India’s most venerable and well-known artist, the charismatic and flamboyant MF Husain (b. 1915) who tragically died as an ‘exile’ in London on Thursday (June 9) will remain a colossus of his times.

Born in Pandharpur  (Maharashtra) in very modest circumstances, the baby Maqbool lost his mother when he was barely two years old. (Is that why he was so drawn to the Mother Teresa image at a later stage in his life?) A natural aptitude with the paint brush saw the budding artist gravitate towards NS Bendre, then teaching at the Indore School of Art. Restless as he was, Husain soon moved to Bombay where he began his career as a calligraphist and painter of cinema hoardings. Paid a meager four annas per square foot at the time (sixteen annas made one rupee), Husain acquired that rare ability to confidently fill large spaces swiftly,  with visual panache – a quality that would remain a hallmark of the artist’s later oeuvre.

As he often recounted in later life, a fortuitous visit to Delhi in 1948, where a special exhibition was mounted at Rashtrapati Bhawan was a major punctuation in the evolution of his artistic sensibility. This eclectic show allowed Husain to internalize classical Indian art tradition and as the artist recalled  later: "The (Delhi)  exhibition left me both humbled and exhilarated. It was like scaling a mountain and then discovering a whole range of new mountains. Looking at the forms of the Gupta sculptures, experiencing the innocence of Indian folk art and seeing the rawness of colors in Basholi and Pahari paintings, I knew I had stumbled upon something priceless."

As a founder member of the Progressive Artists Group (PAG)   in Bombay in 1947, Husain along with his peers was trying to grapple with modernity and the weight of ‘western’ art that colonial rule had imposed. In one of his more reflective comments (1997), he noted of the PAG:  “Our concern was to evolve not only art as a profession to make a living, but to do serious research to evolve a language for Indian contemporary art. It had to be rooted in our culture and all the points of reference had to be ours, but it had to use modern techniques as well. There was no point in painting like Indian miniatures, or like Ajanta and Ellora.”

Predictably, Husain was able to innovatively distill these three influences – classical Indian sculpture, the folk and the miniature, and leaven this with the prevailing modern sensibility a la Picasso and the Paris school. And a review of his staggering output – more than 11,000 paintings, murals and works of art, at last count, over 75 years– is testimony to this prolific and empathetic synthesis.

Husain was first noticed in 1955 as an artist of promise, when his painting 'Zameen' won the National Award – and is currently held by the NGMA. Progressively over the years, Husain’s distinctive painterliness won acclaim both in India and abroad and many awards came his way. His work spanned a wide spectrum and drew from the Indian epics, his early years, the Mother Teresa series, the famous horse paintings and various vignettes of contemporary India. More recently Husian was working on a 300 painting Ramayana series and often spoke about the deep reverence he had for the Indian epic tradition.

Ironically it was his depiction of Hindu deities that drew the ire of right wing groups in India – and abroad – that led to his self-imposed exile in 2006. Paintings done by Husain in the 1980’s and 1990’s that depicted Hindu goddesses  in what was seen as an ‘objectionable’ manner became the focus of  complex legal cases. Though the Supreme Court cleared Husain in 2008 and observed that the artist had not caused any offense to Hindus with his ‘Mother India’ painting – at age 90 plus Husain was advised to remain outside of India.

Controversy seemed to add to the allure of the flamboyant Husain and collectors were always scrambling to buy his work. Imitation and forgery is the sign of ‘arrival’ in the art world and today there are many fake Husains that are acquired by the more eager art lovers. For the record, in an end May auction in London, one of Husain’s untitled works was sold for Rs 1.23 crores.

India will mourn the passing away of its most accomplished artist but Husain’s life was celebratory in many ways. Imbued with a child-like enthusiasm for life in all its variegated colors, it is India that will remain permanently diminished for allowing such a gifted artist to die in ‘exile’. The texture and vibrancy of a confident and equitable democracy is embedded in the freedom it allows for its more creative citizens. In the case of MF Husain, both civil society and the Indian state will remain tainted.