an animal for example, for luring him to the path of sin with ‘dirty’ thoughts of the forbidden? If he did thus condemn the ‘defiled’ mother, did that punishment lead to a reconcilation?

We will never know for certain. His Durga, or Sita, do not seem to project happiness. I hope they are not expressions of the artist’s bitterness for someone he otherwise loved dearly. Let us also hope that Maqbool Fida Husain, wherever now he is, is finally happy.


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6 Responses to MF Husain: Simple Yet Oedipusly Complex

  1. Ketan says:

    I actually do not understand abstract art much. Much less, Husain’s art. :)

    I attribute a much simpler (and perhaps, simplistic) reason for his painting Hindu deities in the nude, and of course, that’s something you must have contemplated, and in which case a large portion of your latter part of analysis would actually amount to some kind of sarcasm, which I’m not sure, if is the right way to interpret your post. The reason being – a sense of adventure one gets on getting on nerves of Hindus, and thus, also getting to get famous. One has to do something ‘bold’ all the time to remain in news. Artists earn, not because those who buy their art have an understanding of it and like it, it’s just that the said artist has to be the ‘in thing’. Hence, his these painting gimmicks as well as others like making of Gajagamini and media being filled with his fascination for random Bollywood heroines. Think of it, who doesn’t know he claimed to be fascinated by Madhuri Dixit? Think of it, how many commoners must know him only as “that old man who had hots for Madhuri Dixit”? I’m sure someone as intelligent as yourself will understand what I’m hinting at.

  2. Beautiful. And I do believe now that it did have to be so high for being recognised by the connoisseurs as remarkable art.

  3. sanjay says:

    That could be one possible reason for why, knowingly I presume, he took his creative liberty to the level that is capable of hurting the sentiments of a large section of a deeply religious society. I am for absolute freedom of expression, Hussein may have done it for personal reasons related to an upbringing in a conservative society, or purely business to create more buzz around his brand, whatever it may be but what the heck he should be entitled to it, but unfortunately our constitution doesn’t allow absolute freedom of speech and expression, if some works of art/literature can be objected to and banned on the pretext of hurting religious sentiments, others can’t be subjected to a different standards on personal whims. Till such time the constitution is amended to allow absolute freedom of speech and expression as many of us would like it to be or think it does, we have to get along with the limited freedom or clearly understand the risks involved in hurting religious sentiments especially knowingly. I hope this incident sets rolling a debate on freedom of speech and expression that culminates in necessary constitutional amendment.

  4. Harshada Thakurdesai says:


    I am a student of Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Bangalore. SIBM- Bangalore is organizing Satkala- a corporate art exhibition on 20th July. The art forms included are painting, photography, origami, sculpture and collage. The theme is “Feelings”. Engage in your artistic pleasures and register your entry before 10th Aug, 2011.

    You are cordially invited to attend the event which will have a small artistic workshop along with the exhibition.

    For more details-

    You can contact Niharika Yagnambhatt- at 09686108057

  5. Sam says:

    Nice post! I too have no doubts the MF Husain was a very good painter; probably one of modern India’s finest. Having seen several of his works in various museums and galleries, his confident style was easily identifiable and pleasing, and it was Indian and not derivative like some others. I also have no doubt that his paintings of Indian gods and goddeses were a sly stick in the Hindu eye by a card-carrying Islamist. He was following PT Barnum’s dicta about fooling people to the t. He knew exactly what he was doing, and his subsequent actions like his pulling of his movie from circulation after a minor outcry from a few Muslims, and his own apoplectic anger at being rendered in the nude, and his seeking shelter in the secular, democratic state of Qatar, all expose the hollowness of his claims of secular artistic freedom or his “admiration” of Hindu sacred iconography.

  6. desicontrarian says:

    Good essay ! Here’s an in-depth look by a connoisseur.

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