Maqbool Fida Husain is arguably the world’s best-known Indian painter. The 94-year-old’s canvases are hailed for their symbolism, but hardliner furor over his nude portrayals of Hindu goddesses forced him into exile. The outspoken Husain managed his notoriety, single-handedly creating an international market for contemporary Indian art that did not exist. In 2004, he earned $21 million for a commission of 100 paintings aimed at corporate buyers, and four years later, one of his paintings, “Ganga and Yamuna,” sold for $1.6 million at Christie’s, setting a U.S. record for Indian art.Critics contend Husain has commercialized Indian art. But in an interview conducted in Abu Dhabi with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, the painter, who became a Qatari citizen in late February, says the creative marketing of his paintings is not to make money, but rather to raise the profile of Indian art.
An edited version of the interview appears below:
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Thank you for joining us today. To begin, perhaps we could talk about your early days. You were born in Pandharpur in 1915, and you started out in your career painting film posters. At least that’s the story one hears.
Maqbool Husain: That story is wrong. I was in Indore, in the central part of Madhya Pradesh, after our family moved there from Pandharpur. From the age of six, I showed an interest in drawing and painting. By the time I was 11, I was painting portraits. My father suggested that I join an art class, and he took me to an art school. When I saw what the final year students in that school were doing, I thought I could do it in my first year. I decided then that I did not want to waste five years in school and that I did not need a degree because I was not interested in getting a job. I just wanted to paint with a brush in my hand, and if I could not find work, I didn’t mind white-washing walls … but this is my dedication, I wanted to take it. And imagine, there were no art galleries there. I am talking about 1925, ‘26, ’27, during that time. But then I continued painting.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Who are some of the artists who inspired you?
Husain: The main and the first who really triggered my imagination was a film I saw in the early 1930s of Rembrandt, the Dutch Master, and it was a Hollywood film where Charles Loughton played the role. (Rembrandt) used to paint his human faces, and human faces used to haunt me, not necessarily celebrities or anyone. So I used to cut any human face, male or female, from the newspaper, and used to collect them. I was very fond of painting portraits. That’s all.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: So Rembrandt obviously inspired you. What about Picasso?
Husain: Picasso, in the beginning I didn’t like, even today. No doubt he is one of the major painters of the 20th century, he was a genius, but the thing is I have nothing to do with that, because that (art) is purely Western. From the very beginning, I was conscious of what is Indian. Even by education, I am more concerned about Indian art. All this Western-oriented education, which today is relevant, we have not changed the whole thing. I studied Sanskrit, I studied Persian, Arabic, all those things, Hindi and also, Gujarati, Marathi. So these languages I learned. In the beginning English was not my strong point but when I came to Bombay, then I learned English and now it’s very good.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I would like to ask about the balance between the artistic and the entrepreneurial side in your career. All artists seem to have a creative aspect and also an entrepreneurial aspect. How do you manage those two aspects?
Husain: Most painters are not (entrepreneurs). I mean they are more concerned with the creation of their paintings. For example, take Van Gogh. He used to just paint, but it was his brother Theo who used to do the rest, the marketing or whatever it is. But there are instances like Picasso. Picasso was himself a very great (entrepreneur). He knew how to project a work. Or in filmmaking, there was Stanley Kubrick, a great film maker. He might spend 10 years in making a film and then he would take up everything from the release of the date, choosing the site, and so on. I was also very involved in that way; I tried to invent some new strategies to market my art, that is also a very important factor.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Could you explain your strategy for marketing art?
Husain: The reason for (my involvement) was because in India there was no tradition of art dealers. In India, art was considered always sacred, you couldn’t sell your art. Marketing (your art) was sacrilege.
I remember the first commercial gallery which opened in Delhi in 1952. I gave the first show. Even in Bombay one gallery was initiated with my show; Dr. Homi Bhabha, the great scientist, opened the show. In those days, all my friends would say, ‘Oh, art cannot be exposed this way. It loses its sanctity.’ I said one day you have to do this. This is the age when you create everything, but also (must take care of) how to project it. Now, people don’t have time to come and see your work at your home. So in the beginning, I was accused of being a commercial painter. I think that’s whatever you will say…
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: And what was your response?
