June 9, 2011 / 9:24 AM / 8 years ago

"Picasso of India" dies in exile aged 95

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s best known painter, died in London on Thursday aged 95, a close friend of the artist told Reuters, five years after he left his homeland after being persecuted by Hindu zealots angry at his work.

India's most-celebrated living artist Maqbool Fida Husain works on a sketch of Karachi's National stadium during the fifth and final one-day international cricket match between India and Pakistan in this February 19, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Zahid Hussein

“He died of old age. It happened early this morning,” said Munna Zaveri, who had befriended Husain for 40 years, before leaving for London. “He was in hospital for some time and was supposed to come home today or tomorrow but his condition worsened.”

Dubbed the “Picasso of India,” Husain’s work was a blend of cubism and classical Indian styles that helped put modern Indian art on the global arena. His canvasses sold for millions of dollars.

His depictions of naked Hindu goddesses enraged zealots who attacked his house, vandalized shows displaying his work and drove him to flee India. For years, galleries were too frightened of protests to display his work.

In 2006, he moved from Mumbai to Dubai, later London, and in 2010 accepted Qatari citizenship, a step that led to much soul-searching in India over whether the world’s largest democracy could guarantee artistic freedoms.

Husain said he was too old to fight “tooth and nail” and he craved the comforts and facilities needed for his work. Borders did not matter to artists and his work would still be influenced by India’s culture, he said in a 2010 television interview.

His death was mourned by artists and drew condolences from politicians, several of whom who have been criticized for not being able to guarantee him the freedom he needed.

A spokesman for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party called it “a great loss,” sentiments echoed by President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“He was so prolific that it didn’t matter whether some of his art appealed to the masses and some of it was appreciated at the highest level,” Anjolie Ela Menon, a leading Indian artist, told Times Now television.

Famous for walking barefoot and carrying a large paintbrush like a riding crop, Husain started as a struggling commercial painter creating cinema hoardings in the late 1930s.

He was part of the Progressive Artists Group, a collective that broke tradition to create avant-garde art. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor, in 1989 and nominated to the upper house of parliament in 1986.

Writing by C.J. Kuncheria; Editing by Miral Fahmy

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