Husain: Right from the beginning, I was a very obstinate person. All the time I went on demolishing all the normal things in every respect. For that, there is one reason and that is because I lost my mother when I was one-and-a-half years old. All that love and affection which a child needs, that I missed. So, I am a rebel. So that’s how I, in my own way, I went on breaking all the laws … But for that, I had to pay a price also.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I’ll come back to this part in a minute. But coming back to the marketing of art, how do you find marketing art is different today than it used to be in the past?
Husain: What happened in the 1920s and 1930s was that these art dealers in the West became very strong. Their intention was only making money. Sometimes they would take 70% to 80% from the painter, because though a painter could survive without an art dealer in India, in the West the artists could not exhibit (without them). We had to sign a 10-year or 20-year contract with these dealers, and they paid you just for your maintenance, and that’s how they used to exploit all these painters. But in India — though here also, galleries are becoming stronger — even today, anybody who has a few thousand rupees can hold an exhibition, which is impossible to do in the West. In India from the beginning there were no art dealers. We used to have Sunday beer parties, or some occasion you would invite people to (view your paintings). In those days, mostly the buyers were foreigners, not a single Indian. It took us nearly 20 to 30 years to establish that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: During the Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi you actually painted live in front of an audience accompanied by your son’s music. Could you describe how you came up with this process?
Husain: In 1968, the first time I did it in India, I rented a gallery and then, for six days I was painting for 40 minutes. Because I believe the process of painting is so exciting, why not share it with the people? People in those days, they said, ‘No, art is such a personal thing, you have to be all by yourself, with no disturbance.’ And I said, ‘How about the higher art form, which is music? When the musician can perform with an audience, what’s wrong with you? That means your concentration is weak.’
So, to break that myth, the first time I came out in 1968 in Delhi, and I called it six days of making. For 40 minutes, I used to paint with pin-drop silence. I put six canvases on the floor — they were of different sizes. One may be very violent, another very lyrical…this was all to demonstrate that the human mind can work simultaneously on different levels, you have to develop. And in a split second, you can move from one mood to another. That is how I did those six paintings. What happened? In the end, there were two paintings which didn’t work, they were a flop. This is the mystery of creation, that even after painting for 40 years — 50 years, still sometimes you can miss.
This is the mystery which fascinates everyone. If you are not shy of your weaknesses, then you have no inhibitions. You can come out and do it. Why always would you want to do your best and try to hide that which is not? Among human beings, nobody is perfect. There are weaknesses. So, if you come out, then you are totally a transparent person. So that myth I wanted to break. And then I started going to universities and other institutions. I would paint for one hour or 45 minutes, and it was fascinating. My painting at the Festival of Thinkers was a part of that. And it’s not a demonstration, it’s a serious painting.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What lessons can traditional marketers learn from your creative marketing techniques?
Husain: Most of the dealers, they are shopkeepers. They are not concerned with the movement, the Indian contemporary art movement, or how to promote that and make people aware of it. They just buy and sell. They’ll never have this (passion). So I thought, we have to bypass them. The first time I did this was in 2005 when I came out from India. I said, this (scheme) I can’t do it in India. Because I wanted to do it on an international, very big scale, and as it is, there are some jealousies and so many things. It happens in your own country, when you are born in any place. It’s normal so you have to leave your place and go out and do something. That’s always been there. You see that you are never appreciated when you’re at home.
I came in 2005 and I just wanted to do (this scheme) because the price was so ridiculous compared to the Western art. All these dealers in India, the moment an artist wants to raise the price, they will stop; either that or they will tell you, don’t do it, your paintings will not sell. That restriction was always there. I decided at that time my price was about Indian Rs. 60,000 to Rs. 80,000 (US$1,500 to $2,000) for a good painting. I decided now I would like to make each painting Rs. 1 crore (US$200,000). I planned a series of 25 paintings, and you had to buy not one, but the whole set. This first time I did this in India I was working in Kerala and painted 20 paintings. I said let me try this. Anybody would have to buy all the 20 paintings at a certain price. It took me at least a year and half but I managed to sell. But at that time…
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Who was the buyer?
Husain: There was a Parsi gentleman in Bombay. All the dealers said they didn’t know how I did it. They thought I could have done it once but I could not repeat it. I said I did not want to do this just once. I spoke with my dealer with whom I had worked for 40 years, but he thought it was impossible to sell 25 paintings for Rs. 1 crore (US$200,000) each. I wanted to try but the dealers did not support me. So, I came to the Middle East. I chose Dubai because I wanted to choose a place that did not have much of an art scene. Now, though, it has developed a lot. I thought the first show should have a sponsor. Banks like to have a cultural image, and Citibank came on board as a sponsor.
I was very clear that the show should be for only three hours. The only people invited to attend were those who had gold cards — those who were worth $10 million or more — and no one else. Here it was pure marketing. People have seen my art. If they wanted, they could see my paintings on the internet and not only for three hours.
The first show was to be in Dubai, the next one in Singapore, and the final one in London. In Dubai, we said we wouldn’t sell anything, not even the price was known. Except for the ladies who received the guests, I told them if somebody asks, just say that each painting costs about Rs 1 crore, and nothing is for sale. There were many people who looked at my paintings, these rich people. They asked if they could buy the art, and when they could not, they became more excited and said, "We will buy the paintings at any price." But I resisted the temptation and did not sell.
Then the show went to Singapore, and there I found one buyer who bought all 25 paintings for Rs 25 crores (US$5 million). That was big international news; it had never happened before. My purpose was to raise the price of the Indian contemporary art. I could have got that money outside, I know. But I said no, I will take payment in India and I will pay the taxes. I paid Rs 13 crores in taxes on those paintings.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you find the market for Indian art today?
Husain: I think now all (buyers are) NRIs [non-resident Indians] who are outside the country. They are the real supporters of Indian contemporary art. It’s still growing outside with the NRIs, but I think it’s on the right track.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: When you talk about this network of dealers who were blocking access between the artist and the customer, in many industries the internet has eliminated their role. Do you find that happening in the art world? Have you used the internet as a disintermediary strategy?
Husain: No, I think this aspect is still (remote for me as) I am very illiterate in that. Till today I don’t have a manager, I have no desk and I am managing four museums, six children, and so far so good. That’s great.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Let us come back to what you said earlier about your rebellious side. Apart from the tension between the creative and the marketing sides of art, the other parallel between artists and business people is their ability to take risks. In your art, you have taken a lot of risks just as business people take risks. What can business people learn from you on how to manage risk?
Husain: You can’t make a formula about the way to do it.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How do you think about risk in your art?
Husain: As far as the creation goes, the moment you become known, no matter how well it is doing, you must have the courage to break out of your own image. At each stage you go on breaking. That is the key.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Can you explain that and give examples?
Husain: Consider the style of painting. Suppose you become a landscape painter. You don’t go on doing landscapes all day. I can give one example, Jamini Roy. Jamini Roy picked up the folk form of art, that is the Kalighat style of painting, and he painted all these (canvases), but he got stuck there. For nearly 30, 40, 50 years, he went on painting the same thing. He should have broken his image. That is the key of creativity; that is the sole purpose of existence. Nature demands that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In thinking back about your artistic and your business careers, what is the biggest mistake you have made? And what did you learn from it?
Husain: I have made several mistakes, including major blunders. I think Gandhi ji said, “Unless you have the courage to create a Himalayan blunder, you can never do anything in your whole life.” My blunders have not been Himalayan. They have been a smaller than that.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: One last question. How do you define success?
Husain: If you work to gain success, it will never come. You should defy success. That’s why you have to keep on breaking your image, the moment you become popular.